Criminalizing the Victim: The Life Story of Rasmea Odeh

Rasmea OdehNahla Abdo

Since her birth and until this day, that is during her 67 years of struggling for justice, Rasmea Odeh has been the victim of injustice in both her homeland and her host country as well.

Rasmea was born in Lifta, an affluent village between Jerusalem and Jaffa.  This village is described as one of Palestine’s largest and wealthiest communities in the Jerusalem region. The beauty of this village, as described by Zochrot (an Israeli Jewish and Palestinian organization)[i], is evidenced through ‘the old homes which are still standing upon the overgrown hillsides… homes which pay tribute to that prosperous past’. The population of the village in 1948 was approximately 2,550 (including 2,530 Muslim and 20 Christian Palestinians). Like most Palestinian villages, many of Lifta’s residents were dependent on agriculture and cultivated 3,000 donums (3 km2) of land, including 1,500 olive trees.

However, like more than 400 other Palestinian cities and villages, between 1947 and 1948 Lifta was destroyed, forcefully depopulated and ethnically cleansed, rendering its population refugees. It is true that the story of Rasmea’s Lifta is the story of the Palestinian Nakba (the Catastrophe of the creation of the state of Israel). However, the close proximity of Lifta to the neighbouring village Deir Yassin has further aggravated its population, leaving its imprint on Palestinian collective memory and on Rasmea’s own personal memory.

The brutal massacre of approximately 250 villagers in Deir Yassin, including rape and butchering of women and children, was conducted by the same forces which attacked Lifta: the Stern Gang and Irgun (led by Menahem Begin)[ii].  The massacre contributed to the flight from neighbouring communities also threatened with destruction. This and other massacres against Palestinians have been well documented by historians such as Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Walid Khalidi, Sami Hadawi and others. By the time the entire village of Lifta was occupied, most of its residents had already left and fled into the West Bank; the rest were taken by truck and dumped in East Jerusalem. By February 1948, Lifta had been completely depopulated. The Stern Gang and Irgun occupied the houses and broke holes in the roofs to ensure that they would be uninhabitable if the residents attempted to return[iii].

After this experience of dwelling in one of Lifta’s beautiful big houses, living off the land they owned and tilled, Rasmea and her family lost everything and were turned into refugees living off the charities of the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the West Bank. The following story of Rasmea’s childhood was relayed by Aisha Odeh (no relation to Rasmea) whom she met for the first time in an Israeli detention camp:

When a young child, Rasmea asked her mother: ‘Why, mother, do we not have a house like our neighbours?’ Her mother answered that their house is more beautiful than all of their neighbours. Where is it? Let’s go to our house.

Her mother told her about their house in Lifta and the story of running away from terror and becoming refugees, and how they were forbidden to go back to Lifta.  Rasmea asks: Why did you leave it mother? ‘We were concerned with your safety; we protected you from danger’, the mother answered. The child keeps insisting: When will we go back to our home? ‘When your father comes back.’ Where is my father? ‘He went to America [the U.S.]’. Why did he go to America? ‘In order to work, make money so we could go back to our home’. We do not want money, I want my father, and I want to go back home.

The mother cried hard, and Rasmea failed to understand the reasons for this, but she became very sad and could not sleep out of fear that something bad might happen to her mother. She spent her nights thinking of what she could do to prevent her mother from crying. The little child would roam the streets of lower Ramallah looking for America in order to bring her father back and make her mother happy, and kept thinking of the day they could go back to their home in Lifta “ (Odeh, in Abdo, 2014: p.69)[iv].

Rasmea’s story as related by Aisha Odeh (Ibid.) made mention of the former’s family experience living in the refugee camp, after leaving Lifta. Rasmea spoke of the hunger they experienced, as UNRWA used to supply them with insufficient food to live on for a month. “As a child, Rasmea had to go to garbage dumps and look for food.”(Ibid.)

With this daunting collective memory and harsh personal experience, and following the only path possible for people under colonialism and military occupation, Rasmea joined the Palestinian resistance movement in the late 1960s. Like thousands of other Palestinians, Rasmea decided to be part of the just Palestinian struggle for freedom from colonialism and Israeli occupation. And like tens of thousands of Palestinian men and women, Rasmea became a political detainee and spent 10 years in al-Led (Nve-Tertsa) detention camp/prison.

