When I was a very young girl, I used to climb the window and stretch my arm out, trying to collect some rain in my small hand, then sip it, believing that it was the purest ever. I remembered this as I was listening to the raindrops hitting my room’s windows, which I made sure were securely closed, to keep the cold wind from blowing inside and disturbing the warmth my body felt under my heavy blankets.
Meanwhile, I could hear mum talking quietly from the room just next door, but couldn’t recognize exactly what she was saying. She suddenly paused and called me to join her and seize the chance to pray, as in Islam it’s said that prayers are more likely to come true while rain is falling. I closed my eyes as tight as I could and listened to her sincere prayers for us to accomplish all that we dream, for all sick and injured people to recover soon, for all dead to reach heaven, and for Palestine, from the sea to the river, to be free. As I could only hear mum’s voice along with the raindrops, a harmonic atmosphere spread around me, and my lips moved in silence, “Amen”.
Being a Muslim, I never celebrated Christmas myself, but having lots of Christian friends inside and outside Palestine has connected me to this day. I’ve always shared it with them one way or another, since I believe that religion shouldn’t stand as a barrier between human beings. Religion is to call for love, compassion, and tolerance. It should unite people, not divide them. Sadly, not all that is said is done. Three years ago, people around the world welcomed Christmas and the New Year happily with lights, colorful balloons and fireworks while Gaza received it with white phosphorous lighting the dark sky and rivers of bloods spilled by the Israeli Occupation Forces.
Even though I am Muslim, I’ve always appreciated the beauty of Christmas trees, lights, gatherings, meals and religious songs that I see Christians perform in the Christmas movies I watched. On this rainy and windy day, which I knew was Christmas, I wished that Gaza’s sky would snow so that it would be a typical Christmas day like movies made me picture. For an observer like me, snow adds a factor of beauty to Christmas celebrations, even though my Christians friends abroad would sometimes complain about it. I don’t blame them, though, as I have never seen any snow and never experienced its negative side.
I spent this Christmas Eve with Lydia and Joe, two of our Christian friends who came to Gaza in solidarity with Palestine, and in support of Palestinian people who live under the Israeli Occupation. My family and I didn’t hesitate to bring Christmas gifts and share this special day with them, as a form of appreciation for their indescribable humanity as they chose to celebrate it in the besieged Gaza Strip rather than joining their families on such a holy occasion.
Approximately three thousand people among Gaza’s population are Christians. Recently, I made new friends among them, a Christian family that I met through a funny coincidence. A couple of months ago, I was walking with my Greek friend Mack, who came to Gaza as a solidarity activist, and we passed a dress shop named Kopella. The name attracted Mack’s eyes, as it happened to be a Greek word for a young lady. He dragged me inside the shop, which we learned was owned by a Christian family named Alsalfiti. He was very curious to know if they knew what the word means, and it turned that they have a daughter studying in Greece, who chose this name for their shop.
Around a week ago, I visited the Al-Salfiti family with Joe and Lydia, who were interested to know how Christians in Gaza celebrate Christmas. The first thing my eyes glimpsed was a beautifully decorated plastic tree that was placed in the corner of their house to welcome Christmas. “I brought this from Bethlehem five years ago,” Lili, the mother, told me while pointing at the tree after she noticed my surprise.
“We used to get permits from the Israeli Occupation to Bethlehem every Christmas, to celebrate it in the Church of Nativity with our relatives who live there,” Abu Wade’ the father, said. “But that can no longer happen. After Shalit was captured by the resistance, people from 16 to 35 weren’t allowed to go. So my kids haven’t been able to join us in Bethlehem for more than five years. Many people are denied permission for the reasons of security, but no one knows what the security reasons are. For example, my wife and I applied a little while ago. She got permission, but I didn’t.”
Lili interrupted with a frustrated voice, saying, “Only a range of three to five hundred Christians get permission.”
Abu Wade’ raised his voice: “Remember, no Muslim is allowed by the Israeli Occupation to pray in Al Aqsa, either on their religious holidays or any other days.”
