“Bureaucratic weapons worse than bombs”

Firas al-Maraghi (Bridget Chappell)

Firas al-Maraghi from the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in occupied East Jerusalem has been on hunger strike outside the Israeli embassy in Berlin since 26 July. Al-Maraghi is striking in protest of the Israeli Ministry of Interior’s refusal to include his German-born daughter and wife on his Jerusalem residency permit. In all all too familiar example of Israel’s bureaucratic warfare against Palestinian Jerusalemites, al-Maraghi is now caught between a rock and a hard place: whether he undergo the lengthy legal process of family reunification in Israel, barring him and his family from leaving the country for many years, or remain in Germany and forfeit his Jerusalem ID. The Electronic Intifada contributor Bridget Chappell interviewed al-Maraghi in Berlin on the 36th day of his hunger strike.

Bridget Chappell: Your protest has been successful in drawing attention to one of the more veiled weapons of the occupation, that of bureaucratic discrimination. What are you hoping to achieve?

Firas al-Maraghi: I hope that it’s helped to shed a little more light on the issue — to chip away a little hole in to the shadow cast over it by Israel, to open it to the scrutiny of the world. I’m asking for the Israeli government to grant me the basic human right to leave and re-enter my country as I wish. I’m not asking for something huge, you understand, not something beyond their reach. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is very clear about this. I think all the fathers of this world can agree that it’s our wish to pass this right on to our children as well — it’s not up to me to decide where my daughter should go or where she should live for the rest of her life.

BC: The embassy’s refusal to include your daughter Zeinab on your Jerusalem ID card is only the most recent chapter in an all too familiar case of institutionalized discrimination. What happened before this when you tried to secure residency in Israel for your wife?

FM: I visited the Ministry of Interior in Jerusalem when my wife was pregnant with Zeinab last year, to try and get her name included on my residency permit. I had been out of Jerusalem for twenty months at that stage and the officials refused to to include her because in their eyes I do not live in Jerusalem — after just twenty months I faced losing all of my rights. While they told me that the only option for us to come back to Jerusalem was family reunification, they were happy to give me the travel documents to leave the country and return to Germany, maybe hoping that I’d never try to come back. But to not live in Jerusalem, my hometown, it would be like killing me. I told her to write these words on my file. These are their methods, to wear you down, little by little, make things so difficult to live there that you just leave. We’re treated like foreigners in our own country, but to me, they are the foreigners. My father was born in Jerusalem before the State of Israel existed. My grandfather was born in the city before the Balfour Declaration — I know that it’s my right to live there.

BC: To undergo the family reunification procedure, your family would face a harrowing bureaucratic process. Would you consider doing it if it was the only way to return to Jerusalem with your wife and daughter?

FM: I would like nothing more than to return to Jerusalem with my family, as soon as possible, but I want the freedom for us to come and go as we please. The Ministry of Interior tells me that I must return to live in Jerusalem by May 2011, or I will lose my residency status. Meanwhile my wife is writing her masters thesis here in Germany and wants to continue her study. How could I ask her to put her life on hold for me indefinitely, as we would be forced to do if we returned to Jerusalem under the conditions of family reunification? We’re talking about having to stay in Israel for an average of four to seven years, without leaving. And if you’ve been arrested or imprisoned in Israel that time becomes even longer. It’s like a prison sentence — how can we make plans for the future like this? I want my parents in Jerusalem to see my daughter, and how can I take my daughter away from my mother-in-law, my wife away from her mother? On top of this, if I were to lose my residency I could lose ownership of my house in Silwan, under the Absentee Property Law. What they’re essentially doing is forcing me to choose between my family in Berlin and my family in Jerusalem. I feel as though these bureaucratic weapons they use against us are worse than any guns or bombs.

BC: You grew up in Silwan in East Jerusalem. What are your memories of the area?

FM: I remember Silwan as a beautiful place when I was younger. Thirty years ago families would come there from around Jerusalem to have picnics, the whole area rich with trees and flowing water, green everywhere. Summers in Silwan, the neighborhood was filled with fig trees in bloom, the best in Jerusalem. But as the Israelis began taking the land in the 1980s, the landscape changed. Palestinians were pushed in to smaller and smaller areas, until now you don’t even have a place to put your feet! Children have nowhere to play, so they simply play in the street, in dangerous places near the settlers and their security guards. The hardest thing in Silwan has been for me to watch how it’s been turned in to a ghetto. There are very high rates of crime and drug use amongst the young people, they have nothing to keep them occupied and still they don’t study. And this suits Israel perfectly, a generation growing up knowing only how to clean streets, wash dishes, or become a criminal.

