‘Palestinian Couple wait to see their Five Sons in Zionist Jail’
– reads a recent headline on the Palestine Information Center.
The couple is Abu Bakr and his wife Umm Bakr (abu is father, umm, mother, Bakr, their first-born son) -” and, indeed, their five sons are undergoing torture in Zionist prisons. This is a Nabulsi family very dear to me and I weep for the quiet dignity of their words and the courage, endurance and steadfastness they have shown throughout the 37 years of merciless, relentless Occupation. In my notes, I had written that ‘quite by chance’ this extraordinary family granted me the privilege of becoming their ‘close and trusted friend’, but I know now that nothing happens by chance in Nablus.
Like all Palestinian prisoners, Umm and Abu Bakr’s five sons are entirely innocent of any crime -” every one either a political prisoner (mu:ataqal seyyassi) or a member of the Legal Resistance (mu:ataqal ascari) captured while fighting against the illegal, Israeli occupation of Palestine (see endnote). I felt outraged when I read under that PIC headline the words of a Zionist ‘judge’ (not a judge but an army officer) at a ‘court’ (not a court but a military tribunal), about Umm Bakr – not a defendant but a suffering mother at the sentencing of one of her sons. In his delusional, paranoid hatred the judge spat out that ‘she is a mother who doesn’t deserve to live because she gave birth to five terrorists’. A non-judge sentencing a non-defendant! And, as with all the Israeli propaganda statements, there is not a shred of evidence to back it up.
So, let me tell you about this cultured, gentle family so that you can see for yourselves.
I – The Family of Sheikh Billaal at Home
Abu Bakr is an International Scholar of world renown and a senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood who has addressed conferences all over the world. He is a spry, handsome man in his mid-seventies. A slender, elegant figure, Sheikh Billaal would turn heads anywhere in the world in his immaculate, perfectly-fitted cream deish-dasha and abbeyyia as he goes to the mosque on il-Jumaa’ – Friday (Israelis-permitting!)
Umm Bakr, the tiny, extraordinary, mother of five sons and a daughter is a fragile-looking woman, as graceful and spare in movement as a kestrel with the same keen eyes which can see right through you. But her fragile appearance is belied by her courage under the extreme and sustained terrorism from the Israeli occupation forces (IOF) over the 37 long years – but particularly the past four, during which brutality has plumbed unexplored depths and there has hardly been a week without an attack on the family’s home.
The family home is a rambling, white-stone house in the shady, up-market Rafidiya area, near al-Haddaaiq – the cool Municipal Gardens where, under blue Nablus skies, we enjoy the best sodas to be found anywhere -” made with fresh liimon (lemonade) from the sweet and juicy citrus of Jayyous and Azzun, poured over scoops of organic dairy ice-cream from Al-Khalil. Ladhidh!
The house, by our standards a ‘mini-castle’ but normal for Palestine, is set back from a quiet road in peaceful gardens behind hand-wrought filigree iron gates; it is spacious, light and airy with a multitude of rooms, bathrooms, and shady living-rooms with long, inviting sofiyas on which to rest. Visitors are constantly refreshed with mint or sage tea in tiny, exquisite glasses, coffee in gold rimmed fine china, juice and fruit. The Billaal house, filled with Palestinian harmony and love, and offering the warmest of welcomes, is home to three families, two unmarried sons and their parents:
Bakr, their eldest son, his wife Ghada, and their four children, have a self-contained home down steps to the left of the gates, through a private sunken garden with swings and other toys for the children: the comfortable, sunny family-room opens into it.
In the main house, one family to a floor, live the other four sons -“
Omar, with his wife and their four children;
Obayida, with his wife and their two children; and
Mo’aadh and Ghassan-“both illegally imprisoned as minors before they could marry and have children.
Nearby are riches indeed in the shape of five more grandchildren, the sons of
Ghufraan, Umm and Abu Bakr’s daughter, and her husband JiHaad.
