About 5,000 shekels led me to Yasmin Eshtayyeh; more precisely, a combination of $357, 500 shekels and 668 Jordanian dinars. Those are the currencies and the amounts that the Israeli authorities at the border crossing with Jordan removed, seized and confiscated from bags of Eshtayyeh and her sister Suhad in 2013. This past February 14, an anonymous soldier from the ombudsman’s office in the bureau of the head of the Israel Defense Forces Central Command ruled that Eshtayyeh did not have the right of appeal or objection. End of discussion.
And immediately, beneath the thin narrative shell of Israelis who confiscate money, a whole life was revealed of a young woman of 31 who has been blind from birth. Her memory tells her that she became aware that she was different only at the age of 5. Her parents, and especially her father, Sael, swaddled and pampered her protectively. Her mother, Muna, always washed her and then dressed her (to this day her mother chooses her clothes for her).
On one occasion, her little cousin visited her, and they bathed together. Suddenly the cousin disappeared. Where was she? She’d gone to get dressed. And it was then that 5-year-old Yasmin grasped that children of her age dress themselves. Then, or earlier, she also noticed that on the street the other children run, jump, go to the grocery store by themselves, whereas she — someone was always holding her hand. The facts piled up. The concept of sight wasn’t yet completely clear to her, but her difference from others was.
The awareness of the existence of a supreme entity that rules all preceded her awareness of blindness and the sense of sight. At least that’s what her memory tells her. At the age of 4 or thereabouts — meaning in 1991 — the family was sitting in the yard of their house in the village of Salem, east of Nablus. “Suddenly someone shouted, ‘Come here, if not, I’ll shoot you,’” she says. The “come here” was in Hebrew, the rest in Arabic. She already knew what shooting was. Apparently she had also heard the word “army.” The thumps on the asphalt that she heard, she knew, were stones being thrown by children. The words didn’t yet jell into a complete concept. It was her first conscious encounter with the voice of a soldier, representative of earthly rule.
“I thought a soldier was a gigantic being,” she recalls. “Bigger than regular people. I didn’t understand how he could behave like that, against human beings.” As with many others, “Jew” and “soldier” became synonyms in her lexicon. It would be the greatest tragedy of her life, when she was 17, that would enable her to distinguish between the two.
She won’t forget the soldier named Uri. “One of the worst I’ve seen in my life,” she says. Using that word: “seen.” In December 2013, she took part with other Palestinian women in a gathering in Amman about advancing the rights of disabled women in the Middle East. The girl who had only discovered at age 5 that girls dress themselves was now the holder of a master’s degree in English and translation, and an articulate representative of disabled women who seek to integrate into society and the workforce.
Eshtayyeh worked for the Palestinian organization Stars of Hope, which was founded to promote the integration of women with disabilities, and she represented the organization at the United Nations-sponsored conference that December. Her sister joined her as an escort. When they returned, on December 22, all the other women went through the al-Karameh (“dignity” in Arabic) border crossing (also known as the Allenby crossing) without incident, but to their astonishment, she and her sister were detained.
They were stopped at passport control, were required to remove their head coverings and coats and take off their shoes. They were body-searched, and the money that was found in their handbags was taken. Eshtayyeh tells about the narrow room to which they were taken, the drinking water that wasn’t offered to them and the bathroom they were not permitted to go to, and about the soldier Uri, who wouldn’t let them move, and shouted at them. There was also an Israeli policeman who introduced himself as Ahmed. “He told me: ‘We are concerned that someone from Hamas will use you.’ I replied that I had studied at university, traveled abroad and worked, and that I had never allowed anyone to exploit me.”
They were asked about the source of the money. The answer was easy: 500 shekels (currently $142) and another 98 dinars ($138) were from her salary at Birzeit University, where she was employed as an adviser at the Center for Development Studies. She was very proud of her ability to support herself and also help the family out. She had received the dollars from Stars of Hope to cover expenses during the trip, and she was expected to give back whatever was left over. The money that was taken from her sister was from some girls and women in the family who wanted her to buy cosmetics for them in the Jordanian capital. But the conference days were longer and more intense than they’d expected, they had little time to look for bargains and, above all, they discovered that Amman wasn’t less expensive.
