`Do you have love in your culture?’


(Note to readers-this is an expanded piece about the same topic, with much more information, than that published in French for LMD on 3 July 2008)

Muhammad Omer and I jointly received the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in London on 16 June (1). Omer is a 24-year-old Palestinian with whom I feel honoured to have shared this award, as I told the audience at the prize-giving ceremony. His work from his Gaza homeland has been a beacon of humanitarian reportage; it is a model of peace, and an attempt at reconciliation with Israel.

But Omer’s journey to London to receive the award was almost impossible. When I heard about the prize, I booked my flight from San Francisco and boarded my plane. By contrast, Omer struggled even to get an exit visa: his home has been crushed by an Israeli bulldozer, and most of his seven siblings have been killed or maimed by the Israeli army of occupation. The veteran journalist John Pilger, who presented our awards, described Omer’s journey: “Getting Muhammad to London to receive his prize was a major diplomatic operation. Israel has a perfidious control over Gaza’s borders, and he was only allowed out with a Dutch embassy escort.”

Then, after the ceremony, there were our even more different return journeys. My biggest problem was an hour’s delay for the flight back to my home country, the United States, which last year gave Israel $2.38bn in military aid, and will give that amount in the coming fiscal year, along with an extra $150m. (By July 2006 direct US aid to Israel had reached $108bn according to conservative estimates.)

On his return home, Omer was badly beaten up and physically and psychologically abused by Israel’s security forces, Shin Bet. At the Allenby Bridge crossing, from Jordan to the West Bank, he was met by the Dutch official who was to ferry him back into Gaza. The official waited outside as Omer entered
the Israeli building. Omer was told to turn off his mobile phone and remove the battery. When he asked if he could call his embassy escort, he was told sternly he was not allowed. A Shin Bet officer searched his luggage and rifled through his documents. “Where’s the money?” he asked Omer. “Where are the English pounds you have?” They wanted to confiscate his prize money, which Omer was wise enough not to carry on his person.

Omer was surrounded by eight armed Shin Bet officers. This is how he described what happened next. “A man called Avi ordered me to take off my clothes. I had already been through an x-ray machine. I stripped down to my underwear and was told to take off everything. When I refused, Avi put his hand
on his gun. I began to cry: `Why are you treating me this way? I am a human being.’ He said: `This is nothing compared with what you will see now.’ He took his gun out, pressing it to my head, and with his full body weight pinning me on my side, he forcibly removed my underwear. He then made me do a
concocted sort of dance. Another man, who was laughing, said: `Why are you bringing perfumes?’ I replied: `They are gifts for the people I love.’ He said: `Oh, do you have love in your culture?’

“I had now been without food and water and the toilet for 12 hours and, having been made to stand, my legs buckled. I vomited and passed out. All I remember is one of them gouging, scraping and clawing with his nails at the tender flesh beneath my eyes. He scooped my head and dug his fingers in near the auditory nerves between my head and eardrum. The pain became sharper as he dug in two fingers at a time. Another man had his combat boot on my neck, pressing it into the hard floor. I lay there for over an hour. The room became a menagerie of pain, sound and terror.”

`Moderate physical pressure’

The Israeli Supreme Court has allowed the use of “moderate physical pressure” in the questioning of prisoners. Israel holds more than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of them under administrative detention (no charges filed, detention can be renewed every six months).

The fourth Geneva Convention (GC) (1949) states: (1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria. To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons: (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture (c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”

The Israeli military regularly bombs and uses snipers to attack Palestinian ambulances. Article 20 of the 1949 GC states: “Persons regularly and solely engaged in the operation and administration of civilian hospitals, including the personnel engaged in the search for, removal and transporting of and caring for wounded and sick civilians, the infirm and maternity cases shall be respected and protected.”

Israel has blockaded Gaza, isolating and starving the 1.5 million Palestinians who live there. In 2006 Dov
Weisglass, an adviser to the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”

Article 23 of the 1949 GC states: “Each High Contracting Party shall allow the free passage of all consignments of medical and hospital stores and objects necessary for religious worship intended only for civilians of another High Contracting Party, even if the latter is its adversary. It shall likewise permit the free passage of all consignments of essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics intended for children under 15, expectant mothers and maternity cases.”

The Israeli government has threatened to close orphanages for Palestinian children in Hebron, which would be another violation of international law, for article 24 of the Geneva Convention states clearly: “The Parties to the conflict shall take the necessary measures to ensure that children under
fifteen, who are orphaned or are separated from their families as a result of the war, are not left to their own resources, and that their maintenance, the exercise of their religion and their education are facilitated in all circumstances. Their education shall, as far as possible, be entrusted to persons of a similar cultural tradition.”

The Shin Bet violated many GC principles in the way it treated Omer. Part III of the 1949 GC, which covers the status and treatment of protected persons, section I, article 27, says: “Protected persons are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honour, their family rights, their religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs. They shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof and against insults and public curiosity.” Article 29 of the same section states: “The Party to the conflict in whose hands protected persons may be, is responsible for the treatment accorded to them by its agents, irrespective of any individual responsibility which may be incurred.”

The gross imbalance of power Israel enjoys, thanks to US support, makes these atrocities possible. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. According to Alison Weir, the executive director of If Americans Knew, Palestinians receive 1/23rd of the amount of aid the US provides to Israel.

According to Defence for Children International, Israel has “engaged in gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law”. Between 1967 and 2003, Israel destroyed over 10,000 Palestinian homes, and that continues.

Attacking journalists is not new. On 16 April Fadel Shanaa, a Palestinian cameraman working for the news agency Reuters, was killed by a rocket fired during an Israeli military incursion into the Gaza Strip. His assistant, Wafa Barbakh, was seriously injured. Both were in vehicle clearly marked “Press”. This appears to be part of systematic targeting of journalists by the Israeli military. Since the beginning of
the second intifada in September 2000, the Israeli military has killed at least nine journalists, including an Italian and a Briton. At least 170 other journalists have been wounded by the Israeli military during this period.

Former Dutch ambassador Jan Wijenberg said of what happened to Omer: “This is by no means an isolated incident, but part of a long-term strategy to demolish Palestinian social, economic and cultural life… I am aware of the possibility that Mohammed Omer might be murdered by Israeli snipers or bomb attack in the near future. . . [Omer] is a moderating voice, urging Palestinian youth not to court hatred but seek peace with Israel.” Janet McMahon, managing editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, for which Omer writes, says he is still in hospital. “He may go home, or have an operation. He’s still in a lot of pain, and it’s hard for him to swallow, or to breathe deeply. He’s being fed

I cannot reconcile the disparity in our experiences. How can we reconcile something that is irreconcilable in the absence of all justice?

Dahr Jamail wrote Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2007, after eight months in Iraq as an independent journalist. He also covered the 2006 war in Lebanon

(1) Dahr Jamail’s award was for his work on Iraq. See “US
presidents-to-be in denial”, Le Monde diplomatique, English
edition, May 2008.

Original text in English