Friday, August 24, 2012

The Concept and Meaning of Place for Young Palestinian Children

Here is the link for my latest publication exploring young children's experience in the oPt.

Young children’s lives are shaped by the socio-spatial, and there is a growing body of literature examining how they interact with place. However, there has been little investigation into what happens when young children’s places are compromised by adverse situations, such as war and political violence. By adopting a socio-spatial approach, this paper aims to illustrate how the concept of place interrelates with the experiences of young children and their families who experience political violence, with the occupied Palestinian territories as an example. Using an interdisciplinary approach, my research begins by exploring the multiple and diverse definitions of space and place. I then turn to an analysis of the places that are specific for children in times of political violence. In order to further understand how young children conceptualize place as a meaning-making process and a source of well-being, certain critical elements of place must be understood. Though there are many relevant concepts to explore, I have limited my inquiry to two elements—place access and place use—that are central to an understanding of place, and which can be applied to the lived experiences of young children affected by political violence in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Christian Palestinians

CBS recently aired a segment on their news show, 60 Minutes, about the plight of Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Jerusalem. You can view it below. An interesting part of the story was Michael Oren’s--the Israeli ambassador to the US--attempt to prevent the report in some capacity from airing.

Fortunately, the piece counters Mr. Oren's suggestion that Palestinian Christians are fleeing the West Bank because of Muslim extremism. This is frankly not true, and the piece points this out. However, throughout the story, there is an underlying tone that Palestinian Christians identify differently from "the Muslim majority" in the West Bank, and that they are effectively being "squeezed out" by the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians Muslims. This is also inaccurate, as Palestinians of all faiths identify commonly as Palestinian. As Omar Rahman notes, "Christians are a seamless part of the Palestinian population", and this is something that I have witnessed in my work in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Christian Palestinians are no different from other Palestinians; they face all of the hardships of Israeli occupation: forced displacement, restriction of movement, separation from family, and violence from Israeli settlers. These are the real reasons that people are leaving the West Bank and Jerusalem.

In an effort to support CBS's coverage of Palestine, I wrote the following letter to the correspondent, Bob Simon, thanking him for the piece, and encouraging more stories on the plight of Palestinians.

Dear Mr. Simon,

Thank you for your segment about Palestinian Christians. This is indeed a controversial topic, and I appreciate that 60 Minutes is tackling it. I am an American researcher working with families in the West Bank and Jerusalem (both Muslim and Christian). I disagree wholeheartedly with Ambassador Oren; Palestinian Christians are not leaving the West Bank because of Muslim extremism, but rather because of the inhumanity related to the Israeli occupation. In fact, I have witnessed Palestinians of all faiths joined together in the common struggle against the occupation. I have never heard any ill-will between these people, as they commonly define themselves as "Palestinian". Furthermore, for Mr. Oren to call a document that calls for non-violence in the West Bank "anti-semitic" is irresponsible and inaccurate. But this is not surprising, since Israel historically tends to call anyone who disagrees with their policies anti-semitic. I am also not surprised that Mr. Oren contacted the head of CBS in order to intimidate you from airing the piece. I am glad that you included this in your segment.

I wish that the segment would have emphasized the situation in the West Bank more: restrictions of movement, arrest and detention of children, separation of families because of the wall, extreme settler violence towards Palestinians and internationals. But I glad that this story aired at all. Drawing attention to the situation in the West Bank, for Palestinians of all faiths, is essential so that Americans learn more about what is happening there and the implications of the support of Israel. It is very important that people learn more about the Israeli occupation through important programs such as yours.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Prisoner's Day in the West Bank

Last Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 was Prisoner's Day for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel arrests more than nine Palestinians (of all ages) per day on average. As of 2011, 4,489 Palestinians are being held as political prisoners. Of those, 320 Palestinians are being held in prison by Israel under administrative detention, which means that they are being held without trial. 183 prisoners are minors (under the age of 18). The people I interviewed in one village I visited yesterday said that 16 children were arrested or detained in a one week period in March, the vast majority on suspicion of stone throwing. In the same village last summer, a six-year-old was arrested and detained by Israeli forces; he was eventually released 24 hours later. As one father expressed, "Imagine if that was your child! What would you do?"

