A police investigation of another trip in which young Palestinian women were brought into Israel for a day of fun; a nighttime encounter with laborers easing past checkpoints to get to work in Israel.
Ilana Hammerman, 5 November 2010
The door was closed. Locked. There was no doorbell, only a small keypad with numbers for those who knew the secret code. I didn’t know it so I rapped on the door in the old-fashioned way. I knocked again and also pressed my ear to the steel-plated door: There was no sound, not even a rustle of movement from inside. Silence. A big building in downtown Jerusalem. I glanced again at the sign above the door: “Israel Police Zion District.” Yes, this was the place. This is where I was supposed to come. And the time was right, too: 12:30 P.M.
Now I started to knock with a clenched fist. Hard. Passersby gave me funny looks. I’m not some weirdo, I wanted to tell them. I was invited here. No, that’s not accurate: I was “summoned.” So how am I supposed to obey this summons if it’s impossible to get in? And then, right at that moment, the door opened and out came a young woman in a bright floral dress, holding a cigarette.
“Hello,” she said to me. “Are you Ilana?”
“Yes,” I said with relief, although I’d never laid eyes on her before. “And you’re Dana?” I asked. “You’re the one who called?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I’m your questioner.”
“Great,” I said. “Hey, could I get a cigarette from you?”
“Yes, I just came out to smoke for a minute. Here, take one, why not? I’ll question you in just a bit,” she said, offering a cigarette and a lighter. We sat down on the low stone barrier outside.
“You know why we called you in?” she asked me.
“Has my interrogation started?” I replied with a question.
“No,” she answered, “but I’m curious to know.”
“Okay,” I said. “If I’m not under interrogation yet, then let’s talk about other things for the time being.”
She agreed immediately. And so we sat there smoking and chatting amiably. I inquired about her and her life: a mother of small children, with a bachelor’s degree. No, unfortunately, she didn’t have time to read, she said, when I mentioned the titles of a few books I’d translated, perhaps out of my tireless need to stir up interest in my work − or maybe to show her that I, too, was ready to reveal something about myself. But she remembered the name of just one writer she’d read – Michal Shalev – because her workday is long, and she also has to look after the kids, drive them to their activities. Camus? No, she hasn’t heard of him. Or of Nietzsche. I was stunned.
“How is that possible?” I asked her. “After all, you graduated high school, and university. And in general, education is something important − no?”
“Yes, sure,” she said, and turned toward a young woman who had meanwhile come out of the building and sat down across from us to smoke a cigarette: “Tell me, have you ever heard of Camus?”
“Albert Camus,” I helpfully added the first name.
“Nope, haven’t heard of him. Who is he?”
“You see, she works for the police, too,” Dana told me.
“That’s not right,” I said to them. “Such a level of education in the Israel police, it’s really not right!”
“You’re right,” Dana agreed, sighing and shaking her head. “You see, we have no time for it.” She got up, punched numbers into the keypad and opened the door for me.
We entered a hall with white walls as the brown door silently shut behind us, apparently thanks to some hidden spring.
An ordinary weekday
A few days later I went with another new acquaintance, writer Nili Landsman, and two more women, to the Comme il Faut cafe at the Tel Aviv port. It was just an ordinary weekday, and it was late morning. Even so, all the tables were occupied: people drinking coffee, eating a sumptuous breakfast, chatting, reading the paper. So we had to sit upstairs, “at the bar,” the four of us in a row, not facing one another. But there was an advantage to this, too: the view of the blue sea stretching before us as far as the eye could see.
A moment after we got settled on the high stools − Nili and I and Samira and Najah − a woman got up from one of the tables and came over to me with a book: “The Stranger” by Camus.
“I just wanted to tell you that I’m rereading your translation of ‘The Stranger’ now,” she said. “I also know what you’re doing here,” she added, sneaking a discreet glance at Samira and Najah. “I read about it in the paper, and I really admire you for it.”
I can’t deny that I then breathed in the bracing sea air proudly and grinned from ear to ear: How wonderful! Too bad Dana the investigator isn’t here with us, I thought to myself.
