|crowds ofthousands have greeted 210 former prisoners on Tuesday, 18th of October|
The first stage of the prisoner swap deal has already taken place. As agreed on, 477 Palestinian detainees were set free before an Israeli soldier held in Gaza was delivered by the resistance to the Red Cross to enjoy the full range of freedom.
In Gaza, crowds of thousands have greeted 210 former prisoners — 131 of whom are from Gaza, and another 179 who were deported to Gaza according to Israel’s inhumane stipulations. The release of a total of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners should be completed within two months.
As prisoners have returned to their families, celebrations of freedom have been heard all cross the Gaza Strip, bringing a sense of hope for freedom. However, the road to freedom will remain incomplete even with one Palestinian still suffering inside the Israeli occupation prisons. So what if approximately 6,000 political prisoners are still locked up, including 164 children, in violation of international law?
The deported prisoners
The most painful part of this swap deal is the deported prisoners. They have long waited to be free again to return to their families, but Israel has instead deported them to other places where they have to wait even longer before they can wrap their arms around their loved ones again. The freedom of these deported former prisoners is not true freedom.
My parents recently went to a celebration held in the neighborhood for some released detainees. I was sitting alone when suddenly my phone rang. It was my mother. I could hardly hear her because of celebrations that were going around her. “You should come and see how people are dancing with joy and singing for freedom,” she said. I got so excited that I could no longer stay home and I decided to join them immediately and see for myself the joyous atmosphere there.
I didn’t know the exact address of the festival but I didn’t worry about it as I was certain that the resonance of the songs of freedom would guide my steps. The lights along with the Palestinian flags of all sizes were everywhere, decorating the dark blue sky. The walls were dressed with photos of our heroes who sacrificed precious years for the cause of freedom.
People came from different areas of the Gaza Strip to share with the released detainees the happiness of their freedom. The festival included folk dancing performances, songs of liberation and poetry dedicated to those who were free and to those who are still suffering behind Israeli bars.
|Loai is holding his mother, Rawda, after his release in Gaza City.|
A long-awaited reunion
Near the end of the festival, which lasted for several hours, my father called over me and mom to introduce us to his friends. A woman wearing a beautiful Palestinian traditional dress decorated with threads in the colors of the Palestinian flag — white, red, black and green — was standing beside a blond man.
“Rawda, Yacoub, here is my daughter, Shahd,” my father introduced us. Then the man, Yacoub, stepped forward, kissed my forehead and hugged me and left me surprised and still wondering who he was.
Then Dad continued with a big smile on his face: “This is my friend from Jerusalem who was detained with me in Nafha prison for 15 years, and we were freed together in Ahmad Jibril’s exchange deal. And this is his brother’s wife, Rawda, who was imprisoned for five years as well in the 1970s.”
I then realized that they were here a day ago to see Loai, Rawda’s son, who was freed in the swap deal but deported to Gaza. She was hoping that she would hug her son, Loai, as soon as he was released. She had been waiting for ten years, daydreaming about that day.
Her son was sentenced to 28 years of imprisonment but thanks to the prisoner swap, he only spent ten years behind Israeli bars. However, it was very disappointing for her to find out that he would be deported to Gaza and that he would not return back home.
She did everything she could to tightly hug her son again and for that she traveled with her husband and his brother by bus from Jerusalem to Eilat and then to Egypt and then to Gaza through Rafah crossing. It’s so ironic to know that she had to suffer two days of travelling to enter Gaza when it would take her less than two hours if Israel allowed her to enter though Erez checkpoint.
Shortly after meeting Loai’s mother and uncle, I met him. “Congratulations for your freedom. I’m very glad you’re finally released,” I said, my face expressing happiness and admiration.
After short chat, I discovered that Loai has completed his bachelor degree in sociology. Since the beginning of his imprisonment, he applied for the Israeli Prison Administration to study at Hebrew University. While he must have finished his degree in four years, it took him around 10 years to eventually have it as many times his application to continue his study was rejected for no reason.
After I told him that I am studying English at Al-Azhar University, he replied so enthusiastically, “I’m going to further my studies at Al-Azhar University and you will have to help me and give me so much support as I am new here.” I kept nodding my head, admiring his unbelievable determination and his civility, and replied: “Of course! Any time!”
We soon had to separate, as it was getting late and everyone needed to go back home and rest after long hours of dancing and chanting. On the way back home, my father was expressing how happy he was to meet his friend, Loai’s uncle, again after more than 24 years of separation, as he is denied access to Jerusalem by Israel.
