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Prisoners of Zion

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Gideon Levy

The letters are kept in a pillow on the living room sofa. With trembling hands, as if it were a religious rite, Najiba Jelamne opens the zipper of the pillow and pulls out the envelope with the handful of letters and photos. Two folded letters, as brief as memos, written by hand on an official Red Cross form - the only sign of life that has arrived from their prisoner son, who is said to be very ill, but whose parents have been unable to find out what happened to him. One letter was sent in February and arrived in June, four months en route from the prison to the Jenin refugee camp, and the second was sent in June and arrived about two weeks ago; that’s how long it takes to get from the sender to the addressees.

June 24, 2004: “Dear parents, I’m sending you this letter with the smell of flowers from my homesick heart. I pray to God that we will all reach Paradise. How are things with you? How is your health? I hope that you are well. Don’t worry about me, I’m in good condition. My health is good. Don’t listen to the rumors. People talk a lot. I’m in good condition, nothing that God doesn’t want will happen to us. Thank God, I’m fine and I pray to God that you will be fine. That you will be the way I know you, believing in God and in patience. God loves those who are patient. Yours, Waal.” Approved by the censor.

imageAhmed, the father, bursts into tears. The city is buzzing with rumors that their 22-year-old son is ill. For two-and-a-half years, since her son was imprisoned, Najiba has been unable to get an entry permit to Israel to visit him, and Ahmed says that he won’t be able to bear a visit to his son in prison. Ahmed, 70, is a bereaved father: His son Rabia was killed during the Israel Defense Forces incursion in Operation Defensive Shield (in April 2002), four days before Waal was arrested. Waal was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment after he was photographed wearing an explosives belt, and his photo was seized. Maybe he was on his way to a suicide attack, maybe not; his parents say that collaborators betrayed him.

They requested a visitor’s permit for the mother, once they were refused and the second time the hoped-for permit arrived, but there was a mistake in the name - the army wrote “Najia” instead of “Najiba” - and since then they’ve been waiting, for a month and a half, for the new permit. Almost every day Najiba goes to the offices of the Red Cross, which organizes prison visits, and still no permit. In Israel of 2004 there is a prisoner, apparently very ill, whose parents know nothing about his condition, and haven’t been allowed to visit him for two-and-a-half years. Waal last phoned two years ago. His parents don’t even know where he is imprisoned. He is said to be hospitalized in Ramle.

Ahmed’s galabia gown is full of holes from cigarette burns, their apartment is the refugee camp is dismal. He says that he doesn’t eat, he only smokes and drinks coffee. For years he worked in Israel, but since the gates of employment have been closed he works as an occasional gravedigger in the camp cemetery. “He doesn’t speak at all, Waal,” he shouts suddenly, and it turns out that he speaks Hebrew.

The pillow also contains a picture of Waal in the uniform of a Palestinian policeman, a picture that was torn and has been reglued, after one of the children tore it by mistake. “Tell him that our son is ill,” whispers the mother to the father. The father: “I don’t know if he’s ill. When he left he had no problems, he was healthy. I heard from someone that he’s working in the prison hospital, another told me that he’s ill. I don’t know whether he’s sick or well. But in the letter he writes: He’s not sick. In the prison they said he’s sick. Nobody tells me what the boy has. Two Arabs came from the prison and said the boy has this and that. Do you have children at home? Do you not see your children for two-and-a-half years?”

Salem Mahrom hasn’t seen his imprisoned brother for 14 years. Salem’s mother, Umm Salem, hadn’t seen her son Samer either, until a month and a half ago, when she received the first entry permit since the intifada. A difficult trip of a day and a half, from 5 A.M. until 10 P.M. on the road, and mainly at the checkpoints, for a 45-minute phone conversation through a glass wall. When the father of the family died six years ago, Samer received a special permit to phone home. Of course, leave is out of the question. After all, this isn’t a person with rights.

The Mahroum home in the Sabah al-Hir (Good Morning) neighborhood in the city of Jenin is full of the handicrafts made by their imprisoned son, and his mother displays them proudly. Samer was arrested a month and a day after Israeli navigator Ron Arad fell into captivity, and this is noted in the Mahroum home: “Neither of them returned home.”

Eighteen years without their son. For four months he was in solitary confinement. Samer was 19 years old when together with two other people, he murdered yeshiva student Eliyahu Amedi by stabbing him with a knife eight times, in Jerusalem’s Old City. Abala, his sister, was arrested 17 years ago for one month, and therefore she isn’t allowed to visit him at all.

Now, as a sign of identification with her son, their mother is on a hunger strike from sunrise to sunset, as during Ramadan, “striking for the prisoners and for God.” Samer asked her not to go on strike, because of her age. He himself is among the hunger strikers, and at home they’re worried about him. “If your son wasn’t eating, wouldn’t you worry about him?”

