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I first met Omar, a final year student at Birzeit University near Ramallah, in the summer of 2007. I was taking part in their Palestinian and Arabic studies programme for international students. Omar was their chief volunteer. He was particularly helpful to me when, in his own time and without payment, he helped me by arranging and translating interviews with young Palestinians. Without his kindness, I could not have completed my research.
In the early hours of March 27 2008 Omar was arrested at his family home by the Israel Defence Forces. Since being taken into custody he has been transported across territorial borders from the West Bank to Mascobia detention centre in West Jerusalem (contravening the fourth Geneva convention), and was denied access to his family or legal counsel. Omar’s detention was then extended several times and access to legal counsel was systematically impeded. On May 1, Omar was formally placed under administrative detention and charged with throwing stones on an unspecified date between 2001 and 2002. The charges do not make reference to any specific incident making it impossible to defend against them. They also refer to Omar as an adult, even though he would have only been 16 at the time.
Omar managed eventually to contact the right to education campaign at Birzeit. His full statement is available on their website. With the campaign’s permission I include a short extract here:
I saw soldiers beating other inmates and fear that I could be next. I’m also very disoriented, I hear sounds of dogs barking and people screaming at night. I think these are recordings but they affect me … I have no idea how long I will be in prison. I have no idea what they are doing or claiming. All I know is that I’m not a threat to security but I was still being questioned about all sorts of things, so anything and everything is going through their heads. I basically just want to know when I can see my family again.
Omar has since been moved to a prison in the Negev, inside Israel. His family have again been denied visitation rights. His case has not been to trial and neither he nor his lawyer has been shown evidence.
Omar’s case is nothing unusual. Over 80 other students from Birzeit University are similarly incarcerated, 35 have not faced trial. In the last 5 years, nearly 350 students studying there have served time in prison. Widespread arrest and detention is only one example of the occupation forces’ systematic attack on education in the occupied territories, and Birzeit is only one of hundreds of schools, colleges and universities under occupation. The use of checkpoints, the separation barrier, arbitrary curfews, rigidly controlled resources and even extra-judicial killings are all measures which cause extensive and critical damage to academia at all levels.
A book by the Defence for Children International’s Palestine section in 2004, Stolen Youth, documents the route for detainees though the distinct system of law operating in the West Bank which governs matters between Israeli settlers, the military and secret services, and Palestinians. Prisoners are subjected to poor conditions, malnourishment and torture. Access to family, medical attention and legal counsel are restricted arbitrarily. Furthermore legal procedures in military courts are so biased that many Palestinian lawyers can only really supply psychological counsel for their clients rather than any effective defence.
Omar’s incarceration is based on secret evidence from the Israeli general security services which was shown to a military judge. The law provides that he may be held for up to six months, on a renewable basis (in violation of the international covenant on civil and political rights).
Omar’s health is suffering because of poor conditions, ill-treatment, psychological stress and solitary confinement, but his case is not the worst nor the most emotive story of Palestinian prisoners under the Israeli occupation. However, it highlights the absurdity of the occupation particularly in relation to the peace process. It is too easy simply to regurgitate the old leftwing argument that if Israel treated Palestinians a little better this would eliminate all threats to the state. The situation is vastly more complex than that. But, unquestionably, a viable, independent and prosperous future for any prospective “state of Palestine” is the key to a lasting peace.
The Omar I knew before his detention was an extremely intelligent, charismatic, and generous young man. He bore scars of the occupation, like all Palestinians, but held no specific ill-will against Israelis, Jews or Judaism. Omar speaks fluent English (with an infectious Californian accent) and was not driven by any religious sectarianism. He was profoundly committed to his family, his education and working towards a better standard of living and greater access to justice for his peers. Despite the oppression of Israel’s occupation, he had retained the ambition to contribute to the wellbeing and stability of any future Palestinian state.
It is impossible to fully appreciate Omar’s experiences inside Israel’s prisons. And I don’t know if, or how much, they will have changed him. My profound hope is that he is strong enough to remain someone still with everything to live for, no matter what the future holds for the Palestinian national project. However, Omar’s treatment has opened my eyes to the pressures undergone by a new generation of Palestinians which, regrettably, gives them yet another reason to fight Israel. It also provides another reason for peoples all across the region to believe that the celebrated doctrine of human rights is reserved for the west and its allies and for no one else.