Nili and Samira and Najah were pleased, too, because it was a gorgeous morning. We ordered pancakes and soft drinks, and though the seats were a little cramped, we felt relaxed and expansive.
A picture taken shortly beforehand, on the way to the cafe, shows Nili and Samira and Najah leaning on the railing that separates the broad wooden deck at the port − which grows more attractive from year to year − from the endless sea beyond. The photo captures a historic moment in the lives of Samira and Najah: They are seeing the sea for the first time in their lives. Samira, a shy and reserved woman normally, gazed out at the farthest point on the horizon and exclaimed, “It’s so beautiful! I feel like this sea is taking all the pain and trouble and distress from my heart.” Najah, a chatty and voluble woman usually, didn’t say a word. She was completely in thrall.
The photo also captures a special moment in Nili’s life, partly because even though she lives in Tel Aviv, she rarely finds herself at the beach in the mornings; like Samira and Najah, she too has young children, she too has worries. But mostly because she had never before spent any real time with Palestinian women from the West Bank. Quality time that began a few hours earlier when we picked them up from their home in the village, where Nili was setting foot for the first time in her life: She doesn’t normally go driving through the occupied territories. We had sat for a little while in close quarters in the women’s homes, the atmosphere cheerful but also a little tense, with our guests and many other women, both Israeli and Palestinian; the former bareheaded and in light clothing, the latter in long dark robes, their hair covered. We drank strong, bitter, black coffee before setting out for the checkpoint. And there, at the checkpoint, despite the yellow sign declaring that the crossing is designated for Israelis only (and also for those eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return), we were not stopped. We just waved to the friendly female soldier and continued on our way with our guests, whose hair was now uncovered and who were wearing shirts with jeans or other lightweight slacks, revealing a modest bit of skin.
The faces of the two women in our car, Samira and Najah, steadily brightened as we got further from the checkpoint, to the accompaniment of a loud interview on Army Radio with some dynamic brigade commander; at the press of a button the conversation was replaced by the lush and beautiful strains of Umm Kulthum’s “Inta ‘Omri” − music that accompanied us all the way to the Tel Aviv port.
In one of the pictures I took there, Najah, who is short and plump with fair skin and hair, is gazing behind her, wearing a cap backward like teenagers often do. Big sunglasses rest on her nose and there is a sly smile on her lips, or perhaps it is just an expression of wonderment. If it had been easier to make out the contours of her body that has thickened from numerous childbirths, and the rough hands that cook and clean and launder day in and day out − for their homes are filled, filled with babies − one might take her for a carefree and not necessarily beautiful young woman who’d decided to try her luck at the beach.
Another picture, also taken by the railing by the wooden plaza, shows Nili in a blue sun hat, and Samira and Najah bareheaded. The gaze that all three reveal to the camera seems to contain a boundless yearning, for, as the poet said, at the end of the road lies nothing but longing.
Indeed, it was also because of longing that we set out on this journey and flouted all the checkpoints and prohibitions and military permits. A longing for what exactly? For freedom? Justice? Peace? Yes, all those and also the desire to cross all kinds of foolish boundaries and to undermine the walls that have sprung up, that have been built between us and them, in order to reach women on the other side and extend to them a little tenderness and human compassion.
‘Full extent of the law’
“Someone who illegally transports by car a foreign resident who stays in Israel shall be sentenced to two years’ imprisonment or be subject to the fine stipulated in Section 61(a), No. 3, of the penal code, 1977,” attorney Shimrit Alkalai of the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel quoted in a petition to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein − a petition with 10 sections enumerating activities I described here six months ago (“If there is a heaven,” Haaretz Magazine, May 14): I brought into Israel Palestinian women who did not have permits, who stayed illegally in Israel, and I transported them in a car, and so on. Because of this the attorney is requesting that Weinstein “consider opening an investigation into Hammerman and her actions, and if needed file an indictment against her and prosecute her to the full extent of the law.”
A reply to this request was received from the Justice Ministry. In it, attorney Dan Eldad of the State Prosecutor’s Office informed Alkalai that they had handed over her complaint to the police for investigation. And he added: “We wish to note that there was no basis for appealing to the attorney general in the first place since under these circumstances his approval is not required to open an investigation. It would have been sufficient to lodge a complaint with the police.”