Victimized in her life before prison, in prison Rasmea was criminalized for her struggle for justice for her family and her people. Rasmea was tortured beyond imagination. She was physically, mentally and psychologically tortured, and sexually harassed and raped, by the Israeli prison authorities. However, her commitment to the cause of justice, to freedom and human rights, and her infection with the “disease of hope” (to use Mahmoud Darwish’s words) never faded away. Women who knew her in the detention camp spoke highly of her demeanour, of her resilience and strength. In an encounter with her in one episode of interrogation, Aisha Odeh, her comrade in the detention camp, relayed the following:

One morning we were informed by the female prison guard that we were to meet the prison   woman in charge. A white woman with European looks sat behind her desk. She kept us       standing while staring at us. She looked at the papers in front of her and repeated that we need       to listen to the guard’s orders. We responded: We are political detainees and we have rights    protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which stipulates the need for protecting our                 human rights. It also requires that we be provided with books, newspapers, papers and pens, and we should receive family visitations.

Upon hearing this she looked at us and said: ‘You are not political prisoners. You are children killers, you were blinded by hatred and animosity towards the Jews which were aired to you by “Ahmad Said” and other Arab radio stations encouraging you to kill Jewish children. Tell me, why do you hate the Jews? Why? Why?’ (Odeh, 2012, in Abdo, 2014: p.67).

“The prison official’s accusation,” Aisha continued, “fell on us like a heavy rock … we were shocked. It felt like a stab to the heart of our struggle. Immediately pictures and memory of their hostility towards our people exploded in front of us. We responded: You have no right to judge our struggle because you belong to a state which was established on terror, forgery, robbery and massacres … you appear to have forgotten or pretend to forget the many massacres you committed against our people; we shall remind you of a few: Deir Yassin, Qibya, Kufor Kassem and so on.”

‘At this point’, Aisha recalls, ‘Rasmea started crying non-stop…then she burst out like a volcano’:

They want us to not hate them? They want to deny us our emotions and memory the same way       as they denied us our homes, land and our dignity? Do you think I needed Ahmad Said [Arab     media commentator at the time] to tell us that we were expelled from Lifta, and that we lived           the bitterness of exile, its oppression, hunger and humiliation? And that what prevented us from hysteria and loss is our hope to return to our home and our village? Or that he [Ahmad Said]           played with our heads and made us think we were exiled from our villages and homes and we         believed in him? Do we need him to tell us that they even hunted us in our refugee camps? Or is     it that the occupation does not exist, it is just a fabrication, and we just imagine it?” (Odeh 2010,    in Abdo, p.67).

In prison and despite her ordeal, Rasmea set a powerful example of resilience and hope for her comrades. Women political detainees are required to do labour (forced labour) in prison. In many cases women refused such orders, through hunger strikes and other forms of resistance. In the case of Rasmea, as Aisha Odeh reveals, she was very proud doing agricultural labour when in al-Ramleh prison. The reason for that was the geographic proximity of the field (in Ramleh) and her original home Lifta. Rasmea, who was denied the right to see Lifta (Jafa-al-Ramle district) during her young and adult life, was able now to “smell the earth of her hometown,” in Aisha Odeh’s account.

Abdo T02851Between 2006 and 2009 as I was doing research for my book Captive Revolution: Palestinian Women’s Anti-Colonial Struggle Within the Israeli Prison System, I was very much looking forward to meeting with Rasmea, the woman who never lost her integrity and hope in fighting for justice. Unfortunately, I was unable to record her voice and listen to her experience as she had already left for the U.S.  For the first ten years of her new life in the United States (1995-2005), Rasmea lived as a lawful permanent resident, not in hiding, but as an activist and community leader among her Chicagoan community. She kept alive her struggle for justice and for the right of her people to live free of colonialism and occupation.

On 22 October 2013, Rasmea was arrested and charged with failing to include her past political detention in her naturalization papers, an event which dates back to 1969. Since then, Rasmea and hundreds of people supporting her have been battling this government prosecution. One of the most ironic issues about the Justice system in this case came up through the Judge presiding over it (Gershwin Drain), who allowed Rasmea’s conviction in Israel to be entered into evidence; even though he stated that Rasmea’s assertion that she faced torture and sexual abuse at the hands of her Israeli captors was “credible,” he still ruled that it could not be brought up in the course of her trial. The problem here is twofold. On the one hand, it is commonly acknowledged that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian political detainees are convicted in Israeli military courts and without due process. On the other hand, Rasmea was not tried in the proper court dealing with immigration issues, namely immigration court, but rather in a Federal court. Still, this court which is supposed to uphold the U.S. values of democracy and protection of citizenship rights has abrogated its own values by denying Rasmea the right to voice her own experience as a U.S. citizen.

