PALESTINE: The keys to their own prison

Issue 

Kim Bullimore, West Bank

Munira Amer's house was once surrounded by green fields, gardens and an agricultural nursery full of olive and decorative trees, grapevines and flowers, which her husband Hani took care of. Now the land around Munira and Hani's home is arid and rocky. Today, rather then being green and welcoming, the Amers' home of 32 years has become a virtual open-air prison.

To the east, within 20 metres of their house, the Israeli state erected the now familiar eight-metre-high slabs of concrete, which form part of the illegal Apartheid Wall. To the west of the house, there is a four-metre-high reinforced steel fence topped with another four metres of barbed wire, separating the Amer family from the illegal Israeli colony of Elkana which has been built just 25 metres from their back door. To the north is another reinforced electronic fence, which cuts across what once was the main road to the township of Mas'ha. To the south a fourth electronic fence with barbed wire and locked gates lead to an area regularly patrolled by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and Israeli Border Police.

One of the Amer family's most valuable possessions is the keys to the huge heavy steel-framed gate set in the electronic fence located adjacent to the concrete wall. For seven months after the erection of the fence and wall, however, Munira and Hani did not have a key. Along with their five children, the Amers could only gain access to their home three times a day, and only if one of the Israeli security forces was present to open the gate for them.

They were only to gain a key to their own prison when Israel's Channel 1 television station did a story on the family, comparing their lives to lives in a prison or ghetto. In the wake of the television report, the IDF, furious at the report, warned the Amers they could only have a key to the gate on the condition that they did not invite any more visitors or journalists to their home. Munira and Hani, however, have ignored this directive.

Activists from the International Women's Peace Service (IWPS) are regular visitors to Munira and Hani's home and the town of Mas'ha, which is only 25 minutes from where we live. The first time I visited the Amers, Hani showed me a photo of his wife when they were first married. Munira was sitting on a green field dotted with wild flowers. The field is now gone and the settlement is in its place. While I was there, Maisa, their seven-year-old daughter, proudly showed me her schoolwork covered with big red ticks and stamps for excellence.

Hani told me that, not only had the settlers attacked his family's home with stones, breaking windows and solar panels, but that they had repeatedly tried to stone his bright young daughter and his sons while they played in their own yard, behind the locked gates.

It was in March 2003 that the illegal wall first came to Mas'ha. The Amers, along with their fellow villagers, fought back. A peace camp was set up, first on the land of one of the local farmers, Nazeeh Shalabi, and then on the Amers' land next to their house. Over 70 Palestinian, Israeli and international activists joined the camp in a bid to stop the confiscation of over 97% of Mas'ha's agricultural land by the Israeli state. The activists were tear-gassed and beaten repeatedly. One activist was shot three times in the leg with live ammunition, while 45 were arrested in their attempts to stop the IDF bulldozing the Amers' property to make way for the wall.

The psychological effect of the bantustanisation of their home on the family has been immense. Munira is suffering stress. The family is unwilling to leave the house unattended in case they cannot gain access to their home again or for fear that the army or settlers will occupy their home while they are gone. The children, each day, must pass through the steel prison gating to go to and from school and any visitors to their home, whether they be family, friends or journalists, are monitored and noted.

In July 2004, in a non-violent act of defiance, IWPS and two visiting mural artists from the USA, along with the family and 20 children from Mas'ha and the neighbouring township of Biddia, decided to paint the house-side of the Apartheid Wall. IDF soldiers initially attempted to stop the artists from entering the yard, confused as to why they would want to paint the wall. Eventually, the activists were allowed to pass and under the watchful eye of the Israeli army, the family and children began to paint the wall.

According to Susan, one of the visiting artists, she had agreed to join with IWPS to help paint the wall because "the Amer children had been so traumatised by their imprisonment and the constant military presence at their home". The idea behind the mural was to offer something other than a grey concrete wall for the children to look at each morning and to reclaim some of the space for the family, in defiance of the IDF and the Israeli state.

The mural, which took six hours to complete, bursts from the wall full of colour and life. Its images depict the once green hills of the village filled with flowers and the houses, happy children and a rising phoenix. It is a barrage of colour and carries with it a message of hope against a stark setting.

Despite the psychological and economic devastation that the creation of this "one-family bantustan" has had on the Amer family, they refuse to give in or to give up their struggle for justice. Both Munira and Hani know the history of their people and they know to leave their land, will mean that they will become refugees for a second time.

Instead, the Amers and their children will continue to fight. In February, on the first anniversary of what Hani calls their main "catastrophe", the family said, "We are simple people and we are proud that as simple people we can stand up to the Israeli army. We have never felt weak although our situation wants to weaken us. We are standing against injustice and this gives us a lot of strength. We call on every person in the world not to succumb, and to fight injustice, wherever it is."

Eight months later, the family's attitude has not changed. This is because, in the words of Munira's teenage son, "It is important that we stand up for our rights".

The Amers will continue to resist. They will, in defiance of the Israeli state and the IDF, continue to invite journalists, politicians and international human rights observers to their home to raise awareness, not only about their personal situation, but also how the illegal Apartheid Wall and the Israeli military occupation affects all Palestinians.

[Kim Bullimore is a member of Socialist Alliance. She is currently working in Palestine with the international human rights organisation, the International Women's Peace Service <http://www.womenspeacepalestine.org>.]

From Green Left Weekly, November 3, 2004.
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