This post is courtesy of Emily Shaeffer who is a lawyer in Israel. Emily was part of the legal council that represented the village of Bi’lin in their court case which exposed two Montreal-based companies as accomplicies in illegal jewish-only settlement building on occupied Palestinian land.
Emily toured eleven cities across Canada this summer with Mohammed Khatib, bringing the truth of what occurs on a day-to-day basis throughout the Palestinian occupied territories in villages such as Bi’lin.
Dear comrades, family and friends,
I am currently oscillating between frustrated tears, the urge to contact every person on this planet and demand justice, and the overwhelming feeling of gratitude and honor to be able to call Mohammed Khatib my friend.
This morning I used another one of my privileges to get things done — as a lawyer, I have a right to visit arrestees and prisoners even when their family members cannot. He is being held as a security prisoner with heightened restrictions because, as you may not know, Mohammed — the same Mohammed with whom I toured Canada just over a month ago — is dangerous. I make light of it, but the truth is on an intellectual level he is more dangerous to the Israeli Zionist ethos than violent resisters of the occupation. He is a leader in a widespread and growing non-violent movement in Palestine — a movement that throws Israel’s image of the “other” on its head. A movement that tears the comfortable “but they all want to kill us” carpet out from under Israel’s feet and exposes the reality that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians are regular people who want the basic rights and freedoms to live their quiet lives, free from occupation, just like everyone else. Mohammed, of course, understands this far better than I.
It was a slow morning at Ofer Prison, so I was “lucky” enough to have an hour with “the prisoner.” When I entered the prison compound, I had my ass kissed by all the prison staff, who to be honest were very pleasant both to me and to Mohammed (from what I was able to see). But I couldn’t help but check their name tags for Palestinian (mostly Druze) names. This never ceases to unsettle me.
Through the glass window pane and bent over the plastic telephone, which eventually puts my arm to sleep, the first thing I need to know is how he is feeling. After rumors of swine flu in Ofer Prison, I had his wife and friends on my case to make sure that above all he is not sick. Mohammed reassures me that he is fine, although he is concerned that the flu symptoms going around the prison are not just the regular flu and that the sick patients are not being quarantined from the others, nor are they being treated with proper medicines (just tylenol!). He also mentions that there is a shortage of plates/cups/silverware, and so detainees have to share (which means they are subject to illness, whether it’s the swine flu or any other). In the meantime he is managing with plastic cups. (Plastic cups??!)
We talk a lot about how he sees his time in detention, which he accepts may last longer than the last week and a half (this Thursday’s hearing will determine it all). For him it’s just another part of the struggle — another test of a struggle that won’t die, and another chapter in his life of experiences (and literally another chapter in the book he’s writing)! After years of friendship, and our tour in Canada, he succeeds in amazing me more than ever.
There isn’t much for him to read in the prison, but recently he found a copy of Haaretz English that included a photo of a July Bil’in Friday demonstration in which demonstrators had raised at the Separation Wall the purple confederation flag they’d been given during our visit at the end of June to the Mohawk nation on the Canadian-American border Akwasasne reservation, in exchange for their Palestinian flag (which was raised there). Even though the newspaper photo was from a time before his arrest, it made him happy and rejuvenated him — and gave him a chance to practice his English reading, which he sees as a good opportunity, he says.
I tell him about all the things happening on the ground, thanks to his family, the village, and Israeli activists — Op Eds in the Washington Post (should come out today or tomorrow), international networks, support funds, letters, political pressure from our favorite Israeli Knesset (parliament) member, as well as Canadian MPs. I tell him about our very successful visit with 3 Canadian Parliament members in the village on Sunday, who expressed their solidarity with him, as a fellow elected official, and were appalled by this political arrest. I tell him a bit of world news, and I send him “dash” (regards) from dozens of people from Israel to Canada. He sends it back to them 10 times over. I read him the beautiful letter from Michael Sfard (my boss, currently abroad), and as I read the last lines about Michael’s undying solidarity with his friend, whom he calls “brother” throughout the letter, I choke up. Mohammed gives me the same encouraging smile that I know so well from hard moments in our trip to Canada.
Mohammed changes the subject and asks about village gossip! I tell him about this one’s new house, and that one’s son who is interested in a girl from the university… I wish I were more of an insider to tell him what’s happening in the Popular Committee that leads the demonstrations, but all I can say is that their message is that Mohammed’s arrest will not deter the non-violent struggle, it will only strengthen their motivations.
It’s important to Mohammed to tell me over and over again, and especially to pass on to his wife, that he is fine and not to worry. I suddenly feel horrible that I get to sit there with him while she has to wait for me to call her and update her on her own husband and father of their 4 small and precious children (2 boys and 2 girls, the youngest a charming 6 month-old baby girl that I keep trying to convince them to lend to me!).
I asked him if he’s bored, he insists that he sleeps well and eats ok (we laugh that he’s used to it after the food in Canada, which he found bland and tasteless!). He tells me he fills his mind with thoughts about Bil’in and the struggle, and he sees his time there as a sort of “vacation” to collect ideas and inspiration. He is writing more pages in his head of the book he started recently. His only real complaint is that they don’t allow him his nargila (tobacco hookah) to smoke! He feels confident that things will work out because he has done nothing wrong and has nothing to hide. He feels he has been lucky until now not to be arrested — like so many other political prisoners in Palestine and the world over — and that it was maybe only a matter of time. But that it won’t deter him. He hopes it won’t deter us.
Our hour is over in what feels like only a few minutes, and I want to hug him but I can’t. He tells me again to reassure his wife that he is fine and everything will be ok. He tells me I look nice today.
I watch him leave the visitation room and try to comprehend it all. But before I have a chance to finish my deep breath, in an incredibly surreal moment, the lieutenant in charge of lawyer-prisoner visits rushes into the room to hand me a comments and feedback form, stressing the point that I’m allowed to name names if there was a particular staff member who made my stay more comfortable! (Was this a hotel or a jail?) “How would you rate the facilities at Ofer Prison?” Um…. drab? I check off boxes as fast as I can, add a complaint about the toilets that I had decided against using, and request to be escorted out.
I exit all the various metal barriers of the compound and my taxi is waiting for me outside. Buses full of Israeli settlers share the bypass road we have to take to and from the prison. Meanwhile, I feel like I just visited the Palestinian Nelson Mandela and I can’t decide whether to revel in how amazing and inspiring he is, or to fear for the near future for him personally, for Bil’in, and for the Palestinian rights struggle. As we finally break through the traffic jams and reenter Tel Aviv, Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” comes on the radio. I ask the driver to turn it up and tears slowly roll down my cheeks.
The last thing I said to Mohammed was to hang in there. He told me the same. It’s a joint struggle, after all.