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Posts tagged “Swap deal

Israel’s prisoner release doesn’t legitimize “negotiations”

When I heard that the Palestinian Authority agreed to resume negotiations with the Israeli occupation, I fell into a depression. Here we go again, I thought.

It is a repeat of the what followed the 1993 Oslo accords, time after time.

Yet again, the Israelis are represented by Tzipi Livni, who as a member of the government played a key role during Israel’s 2008–2009 invasion of Gaza.

And opposite her, once again, is Saeb Erekat as Palestinian “chief negotiator.”

How could the blood of the 1,400 victims killed during that massacre be forgotten so quickly? How could Erekat share the same table with her, as he did at a Ramadan iftar at the house of US Secretary of State John Kerry, exchanging smiles in the name of “diplomacy” and “realism”?

Fake “confidence-building measures”

As part of the deal to resume these talks, Israel agreed to release 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners, in phases, as a so-called “confidence-building” measure and to encourage progress. Most of the prisoners have nearly completed their sentences.

The first 26 were freed on 13 August, 11 to the West Bank and 15 to Gaza.

Confidence? Progress? The same buzzwords were used about the Oslo accords two decades ago. Has no lesson been learned?

As Addameer notes, “over 23,000 Palestinians have been released since 1993 as ‘goodwill measures’ during various negotiations and peace talks. However, in that same period, at least 86,000 Palestinians have been arrested, including children, women, disabled persons and university students.”

Currently Israel holds more than 5,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Such “confidence-building measures” are a sham!

In fact, what Israel has been doing all along is accelerating its settlement-building measures. Since 1993, the number of settlers in the occupied West Bank has continued to grow, as Palestinians, impoverished and squeezed, continue to be displaced by Israeli home demolitions and land confiscation.

Since its creation, the Palestinian Authority has served as Israel’s first line of defense against any Palestinian resistance to this colonization.

Because of inaction, and global acceptance of decades-long brutality and land theft – as long as Israel is committing it – the number of illegal Israeli settlers is now more than 600,000.

Of course, just days before the next round of talks were supposed to start, Israel has announced plans to add 1,200 more settler homes.

How could we return to negotiations based on this same framework with the same US mediators?

Nothing left to give

The Palestinian experience of the “peace process” is this: Israel does not want peace. It wants our land and our water. It wants to destroy our heritage, and it wants us to leave our homes, just as it is about to force 40,000 more Palestinian Bedouins out of their homes.

Saeb Erekat, of all people, knows – and this was exposed by the leaked Palestine Papersin 2011 – that when he offered Israel almost all the settlements, and the right of return of our refugees, it wasn’t enough. Israel still demanded more.

“What is in that paper gives them the biggest Yerushalaim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarised state … what more can I give?” Erekat told an American official in 2010.

Although he supposedly “resigned” after these revelations, Erekat and all the other discredited people, who should never be representing Palestinians in the first place, are back for more.

Remember that the Palestinian Authority had vowed not to return to negotations until Israel agreed to freeze settlements. They couldn’t even keep that promise. How could they be trusted to protect any Palestinian rights?

The meaning of peace

As much as peace is a dream for the Palestinian people, I sometimes wish I could wipe out the word “peace” from the dictionary.

We do hope to see a just peace, but with those who really want peace, not with such a brutal occupier whose talk of peace while playing the victim serves as an obscene cover for unrelenting crimes against our people.

Prisoners give us hope

The unyielding stance of many former prisoners and the families of detainees towards such compromises has always revived my hope.

Their opposition was not softened by the news of the prisoner release, and they are the ones who know best what it is like to be imprisoned or have a loved one in prison.

They were some of the first people who organized rallies in Gaza protesting the resumption of negotiations describing them as nothing more than “concessions.”

I was delighted to see their anger directed at the Palestinian Authority, which some of them accused of betrayal.

Detainees and released prisoners have an unmovable willingness to remain patient, to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to bring justice to our people, without a flicker of hesitation.

At the same time they affirm that the liberty of any prisoner is a victory that neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority can spoil.

We must not let the use of our detainees as a political tool dampen the joy that their families and communities feel at seeing them return home.

Israel cannot steal people’s joy

At midnight, on 14 August, the Palestinian people were due to witness the first prisoners come home.

The Israelis deliberately released the prisoners very late, likely to prevent as many people as possible from gathering to celebrate their freedom.

