Argus title : We must help ease Palestinian despair
Nada is a Palestinian asylum seeker who came to this country in May 2004. When she telephoned me last week, her desperation was obvious. “I think I can’t go on” she said. “I think I will have to die”.
I had first met Nada a few days earlier. At that meeting she had been shy and self-controlled. Only at one point did her grief become evident – when she began to speak of her 16 year old brother’s death by Israeli sniper fire, as he walked to school.
So when, a few days later, she learned that the Israeli army had fired into the classroom of a United Nations run school in a Gaza refugee camp and killed an 11 year old girl – only a month after a young female school mate had died in the same way – it brought back terrible memories.
Israel’s operation “Days of Penitence” in Gaza was launched on 28th September, after a Hamas rocket killed 2 Israeli settler children. The ferocity of the reprisals in a heavily built up area has shocked even Israel’s most loyal allies.
Children and teenagers appear to have been deliberately targeted by Israeli snipers, often shot in the head. Though most are male, a growing number are girls. One, a 15 year old in Jabaliya, was baking bread in her home when she was shot. On the same day, but in a different building her friend was also shot in the head. Another had 20 bullets pumped into her as she walked to school.
Nada grew up under the Israeli occupation. She was born in 1971 in Budrus on the West Bank in a community of some 500 families. She lived with her mother, father and brother on a small farm with 200 olive trees.
Nada recalls that when she was young there was only one Jewish settlement nearby. Now there are seven, hemming in the village. All are heavily fortified. Article 49 of the Geneva Convention prohibits such settlements, but the Israeli government has actively developed them.
As the settlements increased , walls and barriers were built and roads re-routed to prevent Palestinians travelling freely. While settlers continued to travel at will, Palestinians were forced to wait for hours at Israeli checkpoints to attend work or even to go to hospital. Women have given birth at the checkpoints. Others have died.
There are repeated reports of the soldiers on checkpoint duty using racist and sexual insults to humiliate Palestinians. Nada confirmed this, but was too embarrassed to give details. There was hurt and humiliation in her eyes. I wished I had not asked her.
By the time she fled, Nada’s nearest checkpoint was only 3 houses away.
Nada’s father died in 1999 of heart and health problems, almost certainly exacerbated by stress. But the turning point for the family came when her brother was shot in January 2004. He was a quiet boy who wanted to be a doctor. A sniper shot him as he walked to school – just one of the 3,400 Palestinians killed in the past 4 years.
Nada said simply: “It is common…. for the Israeli soldiers to shoot individual Palestinians, even if they have not done anything”. When his body was brought home, Nada and her mother called out his name over and over again, “hoping it would bring him back.”
Nada described herself, at this time, as almost “going mad” with grief. She had, to some extent, lost control. She confronted the soldiers. She took risks. She was vulnerable to abuse.
In 1948 most of Budrus’ land was lost to Israel. Now, it is estimated that the wall that Israel is building between Palestinian villages and the illegal Israeli settlements is likely to remove 45% of what remains. The International Court of Justice at the Hague recently declared the wall to be in breach of international law.
When the soldiers came to destroy Nada’s family’s farm, in January thus year, she ran out and begged them to stop. They ignored her. When she persisted, one hit her several times with his gun till she fell. He kicked her as she lay on the ground, and beat her with a rifle butt, hurling insults at her.
The neighbours carried Nada back into the house, where she lay all day in great pain, listening to the sounds of her family’s olive groves being destroyed. When the soldiers had gone, she and her mother went out and sat in the devastated land.
Next day the soldiers came back and destroyed what was left. They pulled up roots and drove up and down crushing the olives which lay on the ground so that they could not be sold.
It is estimated that the building of the illegal wall will uproot 240,000 trees. However, this is nothing new. During the 37 years of Israeli occupation over a million olive trees have been destroyed, this in flagrant contravention of Article 53 of the Geneva Convention.
On 27th February 2004, Nada’s mother and she were wakened by the noise of heavy machinery. When they opened the door they were confronted by armed soldiers. Behind them were 3 bulldozers. They were told they had 10 minutes to pack.
All they could do was to grab some valuables and money. They knew they could not wait longer than the 10 minutes before leaving, because the soldiers give no second warning. Many people have died this way, crushed to death in their own homes.
In three and a half years Israel has bulldozed more than 3,000 Palestinian homes. In a damning report earlier this year Amnesty International condemned these house demolitions as “a war crime”.
As the house she’d grown up in was destroyed Nada screamed out “I never want to see this place again. I never want to see an Israeli soldier”. Shortly after this she was approached by an Israeli Arab who worked with the Israelis as a security guard. He told her that in return for money he would get her out of the country.
Terrified that Nada would be killed, her mother gave her half the family’s money to finance her escape. She had lost her husband, her son, her farm and her house. She did not want to lose her beloved daughter too.
Nada has been in England since early May. For two and a half months she received payments from the government of £38.96 per week. Now they have stopped. She has been informed by the section of the Home Office which deals with financial support that her payments have been stopped because her application for asylum has been refused.
However, the section of the Home Office which deals with applications will not confirm that asylum has been refused. She cannot appeal against the decision, because she has not been officially informed of it. However, unless she appeals she cannot have her financial support reinstated.
So, having escaped snipers, checkpoints and security walls, she is now enmeshed by bureaucracy and administrative barriers. Her life lurches between tragedy and farce. She has no money so lives on the good will of others. She would like to make a contribution to the life of this city, but as an asylum seeker is strictly prohibited from paid or unpaid work.
When Nada phoned me in despair last week, I was struck by three things above all else – her grief, her powerlessness and her utter loneliness.
She wanted to be a teacher. Instead she sits, day after day, awaiting the decisions of others.
I have advised Nada to seek the help of her M.P. Ivor Caplin. But she needs the help of other people too. Please send letters of support to me c/o The Argus.