The New Normal

We all live with different realities. From time to time we struggle to come to terms with what is our “new normal” – either when we are in a new space, or when something untoward things happen to us.

For a 17-year-old student, we met a week ago Wednesday, in the village of Madama in the north central area of the West Bank (Occupied Palestinian Territories), his new normal is the experience of being arrested, blind-folded, handcuffed and incarcerated for several days for simply fighting a fire after his family wheat field had been set ablaze.

For Mohammed, his daily reality is the Madama Palestinian village, which functions in the shadow of the Yizhar Israeli settlement.

Madama has a population of 2,500. The Yizhar Israeli Settlement has a population of 900 Israeli settlers. Yizhar was the most violent settlement in the OPT in 2011, with 70 incidents logged, according to UNOCHA – the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The Madama village has sustained a long history of aggressive and lawless settlers – and army incursions. The villagers report how the settlers – often armed with guns – openly harass the illagers. And these actions often seem to be in tandem with Israeli soldiers who randomly arrest villagers. This may be for throwing stones at the settlers. But the army almost never intervenes to protect the villagers from the settlers.

Apparently last week, it started when settlers set fire to a small hillside field of ripe and ready-for-harvest wheat. With other villagers, this 11th grade student, and his younger brother Ahmed, a 10th grade student, went to extinguish the fire when word spread about the fire.

All the villages went to defend our land,” said Bassam Nassar, his father, who saw the action from his home a distance away. He recalls watching his son, who was wearing a red T-shirt at the time.

Mohammed, speaking to us through a translator, explained that it was one of two fires that had been set, and the army had prevented the village fire brigade from accessing the fires.

After the fire was successfully extinguished, the army came to the crowd. The smaller boys escaped, but he was arrested along with Ahmed, 15. The soldiers blind-folded, hand-cuffed, and took them to the Huwwara jail. He recalled lying on the floor of the jeep and being repeatedly kicked by the soldiers.

Even though he was arrested in the afternoon, he wasn’t taken from the jeep until evening, after he was driven to another station. But it wasn’t until three days later that his blindfold was removed, when he was photographed and finger printed.

Bassam says that after his son was arrested, he received a phone call from a journalist from Nablus who had taken pictures of the incident. The journalist had called him to say that the two boys had been arrested. The journalist said he had pictures which proved the sons had not done anything.

The journalist reported to him how the two had been blind-folded, hand-cuffed, and taken away in an army jeep. He said he tried to intervene at the army camp, but to no avail. He had been told by an army officer the two were accused of making the burn. The journalist believed that the boys were accused of the crime to cover for the actions of the settlers.

Bassam went to the camp, shouted for help, and was told by an officer that he would call when he knew where the children were.

The next morning, he received a phone call to say his children were in the Meggido prison, which is on the Israeli side. He was told “not to call.”

On the third day, at 9 pm, his son called say they were near Jenin, in the north of the West Bank. Then a taxi driver came on the line to say they were at a military check-point, and he could bring his sons home. In an hour’s time, they were home. The taxi ride cost Bassam 300 shekels ($80 CDN).

The next day, Bassam was told he was required to pay $2,500 shekels ($660 CDN) per child, to keep them out of jail.

I have eight children in school! I don’t have the money! I can’t pay this price,” exclaimed Assam. He is now appealing the charges with assistance from Human Rights Watch.

Mohammed, says what happened to him is “normal.” But as he talks quietly and shyly of his ordeal, it appears to be no badge of honour or coming of age He isn’t over it yet. He keeps thinking that the army will come again for him when he hears them. Mohammed he says only two of his classmates have been arrested, but his father estimates that 60 per cent of households in the Madama village have had someone arrested.

Assam says it’s been harder on his younger son who is smaller. “He is nervous. I feel something is wrong with my son,” he added.

Normal? Normal? When the force of settlers and a complicit army is greater and stronger than a child or his village, then indignation and anger and resentment and any sense of injustice gives way to accepting this perverse dynamic as “normal.”

Fathers who cannot protect their sons, and sons way too young for prison, are forced to absorbs this power imbalance into a world view called “normal.”

The Normal Conquest!

This too is my “new normal” – hearing stories of these kind of experiences by children, youth, and adults – and living in another Palestinian village, not far from Madama, that is surrounded on three-of-four sides by Israeli settlements and their tentacle outposts. I shall resist calling all this normal!

I have been sent by the United Church of Canada to participate in the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).  Should you wish to re-post, or to publicize any of this content, I welcome your direct requests, via the comments section in this blog.

Thank you! Grace and peace….