As I got to know the family, I heard (just in passing -” no one ever made a point of telling it) of the sickening and unbelievable level of vicious terrorism which the Israelis have visited upon this family and upon thousands of other Nabulsi families. A terrorism which shames all of us – whether citizens of ‘Israel’ which perpetrates the barbarity, or of the USA which funds the relentless brutality, or of the UK and the EU which either prevaricate or lend diplomatic support to the genocide: all of us bear collective guilt and, unless we do whatever we can to speak out, we are complicit in an unprecedented and unparalleled 37 years of murder, maiming, arrest, torture and destruction.
(The United Nations has tabled over 1100 resolutions against Israel (more than the total of similar resolutions against all states), of which more than 300 carried. The USA has used its veto on over 800 of them and abstained on scores of similar resolutions. — UN statistics published November 2003 .
So, first the family members.
Bakr Abu Sa’id , 44, is the eldest son. He is, he told me with a wry smile, “the son of happiness and the father of happiness” for he is both Ibn Sa’id and Abu Sa’id. (Ibn is ‘son’, abu, ‘father’ and Sa’id, ‘happiness’, his first-born son). A quiet, still man -” lean and hard, with long fine bones, he has huge eyes in a thin face which bears the stigmata of the Israeli bullets on his right jaw, and elegant hands and wrists bearing the same stigmata. We became affectionate friends as we talked for hours to satisfy his thirst for knowledge about the British way of life. Then he was declared ‘number one wanted’ by the IOF -” a horrible phrase heard here all the time, for it means that a human being will be hunted either to death, or to capture and torture. No sooner is one man captured and/or murdered, then another is in line. (This is the Israeli way -” they arbitrarily decide whoever they want to capture, whenever they want to, and for whatever invented reason.) “I did not learn English”, he said “because I couldn’t bear the sound of the language of the people who are the cause of al-naqbah, the Catastrophe – I wish now that I had!”
His wife, Ghada, told me with sadness that their littlest son, Muhammad, asks every morning when he wakes where his father is. At four years of age, he has not been able to cuddle his loving father for some 2 years, because Bakr has not been able to go to his home since then: he has managed to elude the hundreds of Zionist gunmen who comb the city for him all the time. He has not been able to hold his wife in his arms, kiss his children, or receive his mother’s warm loving hug for so long -” a heartbreaking sacrifice for a close Nabulsi family. I took a series of digital pictures of the family, and some drawings the children had made ‘for Papa’, and put them on a ‘floppy’ which he carries in his shirt pocket over his heart. We talked long about the four sons the family planned to have in the future.
Commenting on his thinness, his mother said quietly ‘he isn’t able to eat properly now and sleeping is difficult’. Yet Bakr somehow manages to be, as Nabulsi are, immaculate every day -” no dirty jeans or soiled collars or grime under his fingernails. Any reader who has seen the poignant River Phoenix film ‘Running on Empty’ will maybe have an inkling of the bleakness of life on the run.
Ghada (‘Gh’ as Parisian ‘r’, not Gada, as Ghada Karmi so indignantly writes in ‘In Search of Fatima’) is an outstandingly lovely wife and mother, with high cheekbones and thick brown hair which sets off her beautiful golden skin to perfection. Her voice is quiet and low, her laugh musical but her smile is filled with sadness and rarely reaches her wide-set almond eyes. Every day her husband is in mortal danger (well, it is not his mortality which is the problem, but the possibility of his capture which worries everyone, being only too well aware of the horrific torture which is the lot of the thousands of innocent men, women and children in Israeli jails).
Like all the women here Ghada knows that his lonely, dangerous life of duty and service to his country can only end in his death or capture and torture. Bakr and Ghada have four great kids -” Muhammad, the little one mentioned above who is bursting with energy and mischief, two other sons and a very fine daughter who is always calm and serene whatever the IOF provocation. Sa’id, at 11 the eldest son, is already almost a man, and that is just as well, as he probably will very soon have to be the man of his family. Responsible and serious, he has inherited his mother’s beauty and easy manner together with the courage and determination of both parents.
These 4 children, and all the children of Nablus, every day see their parents being brutalized and humiliated; they see destruction and the death of their friends. There is not one day of peace or normality in their lives. Consequently they suffer what Professor Jess Ghannam describes as ‘Multiple Trauma’; but still, as he says, ‘they are very resilient’. And my experience leads me to agree wholeheartedly that, from these children, ‘we can learn more about resilience than about trauma’.
