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Yamen, documenting history for a righteous future in the Gaza Strip

The story of human rights defender, Yamen Al Madhoun [Gaza Strip, Palestine]

 Written by: Patrick van Wersch
Edited by: Olivia Ayes

He was still a newbie with only two years of experience under his belt. But Yamen didn’t need long to decide to risk his life for what he believed was right. Under the cover of darkness he walked from Al-Sheikh Ejleen along the beach to central Gaza Strip. He heard Israeli soldiers talking on their walkie-talkies. They were up on the cliff plateau overlooking the beach. He was afraid of getting shot. It happened routinely to people crossing from one area into the other, especially at night. After two hours, Yamen reached the village that Israeli forces were set to bulldoze the next morning. There was not much time. The young field worker gathered statements from the villagers, rushed back to the office, and with his colleagues worked on the case until two in the morning. They filed a complaint with the Israeli military attorney who ruled to stop the demolition of all fifty-one houses.

It was a great victory. Six months later, the village still got destroyed.

Yamen Al Madhoun heralds this dangerous operation in 2004 when Gaza was still under full Israeli control as one of his greatest successes. It’s telling that his accomplishment ended with the destruction of what he tried to protect. Because human rights defenders like Yamen have very little to show for their work. More often than not, they cannot give the people whose lives are shattered through violence the justice they seek. Those working for human rights in the Gaza Strip are shackled by their circumstances which observers like Noam Chomsky and others have called prison-like conditions.

Yamen previously stayed in Maastricht as part of the Shelter City programme. Shelter City is a nationwide initiative of Justice and Peace Netherlands to protect human rights defenders, in cooperation with a growing number of Dutch cities and local organisations.

Yamen, human rights defender. Yamen works tirelessly to document and report on any human rights violations in the Gaza Strip. Source: Nuriya Oswald.

In this pseudo-penitentiary, what the forty-year old head of the field work unit of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights desires most is to protect internationally recognised human rights standards and values in Palestinian society through securing the rule of law. With his team of five field workers, and the support of many volunteers, Yamen works tirelessly to document and report on any human rights violations in the Gaza Strip committed by Israeli occupation forces and the Palestinian governing authorities.

Map of Gaza Strip. Source: Wikipedia.

Every Friday, for instance, his people take up positions at the border and in hospitals, to monitor the weekly “Great March of Return”  demonstrations. The field workers take pictures and gather testimonies from victims and witnesses. The next day they go back to collect affidavits, go through medical reports, check IDs, and look at fragments of any weapons used on demonstrators. For every type of violation four different forms have to be completed. Every single piece of data is entered into Al Mezan’s ever-growing database. The organisation disseminates its observations through press releases, workshops and trainings, reports, and other publications.

The Great March of Return: Around 30,000 Palestinians took part in massive protests over six months calling for the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees, and an end to the Israeli siege on Gaza. Source: Mohammed Zaanoun/Al Jazeera

One sad statistic showing up in Yamen’s data is the number of suicides. Every month, hospitals in Gaza City receive an estimated number of nearly sixty persons who tried to kill themselves. Al Mezan documented 12 cases of suicide in Gaza during 2018.

Yamen’s uncle, once a successful merchant in south Gaza, has lost half a million in U.S. dollars because of the blockade stopping goods from crossing the border.

“My uncle had bought a machine to make candles, but because it was held in custody at the border for almost two years, it didn’t work anymore when he finally received it. At the beginning of the siege in 2007 some people made some money using the tunnels to smuggle goods. Nowadays, that’s impossible. Many don’t pay for products anymore. They owe my uncle lots of money but now he might go to jail because he cannot pay his creditors anymore.”

Map of the Gaza Strip, featuring the six nautical mile blockade and strict borders restricting the movement of goods and people in and out. Source: UN OCHA/BBC

Unable to leave

But even some with good jobs and good health are unhappy to be living in Gaza, an area inhabited by some two million people. Yamen’s engineer friend and his wife both earned good incomes. They lived in a nice apartment and just had two kids to take care off. Most people in Gaza would love to be in their situation. Nevertheless, they decided to go to Canada. When Yamen asked his friend why, he responded that the water near the beach is polluted. That he can’t go without electricity. That the atmosphere is suffocating. That he needs a psychologist to stay sane. These are the circumstances for those living in the Gaza Strip—and better days don’t seem to be coming soon.

“I told the director that before I ask a single question I would observe the furniture. Does it look new, or worn and torn? What clothes are they wearing? Is it a brand? […] The lesson here is: First use your eyes and then decide if what you hear checks out.”

