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.
‘Don’t tell my mother that I am blind’: Muhammad Brash grasps for light in the darkness of Israeli jail
Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by the Palestinian resistance from his tank and held for five years, is known worldwide as a “victim” of the “terrorist” Palestinians.
But seeing how little the world knows of our Palestinian political prisoners infuriates me. There is not only one. Nearly five thousand Palestinians are behind Israeli bars, which are more like “a grave for the living.” as my dad ad, who spent 15 years in Israel’s prisons, frequently describes his detention.
Last night, while following the latest news on political prisoners, I saw a headline reading, “The medical situation of the detainee Muhammad Brash is deteriorating.” I’m certain few have read that name before.
Muhammad Brash, like every Palestinian hero locked up in Israel’s jails, has his own story, a human and heroic story that would touch any heart. I didn’t know him before I coincidentally – and tearfully – read his letter, “Don’t tell my mother that I have become blind.”
I want to introduce you 32-year-old Muhammad Brash to you in depth. But I’ll let his own poetic words first tell you who he is. Here is my translation of his letter:
Don’t tell my mother that I can no longer see. She can see me, but I can’t see. I fake my smiles when she shows me the photographs of my siblings, friends, and neighbors, as she doesn’t know that I have become blind after illness spread in my eyes until the darkness filled me.
Don’t tell her that I waited several years to have a cornea transplant surgery. But the Israeli Prison Service kept procrastinating and procrastinating, giving my eyes every reason to leave me.
Don’t tell her that the last thing I remember from the sweet days when I could see was a small child, running toward me, waving the Palestinian flag, and yelling, ‘A martyr, a martyr.’
Don’t tell my mother that the shrapnel of the bombs which managed to hit me is still settling in my body, and that my left leg was mutilated and replaced with a plastic one. Don’t tell her that the other leg rotted and dried of blood and life.
Don’t tell my mother that the prisoner survives a lifeless existence and is treated as subhuman. He is sentenced to see only ashes and iron, darkness and hopelessness.
Tell her I am alive and safe. Tell her I can see, walk, run, play, jump, write, and read. Don’t tell her I shoulder my pains on a walking stick, and can see every martyr as a moon, soaring in the sky and calling me with the power of lightning, thunder, and clouds.
Don’t tell her I suffer from sleepless nights, and that I live under the mercy of painkillers until they drug my body. Don’t tell her that I keep losing my things, and I barge into the iron beds or another prisoner sleeping close to me, to wake him to help me reach the bathroom. Don’t tell her that wakefulness always hurts me and sleep never visits me.
Don’t tell her that Israel, a country in the 21st century, has turned its prisons into places where diseases are planted and bodies slowly ruined.
Don’t tell her that I have learned the names of horrible illnesses and strange medications, along with all types of painkillers, while watching my friend Zakariyya fall into a coma, with an ending unknown to me.
Don’t tell my mother about the sick prisoners whose diseases launched fierce wars against their bodies: Ahmad Abu Errab, Khaled Ashawish, Ahmad al-Najjar, Mansour Mowqeda, Akram Mansour, Ahmad Samara, Wafaa al-Bis, Reema Daraghma, Tareq Asi, Mutasim Radad, Riyad al-Amour, Yasir Nazzal, Ashraf Abu-Thare, Jihad Abu-Haniyye. The merciless Israeli prisons slaughter them; there is an illness and a carelessness in a country that enjoys slow death sentences and funerals for others.
Tell her that I never stop dreaming of being wrapped in her tender arms. My nostalgia for her is great, and her soul never leaves me. Tell her that I have kept her gifts: my Arab tongue, my purity, my symbols stuck on the wall, all of which soothe my pain every time the light disappears around me.
Tell her that I always embrace her holy prayers, to survive the dark cloud that surrounds me after the pain has spread in my body and tortured me. I might return to her or I might not, but I leave the answer to this question open, although I’ve chosen to be spiritually close to her heart. Tell her I am sorry I have no control over my future.
Tell her I am not too far from her, and I get closer every time a bird flies and a fire burns in my eye, and barbed wires wound me, carrying me to her arms.