However, thousands of people in Gaza and the West Bank welcomed them home from Israel’s “graves for the living,” with Palestinian flags, fireworks, songs and chants of freedom.

And we know that all of these releases come with no guarantees: whenever Israel decides to take their liberty back, they will be re-arrested.

“At least 12 prisoners who were re-arrested after their release in the October 2011 prisoner exchange are currently facing the possibility of serving the remainder of their previous sentences,” Addameer notes.

But nothing will stop us rejoicing for every mother who fought to live long enough to hold her son in her arms once again, or for children having to live as orphans with only their father’s image in their minds or hanging on the walls, finally seeing their dad in person.

And all Palestinians waiting for justice, or waiting to come home, will be inspired by the patience of the families who overcame decades of absence and suffering as they crossed endless Israeli apartheid checkpoints and endured racist and humiliating treatment to see their beloved for 45 minutes at a time through a glass screen.

Just one prisoner released from Israel’s narrow and dirty cells, unfit for humans, is a victory.

No applause for the PA

But there’ll be never be applause for the Palestinian Authority, which, while giving up our basic rights, trades with Palestinians’ emotions towards their loved ones in Israeli prisons in order to give legitimacy to endless rounds of futile negotiations.

While forgetting its own crimes against us, including the countless ones for which no one has ever been held accountable, Israel always tries to highlight a few cases to paint Palestinians as monsters.

Over the decades, some 750,000 Palestinians have been in Israel’s prisons. They are the ones who willingly took on their shoulders the struggle to bringing back freedom, dignity and a just peace for their oppressed people.

For that they were willing to sacrifice the most precious of things: their freedom. We demand the release of all Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails and call for an immediate end to the abominable treatment of Palestinian detainees. Resistance to a brutal military occupation is not a crime, but a duty.

Our people’s sacrifices and ongoing suffering under this merciless occupation will not go in vain.

Freedom for all Palestinian political prisoners!


“They enjoy breaking mothers’ hearts over their sons”: Gaza mourns a detainee’s mother

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“The detainees spend their imprisonment waiting for their families’ visits,” Dad once said, recalling the Israeli Prison Service IPS punishing him by denying him family visits during his 15 years of imprisonment. “Despite all the suffering and humiliation attached to their procedures, family visits are as important to prisoners as the air they breathe.”

Following the capture of Gilad Shalid in June 2006, Israel collectively punished Palestinian political prisoners from Gaza by banning family visits, one of their basic rights and a lifeline between detainees and their families. “Under international humanitarian law, Israeli authorities have an obligation to allow the detainees to receive family visits,” said Juan Pedro Schaerer, the head of the ICRC delegation in Israel and the occupied territories.

Our detainees’ determination proved stronger than the jailers’ guns. In exchange for ending the one-month mass hunger strike in May, they made Israel comply with the international humanitarian law and reinstate family visits to Gaza Strip detainees after almost six years without them.

On July 16, 48 family members were finally allowed to see to their relatives in Israeli jails for the first time since Shalit’s capture, through barriers for 45 minutes. However, Israel imposed its own conditions on the visits. Only wives and parents were allowed to visit. Detainees’ young children weren’t, “for security reasons.” Fathers must imagine their children growing up without them, or wait for the miracles of their smuggled pictures.

Last Monday, August 6, the fourth group of detainees’ families gathered in front of the ICRC to visit their relatives in Nafha prison. The day before a visit, the ICRC usually announces the names of approved relatives.

Among those who received permits were the parents of detainee Yahya Islaih, who was captured on August 24, 2008 and sentenced to 12 years. His 75-year-old mother and 80-year-old father arrived very early at the ICRC, dressed very traditionally and beautifully. Yahya has not met his parents since his arrest. I used to see Yahya’s mother Aisha in the sit-in tents for political prisoners. She barely missed any protest, despite her advanced age. Last Monday was supposed to be her first reunion with her son in four years. But destiny stood between them.

Aisha breathed prayers of thankfulness that she had been blessed with another opportunity to talk to her son, and see him through a barrier after five years of separation. While sitting in the bus, wishing that time would move faster, she felt the gasp of death and leaned on a neighboring woman’s shoulder.

Later that morning, as I was getting ready to leave for the weekly protest for political prisoners, I read the terrible news. I found it difficult to believe that this had really happened.  I thought that we only hear such stories on dramas. But it did happen. When she was so close to meeting her son again, she passed away. Death separated them, just as Israel had for so long.