Despite the explanations, before they left they were handed a notification from the Israel Police stating that their money had been seized “due to suspicion of the transfer of funds connected to an illegal association, and the commander of the IDF forces in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] intends to confiscate the money that was seized.” At about 1:30 A.M., on that December day four years ago, after a delay of eight hours, they were permitted to leave the empty terminal. They begged to be left with a little money so they could take a taxi home. The people who’d taken their money refused. They waited another few hours for an uncle to drive in the middle of the night from the Nablus area and pick them up.
That was the start of a bureaucratic and legal saga that continues to this day, which has woven into Yasmin Eshtayyeh’s life not only soldiers and police officers but also Supreme Court justices Elyakim Rubinstein (now retired), Noam Sohlberg and Menachem Mazuz.
Two Israeli friends wrote letters to the military legal adviser in Judea and Samaria, requesting that the money be returned. They received a response from the legal adviser on April 8, 2014. It stated that just a day earlier, i.e., April 7, an order to confiscate the money was issued, this “in the light of reliable and cross-matching intelligence information that was presented.” Without proof, without evidence, without explanations and details, without hearing what the women had to say. They were not arrested, were not summoned for an interrogation about an offense they had supposedly committed, were not tried.
Until December 25, 2013, Palestinians whose property was confiscated by order of the military commander could at least appeal to a military court. But on that day, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, at the time the head of Central Command and the sovereign in the West Bank, signed an order depriving military courts of that authority and thus exempting the confiscators of the need to provide any semblance of proof and transparency.
In a society in which large families are dependent on one salary, and where the minimum monthly wage is 1,400 shekels ($405), and many women earn even less than that, 5,000 shekels is a great deal of money. The sisters turned for assistance to Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights, an organization that operates in Israel and the West Bank. Yesh Din attorneys Michael Sfard, Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man and Noa Amrami petitioned the High Court of Justice in their name. The petition argued that the confiscation order was illegal as was the denial of the right of appeal. The High Court united the petition with two similar cases. The justices did not even address the cases of confiscation in the petitions, and ruled that there was no legal impediment in the order by the head of Central Command denying the right of appeal. At the same time, they suggested that the army make possible “a forum of objection or appeal on the confiscation decisions,” to reduce the number of petitions to the High Court. They thought that the specific cases that were now before them would be resolved within the framework of such a “forum.”
The army accepted the proposal, with one substantial difference: A committee was duly established consisting of representatives from the office of the military advocate general, the Intelligence Corps and the Civil Administration — but its authority was limited to discussing “seizure of objects,” a stage preceding confiscation. Anyone whose property had already been declared confiscated could kiss it goodbye. Last May, the justices expressed their satisfaction, declared that the petition had “achieved a goal of importance” and ordered the state to pay the representatives of the three petitioners court costs of 10,000 shekels ($2,850).
For Yasmin and Suhad Eshtayyeh this was a Kafkaesque outcome. Thanks to their petition, among others, the justices had suggested that the order be amended, and a military committee was set up to hear objections, but they themselves were unable to appear before the committee because their money had already been declared “confiscated.” Sfard and another Yesh Din attorney, Sophia Brodsky, asked a representative of the state prosecution, attorney Roy Shweika, to find a way out. He refused. They asked for a clarification from the court, which had mistakenly thought that its judgment had also intimated a solution for the appellants. Last November, Justice Sohlberg ruled that, as far as he was concerned, the sisters could submit a new petition. In other words, another court fee to pay, more running around. More time and mental and material resources wasted.
The lawyers then wrote to the current head of Central Command, Maj. Gen. Roni Numa, and to the legal adviser, Lt. Gen. Eyal Toledano, in the hope that possibly they would agree to show flexibility, revoke the confiscation order and allow the sisters to submit their objection to the committee that had been established in the wake of their petition. But the anonymous soldier from the ombudsman’s office in the legal adviser’s bureau, who replied last month, clung to the circular explanation: The information that led to the confiscation (without the right of appeal) was solid and reliable, the committee discusses only pre-confiscation appeals of seizures. “Your client’s case is not consistent with the committee’s authority.” Request denied.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, responding to a request for comment, told Haaretz, “In 2014, money was confiscated from the Palestinians mentioned in the article which, according to reliable intelligence information, is terrorist money originating in the Hamas organization.” By the way, Hamas was never mentioned in the official notifications the two received.
