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“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’.


Akram Rikhawi’s family: “Are they waiting for him to return to us in a coffin?”

Akram Rikhawi’s family and I at their house in Rafah during the power-cut (by Magne Hagesæter)

The Palestinian football player Mahmoud Sarsak walks freely in Gaza’s streets and alleys, breathing victory among the steadfast people of the Gaza Strip. He acquired his strength to hunger for 96 days from Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Gandhi’s promise came true, and Mahmoud actually won the battle of empty stomachs. Read my account of visiting Mahmoud Sarsak after his release.

Mahmoud was released from the Ramla Hospital Prison on July 10 after he revealed Israel’s crimes against humanity and made it submit to his demands. But his happiness remained incomplete. His thoughts are still in a place he described as “a hospital for torture, not for treatment,” with his comrades he left there, especially Akram Rikhawi, Palestine’s longest hunger striker in history.

About 6:00 pm on Thursday, the 99th day of Akram Rikhawi’s hunger strike, I saw a tweet: “Help us in spreading the truth about Prisoner Akram Rikhawi who might die at any moment #PalHunger”. As I read it, I felt anger at the world’s silence. I called Mahmoud Sarsak to ask for Akram Rikkawi’s home address. He kindly answered, saying, “Come to Rafah and I’ll take you there.”

Excited, I called some friends to join me, quickly got ready, and hurried to Rafah. The one-hour drive to Rafah felt like it took ages. We arrived there around 8:30 to find Mahmoud waiting. “Is it too late already to visit Akram’s family?” I asked him. He shook his head and said, “Their part of Rafah camp is filled with Yibna refugees. They stay up very late, especially Akram’s family. I don’t think they ever sleep!”

Before Mahmoud’s release, the Israeli Prison Service sent him to Akram to pressure him to break his hunger strike. Mahmoud took it as an opportunity to meet Akram for one last time, and to carry messages he wanted to deliver to his family. Akram was very happy for Mahmoud, and had faith that his victory would follow Mahmoud’s sooner or later.

The camp was very dark. I could barely follow Mahmoud’s steps. As we walked through one of the alleys, I recognized our destination from the huge banner of Akram hanging on his house. I could feel his family’s indescribable strength and faith from the way they welcomed us in with hopeful eyes and big smiles. There wasn’t any light in the house, but the smiling faces of Akram’s children filled it with light. Shortly after we arrived, we received word that Friday would be the first day of Ramadan. For Akram’s family, the news held some bitterness, as according to his wife Najah, it is “the eighth Ramadan without Akram.”

We all sat on the rug close to a lantern, the only light in a sitting room filled with photos of Akram. As his wife Najah started speaking, I learned that Akram is the son of a martyr, the brother of another martyr, and has a brother detained in Nafha Prison: a typical Palestinian family’s sacrifices for the sake of freedom and dignity. His father died in the First Intifada, while his brother was killed in the 1990s during a ground invasion by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in Rafah. His detained brother, Shady, became disabled after he refused food for 22 days during the mass hunger strike in Israeli prisons which began this year on Prisoners’ Day, April 17.

Akram Rikhawi has chosen to shoulder the responsibility for hundreds of disabled and ill political prisoners who grieve daily behind Israel’s bars and suffer its medical neglect. He also decided to rebel against the racist treatment that he received at the hands of some Ramle doctors. That was the main reason for his hunger strike. “After more than 100 days on hunger strike, Akram is in a wheelchair and cannot move either his left hand or leg,” Najah said. “Hunger has perhaps overtaken his body, but can’t easily defeat his will.”

“Before he started refusing food,” she continued, “he wrote a few articles on the suffering of sick prisoners and the medical neglect they endure, describing Israeli Prison Service violations against Palestinian detainees. He hoped they would pay his critical health conditions more attention and care. Instead, they punished him for speaking out by placing him in solitary confinement.”

Akram’s family described the Ramla Hospital Prison as “a slaughterhouse, not a hospital, with jailers wearing doctors’ uniforms,” using Akram’s situation as their best evidence. “He was detained at Ramla from the first day of his detention,” Najah said. “Before his arrest, he suffered only slightly from asthma. His health started to deteriorate when he was given the wrong medication.” She explained how this caused him severe health complications. “He had only one health problem, but medical neglect in Ramle Hospital Prison caused him six, including high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic problems, and osteoporosis, sight problems, and queasiness.”

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-IL) previously reported that its doctors had found an “alarming deterioration of Akram’s asthma, which continues to be unstable,” adding that they believed he “has been given very high doses of steroids as treatment, which can cause severe long-term and irreversible damage.”

Najah managed to visit him twice. But since the ban on the family visits for the families of Gazan detainees in 2006, which followed the capture of Gilaad Shalit, they no longer can. “We can neither visit him, nor receive letters or phone calls from him. Our two main sources of information we rely on have been the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and released prisoners, who coincidentally met him after being sent to Ramla because of health problems they suffered.”

My admiration reached its utmost when I learned that Najah was actually the wife of Akram’s martyred brother. “I was a young widow of five children when my first husband Mo’taz was killed with cold blood by the IOF,” she said. “Akram was still single, and decided to take responsibility for his brother’s orphaned children and widow. So he married me. Allah blessed us with eight more children.”

One of Akram’s youngest twin who were born a little before his arrest and knew their Dad from photos.

