In the newspapers of late, words about a renewed peace process have filled column space. In the streets of Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, in the West Bank, families read the political scene differently. They listen in the middle of the night for the clatter of soldiers’ boots coming down their streets. Nidal al-Azza, a forty-five-year-old human rights lawyer and father of four, heard them approaching his family home, where he and his family live with his mother, sister, and two of his brothers and their families. They each have their own apartments, but they share a patio, a grapevine, and a small garden: a few olive trees, a fig tree, a lemon tree, rose bushes, a mint patch, and space to hang the laundry out to dry.
When Nidal heard the soldiers approaching the gate, he called out to them saying that he would come down and open the door. But before he could get there, the soldiers broke open the gate. Then he found twenty fully-armed soldiers in his sister’s family room. Nidal’s sister, Nisreen al-Azza, aged thirty-seven, who works as a health educator in Palestinian schools, asked the soldiers what they wanted, but they would not answer. “Sheket!” they shouted. “Shut up!” They began to search the rooms.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that the soldiers refused to communicate with the house’s residents, that Nisreen and Nidal’s words were consistently met with force. As Nisreen feared, they were there to arrest her nephew, twenty-three-year-old Mohammad al-Azza, who is a journalist. For months, Mohammad has been covering popular protests in his community, as the director of the Media Unit in a local community-based organization, Lajee Center, and as a correspondent for Palestine News Network. His bravery and commitment have already cost him dearly. On 8 April 2013, an Israeli soldier shot him in the face with a rubber-coated metal bullet while he was covering an Israeli incursion into Aida Camp. Mohammad had been posted on the balcony of the youth center where he worked. The bullet, shot from ten meters away, shattered his cheekbone. He was in a hospital for weeks. Doctors realigned his eye. They grafted bone into his face. They added a metal plate to the place his cheekbone should be. His family gathered around him, a smart and sweet man with traces of youth in his voice when he laughs, or makes others laugh.
When asked why he was shot that day, he replied, “I think it is because I am the only one who has been covering the arrests, the demonstrations, the Israeli repression. I covered it, and published it. They know that Lajee Center has been exposing them internationally.” Indeed, his videos of protests show not only the ingenuity and boldness of the protesters, but also the violence of the Israeli forces as they invade Aida Refugee Camp to repress the demonstrations or to conduct their nighttime arrest raids.
As for the Israeli army, they had no comment. They rule by force and shout “Shut up!” Israel is as sovereign in Bethlehem as it is in Tel Aviv, and it has been for forty-six years. If it does not respect democratic values and human rights in Bethlehem, then it can make no claim to embodying these values.
The second night after Mohammad left the hospital, the Israeli army came to arrest him, but they did not find him at home. In the last several months, dozens of young people aged sixteen and older have been arrested with accusations of having participated in protests. Under a longstanding Israeli emergency law, two confessions against someone is enough to find that person guilty, even if those confessions come from scared teenage boys under interrogation and sometimes torture and maltreatment. By the early morning of 1 July, Mohammad’s brother and cousin were already in prison. The army had been to the al-Azza house four times in 2013. It is not difficult for Israel to arrest a young Palestinian man from a refugee camp, whether he has thrown stones or a Molotov cocktail, or whether he is accused of taking pictures that document the occupation and resistance to it. The military occupation is accountable to no one.
And so the al-Azza family is accustomed to these night visits. Later a soldier would grab Nisreen and look her in the eye: “Do you know who I am? I am someone who scares people!” When he said this, she felt that she knew well what kind of a person he was, and she returned his gaze: “I am not afraid.”
She had other concerns. As they started to search the house, the soldiers approached her mother’s bedroom. “Please,” she said, “let me wake up my mother. She is an old woman, and she is sick.” But they burst into her room. Her mother woke up terrified. By then, Nidal’s wife and children were also in the living room. “We had resolved to be calm the next time they came,” Nidal later explained, “but it became clear they set out to be aggressive.” Nidal had lit a cigarette when the officer grabbed him by his shirt and began questioning him.
As Nisreen later recalled, “When I saw him grab my brother like that, I was really angry. I said, ‘What are you doing to him? He is answering your questions! Why are you yelling at him?’ So he shoved me, and told the soldiers to take me away.” Soon, they had her brother on the floor in the kitchen, arms behind his back, their boots between his shoulder blades. She struggled to stay with him. They rammed Nidal’s jaw hard against the floor. They threw Nisreen onto the couch.
