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Justice in Heaven

Eyad El Sarraj

It was a night to remember. I had come home around midnight after spending the evening at Haidar Abdul Shafi’s in a stimulating discussion of the politics of peace with a group of Israeli leftists. I was so pleased when I entered my house to see that Federico Allodi had arrived. Of Spanish origin, a scholar and a philosopher and a professor of psychiatry in Toronto, Federico is a rare friend of Palestine and dear one to me. Busy and active in Canada for the cause of a just world, throughout the time of the intifada he has not missed a visit to Palestine every year.

We were drinking and talking with a group of friends when the bell was rung at the gate. It was them, the police. The young officer, from a good Gaza family—how clever a choice—told me that I was to accompany him to the police station for a cup of coffee, at the invitation of the attorney general. Having learned my lesson from previous such occurrences, I politely declined the invitation as long as there was no warrant to arrest me. Ten minutes later the officer returned with it.

My brother and Federico were visibly shocked and angered. It was a strange situation. Even as I was being rushed by the police officer, I was trying to calm my friends and family by making assurances that no harm would be done to me. No such luck. Within an hour of being in police custody I had been severely beaten and thrown into a small cell. It still makes me tense to think about it. It is a simple, albeit sickening memory. The sharpest image is of a green hulk brutally beating me with fists and boots. The image is not of the hulk, but of what I saw from my angle on the floor as he beat me: another policeman cocking his rifle. For a split second I knew he was going to murder me. The faces of my children flashed in front of my eyes as my life spun madly through my head. That he did not in the end shoot made me feel strangely relieved even as my

body continued to absorb bruises and injuries.

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Four days into the solitary confinement and I was going mad. The officers had clear instructions not to allow me out of the cell or to mix with other prisoners. The first hours were the worst as I was suffocated in that small iron box in the heat of June. But something fortuitous occurred that was to change things for me. I was called by the police chief who very angrily asked me, ‘‘How did you manage to tell the world about the beating?’’ He suspected that I had a cellular phone with me! The result was that I was moved into the maximum security prison where Hamas and jihad ‘‘terrorists’’ were locked up. I still do not know if Mr. Jabali realized that his decision was really a blessing. I was warmly welcomed and looked after by the other prisoners for the rest of my incarceration and, for that, I will be grateful for the rest of my life.

I knew all along that the reason behind my arrest was a letter I had addressed to Mr. Arafat. It was very critical of the Palestinian Authority’s repeated violations of human rights and urged Arafat to take action against them. I was told later of the outrage in Arafat’s office when the letter was handed over to him and how some people urged Arafat to ‘‘discipline’’ me, resulting in the trumped-up charges I was now facing. The attorney general made the farcical claim that ‘‘Dr. Sarraj was arrested for possessing illicit material’’—hashish. When the other prisoners heard the accusation on the radio, they were not surprised but rather quite amused. One told me, ‘‘It reminds us of Egyptian comedies.’’ But that lie would not be the only comic scene in this movie. There would later be the military court trial, which lasted ten minutes and found me guilty of beating a policeman, although in a Kafkaesque manner the judge told me he did, in fact, believe that it was I who was the victim of a beating. There would be the civil court when it was disclosed that the police had no search warrant when they found the hashish in a ‘‘drawer’’ in my desk at the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme—a desk which, in fact, was merely a flat board without any drawers. Absurd and farcical? Yes. But I remained in jail.

After my first four days in detention and before my theater of the absurd court appearances, I was on edge. I could only wonder when they would release me. Certainly they must be under intense pressure. Surely Hanan Ashrawi or Haidar Abdul Shafi had exerted some pressure on Arafat. What about the Palestinian Legislative Council members? They must have approached him. This episode is undoubtedly costing the authority dearly. Perhaps the Swedish government, or the Norwegians, or the Danes, or maybe the British have contacted Arafat. That man cannot simply imprison me without someone telling him that a scandal will erupt. But again, Arafat wants to prove to everyone that he is master of the game. By my example, he wants to show everyone the consequences

of criticism or denunciation. Arafat was never able to tolerate dissent.