Then a young woman interrupted our conversation. “I’m Yasmeen, my mother’s eldest daughter,” she said. “My father died when I was four years old. I can barely remember him. But I recall very clearly how tenderly my father Akram raised me. I never felt like an orphan around him. He always treated his children and his brother’s alike and loved us all the same.”

“He was always like a best friend to me,” Yasmine continued. “I was having my high school exams when he was arrested. During my final exams, he used to stay up with me to study. He never allowed me to prepare anything. He would bring food to my room. He used to wake me up for the Fajer prayer. Allah has made everything up to me when he guided Dad Akram to marry my mother.”

“I was the dearest to his heart, and he sometimes teased me, saying that I was the reason for his detention,” she said. “On June 7, he walked me to school in the morning before my exam. He spent the entire trip reminding me that I should have faith in Allah and not worry. Then he headed to Gaza City. On his way home in the afternoon, the IOF stopped the vehicle at the Abu Ghouli checkpoint between Gaza City and Rafah and demanded to see all the passenger’s IDs. After handing over his ID, Dad Akram was immediately arrested. In his first letters from prison, he wrote that his friends had warned him that the situation was worrying, and that he should remain in Gaza. He refused, saying he needed to check how I did in my exam.” Yasmeen said this with a slight smile on her face. After Akram’s detention, she could barely continue her examinations, and finished them with an overall score of 55.

Then a 17-year-old girl walked in, looking very upset. “This is Akram’s eldest daughter,” Yasmine said as the girl sat silently in the corner. “She’s repeating the same experience I had since Dad’s detention. This morning, the high school results were announced. She is sad that she got 75%, while she has been always one of the brightest students. It was difficult for her to concentrate on her studies while expecting that she might wake up any morning to mourn her father’s death.”

The family’s situation was heartbreaking. I listened carefully to their sad stories and struggled to hold my tears. I felt most moved when his wife pointed at her twin youngest sons and said, “A little while ago, they came to me asking what their father looked like. Was he tall or short, fat or slim? Their age equals the years Akram served in detention. They only know him from photos.”

I could feel the family’s anger and disappointment with popular and international solidarity. “What are the human rights organizations, Hamas, the PA waiting for before they move?” his daughter Yasmine asked severely. “Are they waiting for him to return to us in a coffin? Would they be happy for eight children to become fatherless, and five others to be orphaned for a second time? If Dad dies, we will never forgive anyone who could have done something, but chose to look away.”

Don’t choose to look away. Akram Rikhawi is in desperate need of your urgent actions to save his life. It is late, but it is not over. You can still do something, anything, to contribute to his survival.


Mahmoud Sarsak: “It’s not my victory, it’s yours”

It was 5:00 pm when I decided to escape my home for a place the power-cut hadn’t reached on June 18. Badia, the restaurant closest to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is always my first option. Whenever I need to leave the sit-in tent to work on my laptop, I get there after walking less than five minutes. I was drowning in stress from my final exams. I had to double my efforts studying, as I had spent more of the last semester worrying about hunger-striking Palestinian political prisoners than my classes.

Even with stress from being unprepared for any exam, it was difficult to concentrate. My thoughts were filled with the revolution of empty stomachs inside the Israeli jails. June 18 marked the 90th day of the hunger strike Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak had launched against his unjustified three-year detention under Israel’s Unlawful Combatants Law. His hunger for freedom had pushed his life to the edge of death.

I lost track of time while alternating between news Web sites and literary ones for my class. Dad called me, reminding me to return home early. Just before I closed my laptop, I refreshed my Twitter page to see a Tweet saying, “Israel to Release Mahmoud Sarsak on July 10.” I quickly collected my things and ran toward the ICRC, so excited I even forgot to pay my bill.

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Hana’ Shalabi in the sit-in tent for Mahmoud Sarsak

Even the smell of the air seemed different when I stepped outside. Freedom filled the atmosphere. The chants I heard from the ICRC at Badia’s entrance made me run. The first person I recognized at the sit-in tent was the heroine Hana’ Shalabi, the ex-detainee who hunger-struck for 43 days to win her freedom, under the condition of expulsion to the Gaza Strip for three years. I ran to her and she hugged me happily, saying, “Congratulations on Mahmoud’s freedom!” Everyone was raising victory signs and singing for freedom. Then a man with a huge tray of sweets arrived and started distributing them.

I arrived home very late to find Dad waiting in the dark garden, looking upset. I didn’t want anyone to spoil my happiness, so I walked toward him chanting happily, “We defeated the jailers!” I was sure he hadn’t heard about Mahmoud, as our power was still cut. “Mahmoud will be free on July 10,” I said while looking at Dad, whose face turned into a smile. “People are still celebrating at the ICRC. Hana’ Shalabi was even there.” I was smart enough to find a way to negate his anger.

People in Gaza waited eagerly for July 10, a day that will be commemorated in the history of Palestine. All Palestinian television and radio channels reported this magnificent event. Thousands of people welcomed Mahmoud by the Erez crossing, the same place he was arrested around three years ago. As the ambulance arrived at the Gaza Strip side of Erez, Mahmoud appeared in its window, holding a football with one hand and waving with the other to the crowd of people excitedly waiting to see him.