I left home with tears in my eyes. When I arrived at the protest, people were very quiet. Everyone was in shock. I could read the sorrow in every eye. The elderly mothers of detainees cried while hugging the banners of their sons. Each seemed to wonder, “Will we share Aisha’s fate?”

Amidst silence and sorrow, the 75-year-old mother of detainee Ibrahim Baroud who has been detained for 27 years stood and began shouting. “Enough tears. Tears won’t bring her back to life! Just pray for her soul to rest in peace.” Om Ibrahim Baroud was in the first group issued permits to visit their sons on July 16. That was her first visit to her son, after 16 years banned “for security reasons.” “How would an elderly mother like me threaten their security?” she always complained. “They are simply heartless and merciless, and enjoy breaking mothers’ hearts over their sons.”

The world blamed her when she hurled her shoes at Ban Ki-moon’s convoy when he entered Gaza. She was angry and disappointed by his prejudice when he refused to meet prisoners’ families in Gaza, after repeatedly visiting Gilaad Shalit’s parents. But they didn’t know to how much she had suffered at Israel’s hands.  Read the story of this incident, when shoes and stones welcomed Ban Ki-moon to Gaza, here.

After the protest, I went to say hello to her. “Are you joining us for the funeral, Shahd?” she asked, every wrinkle in her face revealing her sadness. “Yes, grandmother,” I answered, even though I hadn’t known of the plan. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go or not. Honestly, I fear funerals.

But when I said yes, she caught my hand so I could help her to the bus, and pushed me forward as if she sensed my hesitance. “When I saw her last Monday, she congratulated me for having visited my son, and sighed while hoping that her turn to see hers again would come soon,” Om Mahmoud said.

When we arrived at the funeral, we learned that Aisha hadn’t been buried yet. She was in a narrow room with two doors. It was crowded with women. They entered one by one from a door, kissed her, prayed for her, and then left through another door. I glanced at the scene, then pushed myself away, trying to postpone my turn. I recalled meeting my dear friend Vittorio Arrigoni for the last time as a dead body.

I stood next to a woman who happened to be Aisha’s niece. “Yahya wrote her a letter once, asked her to remain steadfast and know that she would see him again,” she said with tears streaming down her cheeks. “He asked her to wear her traditional Palestinian dress when she comes to visit him again. And she did. After she learned that she would visit him, she was very happy. She ironed her new dress, which she had kept for Yahya’s wedding after his release.” She burst out crying and continued, “But she neither visited him, nor would she ever attend his wedding.”

Finally my turn came. I entered, one foot pushing me forward, the other backward. I saw her body and kissed her forehead. I still can’t believe I did. Traumatized, I returned home in the afternoon and slept. I couldn’t stand thinking of her, nor her son, who would never see his mother, alive or dead again. I felt like I wanted to sleep forever, but I woke up after twelve hours.

Please pray for Aisha’s soul to rest in peace, and for her son to remain strong behind Israel’s bars. Her story is more clear and bitter evidence of the suffering our detainee’s families endure because of Israel’s violations of their basic rights and their families’.


What was supposed to be a wedding ended up a funeral

Samer and his mother

“Samer will get engaged!” My friend Loai said with a big laugh. “Oh my God! Really? When?” I burst out with an endless list of questions and exclamations in my head.

Samer Abu Seir is an ex-detainee who was released in Shalit’s prisoner exchange and deported from Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip. Getting married should not be surprising for a single man at the age of 46. However, Samer is one of the few released prisoners who was cautiously considering getting married especially after he spent more time in the Israel jails than he spent outside. I remember when I first met him and asked him how long he had been detained and he answered me sarcastically, “Nothing! It was only a matter of 24 years passed like a blink of an eye.”

He always thought that he needed time to keep up with the updates of the outside world that occurred without him noticing. He always felt that he needed to be accustomed to seeing the blue sky, the green trees, the crowded buildings, walking on Gaza’s beach and feeling its breeze smoothly hitting his cheeks, instead of being under that dark-gray ugly ceiling, in a narrow jail, and between the same four surrounding walls where neither sunshine nor air could sneak in.

“What was the reason behind this sudden decision?” I asked. “His 83-year-old mother is in a grave situation,” Loai replied. “He rushed this just to make her happy, so if she dies, she can rest in peace.”