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He dealt with opponents either by co-opting them or by punishing them. Some of his closest aides had warned me of this repeatedly and some told me that a killing could be arranged, and at the funeral my killers would be among the first line of mourners. One of Arafat’s security men had once told me that a car accident was never hard to arrange! This perhaps explains why my murder was the first thing that came to my mind when Arafat’s incredible hulk began to slam into my back with his boots and the policeman trained his gun on me. That’s it, I thought.

Four days of June heat. The best thing that could happen was a breeze. The detention center was stifling. I spent most of my time there, in that small cell without a window. But for the kindness of the other prisoners, I wouldn’t have managed to survive. Many of them went out of their way to be supportive. They gave me soap, underwear, pajamas, and sandals. When their families visited, they insisted I partake in the food delivered to them. I was invited to pray with them, and some would play chess with me. I was supposed to be confined to my cell, not to communicate with the outside world, but some sympathetic guards would occasionally let me out, would give me newspapers, and together we listened to the radio. These guards, who were supposed to be my captors, treated me humanely. I was allowed to go outside my cell and returned to it only when a senior officer was arriving.

Not that my imprisonment was pleasant, of course. That first night, after being severely beaten and then thrown into my stifling cell, I banged on the door and pleaded with the guard.

‘‘What do you want?’’ he asked.

‘‘I want to get out,’’ I said.

‘‘That’s not allowed.’’

‘‘I am suffocating, please. Let me out.’’

‘‘I’m sorry,’’ he said. ‘‘I have my orders. But you can go to the bathroom.’’

‘‘I want to go to the bathroom.’’

Imagine my surprise when he opened that enormous black door. I was overjoyed to be outside that horrible cell. I stayed in the bathroom for nearly half an hour.

When I came out, ten prisoners had gathered. They’d been awakened by the noise I had made, it being 3 a.m. Again, I was surprised when they greeted me and told the guard I was a good man. The guard, bewildered and shy, later apologized for the way I was treated. An officer had told him to be careful with me because I was an Israeli spy!

The prisoners were wonderful, however. They protected me and looked after me. Some even smuggled my notes to the outside world. By these actions they expressed solidarity with a man whom they believed

was imprisoned for defending their rights. In fact, they were proud that

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I was now among them, though frightened that I was an example of what would happen if someone spoke up against the Palestinian Authority.

After these four days in that tiny detention cell in the company of these good people, I was ordered to dress up, as they wanted me upstairs. My Egyptian film scenario was to continue. This is it, was my first thought. They will release me. But within fifteen minutes I was before a military officer who sat behind a small desk. There was also another man who appeared to be a visitor. I walked toward the officer to shake his hand, but he politely stopped me, saying, ‘‘Stay standing, please.’’

I didn’t know what to think. This is a military court, the officer said.

Well then, I said, can I have a lawyer? The officer, apparently also the judge, said that there was no need for a lawyer. The whole thing would be over in ten minutes. I grasped at a hope: this might be a formal way for Arafat to release me and avoid being further embarrassed by the episode.

The officer asked his assistant to read the charges. The assistant stated that I was charged with beating a policeman. My aggression, he continued, was unprovoked, and according to the medical report I had broken the policeman’s arm. Absurdly, even though I had been refused a medical report by the doctor who examined me, my torturer managed to send a report to the military court claiming that he had a broken arm as a result of my attack on him. For the crime of suffering a brutal beating, I was to be held criminally liable! The officer-judge asked me to respond. My disgust was apparent, as was my amazement at how low they were willing to stoop. The charge, I said, was ridiculous, and that I need only rely on common sense to respond: Did he really think someone my age and of my physique could possibly beat a policeman and break his arm? My life history was my best evidence, I continued, and I challenged him to bring anyone in Gaza who would say that it was in me to beat another man.

The officer listened impatiently and looked around him, as if for an escape route. He looked down and said, ‘‘Doctor, I extend your detention for a further fifteen days.’’

‘‘But I thought you understood,’’ I said.

‘‘Yes, I do, doctor,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m sorry.’’

‘‘But where, Your Honor, is justice?’’

He replied, ‘‘Justice, Doctor El Sarraj, is in heaven. We all are helpless, and God is our last hope.’’