Detainees face an increased use of solitary confinement of prominent leaders, a ban on reading materials and television, a halt of transfer of funds from family members for prisoners to purchase many basic food products, and the discontinuation of academic studies for distance learning. To protest the prison conditions, 3,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails fasted last Tuesday as part of the Karameh (Dignity) Strike. 1,200 declared that they will continue to fast, joining several administrative detainees. Two detainees who have been on hunger strike for over 40 days--Bilal Diab (27) and Tha’ir Khekhle (34)--have been admitted to the hospital and their condition is deteriorating. Diad has been in detention for eight months, and Khlekhle has been in detention for more than two years. He has not yet seen his 22-month old baby, born after his detention. The two are examined regularly by doctors from Physicians for Human Rights doctors, and the NGO has expressed concern over their condition, calling for their immediate release.

There were several demonstrations throughout the West Bank to show solidarity with the prisoners and call for their release. En route to Al Azariyah, my research assistant and I stumbled upon a peaceful protest in Ramallah. Elderly mothers were holdings framed photos of their beloved sons who are being held in detention. Children of prisoners waved Palestinian political party flags. Fatah leader Abbas Zaki proclaimed, “There will be no peace and no safety without releasing all prisoners from Israeli jails.” After the central demonstration in Ramallah and after my assistant and I were on our way to Al Aazariya, hundreds of people went to protest near the Ofer military prison, were political prisoners are held. They were dispersed by the Israeli army with tear gas and the “skunk” water canon (a high-pressured hose that sprays foul smelling water).

Israeli's detention of Palestinians is not only punishment for the individual, but also collective punishment for Palestinian families, who face increased economic hardship and targeting by Israeli forces as a result of the imprisonment of their fathers, sons, and brothers. Due to the illegal transfer of prisoners outside the occupied territories, more than 3,000 prisoners cannot be visited by their families. This is a major challenge for Palestinian families. This week, I interviewed one family in a village near Bethlehem whose father has been imprisoned for the past ten years. The family is unable to visit their father, because of the recent Israeli restrictions on family visits. Even if they were allowed to visit, the journey would be nearly impossible considering the permits needed for Palestinians to cross into Israel as well as the travel costs that this family cannot afford. I asked the 11-year-old son to draw his dream place, and it was a picture of his mother, father, older sister, and younger brother going for a picnic in the park. His family responded by saying, Inshallah (God willing).

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Violently Divided City

Last week, I spent two days in Hebron, interviewing families and children about their experiences living under occupation and specifically with Israeli settlements throughout the city, which according to the UN under the Fourth Geneva Convention are considered to be illegal. I have written about Hebron before, when I last visited in 2010, and unfortunately things are still extremely difficult for the Palestinians who live here.

Hebron is a surreal place, especially H2, which is the area of the city where over 500 Israeli settlers are living alongside 30,000 Palestinians. Despite the population imbalance, the Israeli settlers hold the power in H2, often commanding the Israeli soldiers stationed in the area. There are few people on the streets and all of the stores along Shuhada Street--once a bustling part of the Palestinian city center--are closed up and abandoned (see photo below) after the settlers moved into the area and forced Palestinian businesses to leave. Settlers freely walk around the streets, as they are guarded closely by the Israeli military. However, the statistics point to more violence directed towards Palestinians than settlers, so this "protection" is misplaced. In fact, the settlers frequently use the Israeli army to further oppress the Palestinians, which was reaffirmed in stories I heard from families. The Palestinians who are out on the streets are usually hurrying towards the safety of home. The Palestinians' fear is palpable, especially throughout my interviews. One family does not let their children (ranging in ages from 5-18) leave the house unless they are accompanied by an adult. Another family has installed multiple security cameras, which keep getting stolen by the settlers. Another family told me a story about their six-year-old son who was kidnapped by Israeli settler youth. One child-participant was scared to open up her front door to me, because she said that the settlers (who are her neighbors) might see her. The settler's power is seen clearly in all the Stars of David that are drawn on the walls and doors throughout the neighborhood, laying claim to the territory.

When I revisited Hebron a few days ago, I met members of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). These international volunteers--or Ecumenical Accompaniers (EA's)--"provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace" (see photo to the right). They invited me to observe them in their daily activities, including accompanying Palestinian children as they walk to and from school (as they are the frequent target of violence from Israeli settlers) and monitoring settler activity within Hebron.

On the day that I visited EAPPI, an EA and I waited at the bottom of some stairs where the children would pass by on their way from school to home. The schoolchildren were friendly (see photo below left), though cautious, especially with presence of so many settlers, who had gathered at the settlement just across the street from the stairs. (The number of settlers increased dramatically at this time of year, because of the Jewish passover.) Even when one of the Israeli settlers came up and yelled for us to leave, the children did not flinch; they just continued on their way, jostling and joking with one another, along Shuhada Street and home. At one point they squealed when they spotted a lizard.

One infamous settler named Anat Cohen, who, along with her husband and 14 children, lives in the Beit Hadassa settlement in the middle of H2. The house belongs to a Palestinian, Mr. Abu Ribhi Dies who was thrown out of the home in 1975 after a military order was issued claiming that the home did not belong to him. In addition to being the head of education for the settler children in H2, Anat Cohen is known for encouraging settler violence against Palestinians. She has also been known to be violent with internationals who visit H2 in support of Palestinians. I actually saw this with my own eyes, when I noticed an older woman with a taut and weathered face approach us, yell in Hebrew, and point at us. I was told that she was shouting at the nearby Israeli soldiers to arrest us, though there was obviously no legal reason for this. About five minutes later, I saw her throw water (along with some young female settlers) at an international visiting from Germany and then kick another international visiting from the US. After witnessing this, the EA and I encouraged the Israeli police to file a report about Ms. Cohen's violent behavior towards internationals. But instead, we were thrown out of H2 by the Israeli soldiers and police, a perfect example of how the settlers utilize the Israeli military to further their own goals. It also illustrates how difficult it is for Palestinians to see true justice.

At the end of my day in Hebron, I went along with another EA to monitor settler activity in H1. many settlers and their Israeli guests entered the Old City of Hebron to take historic tours of the area. According to the 1997 Hebron Agreement, H1 is under the Palestinian Authority's control, and therefore off-limits to Israelis. Despite this, the Israeli settlers--accompanied by dozens of Israeli soldiers (see photo to the left)--regularly visit the area to "sight see." When I asked one settler what the tour guide was saying, he told me, "We are learning that this city belongs to us."

I watched the Israeli settlers, accompanied by heavily armed soldiers, walked through the narrow streets of the Old City. The settlers also watched me, and found it amusing to take photos of me. (At one point, I felt like a tourist attraction.) Palestinian children also watched the settlers curiously, but also took time to skirmish with a soccer ball. Though it was extremely strange to see these large groups of settlers accompanied by heavily-armed Israeli soldiers moving through a Palestinian city, it was just another day for the Palestinian children, who seemed eager for the Israeli settlers and soldiers to leave, so they could get on with their football match.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Land Day

Land Day is approaching tomorrow (Friday 30 March). It is an annual day of commemoration for Palestinians of an event in 1976. In response to the Israeli government's plan to expropriate thousands of acres of land for "security and settlement purposes", a strike and marches were organized in Palestinian towns throughout the West Bank. In the ensuing confrontations with the Israeli army and police, six Palestinians were killed, about one hundred were wounded, and hundreds of others arrested. For this year's Land Day, Palestinian activists are organizing a Global March to Jerusalem intended to bring attention to the situation here and to recognize Jerusalem as a vital and controversial site for both Palestinians and Israelis. The March will engage people from all over the world, who will show their support for Palestinians by marching as close to Jerusalem as they can get considering existing country borders and political barriers.

Two days out of the past week, I have heard gunfire in the distance. I have not been able to pinpoint exactly where the gunfire is coming from. But, like the Israeli military jets continually flying over Nablus, it is a reminder that the occupation is ubiquitous. For example, the following happened in the past week in Nablus:
  • last Friday, an 8-year-old boy was injured by an explosion in the village of Qaryut; apparently, the devise was set there by the Israeli army during training exercises.
  • on Monday, the Israeli army detained three men for unknown reasons in the Nablus city center.
  • on Tuesday, a 24-year-old farmer from the Nablus village of Iraq Burin sustained head injuries when settlers from the nearby Yizhar settlement threw rocks at him.
  • and, yesterday, settlers blocked the entrance of the village of Beit Dajan, protesting the reopening of a road to Nablus city.

These events were tempered by a unity rally held in Nablus City center last week, which called for an end to the division between the political parties in the West Bank in Gaza, to more effectively resist the occupation. Of course, this is controversial, because the Palestinian division is between Fatah and Hamas, the latter which has been recognized as a terrorist organization by the EU, US, Canada, Israel, and Japan.

In terms of my research with children and families, things are going slowly but surely. I have finished three interviews in Balata Refugee Camp. The interviews have been extremely interesting. Each interview was supposed to be the parent and two children (older and younger), but the whole family is there for the whole interview. So it's usually Mom and her 10 children, and maybe a sister-in-law or a bunch of young cousins as well. It's definitely a different kind of methodology (more like a family focus group) using a collaborative process, with every member of the household contributing a piece, which is more culturally representative of how families operate here. I can distract the kids with some mapping and drawing exercises and then talk to the adult. But I also try to spend more than half of the interview speaking with the children to get their views. Parents have commented on how great it is that the research cares about what children think.

Some of the families' stories are difficult to hear. Two separate families told me about how the Israeli army has entered their homes and broken down the wall between their wall and their neighbor in order to arrest their neighbors. (The image to the right is of one family's wall that was broken down and is now repaired with cement.) This practice, known in Israeli army parlance as "walking through walls", is the action in which soldiers create holes in the walls of Palestinian homes in order to avoid the streets, roads, alleys, and courtyards of the community, where they fear being attacked by militants. Though an effective military strategy, the “penetration of war into the private domain of the home” is described by Weizman (2007) as “ the most profound form of trauma and humiliation” (p. 194). My study participants have called it "insulting". In another house I went to, the 6-year-old son was asleep on a mat on the floor near where we were conducting the interview. The mother told me that the Israeli army had been in the refugee camp a few days ago, and when the boy saw them, he involuntarily urinated and has been incontinent since then. This is a common symptom in school-age children who have experienced traumatic stress. These cases are not the majority, though, and there are plenty of happy, bright, and energetic children who "seem" impervious to the effects of occupation.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Peace at a Snail's Pace

I have arrived in Nablus, after about 48 hours of travel from Montreal, through Jordan, and across the Israeli border into the West Bank. Nablus has been clouded by widespread dust storms for the last day, so the city is covered in a cloak of dirt. The winds were so strong that I thought I might be knocked right over.

There is currently tenuous peace in the West Bank, and I was surprised to see so much economic growth in Nablus. However, there are still reminders of the occupation as well as an acknowledgement that the peace may not last forever. This morning, I was awakened by the sound of low-flying jet planes in the sky above; in fact I am still hearing the deep "whoooooosh" of fighter jets as I write this. The Israeli military was performing fighter jet exercises in the airspace over Nablus. My Palestinian friends told me that the military does the exercises over the West Bank for two reasons. The first is intimidation, reminding the Palestinians that Israel has a powerful military, which they can use against the Palestinians. The second reason that these exercises take place over the West Bank, my friends told me, is because if they had an accident above a Palestinian city, "it wouldn’t be as big of a deal" compared to if the accident was over an Israeli city.