Samer has grown up fatherless. He lost his father when he was a little child when he was away in Jordan. His widow mother had raised him along with his other two brothers and two sisters by herself. He thinks the whole world of her. She is a symbol of motherhood who had raised her children on the noble values of love, dignity, and sacrifice for Palestine. She believed that there is always a price for everything you fight for, and she has instilled these beliefs in her children. Samer and his family have paid the price in many ways. The simplest example of pain that he has always endured was that his family never gathered for a meal. There was always at least a member missing.

Samer had always suffered the ban of family visits for long periods, especially during his detention in solitary confinement for 3 years and a half. These times were the most difficult that Samer lived inside prison as he constantly kept thinking about his mother and fantasizing how her wrinkles beautifully spread in her beautiful loving and peaceful face. The family visits were his only connection with the outside world. Once a family visit ended, he eagerly waited for the next one.

Moreover, Samer had always led unsettled life in prison as he was moved around to every one of Israel’s prisons. Samer’s constant thinking of his mother made it more painful for him to tolerate such inhumane practices of the Israeli Prison Service (IPS). Samer’s mother never let that or any of the humiliating actions she received from strip searches and insults hold her away from having 45-minute meeting with her son through a barrier between them.

Even after Samer was released, she didn’t stop suffering. She handled the pain of Samer’s 24 years of imprisonment without complaining, and then she kept suffering the pain of him being forcibly deported away from her. This is another violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits deporting people within or outside the occupied territories.

While thinking about Samer’s motive to get married, I recalled his cute old mother who arrived to Gaza almost a week after the prisoners’ exchange, challenging her age and deteriorating health condition. Last November, I joined my family to a celebration of freedom where almost no one was taking seats, all people were happily performing Dabka, the folk dancing of Palestine, and waving Palestinian flags as revolutionary songs were playing loudly in the background.

Samer’s mother dancing celebrating her son’s freedom

There, my eyes fixed on an elderly woman wearing the Palestinian traditional dress. She could barely walk or stand but her happiness gathered all the strength inside her to dance slowly and erratically. My eyes were following her with joy and wondering who she was. I asked Dad about her. “She is Samer’s mother. Wherever you see her, she is dancing. When she gets out of the car, she dances. when someone visits her at home to congratulate her with her son’s freedom, she dances. Look how happy she is!” Dad answered smilingly. “She reminds me of your grandmother who was just like that when I was set free. All the Gaza Strip would hear of my freedom because of her. She’d be dancing and singing songs of freedom wherever she went.”

Samer was enthusiastically going to officially get engaged today’s evening and let his mother declare his engagement from Jerusalem through Skype. But destiny stood against his intentions of making his mother happy. Sadly, this morning he woke up on hearing the news of his mother’s death and what was to supposed to be a wedding turned out to be a funeral.

I am thankful that at least she lived long enough to celebrate her son’s freedom. This reminds me of another story I wrote last December of a mother of two former prisoners who have been deported from Hebron to Gaza, and who died a week after she arrived to Gaza and wrapped her two sons between her arms once again. Please say a prayer for Samer and his family.


In Valentine’s Day, A celebration of Love And Struggle

The former prisoner Allam Ka'by

I just returned from a wedding, a wedding that I waited for fervently since I met its groom in October, 2011. Oh October, how many nice memories you brought me and how many amazing people you introduced to me. Allam Ka’by, today’s groom, was one of them and has become a close friend. Feeling blessed to meet this person, I want to briefly express my thankfulness for the day that resulted in us meeting. October 18, the day of the first stage of Gilaad Shalit’s swap deal, was a remarkable memory in Palestinian history. It marked victory. This day is printed in my mind like no other day. How could I forget the day that brought freedom to 447 Palestinian’s, of which Allam was one?

In the 20 years I’ve lived in Gaza, I never witnessed a day as happy as this. Festivals were held in every corner. It felt like not only people were celebrating. The sky, the trees, the buildings, everything was celebrating freedom. It was a day of unity, a day of compassion. Happiness was shared all around Gaza. Even those families who weren’t lucky enough to see their relatives in prison that day were so happy; excited to meet the released prisoners to hear news of their relatives. They joined the celebration with a high spirit and greater hope that soon freedom would also be coming to their beloved ones, who are still locked behind the Israeli bars. “My son wasn’t released, but at least this swap deal brought me news about him from his fellows that calmed the fire burning inside me during all nine years I haven’t been allowed to visit him,” said Om Ibrahim Baroud, a mother of a prisoner who’s serving his 26th year in jail.