Despite hating long drives, last Friday, I was crazy enough to tolerate a one-hour trip to visit Mahmoud’s house in Rafah, knowing he might not even be home. A group of foreign activists joined me in my adventure. “And what if he isn’t there?” my friend Fidaa, a Palestinian-American human rights activist, asked. “We’ll wait for him to come back!” I answered immediately.

We arrived at Star Square, near where the star Mahmoud lives. Thanks to posters and graffiti spread all over the walls of the Rafah refugee camp’s alleys, it was easy to find his house. “The groom just left for Gaza City,” his neighbors told us, but we were still excited to be at the house where “the groom” grew up and to meet his parents, who raised him to be a revolutionary.

Mahmoud’s parents were very friendly and welcoming. His house was small and simple, yet full of warmth and joy. It was crowded with neighbors, relatives, and strangers who, like us, had travelled the Gaza Strip to meet Mahmoud. Many of us had no relation to him, but following his struggle since the early days of his hunger strike made us feel connected to him. Mahmoud Sarsak, a Palestinian hero, has become a symbol of our resistance.

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Mahmoud Sarsak’s mother and I at their house in Rafah (Magne Hagesæter)

“Words can’t describe the happiness I felt when Mahmoud regained his freedom after his unjust detention,” his mother told me. “It felt like my son had escaped the grave! But Mahmoud wasn’t afraid of his. He chose a battle that would lead him to either freedom or martyrdom.”

We asked her how she had gotten news about him during his detention. “Of course, three years passed without a single visit, the same suffering that all Gazan detainees’ families have shared since 2006,” she replied. “So we relied on the ICRC for updates on his situation.”

“We were denied any news for an entire year,” she continued. “After that, we were thankfully able to receive letters from Mahmoud through the ICRC for a short period of time, but I can’t read. Whenever we received a letter, his brother Emad would lock himself in a room and cry for hours. After pulling himself together, he would come out and tell me not to worry, as Mahmoud was doing fine and still playing soccer.”

“During Mahmoud’s strike, I was physically and psychologically exhausted. My sons had to take me to the hospital several times. But I felt like I had returned to life once I heard that Israel had agreed to free him in exchange for an end to his hunger strike. I pray for all detainees’ mothers to experience such relief and celebrate the freedom of their sons.”

The house grew increasingly crowded with visitors. So we left to give others the opportunity to talk with Mahmoud’s wonderful mother.

But I couldn’t give up on meeting Mahmoud himself so easily. We had already travelled from the northernpost point to the southern tip of the Gaza Strip looking for him! So I called his brother Emad, whom I had met frequently in the sit-in tent. When he picked up the phone, I told him I had just visited his family with a group of friends, and that we were very happy to meet his parents. He appreciated our visit, and suggested we meet them in a Gaza restaurant. Excited, we accepted his offer.

We arrived at the restaurant by sunset. My heartbeats grew faster as the time for our meeting drew closer. I could see Emad waiting for us by the entrance. He welcomed our group inside and introduced us to Mahmoud, who nicely asked us to join his table. I felt very nervous sitting directly across from him, but proud that I could look him in the eye while speaking to him. He wore two gold medals and a scarf combining the Palestinian flag and keffiyeh.

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That’s when we finally made it and met with Mahmoud Sarsak at a restaurant in Gaza City.

“Thanks to Allah for your release,” I said. “How does it feel to be free again?”

“My happiness is incomplete, as the revolution of empty stomachs is still going,” he answered. “My thoughts are with my comrades Akram Rikhawi, Samer Al-Barq, and Hassan Al-Safadi, who are suffering critical conditions in the Ramla Hospital Prison. I was released from there, and know perfectly the medical neglect detainees suffer there. The Israeli Prison Service doesn’t transfer us there for treatment, but for torture.”

His humbleness added a lot to his charm. He kept repeating that he wouldn’t have achieved his victory without the popular and international solidarity he received. “It’s not my victory, it’s yours. I gained my strength and poise from you.” It was obvious that he had lost a lot of weight, but he was still healthy. Joe Catron, an American activist who has met many freed prisoners, said later that he had never seen a recent hunger striker in such good shape.

Mahmoud’s smile didn’t leave his lips the whole time. He paid us all his attention. When I asked him if Gaza seemed different after three years, he laughed and said, “It looks so different to me. Gaza is a very beautiful city despite its small size. I love its beach, its pure air, and its kind people. I missed everything about Gaza. I just missed being home.”

Fidaa asked Mahmoud if he expected to be arrested three years ago when he went to the Erez crossing. “Not at all!” he said. “I was thrilled to achieve a dream to play football in a national team contest in the West Bank, in the Balata refugee camp. When they ordered me to a security meeting, I wasn’t afraid. I expected they would ask me to collaborate with them. I was confident and prepared myself to reject them. I was shocked when they aggressively shackled me.”

I interrupted, asking, “Why do you think they arrested you if you have never participated in resistance?”

“Resistance isn’t only about armed struggle,” he said. “Resistance can be through pen, brush, voice, and sport. We are all freedom fighters, but each of us has his or her own weapon.” His eloquent, passionate answer impressed us even more than we already were.

“Sport is a form of non-violent resistance,” he continued. “Being a representative of Palestine’s national football team makes me a threat to Israel. I’ve always been passionate about building Palestine’s presence in the sports world. I represented Palestine in several football matches locally and internationally, and had the honor of waving its flag wherever I played.”

