Israel Calls Them 'Illegals' in Their Own Land

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Palestinians passing through from the West Bank to work in Israel, through a breach in the separation fence. Illustration.

The dehumanization begins with the blind adoption of the concepts dictated by the defense establishment: Shabahim, for example, an IDF acronym for human beings, literally illegal transients and used only for Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank who cross into and stay in Israel for hours or days, without a permit. That is how tens of thousands of day laborers, the people who build our homes and our roads, become non-people. License to abuse follows.

Just as the term “administrative detention” allows detentions without trial; just as “disorderly conduct” justifies the dispersal of demonstrations using force that sometimes turns lethal, as in the worst dictatorship;s and just as the words “terrorist organization” can be a cover for disqualifying any political party, as in the worst totalitarian regime, so shabah was coined o enable the abuse of anyone defined as such.

The shabah is an “illegal” transient in his own land, from which his antecedents were expelled. The law is the law of the conqueror, the occupier; this unlawful law that divides and discriminates and dictates that only Jewish settlers may move freely. Israeli apartheid deniers cover this up. But the truth is that the only shabahim are the settlers. They are unlawful transients in a land not theirs. The Israeli glossary of terms denies this.

The disturbing story by Haim Rivlin on Channel 13’s “Hamakor” this week, about five Border Police officers who “hunted” and abused Shabahim in the Meitar Forest, in the northern Negev, was a rare, important event in Israeli media, which systematically conceals the occupation and its crimes from consumers who don’t want to see them. But even this piece did not stray far from the mainstream’s comfort zone: It focused on how police officers robbed their victims, in addition to abusing them physically. And the theft is the reason they were indicted, in contrast to those who abuse shabahim on a daily basis, but are never prosecuted. Any kind of violence can be excused as part of the security cult – but not robbery. “Hamakor” focused on the robbery, as if that was the worst part, while also disclosing the face of evil in the blows, the humiliation and the sadistic pleasure of the abusers.

About three months ago, photographer Alex Levac and I met the victim of Count No. 5 of the indictment, Majdi Ikhtat. He also appeared in Rivlin’s story, his face bleeding as he was ordered to strip before a Border Policewoman, who cheerfully recorded the events on a cellphone and was not indicted. Meet the shabah whose abuse – but not robbery, God forbid – Israel sanctions: 32, a father of three, with a Bachelor’s degree from the Open University of Hebron in Arabic literature and a permit to work as a construction worker in Israel where he is building the city of Be’er Sheva. He was hunted down for slipping through breaches in the separation fence that the IDF deliberately left open. Every morning at 3:30 A.M. he would leave his home in the South Hebron Hills, returning after dark. The only way he can support his family is through this hard, humiliating job in Israel.

The Border Policemen beat him with clubs and brass knuckles. He has contributed more to the state than they have. He is building it, as a member of the Palestinian Labor Battalion, which replaced the Jewish Labor Battalion, doing work once considered pioneering and highly valued. After the Border Police lowlifes beat him up, his Israeli work permit was revoked. That’s the routine handling of victims of institutional violence, lest they attempt revenge.

Ikhtat has not recovered from the trauma. He is young, without a present and without a past. He lives not far from my home, which was built by a few of his friends – one of tens of thousands of Palestinians who build our country for us. They are invisible, no one is more invisible than they are. There are very few building sites in Israel without Palestinian workers, some of them shabahim. There are very few shabahim involved in terrorism in recent years. But they are hunted and abused instead of being honored for doing the scut work no Jew is willing to do. And sometimes their abusers also rob them. And then, only then, are we shocked to our very core.

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