Learning about Muhammad
This letter began my spiritual relationship with Muhammad Brash’s persona. He became a new source of inspiration in my life and deepened my faith in the cause of the Palestinian political prisoners.
Muhammad somehow managed to smuggle his moving letter from Eshel prison during the campaign of disobedience, the 22-day mass hunger strike launched at the end of September 2011. He shared his own experience of medical neglect, attempting to shed some light on the Israel Prison Service’s inhumane practices against him and his comrades. Quality medical care always tops the list of our detainees’ demands whenever they start a mass hunger strike.
Eager to know Muhammad Brash in depth, I searched every possible source for more information on him. I wished I could visit his family and listen to their story first-hand. Sadly Israel’s apartheid made it impossible for someone from Gaza to meet another from West Bank, even though it’s only a couple of hours away.
A message from Muhammad’s brother
After a long search, I found a Facebook page called The Detainees Muhammad and Ramzy Brash. Only then I realized that Ramzy Brash was Muhammad’s brother, who shares his prison cell and is also sentenced to life-long detention. I left a post on their page saying how moved I was by Muhammad’s letter. Shortly after that, I received a message from his 22-year-old brother, Hamza Brash, saying he was ready to tell me all about Muhammad.
Muhammad’s family is originally from Abu Shosha village, which was ethnically cleansed in 1948. His grandparents fled to al-Amari refugee camp in Ramallah, where they still live.
Brother killed by Israeli soldiers, Muhammad wounded by a bomb
At the start of the second Intifada – which began in September 2000 – Israeli occupation forces invaded al-Amari, massacred people, and demolished their houses. An armed soldier shot Muhammad’s 15-year-old brother Subri, cutting his life short while he was throwing a stone. This moved Muhammad to join the resistance and defend his people’s dignity and sense of security.
At the same time, Muhammad worked as a policeman. In 2001, he had a night shift, guarding a Palestinian police station 50 meters from an Israeli checkpoint. As he entered his car to return home, it exploded. Later he learned there had been a bomb inside it. There was suspicion over who had done it, but his brother responded, “We have only one enemy: Israel! The rest of the story will prove to you that their denial of the responsibility for this crime is a lie.”
“Muhammad was found quite far from the explosion,” Hamza told me during a phone call. “People thought they had found a martyr. But thankfully the bomb didn’t kill him. It only left him blind with one leg.”
Muhammad was carried to a governmental hospital. But even while he was half dead, he was attacked again. “A masked man entered his room and stuck his fingers in Muhammad’s eyes, already blinded from the bomb,” Hamza said angrily. “After that, he was sent to a private hospital and was never left alone without guards.”
Arrested in 2003
“But how did he end up in prison?” I asked. “On 17 February 2003, the Israeli army besieged Al-Amarai preparing for a detention campaign,” Hamza replied. “We never expected that Muhammad would be the target. After his disability, how could he threaten Israel’s security?”
“A huge force of Israeli soldiers raided our house,” he said. “They found Mahmoud leaning against a wall, trying to stand. They attacked him and started shackling and blindfolding him, as if he could see or run away. The soldiers started harassing him because of his disability.” Hamza told me that he heard the head soldier telling Muhammad, “We wanted you dead, but when we heard that you were alive, we thought you should be our guest.”
Mohammed didn’t fear them. Hamza heard Muhammad telling the head soldier, “I’m sorry for you, you coward!” The head soldier laughed at him wondering “How come?” Then Muhammad answered him with pride and slight smile, “If you weren’t a coward, you wouldn’t come besiege the whole camp with thousands of soldiers to arrest a disabled man like me!”
At first, the Israeli court sentenced Muhammad to seven lifetimes. But then it was reduced to three life sentences plus 35 years in light of his health condition. “As if this merciless court made a difference! ” Hamza said angrily. “A life sentence was enough to make Israel’s prison his grave.”
Muhammad has served ten years of his sentence, and no one knows if he will ever be released. Ever since his arrest, he has suffered from medical neglect every day. It’s this that left Muhammad in two forms of darkness: His blind eyes that see no colors but black, and his dark cell where he dies every day and may spend the last day of his life.