From this document I deduced that the lawyer was deserving of a mild reprimand for she ought to have referred her clients to the police station. But I also learned from it that the state prosecutor had for some reason decided to spare her the trouble and that he had relayed the complaint to its proper destination.
And so some time later I came to meet Dana, the police investigator, who after she offered me a cigarette outside that locked door, continued to treat me very kindly when I sat down to be questioned. I also helped her come up with the right wording for the offense of which I was suspected: She turned around her computer screen so I could read about how I was suspected of taking with me without permits not only Palestinian women, but also “other women.”
“What other women?” I asked.
“Look, it’s written here,” she read to me from a paper in the file before her: “AnnaLynne Kish, Esti Tsal, Dafna Banai, Klil Zisapel …”
“But they’re responsible for themselves,” I explained to her. “I didn’t take them anywhere.”
“So what’s this about?” she asked. “Isn’t this that newspaper article that led to the complaint being filed against you?”
“No,” I answered. “This is a paid advertisement, by a group of Israeli women, after we went to take a trip with other Palestinian women − on another day and to other places.”
Dana was taken aback. She leafed through the file some more and when I pointed to the article, which was also there inside a plastic sleeve, she skimmed through it and right away deleted the part about “other women.” Instead, she wrote, “other times.” In other words, I had transported Palestinian women more than once. I hesitated for a moment and then, even though the original complaint was filed before those “other times,” I approved the wording. For I am an honest woman, I said to myself, and honesty requires that I admit this: Yes, there were and there will be other times.
Sheer sense of freedom
There has been one more time since then, as implied by what I just related: We were a group of about 40 Palestinian and Israeli women (Yvonne Deutsch, Irit Halperin and two Havas − Halevi and Lerman − plus Michal Pundak, Nitza Aminov, Irit Gal, Anat Reisman and two Ofras − Yeshua-Lyth and Tene − as well as Alma Genihar, Riki Shaked and Esti Tsal, and Nili too).
The heart-warming moments we had together are preserved in photographs as well as in our memory. You see young women and older women running on the beach, drawing in the sand, splashing in the waves, hugging one another, dunking one another, spraying water on one another, their loosened hair swinging about, their arms and legs akimbo at all sorts of amusing angles. They are bouncing about in the frothy sea or simply wearing expressions of delight at the sheer sense of freedom they felt. To the point that many of them said over and over − each with whatever words and sounds she could find to express her feelings, in Arabic and Hebrew and English, and in squeals and in laughter − that they had never known anything like it before. All were born and live under the occupation, between fences and checkpoints, and every single one has had relatives who were arrested by Israel Defense Forces troops and who have sat or are still sitting in prison, for a few months or many years. They are also subject to the authority of the men in their families, and accept this enslavement willingly as part of their faith, though perhaps “willingly” is not really the right word here.
At any rate, on this one day for a few hours they threw off all of the injustices and hardships, of their own free will and in the clear knowledge that they were endangering themselves, because while their men had permitted them to come with us, the State of Israel had not.
And on this one day it is obvious that in the souls of these women, there is freedom seeking to burst out, and there is nothing like the sensory contact with the wind and the expanses of sand and sky and sea, and the waves in all their colors, to let this unattained wish be fulfilled if only for a short time, while the memory of it will become a life-long asset.
This is what the conversations we are having with these women right now tell us: They want to do it again.
At that police interrogation I answered all the questions I was asked by referring to the article that served as the basis for the complaint. And since Dana didn’t push me, and it goes without saying that no one hit me or tortured me, all I could do was heed my calling as a professional editor and lover of the Hebrew language and correct the errors of syntax and typos that occasionally appeared on the screen. We especially got stuck on the word palestiniyot (Palestinian women), which was spelled in at least three other ways, with an extra aleph or two here or there, and which always showed up with a red wavy spell-check line beneath it, which started to annoy Dana. Finally, the word was corrected everywhere and the red zigzags disappeared and we both breathed a sigh of relief.
