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Friday, October 15, 2004

Sharon's War on Palestinian Kids "Don't Think About the Children"

December 17, 2003

Why was Asma Abu al-Haija arrested? Why did she have to spend nine
months in prison, sleeping on the floor of her cell? Why was a woman
arrested, not interrogated, not accused of anything and then released
nine very difficult months later, without any explanation? Just
because she is a Palestinian, so anything can be done to her? Was she
really arrested solely in order to put pressure on her husband, the
Hamas spokesman in Jenin, who is also in Israeli prison? Is this
legal? Moral? Could there be any other reason? If so, why wasn't she
brought to trial for it? Forget justice, but what about a drop of
compassion for a sick woman with a brain tumor, who is going blind,
has undergone brain surgery twice, who has five children left alone
at home in the refugee camp, without a mother, without a father,
without their older brother?

All these questions continue to hover in the attractive home in the
heart of the Jenin refugee camp, the home to which Asma Abu al-Haija
finally returned a few weeks ago. She returned to her five free
children and to a house that had been refurbished, and of course,
there was much happiness.

Asma says the children became very independent when she was away. One
after the other, they returned from school one afternoon this week,
kissed their mother and tossed down their bookbags, as if nothing
unusual had happened. Only 7-year-old Sajida still gets up sometimes
in the middle of the night, frightened by the sound of tanks or jeeps
in the street, and leaps into her mother's bed to hold her tight.
Sajida has not forgotten that cold, dark night in February when the
soldiers came and took her mother away. She won't ever forget it.

The birdcage is gone. For all those months, while workers repaired
the house that had been wrecked by an IDF missile and the children
were living there alone, the birdcage hung on the wall of the guest
room and the chirping sounds gave the lonely children a little
feeling of hope and warmth. Now only the electric doorbell at the
entrance to the house still chirps like a bird.

"I want Mommy," Sajida told us on our first visit about six months
ago. A month later, she proudly displayed the new dress--beige with
embroidery--that she had bought for her mother for NIS 100 at the Al-
Wafa store in Jenin, and the brown sandals and white veil--all in
anticipation of her mother's release. Israel had just promised to
ease conditions for the Palestinians and to make some goodwill
gestures, and the people of Jenin were sure that the most humane
gesture would be to release the ailing Asma.

Imad, her teenage son, got up early in the morning and went to the
checkpoint to meet his mother. He stood in the sun for two hours
until he realized that, goodwill gestures or not, his mother was not
coming. There was much crying at home, and then they went back to
their lives, without a mother or a father.

Asma Abu al-Haija was born 40 years ago in Jenin. At 19, she married
a man now known as Sheikh Jamal, a religion teacher and son of the
imam of Jenin. They lived in Yemen and Saudi Arabia for 10 years and
returned to Jenin during the Gulf War. Since then, Sheikh Jamal has
been in one prison after another: Six months in the Palestinian
Authority prison, followed by seven arrests by Israel. He was wanted
for two years by the IDF, and was caught and arrested about two years
ago. In the brief interludes between his incarcerations, he appeared
on international Arab television stations as the Hamas spokesman in
Jenin. Asma says her husband is a politician. They haven't seen each
other for two years. Six months before Jamal was apprehended, their
eldest son, Abd al-Salam was sentenced to 87 months in prison for his
activities in Hamas. Jamal is still awaiting a verdict in his trial.

On February 11 of this year, at 3 A.M., soldiers knocked on the door
of the house. Asma got dressed and went downstairs. She was ill,
suffering from terrible headaches caused by the tumor in her brain.
The soldiers burst in, overturning everything in their path. The
children were terrified. Sajida and Hamzi, the two youngest, cried.
They were all ordered to go out into the street, in the cold and
rain, until the search was finished. Then they were all brought into
one room and a soldier called `Captain Jamal' came in.

"We want to take you in for questioning," the captain said.

"I haven't done anything. I just take care of the children," Asma
tried to protest. "The Shin Bet wants to talk to you. Two words and
you'll be back home." Having no choice, she accompanied the soldiers.
She says she didn't take anything with her, because Captain Jamal
said it would just be "two words" with the Shin Bet. The children
shouted. Banan, a 17-year-old girl, said to the soldiers: "Take all
of us, then. Why do you come and take someone else every time?" And
Asma told the captain that she had to call someone to watch the
children until morning. She was sure she'd be back very soon. But she
remembers hearing one of the soldiers say to the children: "Find
yourselves another mother."

They took her in a jeep to the IDF detention facility in Salem. She
tried to ask why they couldn't just question her at home. At Salem,
other soldiers ordered that her hands and legs be bound and that she
be blindfolded. She tried to explain that she gets severe headaches
from a brain tumor. But the soldiers told her: "It's the law here. We
have to." She asked to see a doctor. They brought her a female prison
warden. She was put into a small room and there Asma took off her
headscarf and showed her the scars on her head from her two
surgeries. The warden told the soldiers: "She really does have scars
on her head." But Asma remained bound and blindfolded. They offered
her something to eat and she refused. At noon, she was taken to the
Neve Tirza women's prison in Ramle. There was no interrogation and no
Shin Bet.

"I have a brain tumor," she told the prison doctor the next day. She
was suffering from pain and dizziness. She says the doctor told
her: "Don't think about the children. If you think about the children-
-it causes headaches."