While talking about Bethlehem, I recalled precious memories stuck in mind since I was nine years old, just before the Second Intifada started. Mum struggled to get permission from the Israeli Occupation to take me and my two elder siblings on a trip to the West Bank. She eventually did, and so we went. I recall the few hours I had inside the Church of Nativity, and how strongly spiritual it felt to be where the Christ was born. I remember how my eyes were captured by the beauty of the place and its architecture that is enriched with history. Once I recalled these memories with Mum, and she laughed at me, remembering how surprised I was to see people crying very hard. When I asked her about it innocently, she replied, “Christians cry while praying out of reverence, just like Muslims do.”
It is very painful to think of how close I am to the West Bank, but how far the Israeli Occupation makes it seem at the same time. If I were to ask Santa Claus for something that would come true, I would wish that I could step on every grain of sand in our historical Palestine, freely visit Jerusalem to pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque and enjoy the smell of its air and its charming, mountainous nature, and visit Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. There are many beautiful, breathtaking scenes that I would love to draw as I see them in reality. I have faith that I will someday, once Palestine is free.
As the second stage of the prisoner swap deal begins, Israel is escalating its violations of the simplest rights of the Palestinian political prisoners still behind bars and exercising more violence against them.
A statement I have heard repeatedly from all my friends who are former prisoners, every time I have asked about how Israeli torture affects the prisoners’ spirits, is that “Israeli jailers never keep a sense of stability inside prisons. They expose prisoners to extremely difficult situations tying to depress their spirits. However, they always fail at achieving their inhumane aim. Their cruelty brings more strength and will out of the prisoners. No matter how strong those armed and heartless jailers are, our barehanded prisoners are stronger in spirit.”
On Tuesday, 13 December, a savage group of armed Israeli jailers broke into section 10 of Eichel prison and attacked prisoners aggressively. They sprayed tear gas and pepper powder at the detainees, which resulted in several injuries and cases of suffocation. They summoned additional military units to break into all 13 rooms of the section. Adding more savagery, they confiscated all the detainees’ possessions, dragging away TVs, fans, banning prisoners from the cafeteria, and cutting off electricity and water, leaving Eichel Prison isolated from the outer world.
Rebelling against this aggression, the prisoners reacted by chanting and banging on doors. Our strong-willed detainees have started a short-term hunger strike protesting the unjustified attack, and threatened to take serious protest action, like refusing to stand up for the daily count, in objection to Israeli soldiers’ brutality and arrogance.
As I read this news, reported by the Palestinian Prisoner Club, my mind was preoccupied with my friends Mohammed Brash and his brother Ramzy, who are imprisoned together at Eichel Prison and who witnessed this aggression. I found myself consumed with anger and contacted their family, who live in Al-Am’ary Camp in Ramallah. I called Hamza, their youngest brother, who sounded very worried. “I can’t wait to hear some news about them. I don’t know what to expect from Israeli brutality. My brothers might be among those who were injured, but I can never know. Tomorrow, a lawyer of a detainee imprisoned there that I know is going to visit Eichel Prison, and we expect to hear some news if he is allowed to visit.”
His words added insult to injury. He made me even more frustrated than I was already. Thinking of his mother, I asked him whether she knew about this attack that prisoners, including her two sons, had faced. I hoped that she doesn’t know about the increased repression. He settled my fears that his mother was aware. “If you were me, would you tell her?” he asked me, but when he only heard my silence, he continued “of course, I didn’t tell her. Imagine the reaction of a mother of two detained sons in the merciless Israeli prisons as she hears of this attack against them. She is already worried and laments their names over and over again, just knowing that they are in prison for the tenth year, so what if this old mother hears such terrible news?”
These violations by Israeli jailers are not something unusual to our ears, which are used to hearing about their violence and aggression, and to our eyes, which are used to witnessing their enduring crimes, oppression, and humiliations against all categories of Palestinian people. However, one shouldn’t stay silent. The language of silence means submission to their power, which they think is unbreakable, and allows them to exceed all red lines and openly violate human rights and international law. Only the language of action can work here.
My voice is muted but every feature of my face speaks sorrow and anger. There is no need to wonder why. It’s Palestine, the rich land where smiles can turn to tears and laughs can turn to sighs in a second. It’s Palestine, where series of sad stories mixed with strength, will, and glory never end.