“Can you imagine that his baldness is because of the torment he endured by the Israeli army?” he asked me with an angry voice.
He added, “The Israeli soldiers used to use a thin stick and knock on the top of his head in sensitive places continuously and slowly for long hours as a way of torturing psychologically and physically at the same time. However, this is maybe the least torturing method. Israeli soldiers are very creative at bringing new methods of torment…”
My father left me speechless and thinking of how much our prisoners have endured in Israel’s cruel jails. It’s true that those former prisoners, including Loai, are now out of Israeli prisons, but still their freedom is conditional and incomplete, as they were forced to accept their fate to live in exile far away from their land and families. It makes me sad to think that this beautiful family is now going to be scattered between their home in Jerusalem and Gaza, where their son is forced to live from now on.
|My drawing for the Palestinian women, especially those who are still waiting for their relatives in Israeli prisons|
The prisoners’ families make sure not to miss any day of the weekly protests, so the number of the people inside the Red Cross building is more than usual on Mondays. Therefore, one should expect to see lots of tears and hear lots of tragedies, especially after the names of the soon-to-be released prisoners were declared.
As I entered the Red Cross on Monday last week, an old woman was sitting in a corner, hardly noticeable. She was putting her hand on her cheeks, closing her eyes and saying nothing. The wrinkles on her face, with expressions of sorrow and burdens and the broken glass frame of the picture she was holding, directed my steps toward her.
I tried to talk to her but I didn’t get an immediate answer. She responded only after I started talking very loudly while holding her hands. I realized that she can barely hear anything and her vision is very weak.
“Who’s this man in the picture?” I asked loudly.
“This is my son Fares, my darling. He’s not going to be released. I am very sick and about to die. I even spent last night in hospital. Why wasn’t he included to fill my last days of my life which passed for 20 long years without him? I want to enjoy hugging my son before I die,” she said with tears falling so intensively and bitterly.
Calming her was a very difficult task, but one can imagine how deeply her wounds were felt. I was looking around asking who accompanied that lady to the tent, as I found it impossible to imagine that a blind woman came by herself. However, what I thought was impossible, was actually a fact.
A dreamer who never gives up
After questioning people in the Red Cross about her, I met a young woman who seemed to know her. She told me that the old woman, Umm Fares, lives alone in Beach Camp. Her husband passed away years ago and she has nobody to take care of her. It was very hard for me to believe that this very old woman, who can barely walk, see or hear, lives alone. I was very angry and questioned aloud how an old sick woman could be left alone with no one to look after her. But the young woman calmed me down after she declared that Umm Fares was a reason for her to keep coming to the weekly protests. She even arranged a group of girls to help her and show solidarity with her. They have taken turns during the week to visit her as much as they could. Hearing that, I couldn’t help but smiling with relief to know that there are still some caring people, and without her asking me to join her group, I stated that I am already a part of them.
The young woman told me that she once was sitting with Umm Fares in her very simple and narrow house, chatting, attempting to make her feel that she was not alone or forgotten. Suddenly Umm Fares asked her to bring a piece of paper and a pen to write down what she heard her say.
“Dear Fares, when you are free, I’m going to pick for you the most beautiful bride in Palestine. I’m going to build a big house for you to live in with your kids. Stay steadfast my darling and God willing your freedom will be soon,” she said while her weak hands dried the tears that fell on her cheeks. The poor woman didn’t realize that she was only a dreamer, but a dreamer who never gives up.
No one has left a profound impact on me as much as this woman, Umm Fares. I pray that she gets the chance to see her son before she dies and I promise her that she will never be alone. There are many people who will never forget her or her precious tears over her son’s ongoing imprisonment.
Press this link to read it in French (Thank you Claude)
“I waited long enough for him to come back to me; 19 years of forced separation between us. I’ve always fantasized about our unborn child, as the imprisonment of my husband after less than one year of our marriage prevented me from ever having one,” she said after I asked her whether she feels better.
“They broke into our house in October of 1993 and kidnapped him very late at night from inside our home in an excessively violent way,” she continued while tears struggled to fall from her eyes. She looked in a different direction and fell in silence trying to hide that feminine character inside her.
I learned that her husband Salama Mesleh was sentenced for 99 years inside the Israeli prisons. I was amazed at her ability to stay strong and optimistic for a day that would come when she would be united with her husband in a warm house full of love and harmony and bring up their first child.
