Thursday, January 14, 2010

Welcome Home

Since returning home I’ve been overwhelmed with catching up on family time, getting settled into a new home, figuring out an income source and all that other good life stuff. But I wanted to write up my experience of coming back into the United States through Boston Logan Airport, specifically through customs.

I thought that I might be questioned coming back in to the US. I think living and working in a militarily occupied country has made me feel that my day-to-day actions are inherently illicit.

Anyway, you know how there are two layers of security coming back in to the US? The first is you hand over your passport at Passport Control and they stamp it. Next is customs, which I always thought was to make sure you weren’t bringing stuff (material stuff) into the country that you shouldn’t. I guess I was wrong or at least partially wrong. When I was taken aside by customs they were not at all interested in what I was carrying physically but very interested in where I had been and what I was doing and who I was, what I was carrying in my head ideologically.

I was pulled over immediately. I imagine there must have been a heads up from Passport Control because a customs guy began walking towards me before I got to their station by the door. He brought me and my luggage over to a table and opened everything up. It was very strange, on the one hand he took everything out of my bag but he also didn’t seem that interested in really examining anything. He was the most interested in my notebooks but didn’t really seem to engage with any of the information in them. The only thing that seemed to concern him was one page where I had mentioned a mosque by name. He asked me how many mosques I had visited. Seriously. I had been trying to be very perky and positive, the young traveler coming home from her backpacking. I didn’t want to make my folks wait to long for me. With that question though I couldn’t help it.

How many mosques? I asked. Israeli military personal have taught me that incredulous repetition of questions is an excellent diversion technique.

Um, yeah how many? he repeated.

Well I mean, there are about two on every street…He waited for more of an explanation so I really lost count.

Sometime after the mosque question I was asked if and I’m quoting here. If I had visited any bad places, no joke. One of the first question I had been asked was how I had been treated as an American so I guess this was a continuation of that. But bad places, really? What was next, asking if any one had touched me in my no-no places?

The real aim of the questioning came together for me with one of the last questions.

So are you Muslim? the US customs agent asked me, an American citizen returning home to America. And when I only stared at him mouth open he clarified or Christian?

I mean really could they be any more transparent here. I was clearly being asked, are you with us, or against us? My response neither, my family is Jewish, somehow came out of my mouth even though my brain was screaming WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY THAT THIS IS CONSIDERED A CUSTOMS QUESTION? If you go back earlier in my blog you can see that this question is basically exactly like the question I was asked going through Israeli customs. We like to think we’re a bit different here in the old US of A but clearly some, many actually, aspects of imperial control, as currently being expressed through “the war on terror” are universal.

I guess Jewish is close enough to Christian or far enough away from Muslim or he had gotten the info he need. He wished me a happy holiday season and welcomed me home.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Children Under Occupation


Now that I'm back in the states with the ability to upload photos at will... This was origionally published in Mondoweiss @

To some Palestinian children the antidote to Israeli occupation is Israeli prison
Jo Ehrlich

Two boys from Dheisheh were arrested the other day at the Beit Jala/Jerusalem checkpoint. I read the news in Ma’an. The description of the arrest reads:

“Two youth from the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem were in fact detained, the military spokeswoman said, noting they were transferred to Israeli border police. She said the two were carrying a "15cm knife and a Japanese knife" respectively.”

This description clearly leaves much to be desired. Ok, two knives, one very small and what is a “Japanese knife”? But more to the point, what exactly did they do with the knives? Stab someone? Attempt to stab someone? Get caught trying to sneak the knives into Israel?

I wasn’t able to find any more information on the Internet so I asked some friends in Dheisheh if they knew what had happened. They knew about the incident of course, one of the boys lived on their street.

What happened? I asked

They brought knives to the checkpoint my friend Ahmad answered.

And what did they do with them? I asked.

They just brought them to the checkpoint he said. They didn’t want to do anything with them.

Then, why? I asked incredulous.

They wanted to get arrested. They think that maybe jail is better then the refugee camp. They see the boys who come back, who get some money and respect. They don’t realize what it is like in prison. He finished.

Shocking, but this type of incident, youth purposely attempting to get arrested by Israel, is not an isolated phenomenon. Most notably perhaps were the teenage girls Bara’a M. and Samah S. Bara’a was released along with 18 other women this past fall, in a “show of good faith” by Israel as part of the Shalit negotiations. At the time of her release she had served all but one month of her eleven month sentence. The two were fourteen when they were arrested.

Samah S.’s statement, part of a repository of statements from child Palestinian prisoners published by Defense For Children International begins:

“I was born on 25 April 1994. I am in the ninth grade.

On 1 December 2008, a day before I was arrested, I went to Bara’a M’s house and asked her to find a way to get imprisoned. I told her that we could go to Qalandiya checkpoint and take knives with us so that the soldiers would see us and arrest us.” (PDF, page 86)

As bad as the situation is under occupation, the fantasy that life will be better in an Israeil jail seems to be misplaced. Recently I sat down and spoke with a young man, also from Dheisheh Refugee Camp, who had just been released from prison.


The story of his 25 months in prison is brutal. Told to me in his cousin’s living room, over many cups of coffee it overturned any illusions I had of what prison in the “democracy” of Israel looked like. My closest reference point was what I have read of the conditions at Abu Ghraib, not surprising I guess, military occupations tend to share certain characteristics. Arrested at 16, his interrogation, “trial” and time in prison were marked by coercion (his interrogators repeatedly attempted to implicate him in crimes he did not commit), a foggy legal process (he was held in detention for 17 months before he was sentenced) and experienced what could only be described as torture (guards would regularly beat prisoners, wake them by douses of ice water and throw tear gas bombs into the prison yard). Although this sounds extreme it is absolutely in line with research into the conditions for Palestinian’s in Israeli prisons documented by B’tselem and Defense for Children International.

What does this tell us about the occupation? The obvious question is what must the day-to-day life be like under occupation that some Palestinian children think Israeli prison might be a better option. But the question that interests me more is what are the goals of the Israeli state that they find it in their interest to arrest and convict children arrested under these pretenses?