The more he spoke, the more I admired him, especially when finally I asked him what had changed in his character after his imprisonment. “My faith in our just cause has become deeper and stronger,” he replied. “My determination to unveil the Zionists’ inhumane and fascist practices, and their violations of our basic human rights, has become my reason to live.”

The time grew late, and we had to end our amazing conversation. Mahmoud Sarsak is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. I will remember every word he said as long as I live. According to him, we all contributed to his victory. Let’s unite to achieve more victories for Akram Rikhawi, Hassan Al-Safadi, and Sammer Al-Barq. Make them reasons for your life, and fight injustice any way you can.


From sadness to happiness on two days in Gaza

Nadin, Sabry and Farah Unlike Monday, Tuesday was a happy day. On Monday, I woke up with eyes full of tears after I fell asleep to a tragic story, a story that was not heard widely, but happened in Gaza. Three kids lit up a candle to escape the darkness that filled their house in Al-Bureej Refugee Camp in the central Gaza Strip and slept. As the candle burned out, the candle of their lives  was extinguished, too.

Nadin, Sabry, and Farah came to this life, to the bosoms of their parents, after 17 long years of medication and Blastocyst operations. Monday night was their last in the blackness of Gaza. They died in a blink of an eye, in a fire that turned the dark sky red, leaving their small, charred bodies behind. Their parents were shocked from the biggest calamity in their lives, but continued to thank God that a son survived. Their story offered another tragic episode of suffering and pain from Gaza’s siege and its fuel and electricity crises. But it also proved how inspirational and strong Palestinian people are.

On Monday morning, the news was still fresh and hard to believe. Tragic stories of all kinds end up seeming normal. People here have learned to look back with anger, but keep going. So I had to go on, as life has had to keep moving in Gaza no matter how many obstacles we face. I had to attend my French class, even though I wasn’t in the mood to study.

I sat silently, then started drawing, seeking some relief. Our lesson was on how to say “I wish” in meaningful French phrases. I was there, but actually absent. Suddenly, one of my classmates joked that her only wish was for electricity to stop cutting off. While laughs could be heard from every corner of the class, the three kids’ deaths came to my mind. I got emotional, raised my hand, and said, “I wish these power-cuts would end so kids like Sabry, Nadin, and Farah wouldn’t die because they had to light candles in their dark rooms.” My intense emotions made me need to speak Arabic,  even if that wasn’t the reason for the class. I knew many of my classmates had slept early, because of the blackout, and wouldn’t have heard about it.

Laughs turned to silence. My professor, who has a four-year-old daughter, didn’t have a response, and his face turned sad. He stayed silent for a little while, then allowed me to leave the class, as he saw that I wasn’t in control of my emotions.  But he surprised me with a call that night, one of the kindest I’ve ever received. “I kiss my daughter every morning before she leaves for her kindergarten, and I felt terrible after hearing that story, imagining a morning could come without kissing her again. I couldn’t imagine how that family can handle losing three kids at once,” he said. “Let’s pray that God helps this family. And let’s make these stories build stronger people out of us, and try to find the bright side and stay optimistic, hoping and working for a better future with more light.”

I always feel blessed to have this great man as my teacher and friend. That day, I felt this blessing even more. He made my day. Then many beautiful and happy incidents happened.

My youngest sister, Tamam, and my eldest brother, Majed, surprised us with their arrival back in Gaza after spending a month in Europe representing Palestinian youth in some events there. The house had felt empty without them. I missed them a lot during their absence and they filled the house with happiness on their safe return.

Tuesday was very special. My family is very close, but I guess Tamam is my closest sibling. She is two years younger than me and studies at Al-Azhar University, like I do. Since her first day in university, we went to school together. It felt lonely to wake up in the morning and find her blankets well tidied on her empty bed. It didn’t feel right going to school without sharing a taxi, and without joking with her during our shared breaks. But on Tuesday morning, everything returned to normal. Having her around makes me happy to an extent she doesn’t realize.

Tuesday brought more happiness as I took the opportunity for a long break between lectures and visited the sit-in tent in front of the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC). The shortage of taxies caused by the fuel crisis offered me with a beautiful walk to the ICRC. At 10 am, the weather was almost perfect, and the Gaza streets seemed tempting to walk on, and very full of life. The drivers’ constant honking in the streets, for any reason or none, used to bother me. But on Tuesday, it made me smile. I enjoyed it as if I was listening to music.

From 50 meters away, I realized that the sit-in tent was gone. But I kept walking, as I could see a crowd of people in the front of the ICRC. As I got closer, I realized that they were the same people whom I always meet in the solidarity events held there. There were former detainees and mothers, wives, and daughters of current prisoners who are still held in Israel’s prison. This event was organized in anticipation of April 17, Palestinian Prisoners’ Day.

I was lucky to join the event from the start without having heard of it. It was very different than the ones we usually have. It included people like Om Ibrahim Baroud, whose son has been in prison for 27 years, a mother who had four sons in prison at one time during the First Intifada, the Intifada of Stones, along with her husband, and whose house was demolished twice by the Israeli occupation forces, and who hasn’t been allowed to see her son for 9 years. People like Om Ibrahim Baroud were tired of chasing the human rights organizations and speaking endlessly for their relatives. Tuesday, they stood with pride and bright smiles full of hope, holding white doves. I felt overwhelmed with happiness watching them let these doves fly free in Gaza’s blue sky.  I don’t know where they settled, but hope they convey our message to our prisoners that they are never forgotten and to the world that Palestinian people are real people who dream of living freed and dignified, like free birds.