At some point an officer in uniform joined us, Shmulik was his name, and he was curious about me and about the investigation. “So,” he asked, “you want them all to move from there to here and to have a single country here?” I debated a little about how to answer him and suggested we have this discussion some other time, perhaps over a cup of coffee. But so as not to sully the atmosphere, I also told him a little bit about myself and my work. Camus? Of course, he knew him. He studied “The Stranger” for the matriculation exams. He also knew the name Nietzsche − “the one that the Nazis liked, right?”
“You see?” I said to Dana who was gaping at him in amazement. “Even in the police there are people who read books.” And we all smiled. After she finished the questioning and I signed the printed copy and affirmed with my signature that everything I said was the truth and nothing but, I also signed another form in which I posted bail for myself of NIS 3,000 and pledged to appear at such and such a time. (I got off cheaply, I thought, unlike Sa’ed, the son of my friends from the village of Hussan, who for a much more minor infraction and with no evidence was remanded to prison “until the conclusion of legal proceedings” and was not released until nine months later on NIS 30,000 bail, NIS 10,000 of it in cash.)
After I signed the forms, I wanted to just get up and leave. But the officer in uniform told me that Dana would escort me. And she did: She waited patiently while I unlocked my bicycle, and we walked together as I pushed the bike along instead of riding it, and she smoked, until we came to the old police building in the Russian Compound, whose beauty and glory is all surrounded by walls and barbed-wire fences and guard posts of various types. There, too, she waited patiently while I tied up my bike and then escorted me in with my backpack and camera, without any security inspections, and crossed the courtyard with me where I had stood many times before observing Palestinian prisoners being brought in in handcuffs by the gray soldiers of the Nahshon Battalion. Indeed, I had also been inside the building on a number of occasions to observe the laughable military legal proceedings that go on there, where officers sentence the detainees to longer and longer remands, in an endless chain, at a rate of three to five minutes per person. And Dana told me to wait until I was taken to be photographed and fingerprinted, and bid me good-bye, wishing me a good New Year and happy holidays. Because it was the season of the High Holy Days.
The photographing and fingerprinting took a long time, actually. The black-clad youth who called me in was in no rush whatsoever, even after I told him I was in a hurry because I had an appointment at the dental hygienist. On the contrary; he got annoyed, told me that I was insulting a police officer and remarked that he didn’t work for me. Then he got to work: After asking whether I had any scars on my body he photographed me from the front and the sides, not from the back, and then led me to a machine that was so state-of-the art it left me speechless and I stopped trying to hurry him up.
Inside there was a niche in which he placed the palms of my hands upon a smooth surface − not before he’d donned a pair of disposable gloves, perhaps so as not to intrude on my privacy, or maybe so we would not infect one another with some disease. Palm after palm, finger after finger, each one turned from side to side. Each time there appeared on the electronic screen above the pattern of a hand with the skin colored in, with all the lines of the prints preserved here for eternity, from that moment onward.
And then I walked out a free woman, not like those prisoners mentioned above whom I never saw walk free, and I sped on my bike to the dental hygienist, who also wore disposable gloves as she treated me: I’d gone from one scene of sterility to another. And also from a world of persecution and oppression, to a world of mundane routine.
Oppression near Jerusalem
I returned again to the world of persecution and oppression, just five minutes from my city of Jerusalem, not long ago. Because, unlike all the women whom we’ve taken on these outings and brought back safe and sound, the son of one of these women, who also entered Israel without a permit, in order to work and not to have fun, was caught and arrested and is still in prison, apparently in the heart of my city, in that very same Russian Compound. I wanted to get a better idea of the actions for which he was deprived of his freedom. And as a result I discovered another thing or two about the big lie for which the word “security” serves as such an effective disguise on the lips of everyone − politicians and ordinary citizens alike.
It was nighttime. In the car with me this time were men, Palestinian friends who’d come along to be my guides. We drove in pitch darkness on a very narrow road amid mountains, thickets and bushes, out of which the glowing tips of cigarettes and small squares of cell-phone screens could occasionally be spied. Along the deserted route figures suddenly appeared before us, three or four of them. When we stopped and got out of the car, we were quickly surrounded by about 15 people. All men, not all young. In the beams of the car’s headlights I also saw some graying hair and wrinkled faces. They had been on their way to work − in Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak, Ashkelon, even Haifa − when other laborers warned them that army forces were nearby; some of the others had been arrested. These men, however, had managed to escape and now their time was their own − several dozen of these men who come and go − because they would not be continuing on to their workplaces, at least not in the next few hours.