(Dr Jess Ghannam, Senior Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at The University of California, San Francisco has an exceptional knowledge of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder having intimately studied this kind of trauma and stress for many years -” there is an excellent radio program with him and Dr Mona al-Farra of Beit Hannoun at www.me-radio.org, August 11 2004)
Ghufraan (‘Gh’ as Parisian ‘r’ not ‘g’), Bakr’s sister, is in her late thirties; she is petite and slender with a ready smile. A first-class chemistry graduate, she speaks fast and fluently and she is an outstanding interpreter for me, although she never learned formal English! When I commented on her excellent language skills she said, “Really, I never spoke English at all until today-¦I did not know I could!” “I don’t know where it is coming from,” she said on our first day. I met Ghufraan when I went shopping for an abbeiyya in Bakr’s store just off the maydaan al-shuhadda (martyr’s square) and commented on the beauty of the young Bakr (who looked, in a small picture stuck onto the store mirror, rather like Omar Sharif as Dr Zhivago): she choked with tears and couldn’t speak but was delighted that he and I were friends.
Ghufraan and JiHaad have five children -” all sons -” of whom the eldest in particular is very special. Jun’aid, 14, has become my close friend and adviser! He is small and wiry, with an extra-specially quick intelligence and a composed, street-wise competence. As if all those gifts were not enough he has the largest, luminous dark-brown eyes which are always sparkling with humour, and a smile to match! He knows where are the best vantage points from which to observe and photograph the ‘Isra-alien’ terrorism when they are attacking the city (particular adventures were had atop skeletal, half-built, high-rise structures, up which he expects me to nimbly climb and clamber over and along girders and half-built stairs!). Jun’aid knows the best place to buy batteries not made in China and which therefore actually function (!); where to get a pizza or a drink of water when we are ringed by tanks; and how to thread our way between the tank, APC and jeep guns in the few seconds when they are pointing ‘the other way. It has worked well so far!
One afternoon in June, the 3rd, a day when the IOF was busy shooting children in Nablus (48 to be precise and another 27 by the next day), with great aplomb he spent an hour with me and four diplomats from the British Consulate, sitting at the head of the table, drinking iced mint tea under the shade of the jalousie as though he held the chair! I doubt they will forget Jun’aid very quickly.
It was his father, JiHaad – a fine, serious and intelligent man with (even for Nabulsi) an outstanding depth of understanding of history and world affairs – who asked me with great intensity perhaps the most interesting and penetrating question:
“Anna, when you go to your country, what will you say? What will you tell them about us?” It is a huge question to answer! I hope I can, one day, do justice, both to him and to the extraordinary Nabulsi populace.
II – The Family Hunted, Abducted, Imprisoned and Tortured
It was in 1967, during the first year of the illegal occupation of the 22% which remained of historic Palestine, at the tender age of seven, that Bakr was first subjected to torture when he was brought to the prison to be brutally assaulted in front of his father (who had been abducted) in order to encourage Abu Bakr to falsely confess. What a trauma for a seven-year-old: to be cruelly treated himself but worse, to see his father beaten and humiliated in front of his eyes. A terrible memory. What kind of a people can do this kind of thing?
But that was just the start of 37 years of Israeli brutality and humiliation.
Bakr graduated with a science degree from al-Khaliil University and, as he said, “-¦ like all of the students from the class of 1982 we are all arrested many times and spent days, weeks, months, years in the prisons”. He can recall three periods of more than weeks that he spent in jail – 4 months, 18 months and 8 months – and, like all of the 1982 students, many more times for a day or two. Severe beatings, bullet wounds, lost teeth, damaged organs and diminished health are the physical effects. The psychological are much more significant -” Bakr came out of these terrible traumas strong enough to bear, without breaking, the terrible tortures of the Zionists and a quiet determination to Resist whatever the cost. And with absolute faith in the ultimate success of the just cause of freedom.