My first meeting with Allam Ka’by

Allam Ka’by spent aound 15 years in total in Israeli jails, but sadly, the day of his freedom was celebrated away from his family. He is originally from Balata Camp in Nablus, but Israel forced him to separate from where he was raised up, where his family lives and his new wife, Manar, used to live. He didn’t have his own family to receive him but we, residents of Gaza, welcomed him to the bosom of our homes with so much love and admiration that he considers himself as living at home. Since he was set free, the Hamas government has taken care of Allam and his comrades who were deported to Gaza, and they have granted them with good accommodations.

Allam first lived in a hotel overlooking the beautiful beach of Gaza, where we first met. In fact, it was the second, but I like to consider it as the first as the real first time didn’t give any of us a good impression about the other.

By the end of a festival held for the released prisoners, my friend, an American activist living in Gaza, asked me to help him with translation of an interview he had organized with one of them, who was actually Allam. He was in a hurry and Joe wasn’t fully prepared to start the interview as quickly as Allam wished. I kept asking Allam if he could please wait for five minutes. But 5 minutes in reality took maybe 15 minutes that Allam could no longer wait and he left us disappointed. It was almost a fight that turned out to be a sweet memory to laugh at when Allam and I remember it. So the second meeting, which was a coincidence, fixed the wrong impression caused by lack of preparation. It was our first meeting because it was when I first had the honor to get to know him closely.

He recognized me as he met me and then gently started apologizing for the clash we had when we met first. I remember very well how we peacefully sat in the hotel’s lobby and I felt magic about him that made me feel as if I knew him for ages. He had the art of attracting people’s ears to listen to him without any boredom. I lost the track of time while hearing his heroic and inspiring stories from his experience of imprisonment.

Allam started with cherishing his childhood memories in every corner of Balata Camp, which were shorter than any child around the world should enjoy. Israel deprived him from fully living it innocently. At the age of 15, the first Intifada, called the intifada of stones, his childhood’s innocence was brutally killed.  The Israeli Occupation arrested him for being a stone thrower. His harmless stone that could cause armed Israeli soldiers no harm resulted in him being jailed for almost 5 years. They ignored that his detention was a crime against him and is a scandalous crime Israel still commits against children, violating International Law and all humanitarian agreements.

Allam’s experience as a child detainee and then as an administrative one

However, Allam looks back at his raped childhood positively, giving the gratitude for the educated, courageous and dignified man he is now, “they don’t know that they actually created a man of me so early by detaining me at such a young age.” His dark cell witnessed the torment and the humiliation he endured, but it also witnessed his unbreakable strength as he challenged the Israeli jailers’ inhumanity and brutality. He summed up his early struggle as a teenage in a sentence: “my early imprisonment taught me how I should let myself live in a prison but never let the prison live inside me.”

When he was 15, he wasn’t really aware of the situation and he used to question a lot about the occupation and all the crimes endured by Palestinians. Inside prison, everything became clear to him and he realized the significance and the meaning of resistance. He realized how his sacrifice of his years of prime was even worthless in relative to his precious land and his dear people. After his illegal and inhumane detention, he was set free at the age of 20 with a great passion toward his homeland and his people.

Then, he spent two years free on his occupied land before he served more than a year of administrative detention in 1997 with no charge or trial, but under secret evidence that can’t be shared by the detainee or his lawyer, to learn more about the cruelty of the Israeli heartless jailers. Upon his release, he joined the PFLP party as a means of resistance.

Allam met the love of his life amidst struggle

With no previous intention, he fell in love for the first time with a beautiful girl from his camp Manar, and unintentionally made another person involved in his rugged life of struggle. Because the most precious things we own, even our souls, are valueless in comparison to our freedom and dignity, in Palestine, the sacrifice has ended up meaningless and tasteless. All our lives represent a medley of sacrifices that started to feel like a routine we are bound to live with.

The second intifada started, the intifada of Al-Aqsa. Allam got engaged to the love of his life but that didn’t make his life any easier. Between his love for Manar and his love for the land, he got torn. But he couldn’t stand idly by.