I was immediately escorted to the civil court to face the other charge of possessing hashish. It was heartbreaking to see my sisters there. The judge was a courageous man. He cut the prosecutor into pieces when he

asked him why did they not search my house, as it would be only logical

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if they were looking for hashish. Then he asked, “Where was the defendant when you found the hashish?’’ The prosecutor replied that he was already in prison. The judge then looked him in the eye and said, ‘‘Do you arrest people before you find the relevant evidence? Was it not logical to have the accused in his office when you claim to have found hashish?’’ Then the devastating question, ‘‘Did you have a search warrant?’’ and the answer, ‘‘No.’’

After the circus of two courts, one military and the second civilian, I was taken back to prison, to my good friends. Many of them had had some experience with Israeli military and courts, and now the Palestinian side. So we were comparing. I related how the Israeli military were not very happy about my work with Gazan youth. They accused me of using the children for political propaganda by exposing their emotional trauma as a result of the violence of Israel’s occupation. They refused to register my Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, and I was called in for questioning several times. Rohama Marton, head of Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, related to me how Dr. Nimrod (the chief of Israel’s medical staff in Gaza) went to her house in Tel Aviv to warn her that I was a PLO mole. Eli Lasch, Nimrod’s predecessor, told me once that he was warned by the military commander in Gaza about me because ‘‘this man talks about peace and corrupts Israeli minds. He works for the PLO.’’ I was dismissed from my work in Shifa Hospital in 1971, six months after assuming my position in the children’s department. The official letter, which was signed by Dr. Khairy Abu Ramadan, said that he was to order my dismissal for ‘‘security reasons.’’ I was virtually fired from my work a second time in May 1988. Why? ‘‘Because, simply, we do not like you just as you don’t like us and we want you to go to see your family in England and not come back,’’ in the words of the Israeli Arab Affairs officer as he was giving me my travel document after weeks of refusal.

One of the Islamic Jihad members told me that although he was tortured severely by Israelis, being tortured by Palestinians was much more painful. Torture by the enemy was a kind of medal of recognition, but to be tortured by your own people . . . that is intolerable. For him, the only way to escape the pain was to consider the Palestinian officers as infidels who function against God.

It is easier after years have passed to write about it all and see it in perspective. One can reach a conclusion that the Palestinian Authority (PA) suffers from a fundamental lack of democracy and poor professional and ethical standards. While this state of affairs conforms to the prevailing Arab political culture, it was shocking to us in Palestine, which was supposedly on the path to liberation from the brutal Israeli occupation and to attaining our fundamental human rights. People in the West

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Bank and Gaza were horrified by stories of torture by PA officials that led to the death of many, their shooting and killing in Gaza of fourteen people outside a mosque, the frightening lawlessness, and the sudden creation of an elite monopolizing wealth and behaving outside the law.

The irony is that it is the same Palestinians who revolted against the tyranny of the Israeli military establishment who are terrified today of their own liberating authority. It is understandable that the PLO forces are not familiar with democratic principles, given their exposure to nondemocratic means of governance in the countries that hosted them. Indeed, it was clear from the early moments of the PLO entry into Palestine that there would be both a political and cultural confrontation between the PLO and local communities with their indigenous politics that had been established during the years of the intifada.

Many believed, however, that the special Palestinian experience under occupation should have better equipped them for a democratic system of governance. Nonetheless, the voices of Palestinian intellectuals have been muted since Oslo, as have those of many local leaders. At one level, Palestinians today are in a state of paralysis, as they are torn between being acutely aware of the continued Israeli occupation and having to confront an emerging Palestinian authority. It is certainly the Israeli occupation that they should resist and not their own regime. But how can they accept that their rights are violated now by their own brethren? Helplessly, they have resigned fatalistically to the notion that they are no different than other Arabs and as such not entitled to a better regime.

On another level, one could argue that Palestinians have also lost their identification with the just cause. For generations, individually and collectively, they have found themselves through identification with the question of Palestine. The struggle, al-nidal, was their way to self-actualization. They excelled in education, joined the liberation movement, and launched the intifada and fueled it for six long years. All that energy, the days and years of suffering and sacrifice, seemed to mean nothing when the Oslo agreement was signed. Oslo compromised Palestinian dreams of a just peace and meant the acceptance of a status quo that had been rejected for so long. Is that what we were fighting for? Or was this a surrender?