My sympathy got even deeper for her as I learned that she had been very close to delivering a child. She was 2 months pregnant when the Israeli army attacked her house and turned everything upside down and kidnapped her husband. Her experience was too much to tolerate. The Israeli army didn’t only take her husband away but also killed the fetus growing inside her. If she didn’t go through all these horrific circumstances, maybe this fetus would have turned out to be an 18-year-old man by now who would take care of her while she bravely fights her harsh destiny.
Determined to share pain
My affection for her has been increasing as I knew more of her stories. She is on a hunger strike for the sixth day trying to share with her husband and other Palestinian detainees their battle of empty stomachs. She has refused to break her fast despite all the attempts which people made to persuade her to, especially after she fainted. However, she insisted on going on demonstrating. “Salama, my husband, suffers from more than merely hunger,” she said. “Let me at least feel like I’m living some of his pains even though I know that I’m not even close!”
I suddenly realized that I ran out of time and it was the time to go back to my lecture at university. I had to go there only for the attendance check and be in the class only in body but I knew that my mind would stay with the prisoners and their families. I couldn’t wait till the lecture ended to return to the Red Cross.
I thought that I would go back and see the usual sight of people sitting in the tent chatting while songs for freedom for our detainees are playing. But that wasn’t the case. There was an emergency taking place; people were running inside the Red Cross. An ambulance’s siren was very loud and its red lights were flashing all over the place. My heart skipped a beat as I realized I had missed something during the hour I was at university. My fear of the unknown overcame me.
I was trying to pass through the crowd to discover that the same woman, Najiyya, lost consciousness again. She couldn’t bear the psychological conflict she had inside her — not knowing whether her husband was going to be released or not.
At first, she heard that her spouse was included; and then discovered that he was not. She was swinging between facts and illusions to realize later the fact that her husband will stay jailed inside the dark cells. I learned that she was walking around while talking to herself unconsciously and she suddenly stopped and looked at a big banner that includes the picture of her husband, and then fell down.
I know no matter how strong and how much of a fighter she is, she is a human at the end of the day. The fact that her husband is not going to be free was very hard for her to accept, especially since she was lingering with the hope which the swap deal had brought her.
When I arrived at the tent on 12 October, the wife of the prisoner Nafez Herz, who was sentenced to life-long imprisonment and has been jailed for 26 years, shook hands with me and said very excitedly that she had heard that her husband would be freed. Then she said, “But you can’t imagine how much my heart aches for those families whose prisoner will not be released in this exchange deal. All prisoners’ families have become like one big family. We meet weekly, if not daily in the Red Cross, we share our torments, and we understand each other’s suffering.” I grabbed her hands and pressed them while saying, “We will never forget them, and God willing, they will gain their freedom soon.”
While I was writing this article among the crowd of people at the Red Cross building, I suddenly heard people chanting and clapping and could see a woman jumping with joy. While on the phone, she said loudly, “My husband is going to be free!” Her husband is Abu Thaer Ghneem, who received a life sentence and spent 22 years in prison. As I watched people celebrating and singing for the freedom of the Palestinian detainees, I met his only son, Thaer. He was hugging his mother tight while giving prayers to God showing their thankfulness. I touched his shoulder, attempting to get his attention. “Congratulations! How do you feel?” I asked him. “I was only one day old when my father was arrested, and now I am 22-years-old. I’ve always known that I had a father in prison, but never had him around. Now my father is finally going to be set free and fill his place, which has been empty over the course of 22 years of my life.”
His answer was very touching and left me shocked and admiring. While he was talking to me, I sensed how he couldn’t find words to describe his happiness at his father’s freedom.
The celebration continues for an hour. Then I return to my former confusion, feeling drowned in a stream of thoughts. The families of the 1,027 detainees will celebrate the freedom of their relatives, but what about the fate of the rest of the prisoners?
Don’t forget the hunger strike
I have heard lots of information since last night concerning the names of the soon-to-be-released prisoners, but it was hard to find two sources sharing the same news, especially about Ahmad Saadat and Marwan Barghouti and whether they are involved in the exchange deal. I’ve always felt spiritually connected to them, especially Saadat, as he is my father’s friend. I can’t handle thinking that he may not be involved in this exchange deal. He has had enough merciless torment inside Israeli solitary confinement for over two and a half years.
Let’s not forget those who are still inside the Israeli occupation’s prisons and who have been on hunger strike, as this hunger strike wasn’t held for an exchange deal, but for the Israeli Prison Service to meet the prisoners’ demands. The people who joined the hunger strike in Gaza City has included those with loved ones in prison. We have to speak out loudly and tell the world that Israel must address our living martyrs’ demands. We will never stop singing for the freedom of Palestinian detainees until the Israeli prisons are emptied.