"Stick to the Path of resistance" written with Allam's blood

In 2003, Allam and his childhood friend Ameer were trapped in a building in one of Nalus streets by intensive forces of Israeli armed soldiers. They were attacked and in the same time a call for them to succumb and hand over their weapons was spread all around the city through loudspeakers. They chose confrontion and death with dignity rather than surrender making one of the most heroic and epic battles in the history of struggle in occupied Nablus. Their confrontation lasted for 9 hours, proclaiming that “surrender isn’t one of morals, but the sacrifice of souls for the sake of dignity and freedom is.”

Their limited repertory ran out and they got badly injured but never raised the white banner. Before the IOF raided the building, Allam wrote on the wall with his blood “stick to the path of resistance!”

I can’t express how emotional he made me feel after hearing this story right from his mouth. I was looking at him with all admiration feeling thankful for that God was merciful enough to make him survive even though that wasn’t his plan. I felt so grateful that I could see him in a good health and what was more, “FREE”. I knew he would become someone close to me, someone to trust. I wasn’t wrong.

“And what happened with your fiancée?” I interrupted trying to add a cheerful topic. “Who would have ever believed that I’d be free after being sentenced to 9 life sentences?” He said while laughing sarcastically with glittering eyes and continued, “after I got arrested, I never thought of a possibility that I’d ever be free. Thinking that holding one captive is better than two, I decided to set her free. I divorced her.”

Allam and Manar have reunited in Valentine’s Day

Then my face turned sad. I expected that Manar gave up and married another but I was surprised that he was still smiling with hope. “She refused to marry any other person and convicted herself to be either with me, or single forever. We have discussed our reunion since my release!”

Since his release, they have fought the barriers that Israel built in their way to meet at one point. They won over it. She arrived from Balata Camp to Gaza last Saturday and made the Valentine’s Day be the day that witnesses their deep and passionate love that no occupation nor apartheid could kill. Absence diminishes small loves but increases great ones. In their case, over ten years of absence has made their love greater. I can’t tell you how beautiful they were in the wedding, like two love birds. I could tell from their eyes that they were like living a dream. They didn’t pay attention to the crowd of people who came from every part of the Gaza strip to witness their successful love story that has overcome all obstacles. Be happy Allam and Manar forever and bring revolutionary children just like you and keep teaching the world about Palestine, the land of love and struggle.


Palestine mourns another real legend, a symbol of motherhood

Anees and Akram's motherMy 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.


“Only one half of me is free…”

A beautiful halo around Gaza’s full moon

In a nice restaurant overlooking Gaza’s beach, beneath a full moon with a beautiful halo surrounding it, I sat with my new friends who recently were released from Israeli prisons. Their freedom was restricted by Israel’s inhumane rules, including indefinite deportation from the West Bank, away from their families and friends. However, they all shared one thought: “The problem is not here.  Both the West Bank and Gaza are our homeland. The problem is that our freedom will not be complete until our land and people are totally free.”

I listened carefully to their prison stories and memories of their families in other parts of Palestine. One of the most interesting things for me to hear was the warm, strong, and caring friendships they remembered from inside the painful cells. These unbreakable friendships were their only distractions from the wounds that used to hurt them deeply inside.

Palestinians in Bethlehem are protesting in solidarity with Chris who is deported to Gaza

One of my new friends is Chris Al-Bandak, the only Christian of the released detainees, who was freed in the first stage of the swap deal. After I was introduced to him, I congratulated him on regaining his freedom. He faked a smile and replied, “Only one half of me is free, but the other half is still there, locked up behind Israeli bars.”

I didn’t know much about Chris, except for his religion, but many things about him made me want to get to know him more closely. I was quite certain that this impressive 32-year-old man had many interesting stories to tell and learn from.

Chris said that he was one of the people besieged by the Israeli Occupation Forces at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. That alone made me impatient to hear the rest of his story. “The siege lasted for 40 days. It became more unbearable as time passed, with the food and first aid equipments dwindling. The injured people were under the threat of death, and the others’ lives were endangered as well as the IOF’s pressure increased.”

As Chris spoke, his eyes evoked anger and sorrow as they wandered to his right. He sounded like he was replaying a tape of his most difficult memories. Then he suddenly began stuttering as he said, “My best friend, Hafith Sharay’a, was one of the injured people.” I reminded him that he didn’t have to speak about it if it made him feel bad.

He pulled himself together and kept telling his story. “On the 28th day of the siege, we were on the top floor of the Church of the Nativity, responsible for the lives of the people downstairs and guarding the church, when he was shot in the right side of his stomach. With every drop of blood he lost, my soul burned inside. I couldn’t watch him die and do nothing.”