Anees and Akram Al-Namoura are brothers who were released in the first stage of the prisoner exchange on October 18 after spending ten years, originally supposed to be two life sentences, in prison. They joined the resistance by the beginning of the second Intifada, answering the call of their occupied lands and oppressed people to defend them, ready to pay any price that their precious homeland, Palestine, would require. While Israel was aggressively and continuously attacking, killing, wounding, and detaining Palestinian citizens, the brothers took to arms against the occupying army hoping for a better future for their family, their neighbors and their community. They planted a bomb beneath an Israeli tank, killing two Israeli soldiers.
I coincidentally met Anees, the elder brother, in his hotel while I was interviewing some other former detainees. After having a short chat, I learned that he was somehow related to my mother’s family. Then he told me that his imprisonment started five months before his brother’s. I commented innocently, “I can’t imagine how hard it is for your mother to have two sons in prison at the same time. But it is a little fortunate that you and Akram met each other there.” He shook his head, smiling at my naïveté, and corrected me. “No. We were in prison at the same time, but separated by the Israeli Prison Administration for the first five years. We tried legal remedies, but no lawyers and no courts could bring us together. So we started an open hunger strike to pressure them, and we were clear that our hunger strike would end only after they had met our demands. We could eventually meet and live as brothers in Armon Prison, in the same cell, for the last five years of our imprisonment. “
Anees and Akram couldn’t enjoy the blessing of kissing and hugging their elderly parents even after they gained their freedom. Israel imposed a separation of a different kind on them as they were exiled from Hebron to the Gaza Strip. But this was only additional pain from a wound that was already existed, as their 80-year-old father, a cancer patient in a wheelchair, and 65-year-old sick mother weren’t allowed to visit their detained sons for more than three years.
When I Googled Anees and Akram’s names, I encountered a video of their parents from a year ago. They were interviewed about how it felt having sons in the Israeli tyrants’ prisons. “How can an old man like me, sick with cancer, threaten Israeli security?” their father wondered with a shaking voice full of sadness. “I collected all papers that explain my health situation, which is getting worse, and tried every possible way to meet my sons again before I die.” After watching the video, I smiled despite my sadness, thinking of how merciful God is: Anees and Akram’s father is still alive and has witnessed his sons attaining freedom.
In the same video, their mother, with expressive wrinkles that evoked long years of suffering, said, “I only wish I could sit on their beds, as I used to when they were young, and play with their hair while their heads lie on my knees.” The father challenged his disability by joining his sick wife and one of his daughters in a trip to the Gaza Strip to meet their sons only six days ago. This trip couldn’t happen earlier, as their permission to leave through Jordan was denied by Israel, and they obviously couldn’t come here through the Erez border for “security reasons.” However, if there is a will, there is a way. They eventually overcame all obstacles and made it here.
Six days ago, I heard Mum speaking cheerfully to Dad about the arrival of Anees and Akram’s parents and sister safely. Today, I saw Mum’s tears for the death of their mother, who had waited long to hug her sons and celebrate their freedom. “Oh Allah, her destiny was to live and not die before she enjoyed seeing and hugging her sons between her arms once again,” Mum said with tearful eyes as she entered our home after the funeral. After ten long years of waiting, with worry, sadness, suffering, and humiliation between checkpoints as she tried to visit her imprisoned sons, she lived six days with them before passing away, leaving us a real legend, a symbol of patience, challenge, and motherhood.
Update on August 7, 2012: After Akram and Anees lost their mother, Anees suffered some medical problems. He had a kidney failure. Doctors thought that this might be caused because of the mass hunger strike he joined which lasted for 24 days and ended following the agreement between Israel and Hamas to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 prisoners, including him and his brother.
Anees’s medical situations was so bad. Doctors said that in order to rescue his life, someone has to donate a kidney for him. Hazem, his 30-year-old brother decided to sacrifice one of his kidneys for Anees. Thankfully, the surgery was successful. I saw Anees after he recovered many times and he looked very well and healthy.
Sadly, when Anees’s medical condition got better, Hazem’s health was under risk. Today, Hazem passed away. Please pray for this symbol of brotherhood to rest in peace. And pray for Anees and Akram to stay strong after their mother’ and their brother’s loss.