As for the claim that Rasmea did not reveal her political detention in Israel: as we all know and as her attorney reminded the court, it is unlikely if not impossible that the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Government and the Immigration Authorities did not know about her detention. Rasmea’s case of political detention, torture and rape became public as early as 1975 as her torture was documented by lawyer Felicia Langer in Israel. Also, as mentioned earlier, Rasmea’s unthinkable torture by Israel’s prison authorities was made public in 1979 as it was investigated by the Sunday Times special investigation team and came out in a special booklet.

Evidence from this trial strongly suggests that Rasmea — tormented, tortured, raped and criminalized as a freedom fighter — once again is being criminalized as a Palestinian political activist. The woman who immigrated to the U.S. to care for her then ill father (now deceased) and who served her Chicagoan community for about 20 years is vilified by U.S. policies which have long been supporting Israel and criminalizing Palestinians and their supporters. As Angela Davis noted in her op-ed piece entitled, “Free Rasmea Odeh, Political Prisoner” (Detroit News of November 4, 2014):

Only now, when the Chicago activist community has effectively raised awareness of Israel’s       apartheid system and its violation of international laws, have immigration authorities decided to   challenge her status as a citizen. In light of success of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment           campaign, this case reeks of political payback.

Rasmea, Davis adds, “is not the only Chicago activist who has been targeted in the recent period. In 2010 anti-war activists — several from the Chicago area — were subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury about their support of Palestinians and Colombians.” The vindication of Rasmea, Davis attests, is not a lone incident within the Chicago community. “It is revealing” she writes, “that Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas, who is leading the investigation of the 23 activists, was in the courtroom on the morning Odeh was arrested, actively consulting with the assistant U.S. attorney who presented her case.” Jonas, Davis writes:

[H]as an even longer history of targeting Palestinians. He was the prosecutor in the case of the Holy Land Five, who were the heads of the largest Muslim charity in the U.S. before 9/11. He succeeded in getting inordinately long prison sentences for the five men, who provided charity to children in Gaza. The conviction of the Holy Land Five was based on ‘secret evidence,’ withheld from the defense and on the testimony of Israeli witnesses in disguise.

The targeting of organizations for democracy and human rights is nothing new to the Canadian scene. In 2009, the Canadian government withdrew its funding from various organizations that supported Palestinian victims of Israel’s human rights violations. This included the cancellation of funding to the Canadian Arab Federation, which worked for many decades as a resource center for Arab immigrants in Canada. It also cancelled its funding to Kairos, the Christian group. Both organizations were critical of Israel. In 2010, the Harper government also withdrew its funding from Rights and Democracy, the Montreal-based institution that backed Canada’s foreign policy by supporting the rule of law in such trouble spots as Haiti and Afghanistan, and  from one Israeli and two Palestinian NGOs critical of human rights violations by both Israel and the Palestinians. During the same year the Harper government cancelled funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which Israel dislikes.[v]

In conclusion, the criminalization of Rasmea Odeh is part and parcel of the North American general policy of full support towards Israel, regardless of the latter’s internationally acknowledged violations of Palestinian human rights. Rasmea is criminalized because of her commitment to justice and human rights, because of her relentless struggle for the just cause of her people. Rasmea’s “disease of hope”, which infected her as a child, had stayed with her during her many years of struggle; it made her fall in love with the prison’s forced labour simply because labouring in al-Led-Jafa area brought her closer to her destroyed village. Today, at the age of 67 and prior to the jury’s guilty verdict, Rasmea has kept her resilience and strength alive and she is a great inspiration to her supporters, telling them “we will remain strong” and promising to continue the struggle. Rasmea’s struggle is an inspiration to us all.

[i] Zochrot is an Israeli (Palestinian and Jewish) women’s organization aimed at reviving Palestinian and Israeli memory of the Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel. Among its activities is organizing tours to destroyed and depopulated villages with refugees from those villages. Lifta was visited by Zochrot and hundreds of its refugees and international supporters. See here.

[ii] For a graphic description of the terror, massacre and rape in Deir Yassin by Jacqus de Reynier of the International Committee of the Red Cross, see Nahla Abdo. Women in Israel: Race, Gender and Citizenship, 2011. Zed Books: pp. 82-83.

[iii] For more on the village of Lifta, see http://www.palestineremembered.com/Jerusalem/Lifta/.

[iv] See, Odeh, Aisha. 2012. Thamanan Lil-Shams (For the Sake of the Sun), Muwatin: The Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy. Ramallah, Palestine (Arabic); Abdo, Nahla. 2014. Captive Revolution: Palestinian Women’s anti-Colonial Struggle within the Israeli Prison System (London: Pluto).

[v] For more on the Canadian crack down on human rights and democracy organizations supporting Palestinians from Israel’s violations of human rights, see, Haroon Siddiqui “Stephen Harper’s homegrown human rights problem” (Toronto Star: 24 January 2010).

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