A convoy of great Irish solidarity activists joined that event. I could tell they were very moved. Two of them were detained inside British prisons during 1980s. They joined Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, and witnessed his death after 66 days of starvation for the sake of freedom and dignity for the Irish people. “I can’t forget the photo that I saw during my imprisonment of a Palestinian women calling for our freedom,” one of them said. “She didn’t have any relation to us, but she was one of the oppressed, so she stood for the oppressed. When I was freed, I promised to dedicate my life for the sake of humanity, for the oppressed, for Palestine, and to support Palestinian political prisoners until a dawn comes bringing freedom to all of them.”

I can’t describe the positive energy, optimism, and cheerfulness I felt with all these incidents happening one after another. My happiness doubled as I visited my new female heroine, Hana’ Shalabi, who challenged these oppressors with her empty stomach for 43 days and defeated their illimitable tyranny. I couldn’t believe I was sitting next to her. I was actually speechless from her inspiring strength and will. No words could express how much admiration and appreciation I felt for this Palestinian woman. I felt sorry that she was forced outside her land, Jenin, to Gaza, away from her family. But I was thrilled at her high spirit, enthusiasm, and determination to recover so she could be the tongue of detainees until the last breath of her life.

“I was released on the condition of deportation to Gaza for three years,” she said smiling. “I don’t trust Israel, though.”Then a released prisoner, who was deported from Bethlehem in 2002, interrupted, saying, “Previously in 2002, the people who were besieged inside the Church of Nativity were deported to Gaza, but promised that it would be for two years. It’s been eleven years now, and we still can’t return.”  “Thankfully, every part of Palestine is my home, Gaza will be my home, and its people are my family,” Hana’ continued passionately. I am so sad that she has to deal with this situation, but feel very lucky and proud to have her among us.

This is the spirit of Palestinian people. No matter how much Israel escalates their attempts to depress us, their plans are bound to fail and turn against them. They can’t break our dream to live in freedom and dignity. Their inhumanity does nothing but increase our humanity and make us stronger people, ready to take the challenge, to fight with all means to gain what we have always deserved: justice, freedom, and equality.


Part 3: A Night of Dreams: From Jericho to Jerusalem and Jaffa

If you didn’t read Part 1and Part 2 of my story, kindly press these links!

The long hours of waiting inside the bus without moving gave me a backache, but I couldn’t complain with many elderly and sick people surrounding me. An old woman sat to my right. I could read many stories of struggle and suffering in her wrinkles, her traditional Palestinian dress, and her tight eyes. She wore a  brace around her neck. I could hear her muttering prayers.

Due to Israel’s apartheid checkpoints, it took us a day to reach Jericho, which is roughly one hour from Allenby Bridge. I waited eagerly, imagining myself walking around the old city of Jerusalem before heading to Gaza. We wasted over four hours waiting for the Israeli soldiers to let us pass through their checkpoints. Being from Gaza made my crossing procedures even more complicated. I spent the whole trip to Jericho counting minutes and hours. The more time we wasted, the less likely it became for me to tour Jerusalem. The time limit that Israel imposed by closing Erez at 7:00 pm made me stressful.

At sunset, I finished all the crossing and security procedures. I hurried to the exit to find my taxi driver sweating, standing by his parked car next to the door waiting for us. He rushed me inside the car, saying that he had to drive me to the District Coordination Offices (DCO) right away to get a permit to leave before it was too late. People from Gaza get permits to cross through Erez back to Gaza there, and people from West Bank get permits to enter Jerusalem and other “Israeli” territory.  

On the way to Jordan, I tried my hardest to stop in Jerusalem and visit the Odeh family, whose son Loai was deported to Gaza after his release in the Shalit swap deal. Loai and I became close friends as soon as we met. Before I left Gaza, I promised him that I would do my best to visit his family and give them a hug on his behalf. I couldn’t on my way to Jordan. But I  was persistent to make it happen when I returned.

I endured a stream of silence and frustration. Then my telephone rang. It was our travel coordinator from Gaza. 

“Listen carefully,” he said in a very serious tone. “The DCO closes at 4:00 pm, and now it’s 5:30 pm. You won’t be able to go home tonight. You’ll have to stay at a hotel, or at a relative’s or friend’s house in Jericho. Keep in mind that you’re only allowed to move within Jericho. No one but you will pay its price for anything outside its limits.”

I said nothing in response and acted as if I was taking his words seriously, but smiled, because only then did I sense how lucky I was. I hung up, turned to the driver excitedly, and said,  “I won’t go home tonight. I’m supposed to stay in Jericho, but I’m not going to fear anyone. This night will come once in a lifetime, and I’m not going to spend it restricting my footsteps and worrying about Israel’s racist rules or anyone’s orders.”

He smiled and said, “I’m dropping you in Jericho.” I screamed, refusing to accept what he said, but he interrupted me, raised his voice, and continued, “This is what ‘they’ will assume, but not what will happen! I’ll pick you up from Jerusalem tomorrow morning to go to the DCO.” I made sure he meant it before I got too excited, then I burst into screams and tears of happiness. We drove toward Jerusalem while singing one of my favorite Fairouz songs, about Jerusalem: “For you, the city of prayers, I pray.”

