As Palestinians wait for their day in military court, time stretches and blends like a cruel psychological experiment. People walk in circles to stay warm. The broken clock on the wall shows 9:15. The only ones who know what time it is are the soldiers.
By Alma Biblash
Sunday, Ofer Military Court, the West Bank: Around 30 Palestinian men and women wait an average of five hours for their hearings, or of their incarcerated loved ones. They are waiting inside a corral called the “family waiting area” — a metal cage, inside which there is a caravan with chairs and a small snack bar that’s not always open. The heating doesn’t really work, the air conditioners are encased in giant blocks of ice, remnants of snow litter the ground and everyone is wrapped in layers of clothing that stubbornly refuse to protect them from the cold. People walk in circles in order to warm themselves, maybe to stretch a little in the small space. Inside the snack bar there is a small toaster oven for heating up bourekas, which is emitting a little heat. A woman approaches it and the man behind the counter barks at her to either buy something or move away.
Now and then when we look toward the prison yard we can see a shackled prisoner being escorted by guards, at least one looks like a minor, all of them look exhausted, one of them is wearing flip-flops.
Mobile phones are taken away at the entrance and nobody has a watch. Time stretches and blends like a cruel psychological experiment. The broken clock on the wall shows 9:15. The only ones who know what time it is are the soldiers and the staff. When you ask them, the answers range from, “do I look like an information center?” to, “it’s always 9:15 here at Ofer,” while pointing with a smile toward the broken clock. Anytime somebody comes in from the outside, everyone asks them what time it is: he left civilization only a few minutes ago, surely he’ll know. Also when somebody walks out of a hearing: he met with the lawyer — surely they told him.
By virtue of our — Israelis — presence, getting answers about delayed hearings is made a little easier; sometimes, but not always, the soldiers cooperate a bit more with us. The Palestinians ask a lot of questions. They don’t rely on us and our presence makes them restless but also provides them with something to focus on in order to pass the time. One of the guards, a Druze soldier, tells them in Arabic: “She’s on your side. Believe me, I know her. She comes here a lot.” The idiot thinks that a soldier in uniform vouching for me means anything. I’m actually glad that they suspect me and that most aren’t overly friendly. A healthy dose of caution.
Some of the Palestinians traveled long distances on public transportation, sometimes having to take three buses to get to the court. Some of them walked part of the way on foot through the frost and snow of the south Hebron Hills or Bethlehem area. The hearings are behind schedule and they start to worry that they’ll have to make the return journey in the dark.
At the end of the day we all leave the army base; the sun has already started to set. We head outside — Palestinians through the door on the right, Israelis to the left. They go to the West Bank village of Beitunia, we toward the segregated Highway 443. We are separated by the wall. Within half an hour we are already back in Tel Aviv, in our warm parallel universe.
Alma Biblash is a feminist and human rights activist based in Jaffa and blogger on +972’s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call, where this article was first published.