Asked to describe the place, Yamen’s eyes light up for a second. He refers to the long coastal line and the green lands that used to be full of trees and fields. But little is left of the natural beauties and the bountiful pastures. Some were forcibly removed to create a clearer line of sight for Israeli troops patrolling the border. Pollution is another big problem. Gaza doesn’t have clean water to drink. According to UN statistics, more than ninety-seven percent of water is dirty and undrinkable. Access to electricity is capped at four hours per day and Yamen says that Israel routinely bombs generating stations. More than a quarter of all children are poorly nourished. Half of the people don’t have a job; for graduates that’s two-thirds. Students that manage to get scholarships are unable to leave the region. Inhumanely so, the same faith befalls about half of the patients seeking treatment outside of Gaza; they are simply refused access. At the time of writing, Egypt had just opened a crossing but limited the influx to two to three hundred per day. More than 100,000 people registered their name.

But Yamen has no plans to leave.

With his wife of fourteen years and four kids—two boys, two girls—he lives in one of three flats that make up his family home in Gaza City. The youngest, a son, is the neighbourhood favourite. “I was serious with the first three, but the youngest, he does what he wants,” Yamen admits with a smile. His mother lives on the first floor, on the second his brother with seven kids. “He’s in a bad financial situation but keeps getting more kids. I tell him to stop, but he doesn’t listen.” The children sometimes play together on the stretch of grass in front of the house, but they’re not allowed to go out on the streets. “Some of the boys in our neighbourhood are no good. We try to protect our kids.”

Entire neighborhoods have been flattened by Israeli forces, with almost 2,000 homes completely destroyed in Shuja’iyya neighborhood district alone. This photo was taken in 2014 in Shuja’iyya. Source: Nuriya Oswald.

Although Yamen grew up and lived in Kuwait until he was thirteen—the family moved to Palestine after the Gulf War—he cannot imagine not being in Gaza. His wife worries, though. Not so much about herself and Yamen, but about the kids, who will grow up to face major challenges, such as poor education, little job prospects, and attacks from all sides. But Gaza has become part of him. The job, of course, but it’s more than that. “I’m an activist. This year, before I came to the Netherlands (Yamen was previously staying in Maastricht as part of the Shelter City programme), I hadn’t taken a single day off. Nor did anyone in my team. We even worked during the Eid al-Fitr. There is no one else to do the work. We have to show the world what really happens. Friday nights I can hardly sleep thinking about the press release I will send out the next day with our findings about the Great March of Return demonstrations and other investigations. We have to keep shining the light.”

Yamen, speaking at a lecture during his stay in the Netherlands.

Story of a little girl

In 2009, towards the end of the three-week Gaza War, Yamen did field work in Tal Al-Hawa, an area in west Gaza that was hit by drone missiles. Drones are still a common fixture in the skies above Gaza. Yamen hates them, loudly mimicking their mosquito-like sound to emphasise his dislike.

As he begins to describe the harrowing incident that took place there, the facial expression of the serious-looking, but good-spirited and humorous field worker saddens, and his voice softens.

“I had heard about this girl, nine or ten years old, living in the affected area, and I wanted to get her affidavit. Her father was an imam in the local mosque. A few days before, at eight o’clock, he had come back from the mosque when drones shot him to pieces in front of his house. She and her older brother of thirteen or fourteen saw their father, but there was nobody there to help. They had to hide and wait in their home. Eventually, the brother left the house and he was also targeted and killed. The girl, desperate, then also left the house and she too was shot, sustaining injuries to her legs. For three nights, she crawled under the trees to find a safe place. She slept outside, in the forest and on the streets. She then found a house with an open door. The owner was a T.V. correspondent and when he found her he delivered her story to the media. That’s how she came to our attention. I cannot forget the story of this little girl.”

The memory of the girl haunting Yamen’s mind is unfortunately not the only one of its kind. During his time as a field worker and now as the head of unit, Yamen knows violations take place every day, and not just from one side. In addition to researching Israel’s transgressions, his team also monitors and documents internal violations committed on their own people by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority and the Hamas de facto government in Gaza (read this useful Britannica entry for more background on the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian governing bodies and this concise report by Amnesty International on internal human rights violations in Gaza and the West Bank). Al Mezan has reported as recently as September 2018 on Fatah activists being detained by the security apparatus in the Gaza Strip. Likewise, Al Mezan received documentation from partner organisations in the West Bank that a number of persons affiliated with the Hamas movement were put in detention as well. These random arrests are a major source of frustration and a great hindering factor for more unity in Palestine which Yamen sees as a prerequisite for solving the current crises.

