The Other Israel: Hava Keller, champion of Palestinian women

By Tim Wheeler, in People's Weekly World,
2 August, 1997

TEL AVIV - It is hard to imagine this soft-spoken grandmother, Hava Keller, as an infantry soldier in Israel's Haganah armed forces during the 1948 war of independence. But Keller told me during an interview at the seaside Shalom Hotel here that the war turned her into into a lifelong activist for peace and justice.

She is now the leader of the Committee for Women Political Prisoners and has worked to build solidarity with Palestinian women for the past 10 years.

"I was an ordinary combat soldier, not an officer," she said, recalling the events of 1948. "I was among the soldiers who conquered the town of Acco (Acre). We entered a house that belonged to an Arab family."

The residents had fled. The table was set for breakfast. "I looked down and there on the floor was a pair of child's shoes. I said to myself, 'They left his shoes! He'll get cold!''

There were many things worse than that that happened during the war, but that moment made a deep impression on her.

"I said to myself, 'It should not be done this way.' I hoped that the war would end soon and we would live in peace. I never imagined that people would be driven from their homes and never allowed to return."

Keller was born in Poland and emigrated to Palestine in 1941. All of her family who remained in Europe died in the Nazi concentration camps.

"From the Holocaust, you can come to two conclusions," she told me. "It should never again happen to anyone or it should never again happen to us."

Her position is clear. "It should never again happen to anyone. The plight of the Palestinians is not the same as the Holocaust, but it is bad enough!"

Keller spent her early years in Palestine on a kibbutz. Later, after the war, she completed her studies and became a high school teacher of history and civics. "Our children's education in Israel was so narrow. I was determined to broaden it. I taught courses in Islamic history and culture that were very popular with the students. The administration tried to fire me and my students came to my defense." She taught for more than thirty years before she retired.

She was galvanized into action in 1988 by the Intifada, the mass uprising of Palestinian youth in occupied Gaza and the West Bank. "It was a shock," she said. "Here were Palestinian children fighting with stones against heavily armed Israeli soldiers. We knew we had to do something."

A Palestinian woman came to Keller with a terrible story. Israeli soldiers had broken into a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip and abducted a woman, Aisha El Kurd who was eight months pregnant with her fourth child. The children were left in the care of the children's paralyzed grandmother while soldiers threw Aisha on the floor of a jeep and drove her at high speeds on unpaved roads evidently with the intention of inducing a miscarriage.

Finally they delivered her to prison where labor pains started. Her fellow inmates demanded that she be taken to the hospital. After she gave birth she was returned to prison.

"Her husband pleaded for her release," Keller said. "He told the Israeli authorities he would confess to anything if only they would release her. So the judge agreed that she would be released if she paid $3,000 U.S. currency - it is much better than shekels."

Keller said, "We ran like crazy from one end of Israel to the other to raise money for her release." They succeeded and Aisha was released but there was no place for her to go because the Israeli authorities had bulldozed her home.

"The United Nations gave her a tent. We made collections for her all over the world and bought her a home. We helped her get training as a midwife," Keller said. "Now she lives with her children in Gaza and somehow manages to eke out a living. Her husband is still in prison."

The movement was struggling to win justice for an estimated 5,000 Palestinian women. "Nobody knows exactly how many Palestinian women are imprisoned but we know there are more than 300 'administrative detainees,' some of them in jail since 1992," Keller said.

These "administrative detainees" have not been tried or convicted of any crime but are simply held indefinitely in the extensive network of prisons scattered throughout Israel. (During my travels across the Israeli countryside, I counted seven of these ramshackle prisons, their walls topped with concertina wire and guard towers at every corner).

Keller and her committee played an important role in the struggle to free 34 Palestinian women prisoners, a battle that became so intense that their release was written into the so-called Oslo II agreement signed by PLO Leader Yassir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the Hilton-Taba Hotel on Egypt's Red Sea coast Sept. 25, 1995. Implementation of the 400-page agreement was guaranteed by the Clinton administration.

