Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports how the girl was arrested as an “illegal alien” in East Jerusalem (Palestinian territory as everyone knows), her cellular telephone confiscated and a lawyer from the Public Defender’s Office appointed to represent her. She was released on bail and taken to the Gaza Strip because it was listed in Israeli records as her father’s place of residence. She told officials at Erez checkpoint on the Gaza border that she didn’t live in Gaza but in the West Bank.
The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ordered her release on bail after her uncle paid 1,500 shekels. The authorities checked with records and found she was registered as a Gaza resident although her mother is registered as a West Bank resident. Her father, on the other hand, is registered as a Gaza resident and is classified as an illegal alien in the West Bank because he didn’t receive an exit permit from the Strip, which he left in 2000. This administrative muddle, which is deliberate and widespread, hardly makes for happy family life in the illegally occupied territories.
Representatives of HaMoked Center for the Defense of the Individual, who assisted the girl’s family, said she had never been to Gaza. Nonetheless Civil Administration officers instructed the Co-ordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) to pack the girl off to Gaza despite her protests. Only after being deposited in Gaza did she get her phone back.
A HaMoked lawyer said: “With obtuseness that cannot be justified, nobody bothered to tell the minor where she was or made sure the family knew of her release, as is required in view of her age.”
The Guardian reports that, according to HaMoked, twenty-seven Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank were forcibly sent to Gaza last year…. condemned to be shredded, incinerated or at least deeply traumatised the next time Israel ‘war-tests’ its weaponry on this tight packed open-air prison where the inhabitants have nowhere to run. It was the first time they had heard of someone as young as 14 being sent there.
There’s nothing new about the Israelis’ urge to hurt the most vulnerable. If there’s one thing they are good at it’s making war on women and children. The self-styled “most moral army in the world” especially loves targeting Palestinian university students. Back in 2009 I wrote about Merna, an honours student in her final year majoring in English. Israeli soldiers frequently rampaged through her Bethlehem refugee camp in the middle of the night, ransacking homes and arbitrarily arresting residents. They took away her family one by one. First her 14-year-old cousin and best friend was shot dead by an Israeli sniper while she sat outside her family home during a curfew.
Next the Israelis arrested her eldest brother, a 22 year-old artist, and imprisoned him for 4 years. Then they came back for Merna’s 18-year-old brother. Not content with that the military came again, this time to take her youngest brother – the ‘baby’ of the family – just 16. These were the circumstances under which Merna had to study.
Israeli military law treats Palestinians as adults as soon as they reach 16, a flagrant violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Israeli youngsters by comparison are regarded as children until 18. Palestinians are dealt with by Israeli military courts, even when it’s a civil matter. These courts ignore international laws and conventions, so there’s no legal protection for individuals under Israeli military occupation.
As detention is based on secret information, which neither the detainees nor their lawyers are allowed to see, it is impossible to mount a proper defence. Besides, the Security Service always finds a phony excuse to keep detainees locked up “in the greater interest of the security of Israel”. Although detainees have the right to review and appeal, they are unable to challenge the evidence and check facts as all information presented to the court is classified.
Despite the horrendous mental stress of it all, Merna determined to carry on with her studies. The most moral army in the world may have robbed her brothers of an education, but she would still fight for hers.
Cruel beyond belief
Dumping students in Gaza to disrupt their studies is nothing new either. Five years earlier the Israelis forcibly removed four Birzeit University students from their studies in the West Bank and illegally sent them back to the Gaza Strip. All four were due to graduate by the end of that academic year. There was an outcry from around the world and the Israeli Army Legal Advisor was bombarded with faxes and letters demanding the students be allowed to return to their studies.
The world’s most moral army agreed that the students might be allowed to return to Birzeit if they signed a guarantee to permanently return to the Gaza Strip after completing their studies. This effectively exposed Israel’s plan to impose a final separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, even though the two are internationally recognized as one integral territory. Under international law everyone has the right to freely choose their place of residence within a single territory, but Israel doesn’t give a damn about international law. The racist regime makes it virtually impossible for Gaza students to reach the eight Palestinian universities in the West Bank. In 1999 some 350 Gaza students were studying at Birzeit. By 2009 there were almost none.
To get to Bethlehem University, or any other, many students have to run the gauntlet of Israeli checkpoints. “Sometimes they take our ID cards and they spend ages writing down all the details, just to make us late,” said one. Students are often made to remove shoes, belt and bags. “It’s like an airport. Many times we are kept waiting outside for up to an hour, rain or shine, they don’t care.” The soldiers attempt to forcibly remove students’ clothes or they swear and shout sexual slurs at female students.
Some tell how they are sexually harassed on their way to university and spend the rest of the day worrying what the Israelis will do to them on their way home. This constant humiliation of course undermines student motivation and concentration.
It was no surprise, then, to hear from Bethlehem University at around that time (2009) that Berlanty Azzam, a 4th year Business Administration student was being held by the Israeli military authorities with the intention of deporting her to Gaza “for trying to complete her studies at Bethlehem University.”
Berlanty, a Christian girl, was originally from Gaza but had lived in the West Bank since 2005 after receiving a travel permit from the military to cross from Gaza to the West Bank. She was detained at the Container checkpoint between Bethlehem and Ramallah after attending a job interview in Ramallah. She too was robbed of her degree at the last minute.