To see the sea
“We know that change is possible,” states the “Guide for (Public) Pressure and Advocacy for the Subject of Disabilities: Concepts and their Application,” published by Birzeit University’s Center for Development Studies. Yasmin Eshtayyeh is one of the guide’s authors. The center combines the development of theoretical thinking with public and social activity. She worked there as an adviser in a project that lasted about a year and a half on society’s attitude toward people with disabilities. The guide mentions, as proof of the possibility to change, the activities of Palestinian associations of disabled people and a 1999 Palestinian law that clarifies their rights. In April 2015, she appeared at a public event where she spoke about the belief in the change that people can foment. The occasion was the annual Memorial Day ceremony held by the Israeli-Palestinian organization Combatants for Peace, to which she had been invited as a bereaved daughter: a settler from Itamar, Yehoshua Elitzur, murdered her father, Sael, on September 27, 2004.
In her speech she stated, “The anger and the hatred that accompanied me would probably have continued to haunt me if I had not met other Jews.” A few days after her father was murdered, activists from the Villages Group in Israel came to the village to express their condolences and anger. Eshtayyeh told the audience at the ceremony that at first she had refused to shake the hands of one of the activists, “because she was a Jew.” Gradually she relented and got to know other members in the group of activists. They and other Israeli Jews led her to believe in change that people can foment. One of the activists gave music lessons in the village. Eshtayyeh was invited as an interpreter. She fell in love with the harp, which allowed her “to see the sea, which I have never visited,” and she began to learn to play the instrument.
Following the ceremony she joined the Parents Circle–Families Forum (the forum of bereaved families), and has been an active member since then.
Her father was employed for 18 years by a Rishon Letzion-based company that distributes cooking-gas tanks. His work there was terminated during the second intifada. At the age of 46, he started to work as the driver of a group cab. In the days of the roadblocks and roads closed to Palestinians, that meant traveling on dirt trails and bypassing the long lines at the checkpoints, to get people to work, school, the market and medical clinics.
At the memorial ceremony she said, “My father was the sole provider. And the worst nightmare in life happened to us. On September 27, 2004, my father went to work as he did every day, and when he turned onto a bypass road built by settlers, so they could travel without rubbing up against Palestinians, a settler attacked him and shot him in the heart. The murderer is a German who converted to Judaism and lives in a settler outpost next to Itamar.”
The killer, who was convicted of manslaughter, was for some reason placed under house arrest after the murder and again after the conviction. Before sentence was pronounced, he disappeared. Haaretz correspondent Shay Fogelman looked for him, in a labyrinthine journey combining detective work with history to which he devoted five years of his life and which also jelled into a film that will be screened in a few months. In the meantime, Yehoshua Elitzur was tracked down in Brazil, from which he was extradited to Israel in mid-January of this year. He is now in prison, awaiting his sentence.
The hunt for Elitzur drew Fogelman close to the Eshtayyeh family. Yasmin mentions him with special fondness. He was a witness to the absurd situation in which many Palestinian families whose loved ones are killed by Israeli soldiers or civilians find themselves: the Shin Bet security service and the army mark them as “dangerous.” And the fact is, almost every year, soldiers are dispatched to break into Yasmin’s family’s house in the middle of the night and conduct searches. “Fine, let them search, but they always leave behind broken things and a big mess,” she says.
Two years ago, Eshtayyeh and her younger brother, Mohammed, who is also blind from birth, went to Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer for a special eye examination. The two of them may be eligible for the implantation of a device that would let them see. Their mother, who’s 57, accompanied them. At the checkpoint she was told: “Denied.” The two waited for friends from the bereaved-families forum to come and escort them. Since stepping up her activity in the forum, Yasmin, too, has been added to the list of Palestinians denied entry to Israel, after many years during which she received permits.
Despite her academic degrees and success in time-limited projects, Eshtayyeh is unable to find a permanent job — her biggest wish. Implementation lags behind Palestinian law for integrating disabled people into society, she says, and people with disabilities still feel discrimination. Those with sight or who don't need to use a wheelchair also often need connections to find a job. Discrimination against women with disabilities is even more acute, and the social misgivings about them are sharper yet — a blind woman has little prospect of raising a family.
Still, tell me about happy days in your life, I asked her a few weeks ago when we were sitting on the porch of their home. A big smile lit up her face: “The two happiest days of my life were the parties that mom organized for me in honor of my first degree, in English language and literature, and afterward in honor of my second degree, in translation,” she said. Everything and everyone was there. Debka folk dancing, fireworks, festive attire, a special hairdo under the kerchief and dozens of people from the family and the village who came to share in her joy and pride.