Two months later, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing extremist after speaking to a peace rally of 100,000 people in Tel Aviv. As for the imprisoned Palestinian women, they continued to languish in Tel-Mond prison.

Keller made a pilgrimage every week to the jail outside Netanya where they were incarcerated. She got to know each of the women's families and her committee ended up serving as liaison with the inmates and the outside world.

Four months after Oslo II was signed, the Israelis still had not released the women. "It was written very clearly in Oslo II that all the women prisoners and detainees were to be released at once," Keller said. "The Israeli government was ready to release 25 of them but the remaining prisoners were not to be released."

In January 1995, the Palestinian women revolted. When the Israeli authorities attempted to release only the 25 women, they rushed into one tiny cell and barricaded themselves.

"All would leave the prison, or none would leave," said Keller. "They started a hunger strike and announced that if the prison authorities stormed the cell, they would all kill themselves."

The hunger strike lasted 21 days. But in the beginning, no one on the outside knew it was happening. Then one of the women managed to slip a note to one of the criminal inmates who had telephone privileges. The note said, "Call Hava Keller" with her phone number. The inmate did.

"She told me everything," Keller said. "At once, I telephoned the TV and radio stations and told them to send reporters because something interesting was happening at Tel-Mond prison."

The prison was besieged by scores of broadcast and print journalists and the story was out. (The People's Weekly World carried a report by our Middle East correspondent, Hans Lebrecht, on Feb. 10, 1996). The peace movement mobilized and Netanyahu was compelled to release all the women.

Yet even as the victory was unfolding, Keller and her women's committee played a crucial role. She telephoned a leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization at PLO headquarters in Gaza and asked him to fax her their list of the inmates.

"As soon as it came through, I went over it and found they had only 27 names," she said. "If they had submitted that list to the Israeli government, several of the women might be left in prison. So I faxed a message back to the PNA adding the missing names."

On the day of the release, Keller was in the crowd that gathered at the prison gate. "The PLO leader was also there. He spotted me standing at the fence and came running to kiss me. It was a victory!" Of course, she added, hundreds of Palestinian men remain imprisoned in Israel and the battle to free them is an urgent, unfinished task.

The weekend before I arrived in Israel, Keller and her committee helped organize a demonstration of over 1,000 Palestinian Arab and Israeli women through the streets of Jerusalem.

They carried banners that proclaimed, "Jerusalem is an undivided city - and the capital of two states, Israel and Palestine." It was one of the most dramatic actions yet of a growing phenomenon, Arabs and Jews demonstrating together for a just peace. "It was a joint demonstration initiated by two organizations, Bat Shalom and Jerusalem Links. We were very pleased because quite a few men marched with us," Keller said.

Joint actions are now growing in effectiveness, she said, since Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) launched a petition drive calling for peace. "Quite a few people, both Israeli and Palestinian signed. It included the son of the current mayor of Jerusalem and the brother of Netanyahu's wife," she said, with a merry twinkle in her blue eyes.

Many of the joint demonstrations are organized on the spur of the moment to protest the Israeli settlers who seek to grab Palestinian land - at Jhalad Abu Ghneim (Har Homa), a hill midway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, for example, where Israeli bulldozers have cleared a forest from the hillside to make way for a Jewish settlement.

"The Palestinians are angry and we stand with them. The only possibility of living as human beings for both Israelis and Palestinians is to live in peace. The alternative is war - and then there will be a terrible stillness here," she said.

"I have two grandchildren, I don't want them to die," Keller said. "I'm not happy about nationalistic states. But without a state of their own, the Palestinians will simply be swallowed. They must have a state and gain economic, social and cultural strength."

It was late at night, the eve of my departure from Israel when the interview was over, but Keller told me she had more work at her office. I asked her how she would get there this late at night.

"Oh, I travel everywhere by bus," she said. So we walked together through Tel Aviv's darkened streets to her bus stop. I kissed her cheek when we said good-bye.

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