According to UNICEF, Israel is the first and only country in the world to establish a juvenile military court. Each year approximately 500-700 Palestinian children, some as young as 12, are tried and imprisoned by the court. Human rights organizations report that these children are beaten, tortured and placed in solitary confinement in direct violation of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Yousef Aljamal, a Palestinian refugee and journalist, visited Portland on October 29 to share these children’s stories.
Aljamal was born and raised in Nuseirat, a crowded refugee camp in the Gaza strip. His family was forced to leave their ancestral home during the ethnic cleansing campaigns that started in 1948. His family has lived under apartheid rule ever since; surviving food and medical shortages and continuous military assaults, including the infamous 22-day Gaza massacre known as Operation Cast Lead in 2008, in which 1,400 Palestinian civilians died. Aljamal’s brother was shot by an Israeli soldier. His older sister died due to lack of access to a simple medical procedure.
Aljamal is at the forefront of a surging wave of resistance among a generation of Palestinian youths who have grown up under occupation and the face of that resistance is first-hand storytelling. Aljamal recently translated Dreaming of Freedom: Palestinian Child Prisoners Speak from Arabic into English. It is a collection of first-person narratives by 24 children held in Israeli prisons.
In Dreaming of Freedom, Palestinian children write of the humiliation and terror of being seized in the middle of the night from their homes, of being blindfolded, tied, interrogated, beaten and held for indeterminate periods of time. They tell of being forced to sign confessions written in Hebrew, a language they do not know.
Aljamal has come to the U.S. for a national speaking tour to help raise awareness of the plight of Palestinian children. Street Roots spoke to him while he was in Washington, D.C., pounding the halls of Congress in search of support for House Bill HR 2407, which is sponsored by Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum. HR 2407 is aimed at, it states, “banning Israel from using any of the billions of dollars in military assistance it receives from the United States every year to pay for the detention, interrogation or torture of Palestinian children living under Israeli military occupation.” The bill currently has 21 representatives who have signed on. Aljamal is hoping to bring that number up to 30.
On Tuesday, October 29, at Taborspace, 5441 SE Belmont Street in Portland, Aljamal gave a talk titled “The Crisis in Palestine.” There was no entry charge. Both books that he has worked on, Dreaming of Freedom and Gaza Writes Back were available for purchase.
Street Roots: What was it like as a child growing up in a refugee camp in Gaza?
Yousef Aljamal: In Gaza there is up to 20 hours of electrical outages per day; my youngest brother was born in 2006 and he has not had a full day of electricity in his life. It was crowded, with no playgrounds for children; we would be just going around in the streets, [where were] unpaved. I was very young and not very aware of what occupation was, but I do remember soldiers breaking into my house: my grandfather was detained for six years. I remember soldiers in uniform walking the streets, armed to the teeth.
Israel has carried out three major assaults against Gaza and many children were killed. One of them was my neighbor: he was 9 years old. His family’s house was located near a mosque. There was a rumor that they were going to bomb the mosque, so the family left the house to go to his uncle’s. But while he was playing football near the uncle’s house, an F16 war jet bombed the area and he lost his life.
The situation for children [in Gaza] is very difficult. Schools are crowded and children have to walk long distances to reach school, through checkpoints. Sometimes teachers and students cannot reach the schools when the checkpoints are shut down.
In spite of these barriers, you received a master’s degree in Malaysia and are currently working on a PhD in international relations in Turkey. In addition to the books you’ve contributed to, you write scholarly articles for online blogs including Electronic Intifada, Mondoweiss and The Palestine Chronicles. How were you able to accomplish all this given the barriers to education and resources you experienced growing up in a refugee camp?
My family always told me that, as refugees, we should focus on education, because it is the only capital we have. We should invest in our education. Palestinian society is highly educated. There are United Nations free schools and clinics. As a refugee, I attended these schools, however, they were crowded. But thanks to these schools, literacy rates in Palestine are among the highest in the world: literacy in Palestine is more than 97%.
On what pretext are the children in Palestine being imprisoned?
Most Palestinian children are imprisoned for throwing stones, even if they hit no one. Raising a Palestinian flag, wandering into a closed military zone or stepping outside the wall of the West Bank are considered crimes as well. Most children are denied bail and held without legal representation.
Can you talk about the power of the narrative resistance movement and how the simple act of telling personal stories can affect change?
We need these stories and books. We need narrative without the influence of politics or money or political pressure. We need to tell the story of refugees and people dying from the siege, which has been going on for 20 years now. We must keep telling these stories, to give a face to statistics. These children have aspirations, they go to school, they are creative, they have challenges. This is a part of keeping our memory alive. It is also important to build solidarity between other people who are oppressed, such as those who are being detained on the southern borders of the U.S., and also other minorities, people of color and people who are LGBTQ. The stories in Dreaming of Freedom speak for all those living under apartheid and for oppressed minorities everywhere.
Speaking of our own borders, since the 1990s, the U.S. police force has been receiving training from Israeli police purportedly to enhance their knowledge of counter-terrorism tactics. Some say this has had negative impacts on police treatment of America’s activists, immigrants and minorities. Do you see any connection between the imprisonment of Palestinian children and the U.S. detainment of immigrant children at the southern border?
Yes, there are not only similarities in the practice of detaining children at the U.S. border and the imprisoning of Palestinian children, but this is related to the U.S. practice of sending police to receive counter-terrorism training in Israel. This is an important issue, as many in the U.S. complain about U.S. brutality and accountability.
One other striking and important example to note here is that Elbit Systems, an Israeli company that built the wall around the West Bank, also has been contracted to build watchtowers along the U.S. southern border in Arizona with Mexico. (Editor’s note: Elbit Systems’ subsidiary, Elbit Systems of America, was awarded an approximately $26 million contract by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to install an integrated tower system in Arizona. To date, Elbit Systems of America has been awarded a number of contracts from CBP to install this system, covering a total of approximately 200 miles of the Arizona–Mexico border.)
Israel is promoting itself as a leading country in what they call “combatting terrorism” and they try to transfer this to other countries. They test systems first on Palestinians, then try to sell them to the world, saying that these methods have been proven successful.
Another form of non-violent resistance is the growing BDS movement [Boycott, Divestment and Sanction], which is working to end institutional support for Israel’s oppression of Palestine. How is this movement faring?
Compared to the South African model, the BDS Palestinian movement is doing much better. It took South Africa 40 years to get to the point we have gotten to in 10 years. The BDS movement is important and gaining more support worldwide, and divestment is advancing quickly through churches, unions, universities and banks worldwide, [thereby] challenging international support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Muslim Ouda, one of the children featured in Dreaming of Freedom, wrote that “despite the miserable conditions in the cells, I would still try to draw a bright picture of my future, using my innocent imagination, in which there is no occupation.” Can you speak to the state of mind of Palestinian youth?
Hope is the chronic disease of all Palestinians. We feel we are living not under occupation, but above occupation. We dream of freedom and a return to our ancestral villages. After all these years, we are still a beautiful people.
What can we do as Americans?
You can make some noise and write to or call your congressman to support House Bill HR 2407. Stay involved; stay informed.
Courtesy of Street roots / INSP.ngo