Last week, on 21 April, Israeli soldiers invaded my home in Ramallah, held hostage all those present, and forced me at gunpoint to call my father, a writer and human rights advocate, in order to demand his surrender. This is common operating procedure for Israeli occupation forces. This time, however, they had taken hostage an American citizen willing to speak out. And I will not be silent.
I was born in New York, but raised mainly in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. I currently study in Cairo, but returned to Ramallah to spend my Easter break with my family. My joy soon gave way to heartbreak.
Last Wednesday night, just past midnight, my mother and I were chatting when we suddenly heard pounding on the door and someone shouting in chillingly familiar broken Arabic, “iftakh bab!” (open the door). We looked carefully from behind the slit-open curtain to realize that many Israeli occupation soldiers were surrounding the house, heavily armed and in combat formation. Shortly afterwards, they broke in and occupied the house.
They pointed their machine guns at us and told us they wanted to search the house. My 14-year-old cousin, Nai, and 69-year-old aunt were sleeping inside. Without thinking, I rushed to my room to alert Nai so that she would not wake up with a gun pointed at her face. That was the most haunting experience in my own traumatic childhood, when Israeli forces arrested my father many years earlier.
Nai still woke up trembling and speechless, though silence is not one of her virtues. Simultaneously, as if on cue, my mother jumped to wake up my aunt. The visibly agitated soldiers considered our moves hostile and ordered us to stop, aiming at our heads. Fortunately, my mother and I succeeded in waking the two before the soldiers reached them.
After a futile search, the soldiers went to the apartment right above ours whose owners — also US citizens — were away. They knocked down the main door and wrecked the place.
There we were, four Palestinian females of different ages stuck in a room with a bunch of guns pointed at us. They confiscated our phones, disconnecting us from the outside world. I could not prevent some tears from slipping down my cheeks, despite my attempts not to let that happen in front of the soldiers. I thought to myself, I shall not get a chance to say goodbye to my father — he is more than my beloved baba, he is my mentor. My vacation will be over in a few days, and I’ll head back to my college. He was dreaming of me getting my diploma, so I must continue at all cost, I convinced myself.
Nai suddenly interrupted my thoughts and said, “Look, we can either cry or talk non-stop” — the latter being her pastime. She and I transcended our fear and decided to talk, laugh, make jokes and talk more, enough to make the soldiers regret the moment they cruelly invaded our home. To help calm us down, Nai played “Li Beirut,” a charming song by the Lebanese diva Fairouz, on her iPod. A visibly angry soldier shouted at her “Give me the [expletive] thing or else!” She handed it to him — but not before poking fun at him — “Cowards! Even Fairouz scares you!”
As they were about to enter my room, I warned the commander, “My MacBook and Blackberry are inside; I hope they’ll still be there after your search.”
“We never take anything that is not ours,” he irately shot back. I could not resist shouting, “Aside from stealing our land on a regular basis, nine years ago, Israeli soldiers were caught lifting valuables from many Palestinian homes. Don’t you dare tell me you do not steal what is not yours!” Pointing his US-made M-16 at me, he silenced me. How ironic, a weapon made in my country of birth is being used by Israeli soldiers to silence me while they ransack my own room in the middle of the night.
They told us that they were looking for my father, Ahmad Qatamesh.
Unsurprisingly, they did not explain why they wanted to arrest him. They kept us against our will in the living room, insisting that he must “turn himself in” before they would leave. My mother told them, “He is not here, and he is not wanted!” Only then did we realize that we were taken hostage.
My father is a sixty-year-old political scientist, writer and human rights advocate who is widely respected in Palestinian society. This whole commotion took me back to when I was nine, anxiously waiting at the gates of an Israeli prison for his imminent release. He had been held for almost six years under “administrative detention,” without charge, without trial, without a chance to defend himself or even know what he was accused of. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations condemn the procedure as an affront to justice. I hugged him then like I was meeting him for the first time and asked him to promise not to be gone for so long again. Being impeccably honest, he said: “I wish I could. They must first get out of our lives before I can make such a promise.”
The commander forced me at gunpoint to call my father, who was at his brother’s house. I did. He then grabbed my phone and shouted at him, “Surrender yourself or we’ll destroy the house!”
My father shouted back, loudly enough so I could hear him, “You and your soldiers are tools of the occupation. You are violating our basic rights. You have no right to be in our home. Come arrest me here and leave my family out of this!”
Some of them went to arrest him, and only after they held him did the soldiers who stayed at our place prepare to leave. Before the last one exited, however, he rubbed it in my face, saying “We got your father, and we are gonna take care of him!” Almost crying, I shouted, “He takes care of himself! You are criminals!”
Perhaps the most important principle that I learned from my dad was never to allow obstacles to keep me from realizing my dreams. I will continue to dream of Palestinian freedom. Along the way, I will continue to expose the brutality of Israel’s occupation of our land — and houses.
Hanin Qatamesh was born in New York in 1989. She lived under occupation, in Palestine, until she finished high school. She is an undergraduate student at the American University in Cairo (AUC), majoring in Mass Communication.