“Friday nights I can hardly sleep thinking about the press release I will send out the next day with our findings about the Great March of Return demonstrations and other investigations. We have to keep shining the light.”

At the same time, the Palestinian authorities are an important source of information for the field work team, but Yamen knows they not always cooperate. “We communicate with government offices to seek information about certain issues and to locate persons whom we believe are arbitrarily held in detention, and that helps to get the information we need, but that doesn’t always happen.”

At times, the partnership with local government is more constructive. Al Mezan’s training unit runs a programme called “Face the Public” through which people can file complaints and then the unit tries to bring them together for face-to-face meetings with the authorities responsible. Because Yamen’s team is so embedded in the communities, it is often called upon to organise and facilitate these meetings. Issues discussed are usually small, like sidewalks freezing over making it dangerous to walk on them, to garbage piles forming on street corners because no one is collecting the trash. But the meetings have proved their effectiveness.

This mediating role is an important part of Yamen’s job. One time, he wrote a letter to the head of the Gaza municipality to plead the case of Gaza fishermen who feared that the sand encroaching more and more upon the sea could affect the area where they dock their boats, causing the small ships to turn, maybe even break loose, which could result in equipment getting lost or destroyed. Yamen struck a deal with the municipality who promised to buy equipment to dig out and transfer some of the sand, protecting the fishing boats from harm.

Rays of hope

Fishermen and other food providers in Gaza bear the brunt of the blockade, Yamen has found. It visibly angers him: “If people cannot provide for their livelihood, how can they possibly survive?” The buffer zones, or Access Restricted Areas (ARA), also put severe limitations on the freedom of movement of farmers and herders and all who venture into these zones may be met with live-fire, as has happened hundreds of times already (for more on this read this report by Gisha, an Israeli not-for-profit organisation, on violations in Gaza’s Access Restricted Areas). And Yamen points to another violation. “The Israeli side is stealing clean water from north Gaza and allowing sea water to come into our good water. This, for instance, hurts farmers who grow ‘jawafa’, commonly known as guava. This year their yield was only half of what they usually take because of the salty sea water which they have to use to water the soil.”

Documenting these ARA-related violations requires Yamen and his team to work with organisations from both sides. They reach out to Israeli NGOs and Israeli officials to collect data and bring offenses to their attention. Sometimes they respond, sometimes not. The team also negotiates border crossings for cancer patients seeking care in the West Bank or Israel. Each patient’s crossing is celebrated as a small victory.

There’s a pragmatic side to the work and it’s a trait that Yamen himself possesses too. His activism is grounded in a realism that’s essential for doing the job he does. To gather, interview, day in and day out, to witness atrocities but stay composed in reporting on them; it must be a struggle at times, but Yamen is steadfast, even though the meager results of his efforts sometime frustrate him and the people he works for.

“First I introduce myself: ‘Sir, madam, we are collecting information on what happened to you and if you want we can submit your complaints to the government. We don’t know if it will be effective, but we believe we must at least try.’ Some of these people suffered many violations. They have seen us over and over again. They sometimes tell me: ‘We don’t have a home anymore. My son was killed. Those responsible are not in jail. Why would I talk to you?’ It’s hard, but I consider the few results we have achieved as rays of hope that one day we will have legal trials for the violations that happen in the Palestinian occupied territories. We have to keep doing this, because if these trials do take place, we will need the documentation and the information we gathered.”

He sees it as the biggest value of his work: “In this unfair world, the documentation is for history, for the future good. So that one day, whoever is responsible, righteousness is restored and justice is served. Because that’s all we seek: justice from the law.”

Yamen was previously staying in Maastricht as part of the Shelter City programme. Shelter City is a nationwide initiative of Justice and Peace Netherlands to protect human rights defenders, in cooperation with a growing number of Dutch cities and local organisations. Yamen is the head of the Field Work Unit of the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. Al Mezan has been subjected to continuous harassment, intimidation and threats following its cooperation with the International Criminal Court in the aftermath of the 2014 Israel military operation “Operation Protective Edge” which left over two thousand Palestinians dead. Defamation ensued in the form of suspicious emails, Facebook posts, phone calls to staff and donors relaying false allegations about the integrity of the organisation. To redeem itself, Al Mezan was externally evaluated and the lengthy process of investigation led to issues in funding within the organisation. Yamen is facing pressure and is working day and night. Some of his colleagues have been injured or killed. In June 2018 he also received personal threats from the internal security services because he was collecting information about violation of freedom of speech. On November 12, 2018, Israeli airstrikes levelled a hotel west of Gaza City. Al Mezan’s head office, located nearby, was damaged, with doors, windows, and furniture destroyed.