I haven’t been getting enough sleep lately. Last night I was exhausted in body and mind, but tried to keep my eyes open to follow updates on the Palestinian prisoners’ conditions. My heart and mind were with them completely, in every corner of the horrible Israeli prisons where our heroes continue to display persistence and steadfastness.
Deciding to rebel against the cruel conditions they could no longer endure, hundreds of prisoners started a hunger strike on 27 September. Approximately 6,000 detainees inside Israeli prisons are forgotten about and treated as if they are less than animals.
Israel, which claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East, seems to forget that prisoners are humans and have rights. The Palestinian prisoners are on hunger strike in the hope that Israel will grant their simple demands. But while they are calling in loud voices for their rights, Israel is reacting negatively, using every method it has to force the prisoners to give up. Prisoners are being sent to isolation cells in increasing numbers, family visits and lawyers are being denied, families threatened, and identity cards, belongings and clothing confiscated. This is all in addition to the constant torment they already have to endure.
Israel is violating international law and nobody is stopping it. Oh, pardon me for forgetting that Israel is beyond any law! Approximately 285 Palestinian children are currently imprisoned, and the world is still silent. Nobody will dare challenge Israel.
I am very emotionally attached to the prisoners’ issue, especially their hunger strike, not only because I am Palestinian but also because I am the daughter of a released prisoner. I was brought up hearing my father’s sad stories, full of suffering and despair, which remain stuck in his memory and will never leave him.
My father’s experience of hunger striking
My father’s eyes would have never seen the sun if Ahmad Jibril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command (PFLP-GC) didn’t manage to make a deal exchanging three Israeli prisoners he held captive in 1985, in return for the release of 1,250 Palestinian political prisoners. My family was watching the news concerning the current prisoners’ hunger strike when Dad started telling us about his imprisonment, which lasted for 15 years.
“I witnessed and participated in the longest hunger strike in the history of Palestinian prisoners in 1982, which lasted for 33 consecutive days,” he said. “Three prisoners died and tens of cases were sent to hospital, including about 27 for dehydration, but what else could we do to pressure them to provide us with the smallest things?”
Thinking deeply about my father’s words, and trying to imagine the awful conditions of the Palestinians inside the merciless Israeli jails, broke my heart. All the unbearable treatment prisoners endure is totally unfair and against humanity.
Before I wrote this article, I took part in a Gaza City demonstration in solidarity with these prisoners, whose health is getting worse every day, but who will bravely continue. I was lucky to not have early lectures at university, so I could be there at 9:00 am protesting against the situation facing our prisoners. I had some conversations with other women protesting there, too. Most of them were either released prisoners or had sons, brothers, or husbands in prison and on hunger strike.
One of them was a mother of six children, who grew up as if they were fatherless — her husband is spending his 26th year inside a damned Israeli prison. “I was one month pregnant with my youngest girl, who is 25 years old now, when my husband was arrested,” she said. “My oldest girl was only seven years old. All my kids do have a father but they became adults without their father around, like orphans.”
She kept describing to me how hard it was to be alone without her husband taking care of six children, and how much she suffered and endured to make her husband, sentenced to lifelong imprisonment, proud of his children when he hopefully someday gets his freedom back. “I was very young, only 24 years old, when he went to prison. I stayed in this state of a married woman who has to live without a husband for 26 years for my six children. Thankfully, I now have 25 grandchildren,” she said proudly.
Miracles needed to contact prisoners
Then she burst out crying, and said that she was worried because she heard that the Israeli army attacked Ashkelon prison where her husband is held the day before. They violently attempted to force the impossible — to make the hunger strike end.
I couldn’t hide my tears anymore, despite trying so hard not to let them fall. I didn’t know what to do to calm her down. The woman told me that she and all other prisoners’ families have been denied visitation rights since Hamas won the 2006 election. They hear nothing from their imprisoned family members, except rarely, when some miracle happens; like when someone from the West Bank visits relatives who are imprisoned with her husband. Then, her husband can ask the visitor to convey a message to her that he is doing well.
I couldn’t say anything but for prayers that God provide her with patience and that her husband gets his freedom back soon.
My father has always said that prisoners are the living martyrs. I think they really deserve this honor for all the injustice and suffering they endure. This open hunger strike of the Palestinian prisoners will continue until Israel addresses their demands. International solidarity is needed now more than ever. Everyone needs to wake up and do something. We shouldn’t let the cruel conditions of the Palestinian detainees last forever.