More than 50 prisoners are either physically or mentally disabled. And as Dad said, recalling his imprisonment, “Being detained by the merciless jailers of the Israel Prison Service is enough to threaten your psychological health.”
Most of Israel’s shameful crimes, which offend any sense of propriety in any heart with any shred of conscience, were committed in the name of security. But how can they justify them in Muhammad’s case where he can hardly endanger their safety?
Read Mohammed Brash’s letter to his mother in Italian. The translation is done by the wonderful Italian activist Angela Bernardini
The sit-in tent for Palestinian political prisoners has been moved from the International Committee for the Red Cross to a central park near the statue of the Unknown Soldier in the middle of Gaza City. It is one of the few green places and thus one of the most lively places in Gaza, where people escape from their dark houses and seek fun and relief, or to simply waste their times observing others. However, the sit-in tent is now used differently, to send messages of solidarity with our Political prisoners who have been on a mass hunger strike since April 17, and to show anger with the Arab and international community and all human rights organizations, which keep calling for human rights, democracy and justice, but when it comes to our prisoners, they do nothing but watch them dying and remaining helpless.
The solidarity is taking many forms, such as lighting candles, making marches, creatively performing plays, songs, poetry and Dabka, joining a symbolic hunger strike. In Gaza’s sit-in tent, 50 men and 45 women have joined a symbolic hunger strike in solidarity with the detainees since May 2, including prisoner’s wives, parents, sisters and former prisoners. Those people have been protesting day and night. The tent is their shelter as long as the revolution of hunger is going inside Israeli prisons. Having been in the solidarity tent daily, even more than in my house, I’ve witnessed most of the cases among hunger strikers whose health conditions got deteriorating. Several cases were sent to hospital for low or high blood pressure and so many people fainted or emotionally collapsed. Ambulances and doctors never leave the tents anymore as if they have full time job at the tent.
While observing the hunger strikers getting paler as more days pass, I can’t help but think of our heroes, our prisoners behind Israel’s bars and compare. The strikers here have access to water and salt and they also have a small dish of yogurt and soup per day. But our prisoners have nothing but water and salt, ‘in case it’s not confiscated by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS).’ Strikers here can rest or sleep whenever they feel like it, but our prisoners keep being transferred between sections and prisons by the IPS attempting to exhaust them. Loai Odeh, a former prisoner who is also now on a hunger strike in solidarity, emphasizes that the IPS mercilessly prevents the strikers from resting, with these words he wrote recalling his experience of hunger strike during the campaign of disobedience. “Soldiers burst into strikers’ rooms aggressively as if they were confronting armed fighters on a battleground, not hunger strikers with feeble bodies that can barely stand. Knowing that strikers are intolerant of noise, soldiers break into their rooms with loud screams and initiate a hand search in a way that one feels that he’s being beaten rather than searched.”
While making the daily tour to show support and admiration to the hunger strikers in the tent, I was surprised to see Abu Hosny Al-Srafity wearing the strikers’ t-shirt that distinguishes them from others, and which beautifully designed with the Palestinian flag with “we’ll live dignified” written on it. Abu Hosny is a 66-year old detainee’s father whom I met since I started going to the weekly protest in the ICRC for political prisoners. Whenever we meet, we greet each other and have a short and informal conversation, but never had a real one that would make me feel like knowing him intimately. Finally, I had this conversation with him after I said “You, too?” out of surprise reacting to seeing that t-shirt.
“Absolutely!” He powerfully confirmed. “We took this step because we consider ourselves as partners in this battle of dignity but our hunger strike remains symbolic at the end of the day. It equals nothing of our detainees’ enormous suffering under the Israeli oppressive regime. They aren’t only hungry for food, they are hungry for dignity, justice, and freedom.”
He refused to let his age be a barrier in front of standing with his son Ali who was detained for 10 years and still has six to go. Doctors keep pressuring him to break his hunger strike but he refuses saying that “my life isn’t any more precious than that of my son.”
Our conversation was still in the beginning. What came next was heartbreaking. I was amazed at his high spirit and his determination but this profound chat we had clarified to me where he got that strength from.
