Nothing defines popular perceptions of Palestinian resistance more than the image of armed militants. But most – particularly those from Hamas and Islamic Jihad – have now been killed, arrested, or have fled the Occupied Territories. Those you do meet are reticent that militancy is but one facet of Palestinian resistance.
"It is not necessary to carry weapons to be [a]fighter," explains Ramadan, a former Al Aqsa Martyrs Bridge commander. "If you live in the [refugee]camp you are a fighter."
Obeid, a youthful Islamic Jihad fighter who spent five years in Israeli jails, echoes these sentiments. "The doctor in the hospital, the teacher in the university, the student in the school … all of the people [are]fighters."
For Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, ordinary life is itself a form of non-violent resistance. The mere act of going to and from work or school, transporting goods or visiting relatives is difficult. Israel has over 600 closure points, such as earth mounds, road blocks and checkpoints, which either delay or totally prevent transit between every major city in the West Bank.
When I arranged to meet Palestinian fighters I expected to meet larger than life characters, fearsome men not unlike the Special Forces of Israeli folklore with a cavalier attitude to life and death. Instead I found broken men trying to piece their lives back together. I spoke to fighters from the PLO’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Islamic Jihad’s Al Quds Brigades and the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. All were in their 20s, all had been abused in an Israeli jail, and all were seeking qualifications or employment.
Unlike the Israeli army, Palestinian fighters do not receive any training and most receive little or no financial or social support. "Now I’m not involved in anything, I just sell vegetables," ‘Philistini’ (not his real name), an Al Aqsa fighter who is still in hiding, tells me with an air of resignation. "[It’s] not a good job, [I] don’t have enough money … We have four kids [aged]thirteen [to]four years old and my wife is pregnant now. No[one]supports us. There was a salary from Al Aqsa but they cancel it without reason."
In 1994 Philistini was shot twice, in the hand and the midriff, during a protest about the murder of 29 worshippers by an ultra-orthodox Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, at the Tomb of Abraham mosque. "Because of the events … my mind becomes open," he said. But Philistini only got involved in armed skirmishes after the Israeli Army routinely invaded his Nablus neighbourhood from the September 2000 Al Aqsa Intifada onwards.
He was fortunate not to have been killed. Many fighters, particularly the commanders, are extra-judicially killed, such as in the Israeli missile attacks that also kill civilians. Seven hundred and twenty four Palestinians, including civilians, have been killed extra-judicially from the beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada to March 2008.
Most of those that Israel does not kill are detained along with many who are not involved in hostilities. According to Addameer, the Palestinian prisoner rights organisation, 40 per cent of all Palestinian men have spent time in prison. As at 30 April, there were 8,583 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Of these 790 are administrative detainees – persons detained on the basis of secret evidence that may or may not exist and which civilian Israeli courts cannot examine.
"If just one person speak about you in the jail and they catch you, [they]put you six months in jail, without anything, and make another six months, and another six months," Ramadan exclaims, suddenly animated. Technically, administrative detention should not last longer than six months, but in practice sentences are constantly renewed. Some detainees have been kept for eight years without ever being charged. All of the fighters interviewed had been detained for anywhere between one and five years. In fact, Rami, my interpreter for three of the interviews and an apolitical English teacher from Jenin who has never been involved in armed actions, was himself detained for three years and eight months.
"They arrested me, they hit me and order me to take my clothes off. Then they handcuff me and tied my eyes, threw me in a field [and]some soldiers [started]kicking me … They take me to military court and I ask him [judge]what have I been charged with? And he says ‘I cannot tell you, it is secret.’ [After six months] I go to the court again and they tell me another six months [and so on]." Rami was never charged.
Obeid still vividly recalls the night he was arrested. "They start interrogating me and beating me everywhere. My friend [who was arrested with Obeid]had his skull cracked open. They held his head and slammed it against the wall all the time. They broke my hand and leg." Obeid was beaten for four hours as he was dragged through the streets of his refugee camp.
"We were put inside a tank [possibly an armoured personnel carrier], eight of us, with our hands and legs bound, on the floor inside the tank. They put tires on top of us and sat on them. We were taken [straight]to a military court in Salem [in the northwestern tip of the West Bank]and while we were waiting every soldier that walked past us kicked us. Afterwards, we were kept, 18 of us, in a room around two metres by three, no window just a door." Obeid now suffers from stomach and groin infections due to the unhygienic prison conditions.
The fighters all share a total sense of uncertainty. Each has spent long periods of time on the run from the Israelis – from three months for Obeid to seven years for Ramadan. "I feel I could be killed at any time or have my home invaded," says Mahmoud, a former fighter with the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
"I am still not sleeping in my house," Philistini tells me in between puffs of his cigarette. "My friends [were]arrested, they punish them a lot, a lot, a lot. They punish them with electric [sic]. My friends tell soldiers … I was sleeping in my friend’s house. Soldiers come [to the house]and show photo to my wife. They said to my wife, ‘we want your husband dead or alive.’ But I escape[d]. Sometimes I get a call and someone says ‘I will get you.’ And I [always]tell them, ‘You never will.’"
Ramadan echoes these sentiments. "I know where to sleep, who is my friend. I could be killed or kidnapped any day, even now. It is always on my mind."
Yet along with the uncertainty there remains a strong emphasis on continued resistance. "All the political parties, each one has its own way of struggling. Fatah [PLO] is trying to negotiate, it’s a kind of resistance," explains Muhammad, a seasoned member of Islamic Jihad. "Islamic Jihad resists with guns. Our strategy is to fight against the occupiers [even though]the Palestinians do not have big guns like Israel, just simple weapons. We cannot negotiate if we are not equal to Israel."
Despite such fighting words, Ramadan reminds me that Palestinian aspirations differ little from our own. "I am a father, my son is three years old. I study social work at university. I didn’t imagine this life, if you didn’t live in the camp you couldn’t imagine [it either]… We are Palestinians, in other countries, in Australia you live in peace. You have all things, but here you find one thing – we live under occupation… at the same time all the people want to live, want to smile. We think about our lives, we want to give our children a better life."
Mustafa Qadri will be reporting for newmatilda.com from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories over the next month. He will be documenting the human cost of the conflict for ordinary Israelis and Palestinians.
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