The 21 year-old was due to graduate before Christmas. The most moral army in the world blindfolded and handcuffed her, loaded her into a jeep and drove her from Bethlehem to Gaza, despite assurances by the Israeli Military Legal Advisor’s office that she would not be deported before an attorney from Gisha (an Israeli NGO working to protect Palestinians’ freedom of movement) had the opportunity to petition the Israeli court for her return to classes in Bethlehem.
When they’d crossed the border the world’s most moral army dumped Berlanty late at night and simply told her: “You are in Gaza.”
Berlanty had informed Gisha on her mobile phone before the soldiers confiscated it: “Since 2005, I refrained from visiting my family in Gaza for fear that I would not be permitted to return to my studies in the West Bank,” Now, just two months before graduation, she was arrested and taken to Gaza, with no way to finish her degree.
Bethlehem University was trying to mobilize people from around the world to protest. I contacted the Palestinian ambassador in London, who happens to be a former vice-president of that excellent seat of learning. “Have you contacted the Israeli ambassador for an explanation of this outrage?” I emailed him.
Next day, having heard nothing, I emailed again: “Update… She has been removed to Gaza blindfolded and handcuffed! What is the Embassy doing about this please?” Another 24 hours went by and no response. It wasn’t unusual for the Palestinian embassy to be fast asleep or out to lunch for days on end and no-one covering.
I had simultaneously emailed the Israeli ambassador asking him, please, to make enquiries. “On the face of it, this seems a senseless outrage. The student concerned has, I believe, just started her final year. I wonder what Mr Prosor or Mr Netanyahu would say if the education of their sons and daughters or grandchildren was disrupted in this manner.” Next day, having heard nothing, I sent the same update about Berlanty’s removal to Gaza blindfolded and handcuffed. Another 24 hours… still nothing, not even the courtesy of an acknowledgement from Israel’s press office, which usually responds like lightning to anything with news value.
If this had been a Jewish girl deprived of her university degree and life chances the Israeli embassy would be having hysterics and hurling accusations of religious hatred and anti-semitism. But this was the Jewish state screwing up the young life of a Christian, so that was alright then.
Administrative ‘laws’ designed to foul up every aspect of Palestinian life
Eventually, the Israeli embassy explained that Ms Azzam held a permit to stay in the West Bank back in 2005 and since the permit had expired she’d been living there illegally. “Every Gaza resident who stays in the West Bank requires a permit, failing to do so is a breach of the law. As Ms Azzam has failed to provide a valid permit she was deported back to Gaza.”
The embassy added that if Ms Azzam wished to complete her studies at Bethlehem she should apply for a permit to the relevant authorities (COGAT) in Gaza. But Bethlehem University’s senior management weren’t impressed. According to them 12 students from Gaza had applied to COGAT to attend the University in the previous year and NOT ONE received permission. Did they all pose a security threat to the democratic state of Israel? The Israeli reply simply raised more questions.
To give them their due, the Israelis eventually provided a detailed explanation attempting to unravel the complexities of the every-changing permit rules and admitting procedural mistakes, but insisted these were not sufficient to justify a different decision.
It was a classic example of how Israel’s administrative ‘laws’ are framed to interfere to the nth degree in Palestinian lives and ride rough-shod over citizens’ rights enshrined in international law, and to disregard its own obligations entirely.
For example, there was no recognition in the Israeli court’s decision that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are one integral territory and under international law everyone has the right to freely choose their place of residence within it. Nor was there the slightest acknowledgement by Israel’s judiciary of the state’s responsibility under the Oslo Agreements to “respect and preserve without obstacles, normal and smooth movement of people, vehicles and goods within the West Bank, and between the West Bank and Gaza Strip”.
While Israel announced its ruling on Berlanty’s fate, its ambassador here was whining about the arrest warrant issued in London against ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni for alleged war crimes. Livni had overseen Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza in December/January 2008-9, which killed 1400, including a large number of women and children, maimed thousands more and left countless families homeless. Israeli top brass, including Ehud Barak, Livni and retired general Doron Almog, had to cancel engagements in London for fear of being arrested.
Israeli prime minister Netanyahu’s office issued this arrogant statement: “We will not agree to a situation in which [former prime minister] Ehud Olmert, [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak and [opposition leader and former foreign minister] Tzipi Livni will be summoned to the bench. We utterly reject the absurdity that is happening in Britain.”
What’s absurd? If Berlanty, who had committed no crime at all, wasn’t allowed to come and go as she pleased in her own country, Palestine, what made Netanyahu and Israel’s ambassador think that the blood-soaked Livni, and others like her, could come and go as they please in the UK?
The following year the incoming Conservative government, said to comprise 80% pimps for Israel, changedUK laws relating to ‘universal jurisdiction’ to prevent such arrest warrants being issued in future. Under universal jurisdiction all states that are party to the Geneva Conventions are under a binding obligation to seek out those suspected of having committed grave breaches of the Conventions and bring them, regardless of nationality, to justice. There should be no hiding place for those suspected of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
But the British government, to its everlasting shame, has turned the UK into a safe haven for Israeli psychopaths. As a result we have to endure obscene spectacles like the red carpet love-in between Theresa May and Netanyahu at the Balfour centenary celebrations in London before Christmas.
© Stuart Littlewood 11 February 2018