In the living room stands a photograph of Samer, in a fancy frame. The picture was taken by one of the nicer prison guards, and is dated 2002. The brother Salem, himself a former prisoner, hasn’t seen his brother since they met in prison in 1990, a short time before his release: “For the Israeli government, the strike is a political matter. For the prisoners it’s related to their lives, to their humanity. There are many prisoners who haven’t done a thing. They are detained without trial. I think that Israel has to do something. If not for the Palestinians, then for their image in the world. They always make fun of our people, I don’t know why. Ask any normal person what he wants from life. Honor and peace. Give us a life of peace and honor, and we will also live in peace and honor. But you want me to be your animal, so you can beat me. Before this we had a lot of Jewish friends. It’s not a matter of religion, it’s a matter of dirty politicians. Only that.”

A huge model of the mosque in Mecca is protected by a glass case, like an expensive treasure in a museum. And a model of the Al-Aqsa mosque, which can be found in every prisoner’s home. A picture of the mother and a picture of the deceased father made up of tiny colored beads. And a Che Guevara, the glory of arts and crafts behind bars. When there were visits, they could also bring raw materials. Now Samer, who is serving a life sentence, is writing a book.

Beneath the mulberry tree in the courtyard of the Red Crescent offices, they are demonstrating their identification with the strikers. A handful of men are on a hunger strike, like their imprisoned brothers, they only drink water and milk and lick salt, and several women, who are also striking, are on the other side of the yard. Pictures of their loved ones are on the wall. The Jenin district now has 1,426 representatives in the prisons. Of them, 182 come from the city’s refugee camp, and most of them, about 70 percent, haven’t had even one family visit. There is no house without a relative in prison, past or present; there are no cities in the territories as bruised as Rafah and Jenin, the cities on the southern and northern fringes.

The chair of the Prisoners’ Welfare Association, which is the local version of Israel’s Soldiers’ Welfare Association, Akram Abu Sabaa, has a brother in jail who was injured in Operation Defensive Shield before he was arrested, and his left hand is paralyzed. He was sentenced to four years, already two and a half years without a visit, not even when he was hospitalized.

Says Abu Sabaa: “If one prisoner dies during the strike, an intifada of the prisoners will begin. We have a lot of experience with the struggle. It has its ups and downs. The will exists. Don’t think that now there’s quiet. It takes time. If someone dies, it will be worse than the Al-Aqsa Intifada. This issue concerns every home and every family, even the collaborators.” Young Anis Abu al Wafa wants us to see the picture of his father Kemal on the wall. He’s 18, and he hasn’t seen his father for two years.

A black flag, the symbol of Islamic Jihad, flies above the mosque of the refugee camp. In his sermon last Friday, the imam lashed out against the Palestinian cell phone company, Jawal, which lowered the price of phone calls for the Arabic version of the “Star is Born” singing competition called “Superstar 2,” and not for the prisoners’ strike. This mosque will soon be demolished, and will be replaced by a larger one. In a luxury car, with a big doll in back and an M-16 in front, ride the city’s wanted men, including Mohammed Khalifa, the deputy of Zakariya Zubeidi, whom the “Washington Post” described this week as the Robin Hood of the camp. Beach volleyball from the Olympics is showing on the television of the camp’s hummus shop.

Amina Sabagh cries even before she opens her mouth. Until he was killed, in November 2002, her son Ala was Zubeidi’s predecessor in the role of the commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, the boy who was filmed on the ruins of his home in Juliano Mer’s touching film, “Arna’s Children.” The family home was destroyed in 1989 when another son, Mohammed, was arrested after murdering a Druze prison guard in the Jenin prison. Mohammed was 16 and a half years old at the time, and received three life sentences plus 20 years, for the murder of an Israeli prison guard, and for another three murders of collaborators with Israel.

Since then he has been wandering among prisons, kept away from prisons with Druze commanders, who are liable to avenge their friend. Amina last saw Mohammed in 2000. Since then she has been refused visits. She has submitted at least 20 requests, and been refused. Her face is all wrinkled. Her son is now on a hunger strike. “God knows how I worry about him,” she says, and the tears flow again. “He’s the only one left.” The father of the family has a friend in Haifa, Avraham Baghdadi, who recently invited him to his son’s bar mitzvah, and even came to the Salem checkpoint to take him. The soldiers wouldn’t allow him to pass. “First they didn’t allow me to visit Mohammed because I was the father of a wanted man, but why now, when Ala is already dead?”

Their grandson was born 20 days after his father, Ala, was assassinated. While watching Mer’s film, they show the little boy his father. There’s also a picture above the fluorescent light. The family home is still in ruins, they live in another house from whose window the ruins can be seen, as a daily reminder. Here, on these ruins, Ala sat as a child and cast a shocked and sad glance at what was going on, a child of about eight who didn’t understand why they had destroyed his home, and here, beneath the ruins, years later, he hid as a wanted man. Now his father stands here and silently asks why he isn’t allowed to visit his son.


Published Friday, August 27th, 2004 - 08:44pm GMT

Article courtesy of Haaretz

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