For many years Bakr had been a successful contractor fulfilling half-million dollar contracts, a wealthy and trusted businessman. But when his three brothers were ‘sentenced’ to life in Israeli jails, he knew it was his duty to take up the struggle with the Legitimate Resistance to free his Land from the brutal, all-encompassing and relentless Israeli occupation. He still has a clothing store. He was more than 40, much too old to be mujahad (freedom-fighter) really and he should have been looking forward to many good years of comfortable life as politician and businessman, with his growing family. Now he was faced with a choice -” he could not choose comfort over his duty to God, Country and Family.
Ghada and Bakr wished for four more sons and this is not the first time their plans have been interrupted by previous arrests and incarcerations. Part of the Israeli plan for the genocide and the destruction of the potential of the future Palestinian state is to prevent families from having children -” this the IOF does through murder, imprisonment and torture, particularly of the reproductive organs (it has happened to almost 700,000 young men since 1967) and denial of medical access, as well as the denial of adequate food supplies which has led to a serious level of malnutrition which will affect future fertility rates. (Note: Israeli actions fulfil the clauses given in the Geneva Convention on Genocide – 1948)
Bakr was captured on 15th October 2003, after I wrote the draft of this piece, and taken to Petakh Tikfah Interrogation Center -” the site of the first Jewish kibbutz in the 19th century which came about as a consequence of the 1852 British Conference organised to find ways to encourage Jews to leave the UK and settle in Palestine. A flagship of the Zionist kibbutz project named the ‘keys of hope’, Petakh Tikfah has now become ‘the place of death’ (as it was described by an Israeli Captain at Huwarra prison to a young friend of mine). There, he was subjected to inhuman tortures for seven months – but was strong enough to withstand the cruelty.
It may not be possible for an Israeli to understand the depth of faith, commitment and loyalty which thrives throughout the Islamic Resistance Movement and which naturally supports the bravery and courage of its members, for such bravery is outside their experience. Bakr has recently been sentenced to a long term in jail -” not by a court but by a military tribunal – and without any evidence, proof, legal charge, lawyer, defence, or judge, and without possibility of appeal.
He may never be released, or he may become one of the “disappeared”, or another to add to the hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners who have died from torture in Israeli jails, or he may simply die from the cruel ill-treatment, starvation and filthy conditions in the Israeli jails . But what is known for certain is that he is a prize for the Zionists and has suffered very brutal and vicious torture. Now he is in the Israeli prison at Beer Es Saba (the Palestinian town later renamed “Beersheba”).
Omar is ‘for the family’. Every family in Nablus has one son who is ‘for the family’, as they say. That is, a deliberate decision is taken that one son would never be involved in the Lawful Resistance, so that he will be able to look after the fatherless children of his brothers when they are arrested with no charge and no proof and ‘sentenced’ to life. It’s a pretty unique concept which doesn’t exist anywhere else, and it is extremely smart and practical. Anyway, Omar was that ‘son for the family’. However, although it largely seemed to work in the past, it makes no difference now when the aim of getting rid of every man who can father children is absolutely blatant. Actually, when I think about it -” being the ‘good shepherd’ of five families is Resistance to the Occupation!
Omar looks like Ghufraan’s twin and is a quiet, gentle man with a warm, welcoming smile. He is rather more shy than Bakr, and less suspicious of foreigners, but, in many of the rare and precious few minutes the two were able to snatch together when Bakr was being hunted by the IOF, he would extend a genuine invitation to me to join them. Of course I pleaded a prior commitment, but they would often insist that I should ‘sit and drink a little qahwe (coffee)’ with them for a few minutes. That is the sharing nature of the Nabulsi people.
On the night of October 15th, an Israeli undercover unit, dressed as Palestinians and in a Palestine-plated van, shooting and blasting doors the whole length of the street, abducted Omar, snatching him from his bed in the middle of the night, without shoes or a coat. Omar’s wife, like thousands in Nablus, now sleeps alone and his four children have no father. He is, I believe, in the Naqab desert prison now after a spell in Hadarim. He has no charge against him -” he has not even been interrogated -” and is said to be in ‘Administrative Detention’ which is supposed to last only for three months and which cannot be renewed without charges being brought.