BC:How are you feeling physically? Is it becoming very difficult to stay focused?

FM: To tell you the truth it’s become easier. I’ve become used to not eating, and I sleep less. You don’t need to sleep so much when you don’t eat — you just need to stay warm. I did several hunger strikes when I was in prison in Israel, many years ago. Many of us did them together to demand better conditions, and after some weeks we were often successful.

BC: Embassy representatives called you to their office on the 28 August, stating that they were “ready to talk.” Can you tell us exactly what happened?

FM: Their behavior was so similar to what you’d experience inside Israel. A member of the embassy’s security service called me in, where I was searched very thoroughly. I thought it was really amazing, after sitting there under their surveillance cameras 24 hours a day, for the last month, that they should still be paranoid, or authoritarian enough to go through with these procedures. They were still treating me like a criminal. Two consular officers then came, accompanied by security guards, and speaking in Hebrew they told me that they could get me a meeting with the Director of Registration and Civil Status Department at the Ministry of Interior, Amos Arbel. They told me to travel to Jerusalem as soon as I could to meet with him.

BC: What did you think of their offer?

FM: How does this offer mean anything? Even if I went to Jerusalem to speak with the ministry again, there’s no guarantee of a good outcome. I’m not trying to be difficult, I want a solution — I’m not fighting for the sake of fighting, but I can’t accept this “offer.” I think they wanted to show that they “tried” to reason with me, and that I refused. It’s the same game they play as in the peace negotiations — to make a tiny, token offer that is then built up to be such a huge display of generosity, which is then turned down by the ungrateful Palestinians. But I don’t know how long Israel will continue to fool people with this game; I think that slowly, people are starting to realize that Israel does not want peace. It’s all smoke and mirrors — the Oslo accords, the new peace talks — just something to cover up their real agenda of apartheid.

BC: The German head of parliament visited you here yesterday. What other support have you received from the German community?

FM: I think it’s difficult for people to speak openly on this issue, particularly public figures and particularly in Germany. Bringing a politician around to the subject is a step in the right direction, nothing is going to change overnight, I realize that. We have to do this [little by little], you understand, change will come gradually. It’s surprised me though, how strong the German public’s support has been; people always visit or stop to talk, many of them bringing water or something to keep me warm. One man has left a van here for me to sleep in. I go in there to sleep a few hours when it rains, though I prefer to stay outside where the embassy can see me. Many Israelis have visited me here too. They are often very surprised to hear of my struggle, many of them not knowing about what’s going on inside their own country. But when they meet me, they are very warm. My time here has demonstrated to me two things: that the German media does not tell the truth, but that the German people also do not trust their media. I’m surprised and heartened by this, to find that people can think so critically of what the press is trying to tell them.

BC: Will you only stop the hunger strike when your demands are met?

FM: I will stop when I want to stop. But I cannot stay silent, when Israel expects us to stay silent about these issues. They believe that they can come in and take everything and we should say nothing. They destroy our house, and we must say nothing. We can’t get married, have children, have a normal life — and we have to stay silent. If we make any reaction, we’re instantly painted in a bad light in the media. Now the Israelis cannot brand me as a terrorist for doing a hunger strike, but what they’ve tried to do is accuse me of doing this for ideological or political reasons. When did that become a bad thing? Yes, I’m a human being, and I have ideology and politics. Everything here is political — water, health, your whole life. I have to be so stupid. so dehumanized, that I can’t have any opinion, I can’t have a philosophy? I cannot resist?

BC: How do you maintain hope in the face of such oppression?

FM: If I didn’t have hope I wouldn’t come here. I think we have enough resources — food, water, energy, land — to live together, to build another international community based not on exploitation and conflict, but on mutual understanding. How can we not try? Why don’t we bridge these gaps between the Muslim world and the West? We can, really we can. If Israel really wants peace, they must have a good relationship with the area they live in, apartheid must end. Don’t you think all the Arabs would prefer a life without blood? It will also be good for the West, it will be good for the whole world — this area is a place of symbolic, geographic and political importance. I see the future, and I see that it can be so good. I know that sitting here for 36 days without food, maybe it’s dangerous, really dangerous. Maybe I could die, but I see the future could be so nice. My whole life I’ve tried to stay naive, it’s the best way to keep hope.

Bridget Chappell is an Australian activist and writer who has worked with the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine from August 2009 through May 2010.