I was struck by that thought when I was being interviewed at the Gaza beach refugee camp for an ABC newsclip. That was the usual place to show-and-tell the story of uprooted refugee life and the resulting poverty, deprivation, illness, and other Israeli crimes against humanity. But on that day a new and spreading building fever seemed to have infected the camp. The shanty town was so transformed that my American host wondered what was going on. I thought then that the dream was lost

and people were waking up to the reality of Oslo and its aftermath.

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There was joy and hope, but also sadness, almost guilt. As we sat on the roof of his three-story unfinished building, I asked the municipality driver if he would prefer to go back to Jaffa. He politely dismissed my ‘‘hypothetical’’ question and said, in a matter-of-fact tone, ‘‘This is my home.’’ A dream deferred had become a dream denied. Refugees who for generations had refused to accept their lot had now submitted.

Some describe it as sickness, others say it is immoral materialism, but all agree that dramatic changes are taking shape in Palestinian society. The same people who were the struggle’s leaders now only strive to make a living. Some time ago, when the PA prevented laborers from working in Israeli settlements in Gaza, they protested and demanded jobs. It is they, of course, who were stoning the Israeli army only a few years ago. The truth is that people have been thrown into ‘‘normal’’ living after decades of war. Ill prepared, almost dazed with the sudden light of reality, they must find their way and their fate. Life is simply a struggle to find a job, find shelter, educate children, take them to the hospital, and make money.

It is no wonder that as many as 47 percent of young people would immigrate if given the chance. There is a prevailing sense of apprehension, sometimes panic, even among the old but particularly among the newly rich. One member of this group told me that his suitcase is ready because he will leave immediately when things change. This man is representative of the new class of high officials who surround Arafat and exploit their bond with him unashamedly. This same man told me, ‘‘If you really want to work for human rights, then come and see me. I can release prisoners and arrange for trials. I can help you become rich and I can find jobs for anyone you would recommend.’’

Another member of the group asked me, ‘‘Why are you so concerned about human rights and willing to risk your life for them?’’ It occurred to me that the man was emerging from the dark ages, where human rights were not an issue. Maybe the idea of human rights was used only as propaganda directed against the Soviet Union, or against the Israelis, the Syrians, and the Iraqis, but was not a serious matter when it came to ourselves. The usual line is that human rights are Western and used in particular by the United States to control Palestinians and Arabs. A human rights activist is, therefore, suspect. A police general told me once that when I was detained in June 1996, it was circulated in the highest circles that I was a Canadian spy. The genius who thought that up was disturbed by Federico Allodi and his unstoppable campaign to have me freed. A second common excuse for the flagrant disrespect of the law is to blame, with a distinct twist, the American connection. They claim that the U.S. administration continues to exert pressure on the

Palestinians to show their commitment to the peace process by respect-

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ing Israeli demands for arresting members of the opposition groups and particularly the Islamic groups. Therefore, it is the United States that pushes the PA to violate human rights.

The Palestinian Authority, however, is bluntly honest. It continues to send clear though alarming messages about the irrelevance of human rights in its agenda. Is it because the PLO forces have lived for so long outside the law and on the margins of the communities that they are not prepared to subscribe to the rule of law? And yet, how could a freedom fighter who was tortured by Israeli interrogators turn into a torturer of his own people?

One day during my last detention I overheard a Palestinian officer interrogating a Palestinian man. He was calmly asking questions, but there were no answers. Gradually, the interrogator was raising his voice, and then was shouting. Suddenly, he was screaming, but in Hebrew. I was stunned. That was a graphic illustration of the powerful psychological process of identification with the aggressor. In simple terms, the Palestinian officer who was once a helpless victim in an Israeli prison was now assuming the position of power, which in his mind was symbolized by the Israeli officer.

Torture is endemic in this part of the world and it runs from generation to generation and from nation to nation. The Palestinian psyche has grown to mirror the Israelis, who themselves are victims of the horrible past. The peace process should not stop at the political settlement, but it should continue to touch and heal the souls of the traumatized communities. Palestinians have great potential for making peace and building a country out of decades of accumulated rubble. During the last years of self-rule, there have been a few positive changes in the areas of government, human rights, and democratization, but these are far from what we hope to achieve. The road, however, is still wide open and hopeful.

 
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