“Ali is the only son left.” He said. “Left?” I interrupted. Then he moved his below to take a photo he kept below and started explaining. “I had three sons. My oldest son Hosny and my youngest Mohammed were killed and the one in the middle is behind Israel’s bars.” I felt raged and asked how. “In 2004, I was sitting with my wife chatting alone about the terrifying sounds of warplanes that occupied Gaza’s sky. We knew an attack was coming. Then a loud expulsion was heard and shook the land below us. We were in indescribable panic. My wife prayed, “May Allah stand with the mothers of the targeted people.” Then she answered the phone that informed her about the assassination of her oldest son, having no idea she was praying for herself.”
It was very hard to keep control of my emotions after hearing that tragedy. I continued looking directly at his eyes that were full of sorrow and listened silently. “Wait. The next story is even more shocking.” He said. “I was on my way home from a family visit with my wife and my seven-year-old son Mohammed in 1994. We were close to the eastern line, near Naheloz settlement. While standing in the street and waving for cars to take us back home, we suddenly glanced an Israeli car and a jeep driving too fast toward us. We got confused and scared. They intentionally smashed my son under their wheels, hit my wife and badly injured her and kept driving fast toward the settlement. It was horrible. It all happened so quickly that I couldn’t rescue my son who froze out of fear in front of that heartless driver who killed him and didn’t bother to even look back.”
Abu Hosny stopped talking to see my reaction but I was too shocked to utter any word after hearing that horrible incidents. His voice narrating the stories of the murder of his two sons kept replaying in my ears, and my tears kept flowing and the features of shock didn’t leave my face. He saw me in that condition and softly tapped on my hand and said, “Don’t be sad, my daughter. As long as we’re living on these holy lands of Palestine, we’ll never get fed up giving any sacrifice. These unjust and unsecure lives we’re leading are the source of our inner strength and determination. If that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t see me now hunger striking in solidarity with my son, the living martyr, with hope to celebrate his freedom soon.”
Let’s pray to all detainees’ families to celebrate the victory of their detained sons in their battle of empty stomachs against the armed merciless jailers and pray that this victory will result in allowing them to visit their sons after over 6 years of family visits’ ban. Let’s support our prayers with taking serious actions.
This morning was very eventful one in the Gaza sit-in tent. As I arrived around 10:00 am, more than a hundred kids, each about four years old, entered the tent. They looked very beautiful and innocent. They came from Gassan Kanafani’s kindergarten carrying signs like “I want to hug Dad,” “I want Dad to be free,” or “Freedom for Palestinian political prisoners.”
They didn’t fully understand why they were there, but their participation put smiles on the faces of the hunger strikers and the detainees’ families, who joined their soft voices while chanting along with them: “Free, free Palestine!” All generations united their voices to call for the victory of our political prisoners’ battle of dignity, which continues for the 23rd day.
Soon after that, a 75-year-old woman entered the sit-in tent in a wheelchair, surrounded by a crowd of photographers and other people. I wondered who she was, then discovered that she was Hassan Salama’s mother. Despite her age and her medical condition, she insisted on visiting the tent to show solidarity with her son, who has been in solitary confinement for 13 years. She gave a revolutionary, emotional speech that inspired many listeners and made them cry, especially when she said, “My son is my sacrifice to Palestine.” She and all detainees’ mothers are symbols of the resistance.
We consider solitary confinement one of the most horrible crimes and among the most difficult punishments inflicted on our brave detainees by the Israeli Prison Service. Its main goal is to destroy the prisoner’s mind and devastate his psychological and physical health as quickly as possible. Ending this unjust policy is one of the most important demands our prisoners aim to achieve from this strike, as it constitutes a grave violation of their rights to personal liberty, bodily integrity, and dignity.
After that, hundreds of Palestinians marched in solidarity with the2002 deportees from the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. May 10 marks the eleventh anniversary of their exile. They were promised that they would be allowed to return after two or three years of deportation, after 11 years, they’re still refugees in the Gaza Strip. Deportation is a terrible violation of Geneva Convention IV and a form of ethnic cleansing that Israel continues to use against Palestinian people. Recently, administrative detainee Hana’ Shalabi was deported to Gaza and promised she could return to Jenin after 3 years of exile, but who knows if she’ll ever be allowed back or forced into exile forever?