Palestinian detainee Jihad al-Obeidi will be freed on 20 January after 25 years in Israeli prisons. His family has already started decorating their house in Jerusalem with colorful lights and Palestinian flags to celebrate Jihad’s freedom. They are excited to welcome him home and fill his place, which has been empty for 25 years.
Jihad al-Obeidi was charged for affiliation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and accused of trying to kill Israeli soldiers. He was sentenced to 25 years of detention, despite never having attended a trial. He was absent from the court that sentenced him, after he was expelled for refusing to stand for its racist judges.
Jihad wrote to his family that the first place he will visit after his release will be the grave of his nephew, Milad Ayyash. Milad was a 17-year-old boy whose life was cut short in May 2011 as he fell prey to an Israeli criminal who still walks freely somewhere, having escaped from justice by virtue of being an Israeli settler. Milad was killed when the settler’s bullet pierced his chest as Palestinians from the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem commemorated the 64th anniversary of the Nakba.
The Nakba is the gloomiest period in Palestinian history, the year of mass killing, dispossession and systematic ethnic cleansing of three quarters of a million Palestinians from 513 Palestinian villages. The Zionist entity, what is called now Israel, was built on their ruins.
Killed by settler
Silwan residents were demonstrating outside an illegal settler home in the Beit Yonatan neighborhood of East Jerusalem – the site of yet another eviction by radical settlers attempting to Judaize that part of the city – when a window suddenly opened from the settler lair and shots rang out, leaving Milad to drown in his own blood. (See the photos of Milad’s funeral, taken by Mahmoud Illean.)
Tragically, Milad was born and killed during his uncle Jihad’s imprisonment. Milad never saw his uncle Jihad, as only first-degree relatives are allowed family visits – if they aren’t banned – according to the Israeli Prison Service’s inhumane rules. But Jihad was introduced to Milad through his photographs and his mother’s stories of him, which made Milad feel close to his uncle. Milad was attached to his uncle, as well as the Palestinian prisoners in general, as he is also the son of ex-detainee Saeed Ayyash, released in a 1985 prisoner exchange. Milad’s thoughts travelled to the day when his uncle Jihad would be free. He often shared his thoughts with his mother: “We will be Uncle Jihad’s first destination when he is released, right, Mum?”
The painful news of Milad’s murder broke Jihad’s heart. Filled with sorrow at his murder, Jihad decided to make Milad’s wish true and visit him first. He will visit his grave to show that Israel doesn’t kill our children, it immortalizes them, and that, sooner or later, Israel will be held accountable for all its crimes against humanity.
Solidarity hunger strike
Loai Odeh, a detainee freed in the Shalit deal and expelled from Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip, sparked my curiosity to learn about Jihad al-Obeidi. During the open mass hunger strike launched on Palestinian Prisoners’ Day in 2012, dozens of people, including detainees’ relatives and ex-detainees, went on hunger strike in solidarity inside a sit-in tent in a Gaza park.
Loai was one of the hunger strikers who took the sky as their ceiling and trees as their walls, with a surrounding tent to protect them from the sun. He decorated the tent behind his bed with pictures of detainees who he feels most attached to, including Jihad Obeidy.
That motivated me to Google his name. I found a touching video of his parents that shows the torment Palestinian detainees’ parents typically endure, especially for the sake of their 45-minute family visits. The video began with Jihad’s 75-year-old mother introducing herself, saying, “I am Um Jihad al-Obeidi. I was born in Lifta.”
Lifta is a village on the northern fringes of Jerusalem, one of hundreds of Palestinian villages seized by the newly-established Jewish state in 1948. But it is one of the few not to have been subsequently covered in the concrete and tarmac of Israeli towns and roads, or planted over with trees and shrubs to create forests, parks and picnic areas, or transformed into Israeli artists’ colonies. The ruins of Lifta were threatened many times with being bulldozed and turned into luxury housing units.
A sigh, and a moment of silence, followed that sentence, as if Umm Jihad meant to remind everyone that her village is originally Palestinian, and that for the injustice Palestinian people face, we continue to struggle and pay the price of freedom. For many Palestinians, Lifta is a symbol of the Nakba, of their longing for their land and bitterness at their continued refugee status, a physical memory of injustice and survival.
Since Jihad was arrested, his mother fell into depression, then became ill with cancer. She went through chemotherapy and four surgeries. However, her longing to see her son again served as her source of strength. Her fear of passing away before hugging her son again never left her mind. She was able to visit him only once every year because her critical health wouldn’t allow her to travel far.
“May God grant us health and patience to see you freed,” Jihad’s mother says in the video, while hugging her son’s picture and kissing it. “It’ll be the happiest moment when you are set free. God willing, I’ll live long enough to hug you, away from Israel’s bars and jailers’ inspecting eyes, and carry your kids.”
Jihad will be free in a matter of few days, but these days feel like years to his mother.