The driver warned me of the dangers I might face if I entered Jerusalem. We knew there were risks, but we decided to take them . The checkpoint between Jerusalem and Jericho was the problem. No car can enter Jerusalem without going through it. If we passed it without being stopped by Israeli soldiers, then we were safe.

We put sunglasses on and began chatting and laughing as if everything was normal. We passed without the soldiers noticing anything “wrong”. When the checkpoints disappeared from sight, we shouted, “We made it!” The first person I called was Loai. “I’m now heading to Jerusalem, to meet your family!” I screamed with happiness. “Let the driver drop you at the Jerusalem Hotel, where my brother Obay is waiting for you,” Loai said laughing.

I couldn’t be more grateful to a person than the driver, who put himself at risk to make my dream come true. He dropped me near the hotel, made sure that I was safe, and left me to enjoy the rest of my time in Jerusalem, before the next morning when my adventure would end.

I had never met Obay, but I felt like I already knew him. We talked briefly once when Loai was in Egypt. He introduced us on Skype. Loai had told how special their relationship was, especially after they were reunited in prison. They shared a cell together for over two years before Obay, who was detained in 2002 as a child at the age of 17, was released in 2006. They met again in Egypt last January. I could see many similarities Obay shared with Loai – appearance, behavior, way of thinking and even their expressions –  that made me feel closer to him.

The first thing we did was take a walking tour inside the old city of Jerusalem. I can’t describe how good it felt to be there. I took a short noon tour there last June, but the city is even more magnificent at night. I could hear history, authenticity, and solidity narrated by every stone, every wall, every street, everything. But at the same time, I recalled how Loai once described his city: “Jerusalem is a sad town.” It’s true. I could touch the anger, the sorrow, and the challenge everywhere while wandering its ancient alleys.

The people who remained in Jerusalem suffer the most from Israeli occupation and apartheid. While wandering around, we saw many people sitting outside their homes chatting. I passed by a group of girls in a courtyard. They were very welcoming and loving when they learned I came from Gaza. I asked them about the occupation, with which they interact daily. “We will never leave our homes even if it costs us our lives,” one of them replied. “Israel offered to buy these old, small houses with unbelievable amounts of money, but we never gave them up and never will. Our resistance is to stay here, despite all the mocking, humiliation, and violations of our rights.”

I was thrilled by her answer. A young girl among them grabbed me to introduce me to her family. I was shocked to see how narrow her house was. They had only one room, where nine people, including her parents, live.

I kept walking. I could see Hebrew graffiti on the walls and Israeli flags. It’s not only a sad city, but also an angry one. I could sense its anger shaking the floor beneath me, as if it was saying, “My tongue is  Arab and my identity is Palestinian.”

In the old city of Jerusalem, it is easy to tell where Palestinians and settlers live, even without Israeli flags flying on roofs or Hebrew written on the walls. The Palestinian homes are very old and narrow. They’re not permitted to be renovated. Electrical wires are uncovered and tied to the ceiling. Israel tries every way to pressure Palestinians to leave their houses with the neglect of the civil services and the increase of taxes. On the other hand, the settlers’ homes appeared to be in good shape and enjoyed good electricity and other public services. Settlers are allowed to extend and refurbish their houses.

I followed Obay wherever he went. We climbed snaky stairs until we reached a roof, where an Israeli soldier suddenly came outside to ask why we were there. Obay answered calmly, “Just to see the city from the top.”

I didn’t know exactly where I was, and the soldier, who was monitoring screens connected with cameras spread all over the city, made me nervous. Then Obay pointed. I turned to where his finger stopped to discover that the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque were right in front of me. I opened my eyes wide and sighed. The exceptional beauty of the golden dome glittered and lit up the dark sky.

No matter how long I meditate on this magnificent view, my eyes will stay thirsty. But we had to leave. Obay had a nice plan to make use of my only night there. I couldn’t believe my ears  when I heard that our next destination was Jaffa. It was always a dream, but one in the back of my mind, which I thought would be impossible to reach. We headed there in the car. Being in Jaffa increased my longing to return to Beit-Jerja, my original village, where my grandparents were ethnically cleansed in 1948. The refugees’ return is a right, not just a dream, and it will be fulfilled someday.

The first thing we did in Jaffa was have dinner in a restaurant that overlooking the beach. We were starving after an hour driving and over two hours wandering around Jerusalem. In Gaza, the last thing I would order is fish, as even it is imported. The Israeli Navy occupies our sea and prevents fishermen from going farther than three nautical miles, cutting down Gaza’s wealth of fish. In Jaffa, I didn’t hesitate for even a second to try the fish of our Mediterranean sea, and I didn’t regret it! I can’t tell you how succulent it tasted.

Immediately after we finished eating, I ran toward the seashore in my bare feet to wet them and feel the warm waves. I kept walking, paying no attention to time or distance, while breathing Jaffa’s pure air and collecting beautiful seashells to keep as souvenirs. It felt so harmonic and spiritual. I never stopped thinking about my people in Gaza, who were very near, but could never reach this side of the Palestinian beach.