However, the Israelis have rubber-stamped its renewal four times now -” always just a couple of days before the due date of release or as the prisoner walks out the gate. They do it to thousands -” raise hope and then dash it. It’s just another sadistic trick of the Ministry of Gratuitous Cruelties which I feel sure must exist in some Tel Aviv back-street. Need we ask (and this will not surprise any of millions of people all around the globe who were colonized by the British) Administrative Detention – like Home Demolition, Deportation, Collective Punishment and a host of other ‘cruel and inhuman punishments’- was invented by the British in their vicious colonial days.
Moa’adh (‘dh’ as ‘the’), the third of Umm and Abu Bakr’s sons, was first arrested on 1st March 1994 -” illegally at 17; and most recently on 9th January 1998. He is now ‘sentenced’ to 26 times life plus 27 years. Even in the US Prison system there is the possibility of appeal, but not in ‘Israel’. He is in the terrible Nafha ‘death prison’. Umm Bakr and Ghufraan have told me a little about his ongoing torture.
For many days at a time, Moa’adh receives no food or drink, whilst being screamed at, threatened, insulted and beaten, noise tortured, tied to a chair in a cramped position, deprived of sleep, toilet and movement, with a sack stinking of faeces and urine over his head.
Moa’adh had told Umm Bakr of a miracle on one of the many days of hunger.
“Once he had felt very, very hungry,” his mother recounted, “and he was permitted a short sleep because he was exhausted but it was not humanity.” (It was just that the doctor said that he was near to death and they must take a break if they want him to be fit for more torture to continue without killing him.)
“He dreamed that I brought him a glass of milk” she continued “and then he said that after the dream he did not feel hungry for three days”!
In his earlier incarcerations Moa’adh was badly beaten, crushing his kidney and leaving him with permanent damage. He suffers from constant pain. He cannot run. His tiny, suffering mother said quietly: “-¦they beat him so much that he can no longer smile-¦”
Only her eyes betray her sorrow, her suffering and her longing for peace and a normal life. Her pain is beyond ordinary human endurance.
Ghassan, Umm and Abu Bakr’s fourth son, is now in Asqalan prison. As his parents say, he got “only one times life”!
How many lives do we have?
He was a minor, a child, when illegally taken: illegal under all pertaining International Laws, Conventions, Declarations and Custom -” but then so is everything that Israel has done to Palestine and Palestinians from 1948 onwards. The first three months were in solitary confinement of the sadistic Israeli kind: in an illegal concrete box, 1m square by 2m high. They embedded cigarettes in his flesh until they burned out – all over his body. They burned to the bone. There was naturally, no salve or help with healing, just suppurating pain and disfigurement. These sadistic jailers and their advisers the doctors, who stop the torture just in time to forestall death so that they can do it all again, injure bodies almost beyond repair and there is no medical aid for the victims.
“The Israeli sadists vibrated his head and shook him so much that he could not remember his name for days”, said Ghufraan, his diminutive sister, lips trembling. For a few moments, tears, unbidden and unwelcome, filled her eyes.
“But, he never cried out-¦they call him ‘The Lion'”, says his mother – proud of course, but eyes brimming with thoughts of the pain of her strong courageous son. Ghassan suffers from severe abdominal pain, as do almost all of the detainees as a result of the frequent, prolonged and severe beatings. (All the prisoners who have been released suffer from really bad stomach problems to this day, and their health is compromised.)
Obayida, the youngest brother, now 24, is blind. He started to lose his sight in early childhood and was completely blind by his teens (many of the prisoners are disabled or chronically sick and several are quadreplegic). Obayida was first illegally arrested as a minor in 1994 and has been in and out of prison ever since. The last arrest was on 16 April 2002, and now he is in Asqalan jail, sentenced to 10 and a half years. His father noted, “The irony is that my youngest son, Obayida, is accused of manufacturing explosives, despite the fact that he is blind’. A very risky undertaking for a totally blind man! But the IOF is not acquainted with truth or logic.