Just about all of them work in construction or renovations, they told me, and don’t have permits. Many of them are also among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians classified as “barred” from entering Israel. There are some who are “barred by the Shin Bet” and others who are “barred by the police.” Yes, that’s how they are defined. So that we understand that these are dangerous people, dangerous to our security, and therefore they ought to stay in their place and not come to our place − they and the bombs and knives they might be carrying.
In fact, most of them had backpacks, not just plastic bags, and were dressed neatly. They told me that inside their bags they had changes of clothes and toiletries to last a week, two weeks, a month. They told me there was no way for them to earn a livelihood in their own villages, that they absolutely had to feed their families. Their homes were filled, filled with babies who had to be raised and dressed and sent to school and then to university. Yes, also to university. A day’s wages where they live, if there is any work, is about NIS 60. A day’s wages in Israel, where there is usually work, is NIS 150-200. And so they cross over by the thousands, and quite likely by the tens of thousands.
At first they travel the roads in the occupied territories: eight or nine laborers in a regular car, 20 or more in a van. Crammed in and atop one another. Then they walk for an hour or two, and again are crammed into cars, now inside Israel. There are also many who journey on foot to all kinds of places in Jerusalem and its suburbs, and then continue on public transportation. Swallowed up among the other passengers, among us − that is, if we were to get up at the crack of dawn and take the bus. In order to blend in, to be invisible, they make sure to be dressed neatly, to keep their things in order and their faces clean-shaven.
Why are they “barred”? Some suspect it is because they have a brother who is in prison, or a cousin who was killed by the army, and now there’s a fear that they’ll want to take revenge. Some are “barred” because they have police records for unpaid fines, or for fines that were paid, but the fact that their case was closed was never entered in the computer records. And others, hundreds and thousands, have no idea at all why they are “barred”: They’ve already knocked on all the doors of the bureaucracy and filled the pockets of the lawyers, and they still have no idea. And so they continue taking this dangerous route. Some get arrested, some are imprisoned, and upon their release they set out once again; some are beaten and then set free, a few are even shot and killed, as happened recently: A laborer from the village of Sa’ir was killed on his way to Jerusalem. But the vast majority safely reach their places of employment. And then they are defined, forever defined, as being in Israel illegally.
You can see them at construction sites, sometimes also at the local grocery store, in faded and dirty work clothes, with unshaven faces after long days of work and nights of sleeping in dreadful conditions. Because this dangerous, difficult and tiring journey − that costs about NIS 200 in each direction − is not something they can do every day. So they stay with us, wherever they can find a place, and return to their homes once a week, or every two weeks, or every month. And meanwhile they build and renovate houses for me and for you and for my neighbors and for your neighbors.
On that same nocturnal excursion I saw them gathering by the dozen to get ready to start their journeys. In all sorts of places: on the roadsides, in the village streets. Drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, and getting updates on their cell phones as to whether or not there were soldiers about. And again I saw the groups of people who’d returned after their attempt failed. I noted how weary they were but still neat and clean, and I chatted with a few of them.
Neither their appearance nor their speech was that of people humiliated or ground into dust. This is their life of survival; they want to survive, they want to live. And they will bring food back, no matter what, to their homes, which are filled, filled with babies.
Nearly all of them speak fluent Hebrew. “I walk with my head held high, you hear,” said one, touching the tip of his nose and holding it upward. “I am a proud man, I am proud that I am supporting my children.”
Had I recorded all the personal stories of survival I heard that night, I wouldn’t have known what to do with them. Because of the inadequacy of the words? Because of the shame? Because of the anger? I don’t know. But in any event I could not tape the conversations or even write them down, because the circumstances were not those of complete trust, even though I declared my goal of political documentation as clearly as I could, and also because of myself: being an Israeli woman.