I wished I could watch the sunrise there, but we had to go back to Jerusalem a little earlier, as Loai’s father was worried about us. I couldn’t complain about anything. I received more than I expected. I repeatedly described how happy I was this way: “I am afraid I will die from too much happiness.”  I hoped for at least an hour in Jerusalem, and unexpectedly, I had a whole night in both Jerusalem and Jaffa. Alhamdullah, God was very generous to me.

It meant a lot to be at Loai’s house. His pictures hung everywhere, even in the garden. I caught only two hours of sleep before I had to leave the house to get a permit from the DCO. Before I said goodbye to Loai’s family, I took pictures of every corner of the house to show Loai the place where he was raised, since he had almost forgotten its appearance after ten years of detention. I also picked two branches from a beautiful tree in their garden.  He was very happy to receive these photos and branches.

All these adventures felt like a dream, one so happy that I never wanted to wake up. But my return to Gaza was obligatory. I spent seven hours in the DCO, waiting for the Israeli soldiers to issue my permit to return to Gaza through Erez. As I arrived in a Gaza blackout, I was welcomed by a very loud bomb that exploded near Beit Hanoun. I was scared at first, but then I burst out laughing and shouted, “Welcome back to Gaza!”


Part 2: My Journey in Jordan

If you didn’t read the first part of my story, kindly press this link to read it first.

I left Gaza at 10:00am and arrived in Jordan by sunset. The weather was freezing. I couldn’t wait to climb into the warm taxi that would drop me near the Marriott Hotel, where the reunion was held. I wrapped my body with my kuffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian checkered scarf, and slept. The hour-long drive passed without my notice. When we drew near to the hotel, the driver woke me up. I rose quickly to the window and took in my surroundings. The place exceeded my expectations. I was truly tired, and very sleepy and hungry, but as I saw the beauty around me, I felt refreshed and excited once again.

As I entered the lobby, my first glances fell on my friends, who were the main reason I decided to attend the reunion. I spent all my time in the US with them. Seeing them again filled me with happiness. After an hour of greetings and exchanging stories, the time came to check into my room. A hotel worker helped me with my luggage and showed me my room. Once I got in, I left the responsibility for my luggage to the worker and eagerly hurried to the balcony.

I stood motionless, with my eyes wandering around my surroundings. I had ever seen a landscape that so deserved to be painted. I was captivated by the beauty of the big garden behind the building. Dim lights spread nicely amongst the colorful trees, flowers and swimming pool. Behind the beautiful backyard, the Dead Sea lay peacefully. It was cold and the sky wasn’t very clear, so more beauty lay hidden behind its dark clouds. I had never seen the Dead Sea before then, but my parents had told me many times about its breathtaking beauty. They used to tease me and my siblings, since they had gotten to swim there and walk on Jericho’s beach, while we couldn’t. The movement restrictions got more intense during the latest couple of decades of the Israeli Occupation. I smiled while remembering these memories and wished they were there.

The next day, during our break, everyone else preferred to stay inside to avoid the cold winds. But I didn’t want to let that hold me back from meditating on the beach of the Dead Sea. So I put my jacket and my kuffiyeh on and eagerly went to the closest point to the shore. As I got closer, my gaze grew longer and my heart beats got faster. I lost my breath as I saw the wind forming small waves, tenderly wetting the golden sand, and hitting the rocks, colors and sizes, that lay on the shoreline.

It was a bittersweet feeling to be on the other side of Jericho. I could see Jericho’s hills in the horizon line. I was so close yet so far away, since Israel’s apartheid regime deprives me as a Palestinian from Gaza from reaching it.

The reunion schedule was very busy. We had tasks to accomplish and workshops and lectures to attend. One was about democracy, which is not my favorite to discuss. I was obliged to sit and listen to a professor whom I didn’t like. I argued with him once, about Israel and Palestine, when I briefly met him after he defended Israel’s crimes and illegal existence and occupation by saying, “I believe in Israel’s right to exist.” I remember our heated discussion about that, which left him trapped. Then he became mad and tried to get himself out of the debate by raising his voice. After his speech about “democracy,” we were given a chance to share our points of view and tell stories of democracy in our homelands.

I had been waiting anxiously for the moment to speak up, so I raised my hand. “In 2006 in Palestine, we experienced this democracy,” I said angrily. “We had a democratic election, which Hamas won. But because the result of this ‘democracy’ didn’t satisfy Israel and its friend America, they imposed a siege on the Gaza Strip as a collective punishment for everyone, whether they voted for the ‘terrorist’ Hamas or not.”

The professor didn’t like what I said, but I went on speaking. “I don’t think democracy exists in reality. There is no such thing. In fact, this definition should be replaced in the dictionaries with HYPOCRICY.” He interrupted me by saying that I should give others a chance to speak. I stopped, but could no longer listen to more hypocrisy and left.

On the fourth day, we had an exhibit. Posters by all participants, briefly describing the projects they were planning to implement in their home countries to seek change, were hung on the walls. Having a passion for art, I decided to focus on artists in Palestine. For more regarding my project, you can see me presenting about it here.EQxqnvWhnGQ

That was basically the end of the reunion. Only then did I have a chance to enjoy the beauty of the Dead Sea again. The weather became a little better, but was still cold. A single day was left for me in the Dead Sea, and this opportunity might not come again. Therefore, I joined a group of my friends who decided to challenge the weather and swim for the same reason. We encouraged each other to go crazy and take the plunge. I dyed my skin with the famous Dead Sea mud -— it looked scary. Then I slowly and carefully got into the water. It was torture before my body adjusted to the coldness of the water. Suddenly I found myself floating and oh my God! It felt like heaven. It seemed like I had no control over my body. But I felt safe and peaceful in the bosom of nature.

