Noura’s story: “We all live in prisons, this is our life”

By EA Michael.

It was the day of Firas’ trial when EAPPI first met Noura at the Military Court in Ofer, just outside Ramallah in the West Bank. She had travelled from her home in Hebron during the night with her brother, and had slept in the car outside the court so as to be sure to be there at 6.00 am. They had brought with them ₪2,500 (£550) to pay the lawyer and any fine that their oldest brother, Firas, might have to pay, if he were lucky enough to be released that day. 

In the event, the case wasn’t called in the early morning as anticipated, so the brother and sister had to sit nervously in the hot waiting room, hoping. It is not unusual for cases to be postponed, or cancelled altogether at the eleventh hour. It was Ramadan, so even the small kiosk selling sweets and drinks was closed and once they were through the security checks and gates there was no-one to ask when the trial would begin.

Ofer Prison, where the military court case takes place. Photo Credit: EAPPI/EA Michael

Finally at midday, a shout from across the concrete yard summoned the siblings through another turnstile to the other side of the steel fence where the seven courtrooms lay in a line. Each courtroom could have been a converted shipping container, with two doors cut into the box – one for visitors and the other for everyone else in the trial. There were no windows and the room had a tired air to it.

A judge in military uniform was barely visible behind his computer monitor, sitting on a raised platform behind a rail. In front of him was a crowded area where the prosecutor and translator, also in military uniforms, and several lawyers stood around, all waiting for the prisoners to be brought in. Four men in brown uniforms shuffled in, their legs were ­­­­shackled and they were handcuffed to each other in a short chain. A prison officer unlocked the handcuffs and the prisoners sat on the plastic chairs in the dock. Firas raised his hand to his brother and his sister, who were sitting with EAPPI to the back wall of the room, facing the judge. Some of us squatted on the floor as the trial began as there weren’t enough seats.

The charge Firas faced was one of “infiltration”, that is, of entering Israel illegally. He had travelled with friends by car from Hebron to Jerusalem so that he could worship at the Al Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan. The car had been waved through the security checkpoint at the separation barrier, but Firas was later stopped by soldiers as he walked towards the Old City. He didn’t have a permit to be there, and was detained.

Palestinian worshippers from the West Bank queue to cross Qalandiya Checkpoint on a Friday in Ramadan. Photo Credit: EAPPI / EA Michael

Access to worship for Palestinians during this holy month is restricted, especially for men aged 16 – 40. EAPPI monitored this access each Friday during Ramadan at key checkpoints into Jerusalem. At Qalandiya Checkpoint, all vehicular access was forbidden, so thousands queued on foot to catch buses waiting on the other side of the separation barrier. Women, who queued in a separate line, mostly seemed to get through the checkpoint without difficulty, but we witnessed hundreds of men, some of whom travelled every working day through the checkpoint to work in Jerusalem, turned back, denied access to worship.

Firas, aged 38, fell into the age category of men who needed a special permit to pass through the separation barrier from the West Bank into occupied East Jerusalem for Friday prayers. Whilst many reports, including by UN OCHA note that during Ramadan the Israeli authorities put in special measures “that have a positive impact on the right of Palestinians to freedom of movement, to freedom of worship and to family life, all of which are otherwise restricted throughout the rest of the year ”, the fact remains that many men are denied access to worship by restrictions imposed at the separation barrier, the route of which extends beyond Israel’s internationally recognised border. Furthermore, “despite access regulations allowing men over the age of 40 to cross checkpoints into East Jerusalem without permits during Fridays in Ramadan, several hundred men in this category (including elderly and men accompanying children) were reportedly denied access to East Jerusalem. This was particularly evident at Qalandiya and Gilo checkpoints on the last three Fridays. While no specific reason for the denial of access was provided it is understood that it was related to security concerns.” (UN OCHA)

Movement restrictions that impede access to religious institutions and that are not necessary for the maintenance of public order – infringe on the rights of the Palestinian population to freedom of religion and worship, according to article 46 of the Hague Regulations, article 58 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and article 75 of the First Additional Protocol.

When we met up with Noura in Hebron the following month, she told us that Firas knew that he might not be allowed into Jerusalem. A couple of years earlier during Ramadan he had been stopped just outside the Al Aqsa mosque without the required permit, and had been taken back to the separation barrier and told to return home to Hebron. He had been disappointed that he could not pray at the mosque of course, but was also angry that he could not travel freely in his own land, to worship at the holy site in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City. This time he and a friend were detained and spent five days in prison before his trial. All the trials EAPPI witnessed that day were about infiltration. According to NGO, B’Tselem “At the end of April 2019, there were 5,152 Palestinian security detainees and prisoners being held in Israel Prison Service facilities, including 303 from the Gaza Strip. Another 555 Palestinians, 11 of them from the Gaza Strip, were in Israeli prisons for being in Israel illegally. The IPS classifies these Palestinians – both detainees and prisoners – as criminal offenders”

According to NGO, Addameer “Since the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in 1967, more than 800,000 Palestinians have been detained under Israeli military orders in the occupied Palestinian territory. This number constitutes approximately 20 percent of the total Palestinian population in the oPt and as much as 40 percent of the total male Palestinian population. It also includes approximately 10,000 women jailed since 1967, as well as 8,000 Palestinian children arrested since 2000”.

Firas was fined ₪500, the lowest fine we witnessed that day, and was released at around 11.00 pm. Noura told us that Firas had complained about the food in prison and the hot, overcrowded conditions, but that he had not really wanted to speak about his experience. “He just came back to his wife and children, to his life here as a tailor, and to the prison that is daily life in Hebron.”

Closed Palestinian businesses on Shuhada Street, Hebron. Photo credit: EAPPI / EA Michael

Noura, who works as an accountant, could shrug off his brief stay in prison much more easily than the family’s experience of daily life in the divided city of Hebron. “We live in a prison all the time”, said Noura as she talked about restrictions of movement around the Old City of Hebron. Shops have been closed by pressure from settlers and soldiers and the value of the house she has inherited from her parents has fallen dramatically as those who can, choose to leave, worn down by daily intimidation and harassment, and by an absence of any proper protection from the law. “I hate this city”, she said, as she talked frankly about the depression she has suffered and her anxiety about being out after dark.

“We all live in prisons” says Noura, “this is our life”.

Israeli soldiers block an access-way through Hebron. Photo credit: EAPPI / EA Michael