We didn’t understand a word, yet we understood everything ~ “Do you speak Hebrew? Do you speak Arabic? Do you understand what is going on here?” ~ The prisoners have been brought in, feet shackled together. The court case has commenced. It takes a few seconds for me to realize the judge’s questions are addressed to us! ~ “No, your honour.” ~ We may not know the language, but some things do not require words in order to be understood! ~ A father’s anguish, a mother’s tears, a young man’s apprehension, a child’s fear, a soldier’s arrogance, a guard’s disdain, a lawyer’s indifference, a judge’s pronouncement ~ a message conveyed without words.
My colleague and I have applied for permission to spend a day in the military courts at Ofer Prison. One has to experience it in order to believe it! ~ Arriving by taxi before 9:00, we search in vain for the entrance. There is no signage. We discover a wire “cage” packed with Palestinian families ~ over 200 people ~ presumably the “holding area” for those awaiting clearance to attend the hearings. We greet them ~ Assalamu ‘Alaykum! The father of one of the two boys we have come to support sees us and comes over to the fence, a broad smile on his face. Language is a barrier, but it is unnecessary. It is clear that he is glad we have come.
Our “holding area” is separate, and we spend the next 2.5 hours trying to convince the Israeli military personnel that we have received prior permission to attend the court hearings that day. After many failed attempts, we finally succeed and emerge from the succession of gates, metal detectors, turnstiles, cages, an x-ray machine, and a body search ~ we are left with only our clothes, our locker key and a few shekels for the prison “cafeteria.” We join waiting Palestinians in yet another outdoor enclosure with only a small “canteen,” a water fountain, toilets, and a few chairs. Outside this cage are 8 dilapidated “caravans” ~ trailers ~ where court proceedings are being held.
The morning’s roster reveals that our family’s hearing is not until 3:00. We take the opportunity to sit in on other cases, going from caravan to caravan. It is in one of these sessions that the questions from the judge interrupt my thoughts… I had been thinking about the previous hearing where a proud mother had turned to me and said in broken English, “See this boy [pointing]; He my son! I see him only here. I not have visit.” I watched their faces as they exchanged stolen words, glances, and gestures. I saw her cry as they shackled his wrists and led him away. I squeezed her hand. I didn’t understand the details of why he was there. It didn’t matter.
At 2:30 we decide to sit with our family and wait to be called. Time passes. The sun sinks lower in the western sky. The wind is cold. And we wait. There are now about 20 people left in the holding cage. The guard has left his post. The gate swings on its hinges. The canteen is closed for the day. The place feels deserted. And still we wait. The father paces anxiously. The mother cradles her head in her hands. We feel helpless and without words. And still we wait. Finally at 4:50 ~ 10 minutes before closing ~ the family is called. They motion to us and we quickly follow behind them, filing into the one row of chairs. The judge tries to bar us from the hearing ~ “This is juvenile court.” We tell him we are friends of the family, and we have their permission. When asked directly, they all nod in assent. We are proud to accompany them.
But we are not prepared. The two boys look so small and vulnerable sitting in the prisoner’s box, feet shackled together. They are clearly afraid and uncertain of what to do. The boys glance at their mothers who are trying with gestures to find out if they are ok. They have been in prison, without parental visits, for two months, having been arrested for allegedly throwing stones at settlers while out with their sheep. The hearings have been postponed for as long as possible. Today they receive the verdict. The judge addresses them. The small boys stand together, trying desperately to be brave. The verdict is read. The mothers begin to cry. The boys are led away, wiping their tears and hoping no one notices. We file out of the caravan in silence. The father shakes our hands, tears in his eyes. Tears fill our own as we embrace the mothers. We have only been able to offer the gift of our presence ~ it is all we have to give. With our limited Arabic we think we understand that the boys must serve three more months and the families have to pay 4,000 shekels ($1,150 USD). But in the moment the details don’t matter.
The family must use the “caged lane” leading to the West Bank, while we are allowed to return to the Jerusalem side. We wave goodbye through the fence and assure them we will visit them in their village. Deep in thought, we walk in silence to the highway to hail a taxi. The sun has set and the nearly full moon is rising behind us over the prison compound. But all I can see is the image of these two small, frightened shepherd boys in their brown prison clothes, crying, their feet shackled together.