Violence in and out of the headlines
AN Israeli friend contacted me and others last night to assure us she and her family were safe and sound, having been nowhere near the Jerusalem street where a man took a bulldozer to trample cars and turn a bus over. Three people had been killed and forty four injured. The bulldozer driver, a Palestinian building worker from East Jerusalem, was shot dead by an off-duty Israeli soldier.
I expect my young Israeli friend is used to anxious friends and relatives wanting reassurance whenever they hear that something like this has happened in her country. Palestinians also have fearing and grieving friends and relatives of course, but their deaths and injuries and daily ill-treatment do not make the news headlines or television screens so much.
What happened in Jerusalem was horrible, and won't be lessened by quoting statistics (more than 400 Palestinians killed this year, Israeli deaths a fraction of that, and I don't think the figure includes people who died because they were denied medical treatment, or women dying or having stillbirths because they were prevented from reaching maternity hospitals and had to give birth at army roadblocks). One innocent death is too many.
But what worries me is that Western media attitudes worsen matters, and not only because discriminatory treatment creates desperation. As soon as the news came yesterday there was talk of how this action by one individual "might affect the peace process", and sympathy for Israel's "dilemna"; the man came from East Jerusalem, which the Israeli state has unilaterally annexed as part of its own territory, and so it is difficult to blame the Palestinian Authority, or to carry out the kind of collective punishment which Israeli forces routinely carry out in Gaza and the Occupied West Bank. Which does not mean they won't have a damn good try. Out come the bulldozers ...oh, but that's where we came in. More deaths and destruction.
One way of enlightening people's views, in the Middle East and beyond, is if the Palestinians have good communicators, to show their side, articulate their people's aspirations and gain a fairer hearing and respect. A fortnight ago, a Palestinian called Mohammed Omer Alimghaer was in London to receive the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize for journalism, sharing it with Dahr Jamal who has been reporting from Iraq. Mohammed Omer, 24, works for Interpress (IPS) and is the youngest ever recipient.
Yesterday we heard that he was in the European Hospital, Gaza, recovering from his treatment at the hands of Israeli security police, the notorious Shin Bet (Sherut Bitakhon Klalit, general security service, also known as Shabak). Mohammed Omer had been given a Dutch diplomatic escort to enable him to travel from Gaza to London, via the Israeli airport, but he was separated from his Dutch escort when he flew back. The security men at the airport demanded to see the money he had received as his prize.. This is what happened next, as described by Mohammed Omer to veteran journalist John Pilger, who had awarded him the prize in London:
I was now surrounded by eight Shin Bet officers, all armed. The man called Avi ordered me to take off my clothes. I had already been through an x-ray machine. I stripped down to my underwear and was told to take off everything. When I refused, Avi put his hand on his gun. I began to cry: 'Why are you treating me this way? I am a human being.' He said, 'This is nothing compared with what you will see now.' He took his gun out, pressing it to my head and with his full body weight pinning me on my side, he forcibly removed my underwear. He then made me do a concocted sort of dance. Another man, who was laughing, said, 'Why are you bringing perfumes?' I replied, 'They are gifts for the people I love'. He said, 'Oh, do you have love in your culture?' "As they ridiculed me, they took delight most in mocking letters I had received from readers in England. I had now been without food and water and the toilet for 12 hours, and having been made to stand, my legs buckled. I vomited and passed out. All I remember is one of them gouging, scraping and clawing with his nails at the tender flesh beneath my eyes. He scooped my head and dug his fingers in near the auditory nerves between my head and eardrum. The pain became sharper as he dug in two fingers at a time. Another man had his combat boot on my neck, pressing into the hard floor. I lay there for over an hour. The room became a menagerie of pain, sound and terror." An ambulance was called and told to take Mohammed to a hospital, but only after he had signed a statement indemnifying the Israelis from his suffering in their custody. The Palestinian medic refused, courageously, and said he would contact the Dutch embassy escort. Alarmed, the Israelis let the ambulance go. The Israeli response has been the familiar line that Mohammed was "suspected" of smuggling and "lost his balance" during a "fair" interrogation, Reuters reported yesterday.
Israeli human rights groups have documented the routine torture of Palestinians by Shin Bet agents with "beatings, painful binding, back bending, body stretching and prolonged sleep deprivation". Amnesty has long reported the widespread use of torture by Israel, whose victims emerge as mere shadows of their former selves. Some never return. Israel is high in an international league table for its murder of journalists, especially Palestinian journalists, who receive barely a fraction of the kind of coverage given to the BBC's Alan Johnston. The Dutch government says it is shocked by Mohammed Omer's treatment. The former ambassador Jan Wijenberg said: "This is by no means an isolated incident, but part of a long-term strategy to demolish Palestinian social, economic and cultural life ... I am aware of the possibility that Mohammed Omer might be murdered by Israeli snipers or bomb attack in the near future."
While he was in London Mohammed Omar gave a presentation on what life is like in Gaza, telling of the brutality of Israeli forces, the killing of his brother, and the demolition of the family home. This was videoed for Islington Friends of Yibna, a group formed to help the Yibna refugee camp at Rafeah. Yibna was a former Palestinian village in what is now Israel, and the woman leading the Islington friends is Yael Kahn, an Israeli who grew up in a settlement where the village once stood, and came to realise that an injustice had been committed, for which she wants to make up. She has visited the Yibna camp and made friends with people there, including Mohammed Omer and his family.
What has shocked Yael is not so much the Shin Bet treatment of this young journalist - she says she knew of such things from her work with the Women's Organisation for Political Prisoners - as the way it has been treated by the media here, particularly the BBC, after it ignored his visit. "Five days after the assault on Mohammed, Israel released its version, which trivialises Mohammed's ordeal. Sadly the BBC chose to publish the Israeli denial as its title ...Israel denies injuring reporter. In fact the BBC website chose to inform of Mohammad's Martha Gellhorn Prize for the first time, under that title of the Israeli denial."
As she reminds us, the Israeli authorities initially denied responsibility for the killing of British photojournalist Tom Hurndall. Only after a relentless campaign by his parents was it admitted that the killer was an Israeli soldier.
Islington Friends of Yibna are urging protests to the Israeli authorities over the torture of Mohammed Omer Alimghaer, and complaints to the BBC over its treatment of this news.
for BBC report see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle.east,
to complain see www.bbc.co.uk/complaints
Video of Mohammed omer recieving Gellhorn award:
and Desert Peace comment: