Teaching ‘Les Misérables’ in Prison

by Chris Hedges

I spent the last four months teaching Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel “Les Miserables” at a maximum-security prison in New Jersey. My students?like Hugo’s main character, Jean Valjean, who served 19 years in prison?struggle with shame, guilt, injustice, poverty and discrimination, and yearn for redemption and transformation. The novel gave them a lens to view their lives and a ruling system every bit as cruel as Hugo’s 19th-century France.

“Les Miserables” was wildly successful when it was published, including among Civil War soldiers in the United States, although Hugo’s condemnation of slavery was censored from Confederate copies. It was American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs’ favorite book?he read it in French. The socialist British Prime Minister Lloyd George said “Les Miserables” taught him more about poverty and the human condition than anything else he had ever read and instilled in him a lifelong ambition “to alleviate the distress and the suffering of the poor.” Hugo’s novel, however, enraged the ruling elites. It was panned by French critics. Copies were burned in Spain. Pope Pius IX put it on the church’s list of banned books, along with “Madame Bovary” and all the novels of Stendhal and Honore de Balzac.

“While through the working laws of customs there continues to exist a condition of social condemnation which artificially creates a human hell within civilization, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; while the three great problems of this century, the degradation of man in the proletariat, the subjugation of women through hunger, the atrophy of the child in darkness, continue unresolved; while in some regions social asphyxia remains, while ignorance and poverty persist on earth, books such as this cannot fail to be of value,” Hugo wrote in the preface.

My students interpreted the novel through the peculiar reality of prison, something that would have pleased Hugo, who relentlessly chronicled the injustices meted out to the poor by ruling institutions and agents of the law. The heroes in his book are the outcasts, the demonized and the impoverished?les miserables?as well as the rebels, usually doomed, who rise up in their defense. The theme that runs through the novel can be summed up in Leo Tolstoy’s dictum: “The only certain happiness in life is to live for others.”

Jean Valjean, after 19 years in prison?five for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s hungry children and 14 more as punishment for attempts at escape?is released with no home, no occupation and little money. He tramps through the French countryside, ending up in the town of Digne. He is required to present to local authorities his yellow identity card, a document that brands him for life as an ex-convict. He is refused a room at several inns, despite having the money to pay for lodgings. Finally, after Valjean is found sleeping outside, Monseigneur Bienvenu, the local bishop, gives him a place to rest in his modest house. Valjean arises early and, leaving before the bishop wakes, steals the household silver?platters, forks, knives and spoons?the cleric’s last and only extravagance after having given away most of his possessions to the poor. The gendarmes spy Valjean on the road with his plunder. They haul him before Monseigneur Bienvenu. The bishop lies to the gendarmes, saying he gave the silver to Valjean. After the police leave, he turns to Valjean: “Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man. … Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

Valjean, shaken, nevertheless commits one final crime. He robs a boy of a coin, almost instinctively, but it was “an act of which he was no longer capable.” The theft plunges him into despair. He desperately searches for the boy to return the coin. He cannot find him. The boy has run away in terror. Valjean vows to become a different man.

The decision by the bishop to lie on behalf of Valjean triggered an intense debate in my classroom.

“Who would do this?” a student asked.

“No one,” another student answered.

Several students dismissed the scene as improbable.

And then from the back of the room a student, speaking in emotional undertones, told this story.

“I came back to my bunk one day,” he said. “There was a new Bible on it. Inside was a letter. It was from my victim’s sister. She wrote, ‘I forgive you. Now you must forgive yourself.’ I broke down. I could be more than a criminal. I could change. She made that possible.”

My students will spend their lives condemned as felons. They, like Valjean, will never completely wash away the mark of Cain. Transformation, even when it occurs, will not free them from the criminal caste system. Transformation must be carried out not for what it will achieve, for often it will achieve nothing, or how it will be perceived, for most of the wider society will not perceive it. Transformation is about making peace with yourself. It is about obeying your conscience, which Hugo equates with the divine. It is about never living at the expense of another. Transformation is about rising above the hatred many feel, with justification, for a society that has betrayed them.

“If you are persecuted for virtue, why be virtuous?” a student asked.

“Those who have nothing need other people,” another student said. “We can’t survive alone. The more we sacrifice for those around us, the more we reduce our collective suffering; the more we recover our humanity, the more people reach out to us when we need help, and we all need help. Goodness is contagious.”

And yet, as my students know, this internal battle is hard and fierce within a society that denies the poor dignity and respect.

“Obscurely he perceived that the priest’s forgiveness was the most formidable assault he had ever sustained,” Hugo wrote of Valjean, “that if he resisted it his heart would be hardened once and for all, and that if he yielded he must renounce the hatred which the acts of man had implanted in him during so many years, and to which he clung. He saw dimly that this time he must either conquer or be conquered, and that the battle was not joined, a momentous and decisive battle between the evil in himself and the goodness in the other man.”

Hugo was aware that there are some who cannot be redeemed. They are incapable of empathy or remorse. They are driven by greed and ambition. They take a perverse joy in inflicting suffering on others. They are capable only of deceit. These people must be kept at bay. In the novel they are represented by Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, “human creatures which, like crayfish, always retreat into shadow, going backwards rather than forwards through life, gaining in deformity with experience, going from bad to worse and sinking into even deeper darkness.”

This cold reality, nevertheless, proved to be a painful one to digest in the classroom. Several students argued passionately that everyone, no matter how depraved, could ultimately be redeemed, and yet the reality of prison, my students conceded, amply illustrates that there are human predators to whom one can never show vulnerability or expect mercy. Fyodor Dostoyevsky described hell as the inability to love. These predators inhabit this hell. This internal hell, a barrenness of the soul, is exemplified in the police inspector Javert, who hounds Valjean throughout the novel. Hugo wrote, “The Austrian peasants believe that in every wolf-litter there is a dog-whelp which the mother kills, because otherwise when it grows larger it will devour the rest of her young. Endow this dog with a human face, and you have Javert.”

Javert, born in a prison to a mother who was a fortune teller and a father who was a convict, came from the underclass he persecuted. The social backgrounds of corrections officers, police and prisoners were then, and are today, often the same; indeed it is not uncommon for prisoners and corrections officers to have familial ties. Javert embraced the rigid code of the law and absolute state authority, which absolved him from moral responsibility. “His duties were his religion,” Hugo wrote. Javert’s iron fealty to the letter of the law is juxtaposed with Valjean’s fealty to empathy and justice, which is repeatedly criminalized by those in power.

There is a moment in the novel when a man named Champmathieu is hauled into court and accused of being Valjean, who has broken parole and is living under the assumed name of Monsieur Madeleine. Javert and three witnesses who were in prison with Valjean insist the man is Valjean. Valjean, under his pseudonym, has become the prosperous mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. If he remains silent, allowing the innocent Champmathieu to go to prison in his place, he will throw the police off his trail permanently. During a night of anguished indecision, he burns his last personal effects from his life as a convict, but then sees the coin he stole from the boy when he left the bishop’s house?a coin that represents his last crime and his transformation. He goes to the courtroom. He announces to the stunned court that he is Valjean. He condemns himself, but recovers his name. He saves his soul.

The importance of a name, and the idea that carrying out a moral act means you will be crucified by the ruling elites, intrigued my students, most of whom, like Valjean, are known by their prison numbers. Valjean, Hugo wrote, sacrificed “his personal security to his moral principles” and “had, it seems, concluded after the manner of saints and sages, that his first duty was not to himself.” Jean Valjean, through this act of self-sacrifice, emerged from the court “even more honored and secure than before.” He had, in Hugo’s words, taken up the cross. Hugo went on:

Certainly his life had a purpose, but was it simply to hide himself, to outwit the police? Had everything he had done been for no better reason than this? Had he not had a greater purpose, the saving not of his life but of his soul, the resolve to become a good and honorable and upright man as the bishop required of him?had not that been his true and deepest intention? How he talked of closing the door on the past when, God help him, he would be reopening the door by committing an infamous act, not merely that of a thief but of the most odious of thieves. He would be robbing a man of his life, his peace, his place in the sun, morally murdering him by condemning him to the living death that is called a convict prison. But if, on the other hand, he saved the man by repairing the blunder, by proclaiming himself Jean Valjean the felon, this would be to achieve his own true resurrection and firmly close the door on the hell from which he sought to escape. To return to it in appearance would be to escape from it in reality. This was what he must do, and without it he would have accomplished nothing, his life would be wasted, his repentance meaningless, and there would be nothing left for him to say except, “Who cares?”

Hugo added: “It was his most melancholy destiny that he could achieve sanctity in the eyes of God only by returning to degradation in the eyes of men.” He is filled with terror, yet proceeds. “Whichever way he looked,” Hugo wrote, “the course of duty glared at him as though the words were written in letters of fire?‘Stand up and say your name!’ ” He could “cling to his paradise and become a devil, or become a saint by going back to hell.”

To save Champmathieu, Valjean gives up his freedom. In this singular act of justice and heroic self-sacrifice he exposes the bankruptcy and corruption of the courts, including the lie of authority. He elevates a convict, Jean Valjean, to a higher morality. He redeems his name and the names of all convicts. The price is catastrophic. But the price for moral acts is usually catastrophic. No one is rewarded for virtue. In my class this chapter triggered a discussion of Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative,” the idea that there are things we must do no matter what the consequences. The moral life, as Hugo pointed out, is not pragmatic or rational. It does not guarantee that we as distinct individuals survive. And yet, it permits us, by living for others, to become our best selves. It allows us a bittersweet happiness.

Valjean finds his ultimate fulfillment in raising the orphan Cosette. Most of my students have children. They struggle in prison to hold on to their role as fathers. Their children are often the only way left for them to have influence on the outside. But, as in the novel, these children grow up and drift away.

One of my students, serving a life sentence without parole and unable to be with his small daughter, structured his day as if she was in the cell with him. He woke her up in the morning. He cooked for her. He spoke to her. He read books to her. He wrote long letters. Every night he said goodnight to her as if she were in the next bunk. This ritual was not only about loss. It preserved his identity as something other than a prisoner. It allowed him to retain the title of father. It kept alive the virtues of nurturing, tenderness and love that prison can often crush. Hugo’s understanding of the titanic internal struggle to be human in an inhuman environment was intimately familiar to my 26 students.

Valjean, at 80, is consumed by the isolation that grips many in prison, dying alone, condemned as one of les miserables with no friends or family. Cosette has married. He feels forgotten. In the final scene his beloved Cosette appears as he dies.

We began each class with a student summarizing the main points in the week’s reading. On the day of the final class a student, Joel, rose to speak, holding two pages of notes.

“I think about the final interaction between Valjean, Cosette and Marius [her husband],” he said. “I think about the strength in [Valjean] for all he had suffered, all he had sacrificed, all he had endured just for the beauty and simplicity of love. I think about those last moments between them, the thankfulness for the opportunity to love; the opportunity to not be alone in his last moments; the opportunity to live. I thank Hugo for the picture he painted for me here. … I think about the man who became my father and how much pain and suffering I have caused him. I think about the things he sacrificed for me. I think about all the challenges he took on for the sake of me. Yet despite it all I think about how much love I have had the opportunity to share with him, how much life he has given me. I pray that on his last day he may be able to rest his hand on my head, to feel a sense of accomplishment when it comes to his son, to be free of this world with a sense of happiness. That I too can one day say [quoting lines penciled onto Valjean’s gravestone]:

He sleeps. Although so much he was denied,
He lived; and when his dear love left him, died.
It happened of itself, in the calm way
That in the evening the night-time follows day.


Stories of the Nakba: Exile

by Amena ElAshkar, Ali Ibrahim and Nadine Osama
Electronic Intifada

Seventy years ago, Palestinians suffered the Nakba, or catastrophe, when most fled or were forced by Zionist militias to flee Palestine to make room for the creation of the state of Israel and ensure a Jewish majority. Some 750,000 ended up as refugees registered with the United Nations. Many others fended for themselves. They were never allowed to return to their lands or homes which were confiscated by the nascent state, and many of their villages were subsequently destroyed.

Fatima Feisal, 78, Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp, Sidon, Lebanon. Originally from Tarshiha in the Galilee.
I can close my eyes and remember every single detail about that village. The streets, the neighborhood. The fig and berry trees. Every single detail. It is like I can see it right before my eyes. My family lived off farming. We had more than 100 goats. The biggest one was my favorite. I used to ride him like a bike. I called him “my bike.”

Once I was taking food for the shepherd who worked for us. The settlers saw me and asked me why I was there. I told them I was delivering food for the shepherd who was with our goats close to one of the settlements. I showed them the food, but they did not believe me. They thought I was passing information and that he was a freedom fighter. They captured him and tortured him. They burned his entire body.

I was 9 when the planes bombed Tarshiha. It was the worst night of my life. People were hiding in the mayor’s house. He was from the Huwari family and had a big house. I saw how the house got bombed. I also saw how the villagers were trying to save people from under the rubble.

I was separated from my family and my brother, Ali, and had no choice but to go look for him. He was younger than me. It was like doomsday. People running and screaming. I went to the caves on the border of the village. They were packed with people hiding from the strikes. I started calling his name. He finally answered. I held his hand and started walking away from the village. We walked for two hours to another village called Sabalan where we were reunited with our family. Then we continued on to Lebanon.

I have one last wish. I am 78. It will be my last wish. There was a berry tree right in front of our house in Tarshiha. I want to go back there and eat one berry. One last berry.

Reportage and photo by Amena ElAshkar

Naaseh Khaled Hamoudeh, 70, Wihdat Camp, Amman. Originally from Deir Tarif near Ramla.
I was born in a village called Deir Tarif. My father owned camels he used to carry goods from place to place.

I was one or two months old when the Nakba happened. The villages in our area were getting attacked, one after the other, and the whole area was besieged and left with scarce food supplies. My parents went to get food from the nearest town and left me in the care of my brother and sister. My brother, at 15, was the oldest at the time. But our parents couldn’t come back because the road to our village was blocked and the Zionists were getting closer to our village.

The village mayor then gathered all the children in a big truck and drove us to a village called Shuqba. We stayed there for a while. Adults were taking care of children without parents. I was breastfed by different women with infants. We lost many on the way. My uncle and his newly engaged daughter were shot for no reason. There were corpses lying in the streets, and it was difficult to give them all a proper burial. Only the women and girls were being buried. My cousin’s corpse had to be retrieved at great risk at night.

Our parents found us after searching for days. We moved to different villages seeking food and shelter. We went to Qibya then to Kafr Thulth, then we moved to Deir Ammar.

My family went to Jordan afterwards and stayed near Wadi al-Seer in tents. Then we moved to the Wihdat camp around 1955. There were seven of us and we had to all sleep in one room. We couldn’t afford a metal roof so we covered our dwelling with a big cloth.

All my memories are from the camp. I consider it home but I will never give up my right of return. People at the camp live a hard life and suffer a lot but that also creates deep solidarity in our society. I try to be as active as I can in political and cultural activities in the camp. I joined the Arab nationalist movement in 1962 and later the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. I used to host secret political meetings at my house.

I miss those days, people were more dedicated and loyal to their cause.

My son Ali went to study in Beirut. When the Israeli invasion happened, I called him and I told him he had no choice but to fight and defend Beirut. I was always worried about him but I was also equally worried about all the fighters who were defending Beirut.

Return will happen one day. The poor and the rich, the homeless and people in mansions and all different people will be able to go back. The right of return is sacred. And if I don’t live to return, you will return, my son. And if you don’t return, your children will eventually return.

Reportage by Ali Ibrahim, photo by Nadine Osama

Widad Kawar, 87, Amman. Originally from Bethlehem.
I was born in Bethlehem, and I went to the Friends boarding school in Ramallah. I graduated a few weeks before the Nakba and was rushed home because of the escalating political situation. Some Jordanian students were escorted back to Jordan by the Jordanian army. I had to go to Jerusalem to get a taxi to Bethlehem.

After the Nakba, I went to study at the women’s college at the American University of Beirut. And when I came back, Bethlehem was a completely different place.

Bethlehem was unique in being both village and city, a place for tradition and modernity. It was a center for the many villages around it and the younger sister of Jerusalem. Women from the villages would come to our houses in Bethlehem to sell different products. I always enjoyed their wit and the liveliness with which they told stories of rural lives. The villagers also held weekly markets in the main towns on Saturdays. That’s where I originally started collecting small pieces of embroidery and later full dresses.

After the Nakba, Bethlehem was cut off from Jerusalem and many surrounding villages. Many villagers became refugees in Bethlehem, living in tiny spaces or in refugee camps. These people were accustomed to working lands they had cared for for centuries. They had different customs and traditions and different styles of embroidery that defined their identity. I started collecting these dresses along with the stories of the women behind them.

For me, Palestinian embroidery reflects identity, society and land. It reflects identity because every village in Palestine had their own style through which they proudly related to their heritage. It is a reflection of society, a kaleidoscope of diverse histories, threads, cultures and colors weaved together. The Palestinian dress tells of good old times when women were an active part of society, and in their own time would gather on breezy summer afternoons and work together on their dresses while trading expertise.

It also reflects the land because the symbols and colors were taken from the land. The cypress tree is a famous symbol that we often see in the designs of dresses. Most people used to plant cypresses around their land to mark borders and protect their crops from strong winds. The colors were usually derived from local plants, like sumac for red.

Reportage by Ali Ibrahim, photo by Nadine Osama

Khazna al-Sahli, 88, Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp, Beirut. Originally from Balad al-Sheikh near Haifa.
My village was so beautiful. I can still see the fields just like I can see you. We used to grow all kinds, eggplants, tomatoes, wheat. My father was a farmer, but my mother was from the city. She was from Haifa. I loved going with my father to Haifa to sell our produce. Once I could not find my slippers to go with him, so I went barefoot.

It all started when the mayor of the village came knocking at our house. He told us that the British gave everything to the Jews and now they’re coming to force us out. “You have to hide!” There had been no problems with the Jews of Neshar [a Zionist settlement] until then. The houses in the settlement looked nothing like ours. They lived in small, colored houses. The Jews sold their produce in our village and we sold ours in Neshar.

On the day we fled, the mayor came with three cars. He took us to Nazareth and from there we went to Syria, to Tel-Mnin. We stayed one whole month in a barn. Then we went to what later became known as the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.

Reportage and photo by Amena ElAshkar

Wael Abdo al-Sajdi, 88, Amman. Originally from Jerusalem.
My father was a civil engineer with the British Mandate authorities and would work at different locations across Palestine. The family is originally from Nablus but I was born in Jerusalem in 1930 where my father was positioned at the time. I consider Jerusalem my home. I studied and spent my childhood there. I still remember every street and I can lead you through any path or shortcut.

The Nakba started before 1948. I remember once my father was positioned in Nablus for a year. There was an attack from the freedom fighters on British troops and they had announced a curfew in the town. I was bored, so I went to the balcony. All the streets were empty except for an armored army vehicle with a big gun on top patrolling the area.

An old man, known to the entire city to be deaf, must have not heard the curfew announcement. The soldier pointed the gun at him and warned him but he kept on walking. I still remember him falling to the ground. He was clearly not a threat but the soldier didn’t hesitate to shoot him. Nobody could remove his body until the next day.

I really wanted to visit Jerusalem in 2000 when I turned 70. It was nearly impossible to get a permit to enter the city at that time but I was determined to get in, one way or the other. I put on a quintessential Western tourist outfit -- shorts, a hat, a light shirt -- and slung my video camera around my neck. I made a point to pay full price for a shared taxi for the driver to take me through the sideroads to Jerusalem. I told him I could get us inside the city without a problem.

Unfortunately, there was a checkpoint after all. The soldiers talked to the driver, and when they asked for my ID I only responded in Italian and sign language. They believed it and let us go. I would only talk in Italian to soldiers inside the city. I went to my old house, which is now a Turkish cultural center. I asked them if I could roam around, and they agreed when I told them I used to live there with my family. I also visited my old school and restaurants I used to eat in with my family. I walked around still-familiar streets and markets.

I cried at each place.

Reportage by Ali Ibrahim, photo by Nadine Osama

Amena ElAshkar is a journalist and photographer based in Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut.

Ali Ibrahim is a journalist based in Amman.

Nadine Osama is a researcher and photographer in Amman.


Killing Gaza

by Chris Hedges

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Israel’s blockade of Gaza--where trapped Palestinians for the past seven weeks have held nonviolent protests along the border fence with Israel, resulting in more than 50 killed and 700 wounded by Israeli troops--is one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. Yet the horror that is Gaza, where 2 million people live under an Israeli siege without adequate food, housing, work, water and electricity, where the Israeli military routinely uses indiscriminate and disproportionate violence to wound and murder, and where almost no one can escape, is rarely documented. Max Blumenthal and Dan Cohen’s powerful new film, “Killing Gaza,” offers an unflinching and moving portrait of a people largely abandoned by the outside world, struggling to endure.

“Killing Gaza” will be released Tuesday, to coincide with what Palestinians call Nakba Day--“nakba” means catastrophe in Arabic--commemorating the 70th anniversary of the forced removal of some 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 by the Haganah, Jewish paramilitary forces, from their homes in modern-day Israel. The release of the documentary also coincides with the Trump administration’s opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

● Starting Tuesday, May 15, “Killing Gaza” can be seen at Vimeo On Demand.
Because of Nakba Day and the anger over the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem, this week is expected to be one of the bloodiest of the seven-week-long protest that Palestinians call the “Great Return March.” “Killing Gaza” illustrates why Palestinians, with little left to lose, are rising up by the thousands and risking their lives to return to their ancestral homes--70 percent of those in Gaza are refugees or the descendants of refugees--and be treated like human beings.

Cohen and Blumenthal, who is the author of the book “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel,” one of the best accounts of modern Israel, began filming the documentary Aug. 15, 2014. Palestinian militias, armed with little more than light weapons, had just faced Israeli tanks, artillery, fighter jets, infantry units and missiles in a 51-day Israeli assault that left 2,314 Palestinians dead and 17,125 injured. Some 500,000 Palestinians were displaced and about 100,000 homes were destroyed. The 2014 assault, perhaps better described as a massacre, was one of eight massacres that Israel has carried out since 2004 against the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, over half of whom are children. Israel, which refers to these periodic military assaults as “mowing the lawn,” seeks to make existence in Gaza so difficult that mere survival consumes most of the average Palestinian’s time, resources and energy.

The film begins in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood, reduced to mounds of rubble by the Israelis. The wanton destruction of whole neighborhoods was, as documented by the film, accompanied by the shooting of unarmed civilians by Israeli snipers and other soldiers of that nation.

“Much of the destruction took place in the course of a few hours on July 23,” Blumenthal, who narrates the film, says as destroyed buildings appear on the screen, block after block. “The invading Israeli forces found themselves under ferocious fire from local resistance forces, enduring unexpectedly high casualties. As the Israeli infantry fled in full retreat, they called in an artillery and air assault, killing at least 120 Palestinian civilians and obliterated thousands of homes.”

The film includes a brief clip of young Israelis in Tel Aviv celebrating the assault on Gaza, a reminder that toxic racism and militarism infect Israeli society.

“Die! Die! Bye!” laughing teenage girls shout at the celebration in Tel Aviv. “Bye, Palestine!”

“Fucking Arabs! Fuck Muhammad!” a young man yells.

“Gaza is a graveyard! Gaza is a graveyard! Ole, ole, ole, ole,” the crowd in Tel Aviv sings as it dances in jubilation. “There is no school tomorrow! There are no children left in Gaza!”

Terrified Palestinian families huddled inside their homes during the relentless shelling. Those who tried to escape in the face of the advancing Israelis often were gunned down with their hands in the air, and the bodies were left to rot in the scorching heat for days.

“I was inside when they started bulldozing my house,” Nasser Shamaly, a Shuja’iyya resident, says in the film. “They took down the wall and started shooting into the house. So I put my hands on my head and surrendered myself to the officer. This wasn’t just any soldier. He was the officer of the group! He didn’t say a word. He just shot me. I fell down and started crawling to get away from them.”

Shamaly, who hid wounded in his house for four days, was fortunate. His 23-year-old cousin, Salem Shamaly, who led a group of volunteers from the International Solidarity Movement to dig bodies out of the ruins in Shuja’iyya, was not.

“On the offensive’s 14th day, July 20th, 2014, four other activists and I went to the Shuja’iyya neighborhood, which Israel had bombed for days, to accompany rescue teams in the rubble during the two-hour cease-fire,” Joe Catron, one of the members of the International Solidarity Movement rescue team, says in the film. “A young Palestinian, whose name we later learned was Salem Shamaly, asked us to go with him to his house, where he hoped to find his family. It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time we thought the cease-fire would make it safe.”

“As we crossed an alley with a clear line of sight to Israeli positions by the separation barrier, a gunshot from their direction struck the ground between us. We scattered into two groups, sheltered behind buildings on either side. After a pause, Salem stepped into the alley, hoping to lead his group to our side, but was struck by another bullet. He fell to the ground.”

The film shows Shamaly wounded on the ground, barely able to move and crying out in pain.

“As he lay on his back, two more rounds hit him,” Catron continued. “He stopped moving. The gunfire kept us from reaching him. The Israeli artillery began flying overhead and striking the buildings behind us. We were forced to retreat, leaving him. We only learned his name two days later, when his mother, father, sister and cousin recognized him in a video I had tweeted.”

“We couldn’t retrieve his body for seven days,” Um Salem, the mother, says in the film. “His body was in the sun for seven days.”

Waseem Shamaly, Salem’s brother, who appears to be about 8 years old, is shown with his eyes swollen from crying. “He would take care of us, like our father,” the boy says. “Even at night, he would get us whatever we wanted. He used to buy us everything. Whatever we wished for, he would buy it. There was nothing he wouldn’t buy for us. He used to take us to hang out. He’d take us out with him just to kill our boredom a little.”

Waseem wipes his eyes.

“Now he is gone,” he continues weakly. “There is nobody to take us out and buy us treats.”

“This boy hasn’t been able to handle losing his brother,” says the father, Khalil Shamaly. “He couldn’t handle the news, seeing the way his brother died. He is in shock. It gets to the point where he goes lifeless. He collapses. When I pick him up he tells me his dying wishes. His dying wishes! As if he is leaving us. He is so young. But he gives us his dying wishes. If it weren’t for God’s mercy, I would have lost him too.”

“Destroyed cities and shattered homes can be rebuilt if the resources are there,” Blumenthal says. “But what about the survivors? How can they heal the scars imposed on their psyches? The youth of Gaza has grown up through three wars, each more devastating than the last. At least 90 percent of adolescents in Gaza suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. With mental health services pushed to the brink, these unseen scars may never heal.”

The film turns to the town of Khuza’a, a farming community with 20,000 people, which was systematically blown up by Israel after three Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting with the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the ruling Hamas government in Gaza. The film shows a video from inside an Israeli tank as soldiers wait for explosives to bring down buildings in the town, including the mosque. When the explosions occur, the Israeli soldiers cheer and shout, “Long live the state of Israel!”

“We were shocked to see so many bodies in the streets,” Ahmed Awwad, a volunteer with the Palestinian Red Crescent, says in the film about Khuza’a. “Many were decomposing. We wanted to deal with it, but we didn’t know how. Once, when the Israelis let us in with our ambulance, we found about 10 corpses from different areas, scattered. As you approached a body, of course there is the odor, and there are worms. Hold it like this, and flesh comes off. Lift an arm and it pulls right off. We didn’t know what to do. There was nothing we could do. We had to stop. It would have been easier just to bury them. But we figured families would want the bodies. Bulldozers eventually loaded the bodies in trucks. We couldn’t pick up these bodies on our own. Most were executions, like an old lady at her front door. There was a young man, another man, and a little kid. The scenes, to be honest, were very ugly.”

The Rjeila family, including 16-year-old Ghadeer, who was physically disabled, attempts to escape the shelling. As a brother frantically pushes Ghadeer in her wheelchair (the scene, like several others in the film, is reconstructed through animation), the Israelis open fire. The brother is wounded. Ghadeer is killed.

The camera pans slowly through demolished houses containing blackened human remains. Walls and floors are smeared with blood.

Ahmed Awwad, a Palestinian Red Crescent volunteer, describes what happened after he and other volunteers finally receive permission from Israeli forces to retrieve bodies from Khuza’a. They find a man tied to a tree and shot in both legs. One of the volunteers, Mohammed al-Abadla, gets out of a vehicle and approaches the tree. When he switches on his flashlight, which the Israelis had instructed him to do, he is shot in heart and killed.

“For 51 days, Israel bombarded Gaza with the full might of its artillery,” Blumenthal says. “According to the Israeli military’s estimates, 23,410 artillery shells and 2.9 million bullets were fired into Gaza during the war.”

That’s one and a half bullets for every man, woman and child in the Gaza Strip.

There is footage of Israeli soldiers in an artillery unit writing messages, including “Happy Birthday to Me,” on shells being lobbed into Gaza. The soldiers laugh and eat sushi as they pound Palestinian neighborhoods with explosives.

Rafah is a city in Gaza on the border of Egypt. The film makes it clear that Egypt, through its sealing of Gaza’s southern border, is complicit in the blockade. Rafah was one of the first cities targeted by the Israelis. When Israeli troops took over buildings, they also kidnapped Palestinians and used them as human shields there and elsewhere, forcing them to stand at windows as the soldiers fired from behind.

“They blindfolded and handcuffed me and took me inside,” Mahmoud Abu Said says in the film. “They told me to come with them and put a M16 to my back. There were maybe six of them. They dropped their equipment and began searching. They started hitting me against the wall. And then sicced their dogs on me while I was handcuffed.”

“They put me here,” he says, standing in front of a window, “and stood behind me. Israeli soldiers placed me here while they stood behind me shooting. They took me to that window and that window too. Then they hit me against the wall and pushed me down. They put a mattress here,” he says, showing holes punched through the wall at floor level, “and sat down to shoot through these holes.”

“You see that car?” asks Suleiman Zghreibv, referring to a hunk of twisted metal that lies next to the ruins of his house. “He drove it,” he says of his 22-year-old son, who was executed by the Israelis. “This is the car we used to make our living. It wasn’t for personal use. It was a taxi. I can’t describe the suffering. What can I say? Words can’t express the pain. We have suffered and resisted for so long. We’ve been suffering our whole lives. We’ve suffered for the past 60 years because of Israel. War after war after war. Bombing after bombing after bombing. You build a house. They destroy it. You raise a child. They kill him. Whatever they do--the United States, Israel, the whole world, we’ll keep resisting until the last one of us dies.”

Israel intentionally targeted power plants, schools, medical clinics, apartment complexes, whole villages. Robert Piper, the United Nations Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities, said in 2017 that Gaza had “a long time ago” passed the “unlivability threshold.” Youth unemployment is at 60 percent. Suicide is epidemic. Traditional social structures and mores are fracturing, with divorce rising from 2 percent to 40 percent and girls and women increasingly being prostituted, something once seen only rarely in Gaza. Seventy percent of the 2 million Gazans survive on humanitarian aid packages of sugar, rice, milk and cooking oil. The U.N. estimates that 97 percent of Gaza’s water is contaminated. Israel’s destruction of Gaza’s sewage treatment plant means raw sewage is pumped into the sea, contaminating the beach, one of the very few respites for a trapped population. The Israelis did not even spare Gaza’s little zoo, slaughtering some 45 animals in the 2014 assault.

“I liked the monkeys best,” says a forlorn Ali Qasem, who worked at the zoo. “We laughed with them the most. We would laugh and play with them. They would take food right from your hand. They’d respond the most. There is a heavy feeling of sorrow. I used to spend 18 hours a day here. I was here all the time. I’d go home for five or six hours, then come back. I worked here as a volunteer. A few volunteers built this place little by little. We were excited to finish and invite visitors for free. To me, it was like humans were killed. It’s not OK because they were animals. It’s as if they were human beings, people we know. We used to bring them food from our homes.”

The film shows Palestinians, who have received little reconstruction aid despite pledges by international donors, camping out amid the ruins of homes, gathered around small fires for heat and light. Moeen Abu Kheysi, 54, gives a tour of the smashed house he had spent his life constructing for his family. He stops when he comes upon his 3-month-old grandson, Wadie. His face lights up in delight.

“Months passed and the cold rains of winter gave way to baking heat of spring,” Blumenthal says. “In Shuja’iyya, the Abu Kheysi family was still living in remnants of their home, but without their newest member. Born during the war, little Wadie did not make it through the harsh winter.”

“He was born during the war and he died during the war, well after the war,” a female member of the family explains. “He lived in a room without a wall. We covered the wall with tin sheets. We moved, but then we got kicked out. We couldn’t make rent. [We] had to come back, cover the wall and live here. Then the baby froze to death. It was very cold.”

“One day it suddenly became very cold,” Wadie’s mother says. “Wadie woke up at 9 in the morning. I started playing with him, gave him a bottle. Suddenly, he was shivering from the cold. I tried to warm him up but it wasn’t working.”

She begins to weep.

“There wasn’t even time to get to the hospital,” she says. “He stopped breathing before they left the house. His heart stopped beating instantly. His father started running in the street with him. He fainted when they yelled, “The baby is dead!” The baby’s uncle took over and carried him. He looked everywhere for a taxi but couldn’t find one. We couldn’t give him first aid ourselves. They finally found a car. They did all they could at the hospital, but he never woke up. He was dead. What can I say? We remember him all the time. I can’t get him off my mind. It’s as if I lost a piece of my heart. His sisters want to sleep in his cradle and wear his clothes. This one always asks to wear her brother’s clothes. We can’t forget him.”

“Grandpa!” Wadie’s small sister cries out. “Mama is crying again.”


The Heartbreaking Reason This Palestinian Joined the Gaza Border Protests

by Gideon Levy

A young father of two is hospitalized with serious injuries after being shot by Israeli soldiers during a Gaza border rally. In 2014, the IDF destroyed his home, and he was left with nothing.

The full scale of the harrowing despair of the Gaza Strip is embodied in a haggard young man in the surgical ward on the third floor of Al-Ahli Hospital in Hebron. Two rounds fired by Israel Defense Forces snipers left him seriously wounded, internal organs blown apart, his right leg shattered. Only his mother is by his side in this narrow room, which is starkly empty apart from the old hospital bed he’s lying in, and a fake leather sofa that’s even older and more tattered. There’s no television set, no radio, no one comes to visit, there’s no place to move around, and he has no money to buy a cup of coffee in the cafeteria.

The patient is Ibrahim al-Masri, one of the hundreds who have suffered serious wounds in the Gaza demonstrations of the past month, and one of the very few who has been allowed to undergo medical treatment in the West Bank. Indeed, he is the only Gaza resident hospitalized in Hebron.

Alone, distraught, penniless, now also disabled -- Masri has no chance in life. The despair in Hebron isn’t any easier to bear, and he’s already waiting to return to Gaza, which is utterly indifferent to him. A visit to him is like a descent into hell.

Twenty-three years old, he’s married to Faiza and the father of a 3-year-old daughter, Lama, and a son of 9 months, Sami. A young couple plus two in the Gaza Strip 2018, without a home and without a job, now also with a disabled husband and father. Rehab, his mother, is the only person whom Israel allowed to leave the cage of Gaza with him; now the two are imprisoned in this cramped room, where no one comes to visit or offer support.

Masri says he hardly speaks with his children by phone: The little one is just a baby and he has nothing to say to the 3 year-old. “What will I tell her? That our life has been destroyed?” When she saw him in serious condition in the Indonesia Hospital in Sheikh Ziyad in Gaza, where he was taken originally, she was badly frightened, ran to her mother’s arms and cried until they left.

ion has improved, he says now. According to his doctors, he will be able to return to Gaza in another week or so. Where will he undergo rehabilitation? No one knows. Masri has also been told that it will take time before he can walk and get around, in general. He would like to return to Gaza for a few days, because he and his mother have run out of money and he has no change of clothing, and in Hebron everything is expensive. But it’s very unlikely that Israel will allow him to return to the West Bank again after his release.

They arrived here with 250 shekels ($70), which neighbors loaned them, and nothing remains. Masri is sorry now that he went to demonstrate. His mother says he did it in order to vent his anger. He corrects her: “What did it help? So many young people have become cripples, and no one cares.”


Palestinian ex-prisoner: You sit there wishing you would die

by Zena Tahhan

Haifa Abu Sbaih says she was psychologically tortured and mistreated as a prisoner in Israeli jails for 16 months.

Hebron, occupied West Bank - Haifa Abu Sbeih was only 15 when she witnessed the immediate aftermath of a horrific massacre outside her family's home in the Old City of Hebron.

She recalls standing outside her home in 1994, searching for her older brother after she heard gunshots in the Ibrahimi Mosque nearby, where an American Israeli settler had opened fire on hundreds of Palestinians during dawn prayers, killing 29 and wounding more than 100.

"All the men poured into the streets, their clothes dripping with blood, crying and seeking refuge in our home," she tells Al Jazeera. While she stood outside calling for her sibling, Abu Sbeih says the army shot and killed a young man, Nour al-Muhtaseb, right before her eyes.

This incident, was for Abu Sbeih, a taste of what would become a lifetime of challenges as she lived in Hebron, the only Palestinian town with a Jewish-only settlement located in the heart of the city.

Due to the presence of some 800 Israeli settlers, Hebron is exceptionally militarised, with the Israeli army imposing severe restrictions on everyday life and the movement of 40,000 Palestinians living there.

Many Palestinians have resorted to building metal enclosures around their homes to avoid being targeted by settlers who regularly hurl abusive comments, throw stones and attack them.

For Abu Sbeih, a particularly testing experience of the occupation came in December 2015 when she was arrested by the Israeli army for plotting, along with three of her nephews, to shoot and kill an Israeli settler in Hebron. According to Abu Sbeih, the settler, Anat Cohen, had for years harassed Palestinians in Hebron with regular and targeted abuse.



A Song is Born

by Uri Avnery
Gush Shalom

A FRIEND from overseas sent me the recording of a song. An Arab song, with a soft Arab melody, sung by an Arab girls' choir, accompanied by a flute.

It goes like this:

Ahed / You are the promise and the glory / Standing as high as an olive tree / From the cradle to the present / Your honor will not be violated / Palestine has been planted in us / As a dock for every ship / We are the land and you are the water /

You are covered with blond hair / You are as pure as Jerusalem / You taught our generation how the forgotten people should revolt / They thought the Palestinians are afraid of them because they are wearing armor and holding a weapon? / Palestine has been planted in us / As a dock for every ship / Our nation must be united and resist for the freedom of Palestine and the prisoners /

Your blue eyes are a lighthouse / For a country that has every religion / You united the people far away and close / You ignited the spark in all our hearts / Your head is raised up high encouraging us / You ignited the light in our darkness /

Despite the softness of your hands / Your hands have shaken the world / Your hands returned the slap to the occupier / And returned esteem to the nation / Palestine has been planted in us / As a dock for every ship / We are the land and you are the water.

IF I were an adherent of the occupation, this song would frighten me very much.

Because the force of songs is much stronger than the force of weapons. A gun wears out, but a song lasts forever.

In the early days of the Israeli army, there was a slogan hanging in our mess: "An army that is singing is an army of victory!"

The present Palestinian generation has decided to lower its head and wait until the storm has passed. The coming Palestinian generation may act in a completely different way.

On the eve of my 15th birthday, I joined an underground (or "terrorist") group that fought against the British colonial regime. Almost eighty years later I remember just about every song of that time, word for word. Songs like "We are unknown soldiers without uniforms…" and many more. Afterwards I wrote an anthem for my company.

I am not a poet. Far from it. But I have written some songs in my time, including "Samson's Foxes", an anthem for my commando unit in the Israeli army. So I know the force of a song. Especially a song about the heroism of a 16 year old girl.

THE MOMENT I saw the scene of Ahed al-Tamimi boxing the face of an Israeli army captain, I knew that something important had happened.

The British politician Lord Acton famously wrote: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." I would add: "Occupying another people tends to make you stupid, and a long occupation makes you utterly stupid."

In my youth, when I was already a member of the anti-British underground, I was working in the office of a British lawyer, many of whose clients were officials of the British administration. I often asked myself: "How can it be that such intelligent people can behave so stupidly?” They were nice people, who treated even a lowly clerk like me politely. But they had no alternative: the occupation compels the occupier to behave stupidly.