Impatiently, I interrupted, asking, “Was he killed?” He shook his head and continued. “His injury left me only two choices: let him bleed to death, or send him to the Israeli Army for treatment, while I was certain that he would afterwards receive at least a life sentence.”

Each option was worse than the other. Chris thought that if Hafith died, he would never see him again. If he was treated and then imprisoned, he might meet him, even though the chance was very small.

Hafith and Chris were like soul mates. They didn’t share many things in common. Hafith is older and a Muslim, while Chris is a Christian. However, they prioritized their deep passion for Palestine above everything else. This overcame all their differences, and they share a strong friendship that will last forever.

So Chris chose to put his emotions aside and rescue Hafith from death by delivering him to the Israeli army. “On the 29th day, I somehow managed to sneak out of the church and escape.  But ten months later, I was kidnapped by the Israeli entity’s army.”

Chris described in detail the horrible story of his capture. He had gone to visit some of his relatives. Within 20 minutes of his arrival, the Israeli army arrived in great numbers and surrounded the house. He faked a name for himself and answered the police’s questions in a very sarcastic way. He told all his relatives to say his name was Fady if asked, which they did. He refused to admit that he was Chris. After several hours of investigation, pressure, and threats of bombing the house and arresting his mother and brother, one of the children was shedding tears out of fear. Seeing this, a policeman used the child’s innocence and tricked him. After the policeman said that the soldiers would leave if he said the real name of Chris, the child admitted it.

Chris was persistent, and didn’t admit his identity until they were about to bomb the house in front of his eyes. After his confession, he was asked where he had been sleeping at night. He replied, “You bombed my house, so where did you expect me to go? I spent my nights in the cemetery.” The interrogator was very shocked at his reply and asked him, “Weren’t you afraid among all dead bodies in their graves?” He answered, with an angry, challenging look in the Israeli soldiers’ eyes, “One shouldn’t fear the dead. They are dead. But we should be afraid of the living people whose conscience is dead!”

Then they blindfolded him, pushed him inside one of their Gibbs vehicles, and headed to an interrogation center, where he was psychologically and physically tortured for 43 days.

Chris constantly thought of his friend Hafith, and hoped that his imprisonment would allow him to meet his best friend again. This happened in a very narrow cell in Ramla Prison, as he waited to find out which prison he would be jailed in. The detainees were having <em>foura</em>, an hour-long break that detainees take daily outside their jails in a hall, and a very small window, closed with a revealing cover, separated him from the hall. Suddenly he glimpsed his friend Hafith and found himself screaming his name loudly to get his attention. “Our reunion was so emotional, especially behind a fenced barrier,” he said with a broken smile.

Their happiness didn’t last long, as they had to separate once the <em>foura</em> was done. Chris was transferred to Ashqelon Prison, then to Nafha. “I didn’t see Haifith for over a year, but during that time, I never stopped hoping that God would be kind enough to bring us together again.”

Chris was in Nafha when his friend was transferred there, finally uniting them. Then they went through a series of separations keeping them apart for a total of four years. “A prison offers no sense of stability.” Chris said. “When we were imprisoned, we didn’t stop our struggle, but we started another stage of resistance of a different kind, determination and persistence mixed with hope.”

During the period before Chris was released, he shared a prison cell with Hafith. “Other detainees received the news of their freedom with screams of joy and happiness, but I received it with tears. I didn’t even feel one percent happy, as I realized that only I was included in the swap deal. Even now, I feel like my body is outside but my heart is still inside the prison with Hafith and all the other detainees,” Chris said with sadness on his face.

“I am very grateful for having Hafith as a big brother. But I am broken inside because he didn’t get his freedom back. I am sure that he’s such a steadfast man that nothing can depress his spirit,” he said, attempting to console himself.

Their friendship amazed me. It can’t be described in words. I pray that Haifith, along with all the Palestinian political prisoners, will be freed soon. I hope Hafith maintains his strength which used to inspire and strengthen Chris. Chris said that Hafith made him believe in his principle that “the prison’s door must unlock someday. It’s only an obstacle, and is bound to fade away at some point.” I hope it will be unlocked soon to let all prisoners breathe the sweet fragrance of freedom again.