Their mother shook with fear and fainted. Nisreen tried again and again to bring her a glass of water. The granddaughters started to shout, “We want water, we want water!” Finally, Nidal stood up, pushed the soldier aside, and filled a glass. The soldiers tried to restrain him, they cursed him, but he gave his mother the water. Then they tied his hands, and sat everyone down. Nisreen could hear her family all around her in other parts of the house screaming. “You can’t imagine the agony of hearing people above, from my brother Said’s house shouting; from outside my brother Khader and his daughters screaming, my brother Walid and his wife Shifa yelling, cries from all directions.” She pleaded with the soldiers to allow her to go to her brother and his daughters, who were visiting from Florida, but they would not let her. Across the courtyard, Walid, Mohammad’s father, tried to reason with the soldiers to allow him to go to his sister. But they would not let him.
On it went, for over an hour, until the soldiers decided to search one room for a third time. Nisreen was stunned to see soldiers throw up the bed and find Mohammad al-Azza. Immediately, they began kicking him and beating him with their fists and rifles. She saw him trying to shield his healing face, and then the soldiers slammed the door, as the pounding continued.
When they carried him out of the room, the soldiers surrounded him so tightly that no one could exchange a word with him. He caught his uncle Nidal’s eye for a moment, and then they took him off, barefoot, wearing shorts and a sleeveless undershirt.
They dragged him up to the street. He must have heard more screams and shouts from the neighborhood through the blows of the boots and fists. His sister Rasha came downstairs from her apartment across the street, and she could not quite identify him, or perhaps did not want to. She called out: “Who is there?” A soldier showed a bright light in her face, and another slammed his rifle butt hard into Muhammad’s back, forcing him to cry out. And so she knew. On the street, Mohammad’s aunt managed to tell a soldier who spoke Arabic that he had just had surgery on his face, please not to hit his cheekbone. “We promise,” said the soldier, as the blows fell all over Mohammad’s body.
He was gone. The al-Azza family took stock. All of the men had been handcuffed and thrown to the floor. Mohammad’s mother, father, brother, cousins, aunts, and uncles had all been hit. Four people went to the hospital: Nidal for his badly bruised ribs. Nidal’s older brother Khader, who was visiting from the United States for wounds to his back and legs. Khader’s twenty-two-year-old daughter Majd, whose two toenails had been torn as a soldier crashed open a door as she tried to video the whole thing. Majd’s cousin, Sadeel had watched as a soldier hit her father and brother, and then she saw another winking at her in her pajamas. The normally quiet sixteen-year-old slapped him across the face, and he slammed a rifle butt onto the top of her hand.
By the middle of the next morning, friends and neighbors were gathering in the family home. The family was spent and angry, if not exactly surprised. “What do we expect?” said the mother of another young prisoner. They were both defiant and filled with grief. “I am not afraid of them,” said Muhammad’s mother, Shifa, who bore a huge bruise on her elbow, “I just worry about them hurting our children.” Muhammad’s sister agonized: “I hate to imagine Muhammad hiding there under the bed for over an hour, listening to the punches and the screams.” Word came that Muhammad was at an interrogation center. A lawyer visited him and saw contusions on his forehead, his elbow, his leg, his chest. He was still barefoot.
The next day came word that he had been moved to a detention center where he would be housed with other Palestinian prisoners. I saw his sister smile for the first time. It would not be the care of family, but all those other boys and men would look after him, make sure that he had clothes and shoes and food from the canteen. And, as a friend of his posted on Facebook, these other men were lucky too, for Mohammad would surely bring them his light spirit and humor. What kind of a disaster do Palestinians live that their homes become spaces of terror and sisters breath a sigh of relief when their brothers enter one prison rather than another? At a court date a few days later, his lawyer read the accusation: That he had known about protests before they occurred, and thus that he was part of the protests. But are journalists not meant to know about the events they cover?
From the headlines, it can seem that Israeli-Palestinian politics happens primarily in terms of diplomacy—handshakes offered or withheld, words measured by the syllable—and the occasional gunshot or explosion. Here in Aida Refugee Camp, the struggle is over collective rights, like refugees’ rights to return and the right to freedom of expression. Yet, it is also over the barest of capacities: bringing a glass of water to one’s elderly mother, being able to protect a beloved nephew, brother, and son. When authorities deny these basic securities, Palestinians know the struggle for freedom must continue.
[Click here to view photographs by Mohammad al-Azza and read about his being shot by Israeli sodliers in April 2013.]