"Do you have children?," Asma asked her. "That's different. You're in
prison and your situation is different," was the reply. For the next
seven months, Asma had no contact with her children, who were at home
alone. She had no idea how they were, what was happening to them, who-
-if anyone--was looking after them. She asked the prison supervisor
to at least let her call home once, but was turned down. The
supervisor suggested that she get a lawyer to talk with the children,
but Asma wanted to hear their voices herself.

"The security prisoner was denied telephone calls because of the
procedure that applies to all security prisoners in Israel," was the
response at the time from the Prison Service. Asma complained to her
lawyer, Tamar Peleg-Sarik, that she wasn't receiving proper medical
attention. About a month after she was arrested, Physicians for Human
Rights (PHR) sent an urgent letter to the prison authorities
requesting that a CT Scan be arranged for Asma. It was two and a half
months before the examination was performed.

PHR informed Prof. Shlomo Melamed, director of the Glaucoma Institute
at Sheba Medical Center, and he volunteered to go the prison to
examine her. He found that Asma had completely lost her vision in her
left eye and that she was suffering from severe headaches, dizziness
and nausea.

Horrified, Prof. Melamed posted a stinging article on the
Internet: "It is incomprehensible that this woman could be held in
detention without trial for eight months. Where is the human
compassion? Where is the famous Jewish mercy? Why has she not even
been permitted to speak to her children by phone, throughout her
imprisonment?" Tear gas used to quell a disturbance by the female
prisoners affected her especially hard and caused ferocious headaches.

When Asma finished serving her first term of administrative detention-
-six months--and was expecting to be released, the next blow fell:
Her detention was being extended by another five months. She says she
fainted when she was told the news. All she knew was that a military
judge had approved the regional military commander's request to
extend her detention without trial, saying she was a terrorist. She
is convinced that her incarceration was intended solely to put
pressure on her husband, who was imprisoned in Be'er Sheva.

There was one happy moment: One day in September, during the daily
walk in the prison yard, a warden came up to her and told her that
she had visitors. Asma was brought into the visiting room and there,
on the other side of the partition, for the first time in seven
months, she saw her five children. She says she couldn't believe her
eyes--45 minutes of happiness. Physicians for Human Rights had
arranged the visit, after much strenuous effort. Four of the children
were given permits and one, 15-year-old Imad, was not--for security
reasons. But in the end, he also snuck in for the visit. After they
all finished crying, she asked them the questions she had wanted to
ask all those months. How things were at home and at school, and who
was looking after them, and what they were eating. Sajida and Hamzi
sat there speechless most of the time, hardly able to speak.

For nine months, she slept on the floor. Eight prisoners in a cell
with six beds. Asma was the last to be put in the cell and so she had
to sleep on the floor, brain tumor or not.

The Prison Service's new spokesman, Ofer Lefler, said this
week: "This is an administrative detainee (who was released on
November 10, 2003), entitled by law to be kept separate from other
prisoners and thus certainly entitled to a bed. At her request, the
detainee was transferred to living quarters and kept with other
security prisoners, despite the shortage of space in the prison
system. Therefore, she was forced to take turns sleeping on a
mattress and not on a bed, as a result of an internal decision by the

Asma's second period of detention was subsequently shortened to three
months. On the 10th of last month, she thought she was being
released, but an officer told her that her release had been postponed
again. But later that afternoon, when she had almost despaired, they
came and told her to pack her things. With hands and feet bound, she
was taken to one of the checkpoints near Ramallah. At ten that night,
she was sent on her way, into the dark night, far from her home.

A Palestinian passerby invited her to sleep at his house. From there,
she called her children. "I'm out!" she told them. At six in the
morning, she got up and started on the long way home from Ramallah to
Jenin. She was on the road until two in the afternoon, having waited
at checkpoints and resorted to circuitous dirt roads--an ailing woman
finally on the way home to her children, after nine months in prison
without trial.

Shooting children

Last week, this column told the story of the killing of three
children from Burqin and neighboring Jenin one Saturday in November.
One of the children was Ahmed Zarouna, age 12. The IDF spokesman
said, "The force fired toward a Palestinian who climbed on an armored
vehicle, apparently in order to steal a machine gun that was on it."
In order to justify the killing even further, the IDF spokesman also
said that 12-year-old Ahmed was "a Hamas activist known to the
security forces."

A reservist who served in Jenin wrote to me the day after the article
was published: "I think you should know that the brigade commander of
the sector (a secondary brigade) gave an unequivocal order that was
relayed to us that says that if a child climbs onto a military
vehicle, he should be killed. Shoot to kill immediately. The
explanation given was that he could take IDF equipment or toss a
grenade into the vehicle. In talking with my officer and with other
soldiers in the company, we agreed that this was an irrational
decision, that there was no reason here to kill and that such a
matter could likely be solved without any gunfire. I think that this
order verges on the totally illegal. In any case, this is the
explicit order as it is given to soldiers who arrive there."

Shooting to kill at children? In response, the IDF spokesman did not
deny it: "The IDF does not elaborate on the rules of engagement.
However, an inquiry will be conducted regarding the specific
aforementioned order. Unfortunately, experience has taught us that a
person who climbs onto a military vehicle could pose a lethal danger
to the occupants of the vehicle by shooting or use of a Molotov
cocktail, bomb or grenade."



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