 
Press here to read this article in French. Thank you Nour Halimi and Claude


"I wish Dad was here celebrating Eid with me."

The day before the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday is the day of Arafa. It is said that a believer who fasts on this day expiates the past year’s sins and the sins of the coming year. As it is considered to be a day of forgiveness from sin, many Palestinians fasted on that day. Despite me fasting, I eagerly accepted the offer of my friend, a solidarity activist from Holland, to have a walk in Jabalia Camp. Approximately 108,000 registered refugees live in the camp, which covers an area of only 1.4 square kilometres.

I passed by the Jabalia market, which was so crowded that one has to keep pushing people out of his way in order for him to pass through. With every step forward I could glimpse many faces of different ages, genders and features. I could see children jumping around from one stand of clothes to another, excited to pick their new outfits. At the same time, other children seized the opportunity of this unusually large crowd. They were carrying heavy boxes containing simple goods, trying to earn some money so that they could help their poor families have sort of happy atmosphere, to at least buy some candies.

I could see faces full of anger because of the high prices of goods, which result from the siege which has been illegally imposed since 2007. Parents would spend hours going around to every stand, searching for the cheapest clothing to buy for their children, who still innocently think that Eid means having new clothes. Yesterday, I could see how the inhabitants of Jabalia Camp, who are mostly refugees, face obstacles like low income, shortages of goods, and high prices for the available ones. They are desperate for happiness, even if it’s always missing something: the feeling of freedom, security and independence.

As Gaza welcomed Eid al-Adha, hymns played as the sun dawned. I could hear children and men gathering around the microphone in the mosque right behind our house, singing continuously and happily in one voice, “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar …” I couldn’t help but wake up earlier than I always do, and more energetic than ever, excited for what would come next.

My mother said that the door has been knocked on constantly since the early morning by people with Eid greetings. Some of them could afford to buy sacrificed animals, “Uḍhiyyah,” and hand out a slice of meat.

Eid is a very special religious holiday, as it reconnects people with each other, strengthens social life, and reminds the rich of people who are in need. In Palestine, Eid exceeds its conventional frame. It’s a festival of tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, and thoughts of the people who are missed in prison, in Diaspora, or in the grave. My father and his brothers, for example, visit the families of martyrs and prisoners in the neighborhood.

On the second day of Eid, there was a demonstration in solidarity with our detainees at the Red Cross headquarters to convey that their spirits live among us, and that they are never forgotten. We also meant to show sympathy with the mothers who waited many long years, hoping for their sons’ freedom, who passed away before they could celebrate their release.

It was a day of support for our heroes inside the merciless Israeli bars, encouraging them to stay steadfast, as well as a day of compassion for their families, who have passed through several important holidays with one, or in some cases more than one missing, making their happiness incomplete, to help them stay strong and optimistic.

While celebrating Eid, I felt blessed for having all the people I care about around me. At the same time, I felt like I couldn’t enjoy my happiness at its fullest while thousands of people in Palestine couldn’t feel this blessing.

I’ve been constantly thinking about Gomana Abu Jazar during Eid. Gomana is a ten-year-old girl whose mother died after she delivered her, and whose father has been imprisoned since she was less than two years old, leaving her uncle to look after her. Once, as she wondered why all children have fathers but her, her uncle said, “I’ll be in your father’s place until he is free. You’re lucky, since you have two fathers instead of one.”So she started calling her uncle “dad” for a whole year, until he was killed by the Israeli Occupation Forces, leaving her with none. As she returned from school one day, she saw a huge funeral in front of her house, and asked, “Whose big funeral is this?” Her neighbors’ children answered, “It’s your uncle’s.” She began screaming, denying it and saying, “Impossible! He accompanied me to school this morning.” Now she lives with her 70-year-old grandmother.I called Gomana to greet her for Eid. After a long chat, I asked her, “What’s your wish for this Eid?” “I wish Dad was here,” she replied in a sad voice. “I wish they would at least allow me to see him once in lifetime. I only know Dad from his photographs. I wish I could see him in reality. Once I thought this dream was very close to coming true, but then I realized that I was prevented from seeing him for security reasons.”

How can Palestinians fully enjoy our happiness while these heartbreaking stories are so very common in their daily lives? I hope next year the happiness of Eid and other occasions will be complete, with the Israeli jails emptied and Palestine independent and free. Insha’Allah, God willing.

To read it in French, press this link (Thanks to the webmaster, Claude)