I was scheduled to leave the hotel on March,5 to Amman. I enjoyed its archeological sites that speak of the history and culture of the Roman Empire. I went to many interesting places like the Roman theater and the citadel. I had a great time with my friends there, but I also felt homesick, especially after I heard about the Israeli attacks on Gaza that had resulted in 15 martyrs by then. Watching these attacks from outside is different than being inside. I felt so much panic. I was very worried about my family and my people, and wished I could be there, sharing their difficult times.

11 March is the day when my permit in Jordan went invalid. Thus, my awesome Jordanian friends offered to drop me at Allenby bridge to go through more checkpoints on the way back to Gaza.

My journey in Jordan ended like that but another journey, or risky adventures, inside the occupied lands started.   To read more about come tomorrow!


Happy Birthday, Dear Vittorio (RIP)

My tribute for Vik in his first anniversary

As I realized today’s date, the 4th of February, a stream of memories flooded into my mind. Today, last year, marked my dear friend Vittorio Arrigoni’s last birthday I spent with him.

I remember it was a nice, rainy Friday. I felt happy to be rich, having just gotten my $1,000 share from YouthSchool for my work on the Gaza 2011 calendar “All I Want Is Peace”. My best friend Adie Mormech, an English activist who spent a year in Gaza working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), reminded me that it was Vik’s birthday. That day, Vik missed the Friday lunch, to which he always looked forward. I knew about Vik’s stress regarding his father’s deteriorating health, and that it was a reason he didn’t join us for lunch. He would always say “Zaki”, delicious, as his gentle but funny way of thanking Mum for the food that was fondly ranked by “his majesty” as the best in Gaza.

Having not seen him, and being worried about him, I decided to surprise him by going to the ISM office where he and the other ISMers (Adie, Inge, Vera, and Silvia) were gathering. It was already night when I left home for Mazaj, the cake shop Vik preferred, and it was raining heavily. But it was worth getting wet for the sake of Vik’s smile and the fun I expected to have when I arrived at the office. I got the cake and hurried with excitement to meet Vik and my other friends. I couldn’t wait to tell him about the greetings that his friends from Italy had told me to send him, and to put the smile on his face that always sent warmth and happiness to everyone around him.

Vera, an ISM activist from Germany, welcomed me as I knocked on the door. When she saw the excitement on my face and the cake I carried, she whispered, “It’s not the right time for a party now. Vik is sad.”

My happy features turned sad. I left the bag by the entrance and went to look for Vik. He sat in the living room alone as Vera had told me. The curtain that separated the two sitting rooms, which were open to each other, was pulled down. I felt like even the house looked sad. I wanted to check on Vik, though. After asking him if I could come in, I sat next to him on the purple couch for a couple of minutes of silence. “I hope you’re OK,” I said while pressing his hand. “I’m worried for my father,” he said. “He’s going to have an operation that might reveal a terminal illness.”

He knew that if it did not go well, his father would not have long to live. As I remember this, I think of how ridiculous and unpredictable this life is. Back then, who would have ever expected that Vik would die before his father did?

Vittorio was torn between two concerns at the center of his life: his attachment to Palestine, and his father and family’s need for his support. Each thought was more pressing than the other. Then suddenly, “Strong Vik” could no longer control his tears. I couldn’t believe that I was seeing Vik cry. Vik has been always a symbol of strength, humanity, and inspiration for me. He always will be. At the time, I felt confused and didn’t know how to act. With spontaneity, I hugged him, as I thought getting a hug in such difficult times might help more than my words. I cried along with him, too.

Then Vik learned about the cake I brought. He didn’t want to disappoint me and all my plans. He reached deep inside himself for strength to bring smiles back to the faces of his friends, smiled at me, then shouted to all the others, “Yalla, let’s have some cake”. That’s how caring Vik was; he always wanted to be a reason for everyone to smile, but never for anyone to cry. He could easily shift the atmosphere from gloomy to so happy, so much that I didn’t want to go back home.

I remember my memories from your birthday last year and oh, dear Vittorio, you can’t imagine how much I wish I could tell you how much I miss you and joke with you like we used to do.  I miss you even though I strongly feel your presence with me, like you never left us.  Every Friday that has passed without you, I’ve wished you would come for lunch, your smile lighting the room as you walked through the door.

I wish you could see my drawing that’s dearest to me. It’s your portrait that you always nagged me to make, but never got to see. I am certain that no matter how many more drawing I have produced and will produce, yours will be my favorite. Not only because of my skill, and the love that I put into it, but because, somehow, part of your beautiful soul attached itself to this painting.

As you look down from paradise, on all of us here, I offer you this drawing. I hope it brings you as much joy as you always brought us.  I miss you Vittorio. I love you, Vittorio. You will live forever in my heart and in the hearts of all Palestinians, who owe you so much. We’ll keep celebrating your birthday every year and you’ll continue to inspire us, adding more humanity to the world. Rest in Peace, dear Vik. Stay human!

Palestinians’ tribute to Vittorio Arrigoni , Onadekom ( Calling You ) – DARG Team