A few hours later, when I passed the same places again, the men were gone: Some had surely made it through, others had returned home only to try again the next day, and many had found a place to sleep with acquaintances, in mosques, in a small corner of the village under the open sky, at the base of a tree or a wall. The laborers had become invisible now. But not the soldiers. Here and there, a foot patrol passed, military jeeps were parked with their headlights off, and soldiers had surely entered a house to arrest someone in the middle of the night.
That’s the way it is in these villages. They are present day and night, the soldiers, and know that thousands make their way into Israel to work. The dozens I saw that night, waiting for the right moment, were seen by them, as well. The security man from the Betar Ilit settlement, whom I spoke with in his office the next day, saw them, too.
“You should have seen what went on here yesterday,” he said to me after proudly describing the settlement’s security arrangements, which are responsible and humane, in his view.
“I did see, actually,” I said. “What do you have to say about it?”
He shrugged: “That’s the way it is all the time; for the most part, they turn a blind eye and everyone crosses in. And you want to know something? Yesterday there was an [army] operation. They arrested a few people, just so they shouldn’t think that’s it’s so easy to cross into Israel. So they shouldn’t think there’s nothing to it. So they make their life a little difficult. And you want to know something else? By 1:30 A.M. the operation must have been over; the majority could have come in.”
“And tomorrow?” I asked.
“Tomorrow there probably won’t be an operation. I think you could tell that to your friends,” he joked with me.
He wanted me to know many more things “that they don’t know about in Tel Aviv.” And even though I knew them, I listened because it was important and interesting to hear it explicitly from him, a “security official.” To hear straight from him that there is a flourishing trade, one that brings in a fortune, in entry permits to Israel. That contractors purchase permits for laborers from the Labor Ministry and then sell them at a jacked-up price. “You know how much?” he asked. Yes, I knew: They pay NIS 950 for each laborer and sell the permits for at least NIS 2,000, and if it’s what is called a “zero to zero” permit (from the hour of “00” − midnight, on one day − through midnight on the next), it goes for a lot more.
Granted, the purchasers of these permits are crammed in with holders of “legal” permits at the checkpoints, crowded like sheep being returned to the pen, and are inspected. However, the contractor who affirms with his signature that he is employing them − that he knows them and is responsible for their comings and goings while they are in Israel − has not, nor will he probably ever see them. The phone numbers listed for the signatories on these dubious permits are also liable to be fictitious.
Indeed, one laborer showed me one of these documents and said: “Look, I’m calling and the number is disconnected.” He paid NIS 2,100 and on the day I met him, he said he had another four days to be in Israel and to do as he pleased there between the hours of 5 A.M. and 7 P.M. Well, he wanted work, but he hadn’t been able to find any; if he did, he would buy a new permit from someone else. Everyone knows whom you can buy them from. But not everyone has the money. So they head out on that terrible journey, which is even worse than suffering the crowdedness and humiliation of the checkpoints, and certainly more dangerous.
A blind eye
Section 8 of the complaint filed against me by the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel read: “As noted above, it is easily apparent from Hammerman’s article that she crudely violated the law, and not for the first time. Moreover, she boasts in her article of how she instructed the young women to disguise themselves as Israelis, how she deceived the soldiers at the checkpoint, how she lied to the undercover policeman and how she showed the girls the main cultural and entertainment spots in Tel Aviv.”
Now I find myself regretting that I didn’t transport in my car a few of the laborers whom I saw that night, and save them the time and money and hardship that making the crossing requires − even as the army largely turns a blind eye. And it has to turn a blind eye: The orders surely come from very high up, and money and corruption also play various peculiar roles here, too, lest thousands of families be left starving. Then Israel would not come out of this looking good, or with peace.
And since the state and the army are putting one over on all of us and most of the public believes them − and journalists ask me if I search the underclothes of the women I smuggle in, to check that they’re not carrying explosives − because of this, I am nurturing the hope that the police will recommend that I stand trial. Because then, before they “prosecute me to the full extent of the law,” I will be given an opportunity to tell my story, and to bring up in the courtroom − the most appropriate place of all − my doubts concerning the legality of many of the laws of the State of Israel.