Open Zion

11.01.13

Prominent Palestinian-American Community Activist Arrested

On Tuesday, October 22, Rasmieh Odeh, a Palestinian-American activist, was arrested by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at her home in Evergreen Park, Chicago. According to the FBI and DHS, she lied on her immigration documents. They say she omitted mention on her citizenship application of having served 10 years as a political prisoner in an Israeli jail. Although nearly 20 years have passed since she applied for citizenship, she is accused of immigration fraud.

Born in Lifta, a town just outside Jerusalem, in 1948, Odeh and her family fled to Ramallah when she was one month old. Like many Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war, her family of seven lived in one small tent, and later a single room, while struggling to make a living. Odeh began attending communist party meetings at the age of 12. Later, she became involved with the pan-Arab Arab National Movement (ANM), which was founded in 1958.

At 20, Odeh went to study at the American University of Beirut where she studied political economy. She returned to the West Bank in 1969 and was arrested by Israeli forces for her alleged involvement in the bombing of a West Jerusalem supermarket. Israeli authorities say the bombing was carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

In Prisoners for Palestine: A List of Women Political Prisoners, Odeh describes her experiences being arrested by Israeli security forces and then tortured,

“It was the Id al-Adha and all the family was present. They came at midnight when we were asleep and burst open the front door. "Where's Rasmiya? Where's Rasmiya? " My father asked them for their warrant, but they shoved him aside, entered the girls' bedroom and pulled me out of bed. I opened my eyes to see the room full of soldiers, my sisters petrified. They asked me at once, "Did you put the bomb in the supermarket? " I said I knew nothing. They wouldn't let me dress so I just put a coat over my nightgown as it was raining. As soon as we got into the car they started slapping and punching me. They took me to the Ramallah prison for one or two hours—I'm not sure how long. Then they blindfolded and handcuffed me and took me to a place that I thought very far, because we drove for so long, but I learnt later that it was the Moscobiya, the torture factory.”

Odeh goes on to describe her experience being tortured:

“The first time they stripped me and threw me on the floor, the room was full of men—civilians and soldiers. They laughed at my nakedness and kicked me, beat me with sticks, pinched me all over, especially on the breasts; my body was covered with bruises. Then they got a wooden stick, not a smooth one, and pushed it into me to break the hymen. They brought my father and fiancé to see me. I lost consciousness and when I woke I was in another room, lying on the floor with a blanket over my legs but my body still naked.”

This torture continued until Odeh was tried, and convicted in an Israeli military court, a court system where the average trial for a Palestinian lasts for three minutes, and has a 99.74 percent conviction rate. Odeh was sentenced to life in prison.

Ten years later, she was released as part of a prisoner exchange for an Israeli soldier captured in Lebanon. Although she was not permitted to return to Palestine due to her political involvement, she lived in Lebanon and then Jordan, where she worked as an attorney. She immigrated to the United States in 1995.

Rasmieh Odeh has been living in the United States for almost 20 years—and has been a naturalized citizen for nearly half that time. Now 66 years old, Odeh works as the Associate Director of the Arab-American Action Network (AAAN). She is a well-known activist and member of Chicago’s Palestinian-American community—the largest Palestinian-American community in the United States. In addition to her work with Palestine solidarity activism, she coordinates the Arab Women’s Committee, and focuses on cases of domestic violence within Arab-American communities. Recently, she was awarded the “Outstanding Community Leader Award” from the Chicago Cultural Alliance where she was described as a woman who has “dedicated over 40 years of her life to the empowerment of Arab women, first in her homes of Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon, where she was an activist and practicing attorney, and then the past 10 years in Chicago.”

Odeh’s trial was originally to be held on November 1, but the Committee to Stop FBI Repression has worked to push the arraignment to November 13 or 14. As of this writing, the exact date has not been determined. If she is convicted, she faces a fine and 10 years in prison. She will then be stripped of her U.S. citizenship and deported to Jordan, where she holds citizenship. But she cannot return to Palestine.