Jihad’s parents, like all detainees’ parents, suffered from the Israel Prison Service’s (IPS) ill treatment, especially during family visits. In Jihad’s twenty-five years of detention, the IPS transferred him between almost every Israeli jail, so that he never enjoyed a sense of stability. They never considered the distance between his jail and his family’s house. For years, Jihad’s parents traveled long distances to reach prisons, then suffered verbal and physical harassment, humiliation, strip searches and long hours of waiting.
Promises and bitterness
“Jihad keeps promising us that he will never let us do anything at home when he is released,” his father said with a slight smile. “He said he will cook and clean and serve us with all his strength, as he could feel how much we tolerate Israel’s torture to visit him. Sometimes in the winter, during family visit, Israeli soldiers used to make us stand and wait outside prison, as the sky snowed over us.”
Despite these family visits symbolizing a lifeline to prisoners and their families, the happiness of uniting and exchanging stories is mixed with bitterness. “Our tears start streaming down whenever we see him behind Israeli bars,” his father said with tearful eyes. “Our hearts ache to observe how he is growing old there.”
Jihad’s parents’ painful story is about to have a happy ending with his release. But thousands of prisoners are still behind Israeli bars, and they and their families continue to suffer. Thinking of other detainees and their families, who share the same pain, Jihad’s mother said, “My son has served most of his sentence, but many others are serving lifetimes. I call on everyone to remember these prisoners and keep following their just cause. Support them so they regain their freedom soon and return to their families.”
My message to Jihad al-Obeidi: this post is dedicated to you, to congratulate you in advance for your physical freedom. Israel has only succeeded in imprisoning your body, but never your mind, nor your determination and everlasting hope for complete freedom.
I’ve always looked at you, and all your comrades who sacrifice their most precious years for the sake of our freedom and dignity, as heroes. You’re the most dignified and the most courageous. Be certain that your people in Gaza are as excited for your freedom as your people in Jerusalem. Israel’s apartheid walls and checkpoints will never manage to make us apart. I know your happiness will be incomplete, as more than four thousands of your comrades remain inside Israeli jails. But we will raise our voices higher and continue to fight until all jails are emptied.
Twenty-seven years ago, my father’s eyes saw the sun after being in the dark of Israeli prison for 13 years. On 20 May 1985, my father regained his freedom.
“I was sentenced for seven lifetimes plus 10 years and I thought that this prison, Nafha, would be my grave. Thank God 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 told me, smiling. He considered the 13 years of misery as not that long. Yes, it’s not that long if compared with the life sentence to which he was bound if the deal to exchange Palestinian and Israeli prisoners didn’t happen.
I can’t recall that Dad ever showing any regret or sorrow for how the precious years of his youth were stolen from him. His prison experience is instead his song of life. He believes that it is his treasure, the reason behind his rich culture and beliefs, his strong character, his intimate friendships, and the reason why he values life. I’ve always been proud that I am my Dad’s daughter, and I’ll always be. He is a mix of experience and knowledge.
The story of the exchange deal all started when Ahmad Jibril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine 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. Among the prisoners released 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.
History repeats itself
History repeats itself. On 18 October last year, 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 for by the resistance fighters that have always forced Israel to meet some demands regarding the Palestinian prisoners.
When I deeply think about these events and the way the international media reacts, I get angry at how unjust this world is. Why did the world make a big deal of Shalit and the three soldiers when they were attested by the “terrorist” Palestinians while thousands of Palestinian political prisoners are left behind in Israeli jails enduring all forms of violations and torture and the world chooses to look away?
My father told the story with tears struggling to fall. He was staring at a picture stuck on the wall of his room; a painting that my father drew during his imprisonment of flowers blooming among barbed wires. “I cannot forget the moment when the leader of the prison started calling off the names to be released,” he said.
Among the prisoners was Omar al-Qassim, a leading member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Al-Qassim was asked to read the list of the names loudly. He was so excited at the beginning hoping that his freedom would be restored. Every time he said a name, a scream of happiness convulsed the walls of prison. Suddenly, his face’s features started to change. He became reluctant to speak because he noticed that his name wasn’t among the names. This was another incident of psychological torture that the prison’s manager committed against him. But he left him no chance to make fun of him. He withdrew himself silently and went to his prison to continue with his resistance. Sadly, he died in a horrible narrow cell after 22 years of resistance, pride and glory.
The tears of happiness and sadness mixed together. The freed prisoners were happy to regain their freedom but they were upset at leaving the other prisoners in that dirty place where the sun never shines. “We were like a big family sharing everything together. We all handled the same issues that we were united to fight for,” my father said. “Although I am free now, my soul will always be with my friends who are still suffering in there.”
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 4,653 Palestinian political prisoner have fewer years of suffering. We share this responsibility as we can’t leave them as prey for those criminal jailers. Their freedom will be a triumph for humanity.
Note: Read this in Italian here. Many thanks for Emanuele Qalitry for translating it!