It works like this: in order to uphold an occupation regime for any length of time, the occupier must believe in the superiority of his race and in the inferiority of his subjects, who are seen as primitive creatures. Otherwise, what gives him the right to subject another people? That is exactly what has happened to us now.

THE MOMENT I saw the face-boxing scene on TV, I knew that something momentous had happened. The Palestinian people now have a national heroine. The Palestinian youth now has a model to emulate.

The Israeli public has got used to the occupation. They believe that this is a normal situation, that the occupation can go on forever. But the occupation is not a natural situation, and some day it will come to an end.

Ten thousand British ruled hundreds of millions of Indians, until a skinny man called Gandhi went to produce salt on the seashore, contrary to the law. The Indian youth arose, and British rule fell away like a leaf from a tree in autumn.

The same stupidity took hold of all the occupation enforcers who dealt with Ahed al-Tamimi. Army officers. Prosecutors, military judges.

If we were wise occupiers ? an oxymoron ? we would have sent Ahed home long ago. Expelled her by force from the prison. But we are still keeping her locked up. Her and her mother.

True, some days ago the army realized its own stupidity. With the help of Ahed's devoted (Jewish) advocate, Gabi Lasky, a "compromise" was worked out. Several charges were dropped and Ahed was sentenced to "only" eight months in prison.

She will be released in three more months. But that is too late: the picture of Ahed is already engraved in the mind of every Palestinian boy or girl. Ahed, the girl covered with blond hair, her blue eyes shining like a lighthouse. Ahed the saint. Ahed the savior.

The Palestinian Jeanne d’Arc, the national symbol.

THE STORY of Ahed al-Tamimi happened in the West Bank. But it resounded in the Gaza Strip, too.

For most Israelis, the Gaza Strip is something else. It is not occupied territory. It does not concern us.

But the situation of the Gaza Strip is even worse than straight occupation. The strip is completely surrounded. North and east is Israel, west is the sea, where the Israeli navy shoots at everything except for fishing boats close to the shore. The south belongs to Egypt, which behaves even worse than the Israelis and in close cooperation with them.

The situation in the Gaza Strip is as close to hell as one can get. Food at subsistence level, electricity for two to four hours a day, the water is polluted. Work is extremely scarce. Only the most severely ill are let out.

Why? It has to do with the demon that plagues the Israeli government: the demographic devil.

In historical Palestine, the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river, there now live about 13 million people, roughly half Jewish and half Arab, with a slight edge in favor of the Arabs. Numbers are uncertain, but roughly there are 3 million Arabs in the West Bank, 2 million in the Gaza Strip and 1.5 million Arab citizens in Israel. The Arab birthrate is higher than the Jewish average.

These numbers disturb the sleep of many Israeli officials, especially politicians. They look for means to change the balance. They once had the illusion that if the situation in Gaza got unbearable, people from Gaza would emigrate. But it did not happen. Palestinians have become very tenacious.

Then a new fashion came up: just ignore the bastards. Just imagine that the Gaza Strip has sunk into the sea, as one Israeli politician once prayed. No Strip. Two million Palestinian less.

But the Strip is there. True, Gaza is ruled by the Islamic Hamas party, while the West Bank is ruled by Abu Mazen's PLO, and the enmity between the two is vicious. But that happened in almost all liberation movements in history. In our case, the underground split between the Haganah ("Defense"), which belonged to the official Zionist leadership, and the Irgun ("Organization", short for National Military Organization). Then the Irgun split, and the even more extreme LEHI ("Fighters for the Freedom of Israel", called the "Stern Gang" by the British) was born. They all hated each other.

But among the people, there is no difference at all. They are all Palestinians. Ahed is the heroine of all of them. Perhaps her model played a role in what happened last week.

For some time, the Gaza Strip was quiet. Some kind of modus vivendi had even come into being between the Hamas government and the Israeli one. The Israelis congratulated themselves on their cleverness. And then it happened.

Suddenly, as if from nowhere, the population of Gaza stood up. Hamas organized them to assemble on Friday near the border fence, unarmed. A prolonged campaign of passive resistance was to start.

When I was asked what would happen, I said that the Israeli army would shoot to kill. Simple: Israelis don't know how to deal with passive resistance. They shoot in order to turn it into violent resistance. With that they know how to deal. With more violence.

AND THAT is exactly what happened last Friday, the first day of the campaign: snipers were posted along the line, with orders to shoot the "ringleaders" ? anyone who stood out. 18 unarmed demonstrators were killed, almost a thousand were shot and wounded.

If anyone thought that the democratic world would stand up and condemn Israel, they were sadly wrong. Reactions were feeble, at most. What was revealed was the incredible hold the Israeli government and its Zionist organization has over the world’s political establishments and communication outlets. With few exceptions the atrocious news was not published at all, or as minor items.

But this cannot go on for long. The Gaza protests will continue, especially on Fridays (the Muslim holy day), until May 15, the Naqba ("Catastrophe") Day, which commemorates the mass flight / expulsion of half the Palestinian people from their homes. Palestinian flags will fill screens around the globe.

Ahed will still be in prison.


13-Year-Old “Leaves Hell” of Israeli Detention

by Jaclynn Ashly
The Electronic Intifada

Abdel Raouf al-Balawi’s mother drapes a checkered scarf, or kuffiyeh, around her son’s small, slumped-over shoulders, while the 13-year-old anxiously recounts his experiences in Israeli detention.

Posters displaying the faces of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces are lined up, one after the other, across the white walls of the family’s home in Bethlehem’s Dheisheh refugee camp.

“The food was horrible in prison,” Abdel Raouf said, looking up briefly, before averting his eyes back to the floor. “Everything the Israelis gave us was months expired.”

On Tuesday, 27 March, Abdel Raouf was released from Ofer detention center, an Israeli military facility located near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, and was greeted by hundreds of cheering residents in his home camp celebrating his release.

Abdel Raouf was one of the youngest Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.