Sitting in a sunny spot, I was discussing a piece I was writing about a patient with a paralysed arm who had been snatched from an Ambulance on the Jerusalem to Jericho road with my beloved young friend Nihayya (who bubbles with fun and laughter and has the widest smile in Nablus), I discovered that the young man on whom this crime was perpetrated is her sister’s husband -” and he is Obayida! His arm was twisted virtually off, when he was shot and then brutally attacked by the sadistic Zionist ‘soldiers’ – the nerves, sinews and muscles destroyed and the blood-supply seriously compromised: the arm has been paralysed ever since as a result of this brutality. He went to Jordan to get specialized treatment which helped a lot and there was an improvement in sensation and a slight movement. The rehabilitation was to have continued in Nablus, but on the journey home, the Zionists kidnapped him from the Ambulance. (This happens all the time).
This was not the first time Obayida had been taken. In 1994, he was put in solitary confinement by the Israelis, in a 1m by 2m high concrete box. They reserve many special little cruelties for their blind prisoners, among them this nasty idea. The whole box, with no lavatory and no window, stinks so bad that it isn’t possible to tell what is in any container -” it all smells the same. So they put urine in the water container. And they deny the toilet for days at a time, causing really severe pain, not to speak of appalling humiliation. “And then they savagely beat him on the pain” said his sister – a common torture. A particular favourite of the Israelis is to spin a blind (or blindfolded) prisoner around in all directions – “and disorientate him in this way”, says his sister, “he doesn’t know how many days or months have passed”. Together with ordering the prisoner to run with his hands tied tightly behind their back in painful plastic ties, while the sadistic soldiers put out their feet to trip the man up: he goes crashing onto his face and chest dozens of times, until the prisoner thinks he will die. (There are affidavits which detail this and the full range of Israeli torture practices in ‘Back to a Routine of Torture’ published by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel http://www.stoptorture.org.il)
The Israelis do this at the road-blocks too, and they all fall about, laughing uproariously -” the men of a military larger than that of the UK , the military of the self-styled “only democracy in the Middle East” and they do this kind of thing for sport?
III – The Suffering of Abu Bakr
“Almost all our Muslim scholars, intellectuals and leaders are in prison now”, Ghufraan tells me. “My father is a world leader in Islamic Scholarship who has lectured all around the world, but it makes no difference”. He is also 73 and not mujahad, but an intellectual and a community leader. The Sheikh, who lost a leg to Israeli bullets, was abducted from his work early last year and disappeared without trace for 96 days. For that interminable time, no one knew what had befallen him. “They don’t tell you where he is -” they don’t tell you that he is arrested. You don’t know until he comes out if he is alive or shahiid (martyr)”.
Many of those 96 days were spent in solitary confinement in a tiny concrete box, a meter square by 2 meters high. He has cancer and needed to go to Amman for treatment at the time. Since his release, after prolonged torture, at the age of 73, he is under house arrest -” he cannot leave Nablus and often he cannot go out to the Mosque, for the IOF will station an officer-class killing machine in the menacing shape of a Hummer in front of the house -” at the expense of the US taxpayer, of course. I wonder how those taxpayers feel about the $23,400 each one has given to ‘Israel’ up to November 1997.
Twice before this, her father had spent long periods in prison. In 1980, Ghufraan, then a very young teenager, went to visit her father in the prison. “It was December, very cold”, she remembers, and they took his clothes off for days at a time. So that the normal state of just being warm acquires an over-riding importance: it becomes the most important thing in life, a kind of obsession. For days at a time he was in a narrow space where he couldn’t sit down or stand as the box was not tall enough -” he could only squat. He has an artificial leg, so it was very difficult and painful. “He is a man from a privileged background who had not had difficulties in his life” she said simply, hoping that I would feel his pain. I do.
Sheikh Billaal has just come out of hospital again and he is now “fine” his daughter says.
IV – The Terror Continues in the Night
Umm and Abu Bakr continue to be constantly arrested, abused and humiliated. Their home is raided about once a week and anything which can be destroyed or damaged or looted, is damaged, destroyed or looted by the Zionist soldiers. A professional army? Or perhaps this is what professional armies do?
It’s the same for all the family members. Anyone connected with them is constantly raided and attacked, abducted for days or weeks from their damaged and looted homes, wrecked by the marauding Israeli soldiers.
