Posted by: noticeable | January 4, 2008

Witness to a Kidnapping: A Palestinian on an Israeli Road

The following is another entry from my journal during my time in Palestine a few years ago in 2004.  In sum, it describes the harassment and arrest of a Palestinian taxi driver whose van I was riding in as this happened. I think it illustrates well the daily unlawful and immoral actions of the Israeli military as it patrols the Occupied Territories.

palestine-2004-293.jpgWe were in Ramallah returning from a peaceful demonstration held in the village of Biddu, north of Jerusalem. The villagers were opposing the construction of the Wall and celebrating the positive opinion handed down by the International Court of Justice. (The Court had just ruled that Israel’s separation wall is a serious violation of international law.)

Because it was Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, there were very few buses operating back to our home in Tulkarem. We usually hop a bus from Ramallah and are able to be home in about two hours. However, many people have off on Friday and bus service was scarce. Our only option was to take a community taxi-like van. After choosing one and negotiating a price, we climbed aboard, tired from the march and the heat.

In Palestine, the Israeli military has established periodic checkpoints on the roads. These are used not for security purposes, as Israel argues, but to make travel very difficult and burdensome for the Palestinians. They are fortress-like compounds where Palestinian cars, vans and buses are stopped, sometimes for hours, to be searched and for the drivers to be interrogated and questioned at length about where they are going, where they came from and for what purpose they are traveling. The situation is humiliating, unnecessary and cruel. Soldiers routinely embarrass men in front of their wives and children by body searching them. I have found that the Israeli system is rooted in oppressing and outright racism against Palestinians. I have witnessed very little to form a contrary opinion.

As our van reached one of these checkpoints we were directed to pull over. Three soldiers approached, standard automatic weapons drawn, as though everyone is a terrorist. After conversing with our driver and assistant, in Hebrew, they were both ordered to exit the van. After a few minutes they returned to tell us that they were fined 500 NIS (about $112) because they did not have the proper sticker inside their van describing the name of the operator. Again, this is not a system of justice, but rather one of intimidation. Once we secured permission from the soldiers to continue on our trip to Tulkarem, we left the checkpoint, angry over our treatment and the outrageous fine for a minor infraction.

We drove about two kilometers before an army jeep stopped us again. This was an informal checkpoint where the army was pulling over only those with Palestinian license plates. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers drove past, windows up, AC on. We were not told why we were stopped, but the van and all of our bags were searched, passports were demanded and we were questioned about where we were going and why. Feeling that this was all completely wrong, the group decided that we should negotiate with the soldiers about permitting us to continue and allowing our driver to take us home. We agreed to allow me to approach the soldiers. I asked them what was taking so long, why had they stopped us, and if they could return or driver’s identification card. I was told that our driver was not allowed to drive on this road and that he would be arrested for doing so.

These are the types of laws that operate in this country; they are unfair and completely arbitrary. Simply because he is a Palestinian he is forbidden to be on this road. Keep in mind that the soldiers at the first checkpoint only a couple of kilometers back granted us permission.

Unimpressed with the answers I was receiving from the army, I pressed for specifics: “Why is he not allowed? For what purpose? Is there someone else who can help me find the real reasons for this nonsense?” We were ordered to return to the van and follow the jeep back to the checkpoint where we came from. The jeep pulled out in front and the driver followed. Immediately the jeep’s rear door opened and a soldier aimed his gun at us. This is how he remained for the trip back to the checkpoint. For breaking a traffic law, an automatic assault weapon is pointed at us a mere 40 feet away.

Once we arrived, the soldiers prepared to arrest the driver. We agreed that we would not let that happen and we were all prepared to remain in solidarity with the driver and risk arrest ourselves to prevent them from taking him. The driver, his assistant, and the other Palestinians on board agreed with the plan too. (Soldiers may arrest Palestinians, but they would need to call in border police to arrest us as internationals. This would delay our driver’s arrest.)

In preparation for the inevitable, we called various human rights organizations and checkpoint watchdog groups to mobilize the needed media and advocates. I threatened to call the American embassy in Jerusalem to complain about the army pointing a weapon at an innocent American citizen.

The soldiers were not impressed and went to grab our driver. We all put ourselves between the driver and the army and held on to him. In an abrupt use of force, one of the soldiers violently pushed us away while another unslung his weapon. I heard the safety unlock and saw the gun pointed a few feet from my face. At that point a few of us stumbled and the driver was sucked into the back of the jeep. I quickly moved to the passenger side of the jeep to prevent the soldier who pointed the gun at us from closing the door. I continued to negotiate for our driver’s release. I failed and he was taken.

Pausing, we then decided to walk to where they took him. The sun was sinking but we were determined to find out if he was indeed arrested and pressure the army for his release. After an hour or so of negotiation by me and the driver’s assistant, we learned that the driver was arrested and that he would be released in an hour and a half. That was a lie. He was held for two and half days.

This is Israeli democracy. What I witnessed was a kidnapping. I am appalled by their law and their system. The Palestinians are not the terrorists. They are peaceful people desiring stability, peace and the right to return to their land.

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