Gaza has also entered a respite after recovering from cross-border violence between the Israeli military and militant groups. The violence was spurned by Israel's launch of air-to-ground missiles into Gaza, which killed the leader of the Popular Resistance Committees, Zuhair al-Qissi, and his assistant. During the several days of fighting--in which Palestinian militants fired more then 100 rockets into southern Israel and most rockets were intercepted by Israel's new Iron Dome anti-missle rockets--80 Palestinians were wounded, 26 Palestinians were killed, two of whom were children. No Israelis were wounded or killed during the violence.

I am looking forward to starting my research in the next few days. In researching my sites for sampling, I have found that some of the villages no longer exist, having been "depopulated" by the Israel military (see for example, Deir Yassin). I have been conducting informal interviews about the status of children here, and I have heard a common theme of hopelessness. One Palestinian father told me, "Today's children have no hope for the future, therefore they have no desire to go to school or improve themselves. They just spend their days fighting with each other." Emphasizing this point, yesterday I witnessed two young boys in the street near my guest house "playfully" throwing large rocks at each other. When I walked back to the guest house, I was surprised to find a freshly painted mural. It depicts a snail with a head of two fingers indicating the peace sign. This is indeed a hopeful sign in a violent landscape, illustrating a peace that is slow yet ultimately attainable.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pushing Past 'No': The New York Times and Journalistic Ethics

I read this article from New York Times reporter Graham Bowley, which details his attempts to interview Sahar Gul, a fifteen-year old Afghani girl who was tortured by her husband and in-laws after refusing to go into prostitution. I was interested in The New York Times coverage of this horrifying incident, but was shocked with Bowley's reporting. What follows is the subsequent letter I wrote to the editor:

To the Editor:
I was dismayed to read Graham Bowley's (“In One Girl’s Story, a Test of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan”, January 10, 2012) article describing his interview with Sahar Gul, the Afghan teenager who was the victim of gruesome abuse by her husband and in-laws. I believe the manner in which Mr. Bowley attempted to gain access to Ms. Gul while she was recovering in the hospital is unprofessional and unethical. Yet, The New York Times felt it was appropriate to publish these details. He took great pride describing how he “pushed past ‘no’” when hospital workers repeatedly told him that Ms. Gul did not wish to speak to reporters because she was too emotionally fragile to revisit her story. Mr. Bowley notes that Ms. Gul had already been interviewed by another news organization (the Associated Press), and therefore, the goal of disseminating her story with a broader audience—indeed, an important goal for journalism—was already achieved. However, Mr. Bowley’s persistence in interviewing Ms. Gul seemed to be more of an attempt to advance his professional career rather than to share an important story with the world. I see no need for a The New York Times reporter to subject a child to a additional questions and potentially retraumatize her in the process just to enhance a newspaper’s credibility. There is nothing to be gained in this process, and journalists such as Mr. Bowley must remember that they have an ethical responsibility when reporting in volatile settings such as Afghanistan.

Bree Akesson

I shortly received the following response from The New York Times public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, who "works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper and receives and answers questions or comments from readers and the public, principally about articles published in the paper":

Thanks for your message about Graham Bowley's coverage of Sahar Gul, the young Afghan girl. I am concerned about the girl's privacy as well and have raised the question with the Foreign Desk. I do concur that news organizations should be careful to respect the privacy of crime victims. This is a case where, I believe, the benefits of doing a story were outweighed by the potential harm to the girl.


Art Brisbane
public editor

Arthur Brisbane wrote an-ed piece about this topic, addressing many of the concerns in my letter (which reflected many other readers' views), along with a response from the foreign editor. You can view the article here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Parental Involvement with the Criminal Justice System and The Effects on their Children

My latest article details the effects of parental incarceration on children, and describes the collaborative model developed by the Child Psychiatric Epidemiology Group (CPEG) and The Bronx Defenders to research these families. The article can be downloaded here.