My father’s memories from the day of his release in 1985 swap deal
On 21 May 1985, my father Ismael regained his freedom, after being in the dark of Israeli prisons for 13 years.
“I was sentenced for seven lifetimes plus 10 years and I thought that Nafha Prison would be my grave. Luckily I didn’t stay that long there, and I was set free to marry your mother and to bring you to this life,” my father playfully said while my mind struggled to understand his underestimation of such an experience that is inconceivable to most. His reference point was, however, different. It is only “not that long” if compared to the original sentence to which he was bound if the deal to exchange Palestinian and Israeli prisoners didn’t proceed.
I can’t recall my Dad ever showing any regret or sorrow for the precious years of his youth that were stolen from him. He turned his prison experience into a song of life. He believes that it is the reason behind his solid principles, his strong character, his intimate friendships, and his emancipatory perception of life.
I’ve always been proud to be his daughter, and I’ll always be. He is a revolutionary to whom revolutionary thinking is an organic part of his upbringing as a Palestinian refugee. My father was born to a dispossessed family from Beit Jerja, 4 years after Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, an event we call Nakba (Catastrophe). He was born in Jabalia refugee camp where minimal means of survival did not exist, and Israeli oppression defined their daily lives with a defiant form of resistance.
“The Triumphant Power of Revolution”
As a 19 year-old detainee, this organic revolutionary thinking was voiced to his anti-Zionist Israeli lawyer Felicia Langerwho fought against the Israeli unjust judicial system throughout her 23-year career before returning to her country of origin Germany. In her book With My Own Eyes(1975), Langer recorded her encounter with my father on 6 April 1972 in Kafer Yonah, an Israeli interrogation center. Thanks to her, I have access to my dad’s earliest quote:
“I saw how children were being brutally shot dead in the camp’s streets by the Israeli border guards. I witnessed the murder of a little girl who was just leaving her school when an Israeli soldier from the border guards shot her dead. They raid the camp with their thick batons beating up everybody. They break into houses inhabited by women without knocking on the doors. They mix the flour with oil during their aggressive inspections deliberately and without any necessity.”
The systematic oppression which Palestinians live under Israeli occupation while in their unsafe homes and neighborhood chased my father to prison. “After his arrest in Jabalia Camp on January 1, 1972,” Langer states, “they dragged him to the Gaza police center while beating him with batons all the way. They showered him with extremely cold water in winter. Meanwhile, soldiers continued to attack him with batons everywhere to the extent that he lost his sense of hearing. Langer quotes my dad’s experience of this method of torture:
“This continued for 10 days… Then they threatened that unless I talked I would be banished to Amman, where I would be killed.”
Like all other Palestinians, my father was automatically trailed at an Israeli military court, where judges and prosecutors are Israeli soldiers in uniform, and the Palestinians are always guilty for challenging the authority of the military occupation regime. According to an Israeli human-rights group B’tselem, Israeli military courts “are firmly entrenched on the Israeli side of the power imbalance, and serve as one of the central systems maintaining its control over the Palestinian people.” In other words, they are an integral part of the Israeli apartheid structures.
Besides his Palestinian identity which would have automatically proved him guilty, his
socialist values further complicated matters. “Especially bitter is the fate of anyone suspected of holding communist values,” Langer observed. On 30 November 1972, the persecutor called the court to take part in the “serious war against terror,” in a plea upon the court to impose the harshest punishment against my father and his comrades who were charged for belonging to the Marxist-leaning Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. According to Langer, the persecutor claimed to be gentle in “not asking for death sentences.” Before announcing the multiple life sentences, the judge allowed my father and his comrades to say last words, but warned, “I don’t want to hear political speeches.” His comrade said there is no point since they did not recognise Israeli jurisdiction. Riot erupted as a result, and the defendants weren’t allowed to speak. But in the middle of all that, my father shouted his belief in “the triumphant power of the revolution.”
Despite his sentence that promised death in jail, my father believed an end to his living nightmare would come with the triumphant power of revolution!
Prisoners’ Exchange of 21 May 1985
The story of the exchange deal all started when Ahmad Jibril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command (PFLP-GC) captured three Israeli soldiers (Yosef Grof, Nissim Salem, Hezi Shai) in revenge for thousands of Palestinian prisoners kidnapped by Israel without any apparent reason. After a long process of negotiations, both sides struck a deal that Israel would release 1,250 prisoners in return for the three Israelis that Jibril held captive. My father was included in the deal, and fortunately, he was set free at the age of 33. Among the released prisoners were the Japanese freedom fighter Kozo Okamoto who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas who was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in 1983.
My father told me the story of 1985 prisoners exchange with tears struggling to fall. “I cannot forget the moment when the leader of the prison started calling off the names to be released,” he said while staring at a painting hung in his room that my father drew during his imprisonment of flowers blooming with the names of his family among barbed wires.
Among the prisoners was Omar al-Qassim, a leading member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Al-Qassim was asked to read the list of the names loudly. He was initially excited, hoping his freedom would be restored. Every time he said a name, a scream of happiness convulsed the walls of prison. Suddenly, his facial expression started to change, with reluctance to speak after he noticed that his name wasn’t included. My father thinks that this was a form of psychological torture by the Israeli prison manager. But Al-Qassim left him no chance for fun, and withdrew himself with dignity. Sadly, he died in an Israeli cell after 22 years of captive resistance, pride and glory.
My father described this emotionally-charged moment as bittersweet. The happiness of freed prisoners was incomplete for leaving the other prisoners in that dirty place where the sun never shines. “We were like a big family sharing everything together. We collectively handled the same pain and united to fight for one cause,” my father told me. “Although I am free now, my soul will always be with my comrades who remain in there.”
History repeats itself. On 18 October 2011, we experienced a similar historical event with a swap deal involving the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was arrested by the resistance in Gaza while he was on top of his war machine (an Israeli tank). Just like what happened with Shalit, the capture of three Israelis caused uproar in the Israeli public opinion and international media at that time, but the thousands of Palestinian prisoners behind Israeli bars were not noticed, except by the resistance groups that have always pressured Israel to meet some demands regarding the Palestinian prisoners.
The international media reaction to such events also invite anger in their emphasis on the arrested Israeli soldiers by the “terrorist” Palestinians. Thousands of Palestinian political prisoners are left behind in Israeli jails with basic rights to medical care, family and lawyer visits and fair trial are denied, and the rest of Palestinian populations endure other forms of imprisonment under Israeli structures of siege and occupation. But mainstream media chooses to look away.
My father has always said that “prisoners are the living martyrs.” He also described Israeli jails as “graves for the living.” Let’s unite and use all the means available to help thousands of Palestinian political prisoner have fewer years of suffering, especially at times the Coronavirus poses an additional danger to their lives. We share this collective responsibility. Their freedom will be a triumph for humanity.