Testimony: Police detain Palestinian laborers in a meat truck, denying them air and water for over two hours, May 2009

Fathi Hamaeyl, construction worker

Fathi Hamaeyl

I do all kinds of construction work. Because there is no work in the West Bank, I have to work in Israel.

My cousin is in an Israeli jail, so I can't get a permit to enter Israel, and I have no choice but to enter in other ways. It has been really hard since they began building the separation fence, and we always have to look for new ways.

Yesterday [Saturday, 9 May], I left my house around 2:00 A.M. and headed to my jobsite in Israel. I walked to a-Nebi Musa, where, at 7:30 P.M., other laborers and I got onto a refrigerator truck used to transport meat. This time the meat was a different kind - living human meat.

There were 63 of us in the truck's refrigerator compartment, which was about 12.5X7 square meters. We ranged in age from 15 to 55. The front of the truck had two windows that opened to provide ventilation. Each of them was 20x30 square centimeters.  We sat next to each other, and in the center workers sat back to back. We didn't realize how serious the situation was until we got caught, in the area between Ein Gedi and Beer Sheva.

We passed the Ein Gedi crossing without a problem. Then I saw a police jeep with its lights blinking. It drove behind us for about ten minutes. Then the police signaled the driver to stop. It was about 8:15 P.M. I heard one of the policeman ask the driver, “What do you have?” He replied, “Vegetables.” The policeman then said, “This truck is for transporting meat.” “Yes,” the driver said. The policeman then asked, “Why does it have windows?” The driver replied, “I'm transporting vegetables.” The policeman told him to open it, and then he saw us squeezed inside.

The policemen looked at us and immediately closed the door. Then the truck drove for a few minutes and stopped. I looked out the window and saw that we had stopped on the side of the road.

Time passed, minute after minute, and nothing happened. We remained inside the refrigerator compartment. While we were moving, air entered the truck, but when we stopped, the situation got very bad, and it was hard to breathe. We were very worried. The temperature kept rising, and every time somebody tried to go to the window, the policemen shouted at him. The policemen took our identity cards through the window.

We were all sweating a lot. We took turns next to the window so we could breathe some air. When we did, the policemen threw stones at us. Thank God none of us was injured. One time, when a policeman yelled at one of us, the man said to him, “Throw a stone. Fire a bullet. It makes no difference. I want some air.”

After about fifteen minutes passed, I asked the policemen to let me go to the bathroom. What I really wanted was to get out, because it was horrible inside the refrigerator. I felt as if I was suffocating and couldn't breathe. The policemen didn't let anybody go out, and they didn't bring us water, even though we asked repeatedly.

 

Time passed, and we were sure they intended to keep us inside until we died. Generally, when they catch workers like us, a large police force arrives and takes us to one of the crossings and lets us return to the West Bank. This time, no additional policemen came. We threatened to break down the door, but the policemen threatened to open fire. Each time one of us said we were suffocating, they responded, “You can all go and die! We don't want you alive.” They said this a few times.

We were sure we were going to die, and it would be better for them to shoot us than to die slowly. Many of us were no longer able to stand. One of us, a forty-year-old with diabetes, fainted. When we told the policemen that we had a diabetes patient among us, they said, “Let him die!” We had some water, which we poured on his face, and one of the men removed the man's clothing from his upper body, and waved them above him until he regained consciousness.

Our clothes were wet from sweat. I called human rights organizations and reported what was happening. After a while they began to call me from time to time to stay updated. One of us had to urinate, and he relieved himself in an empty bottle. By that time, we had no water left. It was a nightmare. We felt as if we were in a mass grave and that we would suffocate to death. The darkness inside made things worse.

Around 11:30 P.M.,  a few army and police jeeps arrived. We thought the incident was about to end. Until that point, we thought that the police had not reported about us to anyone and that they wanted to keep us in the refrigerator until all of us were dead.

We expected the door would open, but it didn't. The truck drove to the Ein Gedi Crossing, where they opened it. We could finally breathe. We got out without thinking, walking all over each other on the way out. The only thing we could think of was to get out and breathe.

There was a large number of jeeps and soldiers, like at a war front, or as if they had captured terrorists. All we wanted to do is work and live in dignity with our families. Reality has forced us to take these life-threatening risks so that we can survive.

I spoke with one of the soldiers, who was an officer judging from the insignias on his shoulder. I speak Hebrew well, and I told him that we needed an ambulance because a few men didn't feel well. He replied, “There isn't any!” They gave them water until we recovered a bit. We sat on the ground.

The soldier I had spoken with called five of us and talked with each of us separately, away from the others.

They kept us at the checkpoint for an hour, and then they told us to get back into the truck. It drove to Jericho's DCO checkpoint. We got out, and the soldiers told us to sit on the ground.

About ten minutes later, they gave us back our identity cards and let us walk toward the Palestinian National Security checkpoint, in Jericho. National Security personnel waited for us with food and water, and there was an ambulance to treat those who needed treatment. National Security hosted some of us until the morning at its headquarters.

I returned home without food or money, and didn't know what to tell my children. My children always  wait for me to come home with money so I can buy them things they need and want.

I've been caught in Israel a few times. I was beaten and detained for many hours, but this time was the hardest. I thought I was going  to die for sure. I didn't think I'd live through it. It was a real grave: dark, stifling, hot, and scary. A real case of horrible suffering.

I struggle to support my family, so that my children won't have to rely on help from others. To support them, I withstand cold, hunger, and humiliation. Often, I work in Israel for a few days, even a week. I have slept under trees. On cold winter days, I have found old mattresses thrown alongside garbage cans and covered them with nylon so they wouldn't get wet. Once, I found my mattress burned. Another worker invited me to sleep at the site where he was working, but when I got there, it was full of workers, and there wasn't any where to lie down.

One of the young men gave me a place alongside him, but it was very crowded, and I didn't manage to get to sleep because it was so cold and the building didn't have a roof yet. I left and ran through the streets at 3:00 A.M. I passed a police station a few times, hoping the police would arrest me, so I could warm up inside. But they didn't.

I called a laborer I know and told him about my situation, that I was about to collapse. He gave me directions to an abandoned house were he was sleeping. It took me a long time to get there, and when I did, he gave me his bed to sleep in until morning.

Fathi Muhammad 'Ayed Hamaeyl, 33, is a construction worker and a resident of Yatma, in Nablus District. His testimony was given to Salma a-Deba'i at the witness's house on 10 May 2009.