Sireen's story. 'An affront to all humanity'
SIREEN KHUDAIRY’S FIRST encounter with the Israeli military occurred at the age of ten when she was woken one night by a gun pressing against the side of her head. “For two minutes, I was paralysed with fear,” she told me, “but then I started to scream so hard that I couldn't stop.” Israeli soldiers had broken into the family home in Tubas in the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, searching for her older brother. After threatening the whole family, they ransacked the house. That incident was a portent of what was to come.
Sireen was born in 1987, during the First Intifada, in the village of Bardala in the Jordan Valley - a fertile area that has been cultivated for centuries. Her father was a builder and, before moving to Tubas, tended crops on the family land. Following the 1967 Israeli invasion of the West Bank, the occupying Israeli government expelled Palestinian farmers from their lands to create settlements where they could establish agribusinesses for exporting produce. Such expulsions continue to this day.
Sireen became politically active at 18, volunteering for the Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign after witnessing the Israeli army demolishing homes and stealing land from farmers. With three friends, she created the Right to Education Campaign, building tent schools in small communities and teaching the pupils themselves as the nearest schools were 20 km away. In Al-Malah the children were often attacked and intimidated by settlers from nearby settlements. Sireen was threatened with her life.
One day, the entire school was burned down. A French solidarity group bought a bus and the Palestinian Authority agreed to pay for petrol and provide a driver to take the children to school elsewhere. Once the tent school closed, Sireen managed the website and Facebook page of the Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign and led guided tours to the Jordan Valley. This brought her to the attention of the Israeli authorities who in May 2013 stopped her at a checkpoint on her way to Nablus. “I was made to stand outside their jeep while local boys threw stones at the soldiers. One of the soldiers moved me in front of him and from behind placed a gun across my right shoulder. He started shooting at the boys. I was deaf in my right ear for a week afterwards.”
Sireen was taken to a military base. “I was blindfolded and my hands and feet were tied. There I was sat down on a concrete bench about 4 cm deep and left for several hours. No one told me why I had been arrested. The following day, a senior officer came, saying he would release me if I told him all I knew.” After saying she needed a lawyer, she was shouted at and told she would be going on a ‘picnic’.
“I was put in a van and while soldiers were hitting and verbally abusing me, we drove to my parents’ home. But I wasn’t allowed in. Meanwhile, local boys were throwing stones at soldiers while soldiers were shooting at them. One boy lost the use of his hand.”
Twenty soldiers entered the house while about 100 more remained outside. The family, including young children, were put in a room for hours without food or blankets while the house was ransacked. Sireen’s computer and other possessions were stolen.
Next, Sireen was sent to Al-Jalame Interrogation Prison, near Haifa in Israel, “where I was held in isolation for 22 days and denied access to a lawyer and family visits. There were no windows. On 22nd May, I was taken to court - blindfolded - and charged with internet activism on my Facebook page which they considered a threat to the security of the region.”
In prison, Sireen underwent constant interrogations on days when she was not due to appear in court. “On each of my four appearances, I was body searched in full view of others. When I had my period, I wasn’t given pads and appeared before the judge covered in blood. He showed no reaction and just looked at me as if I were an animal. My feet were in shackles and I could see my lawyer only in court. My family was refused permission to attend.”
Sireen was transferred to Ashkelon Prison, also in Israel, where she spent several days in a tiny cell. A man claiming to be a cleaner and speaking fluent Arabic told her she would be allowed out of her cell twice a day and that he would phone her parents to let them know she was safe. “I gave him a false number, but the next day, he came back saying he’d spoken to my mother!”
There followed days of interrogations “which varied from three to 15 hours at a time without a break.” The interrogations, with shouting, slaps, abuse and threats of a ten year prison sentence continued when Sireen was returned to Al-Jalame Prison. She was constantly strip searched, often by male guards.
Sireen’s final transfer was to HaSharon Prison, still in Israel, “where I stayed for about four months in a cell measuring about 3.5m by 2.5m which I shared with seven other women. HaSharon was a wonderful change! There were 27 prisoners in my block and we discussed and organised activities during the two hours’ free group time each day. I learned embroidery, drawing and Hebrew and we discussed politics, economics, history and many other subjects.”
Finally, on 16th September, Sireen’s trial took place at Salem military court. Following an application to the High Court, it had been agreed that there was no evidence for the allegations made against her and the court had issued a freedom order on condition that Sireen paid a 7,000-shekel (approximately £1,500) fine, underwent two months’ house arrest, refrained from political activism for five years and apologised to the court.
“I accepted the first three conditions, but refused to apologise. The judge became very angry, threatening to send me back to prison. But he had to respect the high court ruling.”
However, Sireen’s torment continued. During her house arrest, she received phone calls at night in which she was urged to collaborate with the Israeli authorities in exchange for money and an end to harassment. When she refused, the caller would threaten her.
These threats became a reality. “During November, I went to Hebron and stayed with a friend. Israeli soldiers arrived at my parents’ home without a warrant, looking for me. They ransacked the whole place and told my parents they’d kill me if they didn’t find me within a month. My family called me to say I couldn’t return home. Seventeen days later, the soldiers raided my parents’ home again and arrested my father and brother.”
Sireen went on the run, receiving help from friends at home and abroad. “Then in January 2014 I was in Nablus. That night soldiers arrived at the house where I was staying, blowing up the front door. I was extremely fortunate that an English friend - a lawyer - was present; otherwise I’m sure I would have been killed.”
In front of her friend, the soldiers told Sireen to put on a jacket and shoes as the weather was so cold. But once clear of the house, they took off her jacket and shoes, handcuffed and blindfolded her: “They punched and hit me on the head and legs with their guns. I was taken to a military base where my feet were shackled and I was made to run barefoot over the freezing stones. My feet were bleeding and dogs were barking and chasing me. It was the worst night of my life.”
“I was detained overnight and constantly interrogated. The next day I appeared in court and, thanks to my two excellent lawyers, the judge agreed I had been arrested by mistake and I was free to leave. Of course, I received no apology, let alone compensation.”
While on the run, Sireen had met Mahmoud, a security guard and activist in Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem, with four years’ experience of Israeli prisons. They married in May 2015. Three weeks later, Sireen and Mahmoud left for Jordan to visit friends.
At the border crossing, a soldier told Mahmoud that he needed to see an officer “for ten minutes.” Mahmoud was arrested and imprisoned without charge. The “ten minutes” lasted a year.
Meanwhile, Sireen embarked on an acting career with the Ashtar Theatre Company which encourages artists from Palestine and abroad to spend time living in villages. She lives with Mahmoud and their baby son, Jawaz, in Dheisheh Refugee Camp. Not forgotten by the military, their flat has been raided on several occasions, the last being in April 2018.
Sireen asked me to transmit the following message: “Dear Reader, Please open your eyes and your hearts! Come to Palestine and see for yourselves what’s happening here. Then impart your experiences to others. The situation of Palestinians within Israel, in the occupied West Bank and Gaza is an affront to all humanity.”
And the future? “My greatest wish would be to see a secular state where all people of any religion or none are equal in status before the law and valued equally, including Palestinian refugees who, if they wished, could return home.”