Conflict strikes close to home

BY DONOVAN RINKER-MORRIS

According to a press release issued by the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment (LAW), last Thursday about 150 members of an Israeli force backed by armored personnel carriers surrounded the home of Khader Shkirat, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Human Rights Program, sealing off the entire neighborhood in East Jerusalem and placing the residents under a military curfew.

Professor Henry Steiner, director of the Human Rights Program, responded to the press release by contacting Shkirat to determine the gravity of the situation. He then called the U.S. State Department to request intervention on Shkirat’s behalf.

According to the press release, the incident started at 6:15 p.m., when officers in a special unit of Israeli intelligence claimed that Shkirat was hiding a fugitive in his basement. They threatened to blow up the house unless Shkirat produced the alleged fugitive. Shkirat, afraid that the Israeli forces would bomb the house regardless, refused to move himself and his family. Instead, he contacted human rights organizations who sent representatives to the scene immediately.

Israeli intelligence then took Shkirat into custody for interrogation. While under interrogation, Israeli forces claimed to have found the fugitive hiding in the basement. However, representatives of Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations and representatives of diplomatic consulates who arrived at the scene and observed the incident never saw the alleged fugitive.

About 40 minutes after the Israeli forces claimed to have captured the fugitive, Shkirat, accompanied by the Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel, and his brother were taken away for further interrogation. Eventually, both were released. Later Shkirat said, “[I]f it had not been for the presence of all these individuals and organizations this evening, the situation would have been very different.”

According to LAW, Israelis present at the scene commented that if not for the presence of observers, particularly those from EU consulates, the house would have been destroyed by the Israeli forces. Similar demolitions have occurred repeatedly in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank, where diplomatic representatives do not generally have similar access.

Peter Rosenbloom, Associate Director for the Human Rights Program, said that his staff contacted Hebrew speakers to facilitate contacting the Israeli Defense Forces to attempt to stop them from carrying out the threat to blow up the house. However, because the situation appeared to have been resolved, they did not have to take additional action.

Shkirat said that when the Israeli intelligence officer was ordering him to evacuate his family from his house, the officer told him: “If this house was in Gaza, I would not argue with you, but blow up the house immediately.”

According to a subsequent release issued on Friday, although Shkirat’s home appears to be safe from any imminent threat, Shkirat’s family remains traumatized by the event. Shkirat contacted a Palestinian children’s psychologist to help his family deal with the terror, but she was prevented from speaking to the children by Israeli security forces the next day.

It is unknown at this time if Shkirat’s home was targeted because of his work as director of LAW, a major Palestinian human rights organization, or because of his international profile as a visiting fellow at HLS. Rosenbloom reports that other human rights organizations, both Palestinian and Israeli, also report harassment and intimidation by Israeli Defense Forces.

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