JERUSALEM – A talk by Jamal Zakout, Palestinian Legislative Council member from Gaza on ending the cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence in light of the upcoming election was interrupted by an announcement during the second day of the 4th International Academic Conference on An End to Occupation, a Just Peace in Israel Palestine. Israeli Border Police in the Old City in Jerusalem had detained two members of a Gaza student delegation. The day before, despite holding valid IDs and permits, the 10-member Gaza delegation had been held back at a checkpoint for six hours by Israeli Occupation Forces while their bus waited on the other side of the barrier to take them on to the conference. The January 3-5 Peace Conference held at Al-Quds University, in occupied East Jerusalem was sponsored by the Faculty for Israeli and Palestinian Peace (FFIPP) and attended by academic professionals, students and peace activists from Europe, the United States and Middle East with the largest concentration of delegates in attendance from Palestine and Israel.
The day before, despite holding valid IDs and permits, the10-member Gaza delegation had been held back at a checkpoint for six hours by Israeli Occupation Forces while their bus waited on the other side of the barrier to take them on to the conference.
According to one member of the Gaza delegation, most of the students had never been permitted to leave Gaza, so during the lunch break they made a pilgrimage to the El-Aqsa Mosque (Dome of the Rock) for the traditional Islamic 3rd prayer of the day. Following prayers, several returned to the conference while others lingered in the Old City market place to buy souvenirs for family and friends.
Two of the younger delegates, Jasmine and Mohamed, were stopped by Israeli border police at the Via Dolorosa (Pathway of the Stations of the Cross) and demanded to produce their IDs and permits. Wafa, a thirty-year old graduate student in Psychology who works for the international Save the Children Foundation, attempted to intervene and was promptly detained while Jasmine was told to leave. Fearing the worse, Wafa slipped her mobile phone to Jasmine who went to a nearby market to contact the conference. Once alerted, an 18-member team of internationals was formed to confront police who were detaining the students at the Damascus Gate checkpoint within the Old City. Led by Israeli-American Yoav Elinevsky, a professor of Mathematics in Massachusetts and a native of Jerusalem, the team also included journalists and filmmakers as well as Professor Emeritus Jacob Katriel of the Israeli Institute of Technology.
When confronted the border police moved the students by jeep to the Jaffa Gate Israeli Police Headquarters on the outskirts of the Old City. According to Mohamed and Wafa they began to prepare themselves emotionally for life inside an Israeli prison, the typical punishment meted out to Palestinians for minor infractions. But Palestinians within the area had been following events and immediately volunteered to lead the rescue delegation through the ancient city passageways as the group snapped photos and recorded the sequence of events with a video cam.
“As I waited outside in the cold, I decided to take action,” Professor Katreil stated. “I called a lawyer and contacts at three Israeli newspapers, Haaretz, Maariv and Yedioth who promised to contact the authorities on our behalf.” Meanwhile Professor Elinevsky negotiated with police in Hebrew as police jeeps, wagons and other vehicles entered the gated compound. Hillary Rose, a professor emerita of Social Policy from England commented that after watching Professor Elinevsky in action, she asked him if he had ever done this before. “Yes,” he responded, “But at that time, I was on the other side as a member of the Israeli Defense Force.” After a half hour wait outside of police headquarters, Wafa and Mohamed were released from detention without further incident and joined the conference that had reassembled for dinner at the Christmas Hotel in East Jerusalem.
“Targum! We are brothers,” Professors Elinevsky and Katreil said to Mohamed as they shook hands and embraced. “In Arabic, the word is Tarjum – just one letter of difference separates the Jews from the Arabs,” Katreil said. “But the most important thing to remember is that we are brothers and must always appreciate one another as equals and find a way to live together in peace.” On Wednesday, the final day of the conference Israel students joined the gathering to hear testimony from the Palestinian students on life inside the Gaza strip and to develop teams of Israeli and Palestinians students committed to dialogue and peace. The Gaza student permits would run out at 6:00 PM, but as they prepared to leave, the Gaza checkpoint was closed. Militants had propelled a rocket inside the Nahal Oz army base just beyond Gaza’s border fence to avenge the killing of the seven Palestinians in a Gaza strawberry farm. Israeli troops soon retaliated and shot dead two Palestinian gunmen who ambushed them at Gaza’s Erez border crossing.
Because remaining in Israeli controlled and occupied Jerusalem would be considered a more serious infraction than being inside the occupied West Bank where the Palestinian Authority maintains some control, the students were quickly whisked out of Jerusalem. They reassembled as close as possible to the Gaza checkpoint, hoping against hope that the Israelis would not charge them for remaining outside of their prescribed area without a permit. It is an unfortunate fact of Palestinian life that when it comes to Israeli military justice, the logic of being blocked from entering may or may not enter the equation of what the government has determined to be a transgression.