“Many times they are at our homes at 2.00 am. They ring the bell and they shout hysterically to us to ‘Get out! Get out!'”- says Ghufraan.
When we ask why, they say “there is something in the walls we want to find it”.
“What are they talking about!?”, she asks with a wry smile.
“Then everyone including the children is out on the street for 2 to 3 hours. There is never anything found. It is just for harassment. After they leave, you can’t bring yourself to look at your home -” everything is spoiled, dirtied with faeces and urine, disgusting and destroyed. That is why we have no pictures or precious things around. The last time, Omar’s room was totally destroyed and dirtied”.
During a night of barbarism last year, the IOF locked the whole family in one room, whilst they terrorized and ‘interrogated’ Ghada and Bakr’s four children for four hours in their own home to tell them where their father was. Would any other professional military ‘interrogate’ three-year-old Muhammad? Of course they did not know and they would not have told if they had.
As a Nabulsi mother remarked about an item in a British newspaper which repeated the baseless Israeli propaganda that ‘Palestinians instil hatred of the Zionists into their children -” “There is no need for us to say anything at all when every day the children see the brutal excesses of the Zionist gunmen, witnessing the death, wounding, summary arrests, and humiliation of their young friends and of their father and other members of their family. What would your children feel if they saw this every day?”
V- Prison Conditions
As I write, five Billaal wives are effectively widowed and three families are fatherless. The three younger brothers who have already been in Israeli prisons, condemned as unfit for use by international agencies such as the Red Cross, the UN and Amnesty International for years are now joined by the two elder. All of them in filthy, infected, blood-drenched cells in brutal, harsh conditions. The pain, the broken bones, the thirst and filth and vomit blur each day into its night without markers, in windowless boxes one meter by two if they are lucky, heads encased in excrement-saturated sacks. If not, it may be not even be possible to stand up in a meter high box, crouched for weeks on end. Freezing, often stripped, in the winter and intolerably hot in the summer. In such a box it is impossible to evade the torment of the constant, painfully-bright light directed at the burning retinas and the continuous, damagingly loud music. As if this was not enough, these political prisoners are constantly sprayed with toxic gas, boiling water and anything else the torturers think of.
Their faith never wavers and they always feel that Allah is with them and that He will not ask of them anything they cannot endure. What is astonishing for us from the west is that, in the face of the most extreme cruelty, sadism and brutality, the prisoners never whinge or complain or display any sign of feelings of victimhood. When they are relating stories of vicious torture that can make me throw up, they just do it in a matter-of-fact tone as though relating an ordinary experience. Which it is, when I come to think about it – well not ordinary, but a universal experience here, since virtually this whole generation of young men have been arrested and brutally ill-treated since the Israelis began their illegal occupation of Palestine 37 long years ago. Between 650- and 700,000 males – innocent and mostly not charged – have been arrested, representing at least 50% of the males between 17 and 55 years of age. There is no record of a crime of such proportions happening anywhere else on earth.
Umm Bakr and Abu Bakr have not seen their sons for more than seven years, without any communication at all. They are not permitted to write to them or receive a letter from them, no phone calls to them are allowed and the prisoners are not allowed to make calls – no communication of any kind with your five children. It is an outrage and a crime against humanity. The humanity of the Palestinians that is. The Israelis lost theirs a long time ago. The Rights of the Prisoner stipulate that all these cruelties are illegal – as is taking them out of their own country for incarceration in ‘Israel’. Also stipulated is that all prisoners must be allowed food parcels, and suitable clothing -” but not Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli inhuman jails.
Occasionally, a mobile phone is smuggled-in to one of these terrible, unfit prisons for a few minutes – I was lucky enough to be around several times when a call came for a mother from prison! The prisoner is always reassuring and trying to give his mother comfort, hoping she will worry less. For example Bakr, from the Torture Centre at Petakh Tikfa, told his mother, ” I am fine. My health is not good but otherwise I am fine”. ‘Health is not good’ is quite an understatement.
To protest this sub-human brutality the Prisoners, already in a severely weakened state of non-health, are on a prolonged hunger-strike. Hundreds of prisoners are on hunger strike as I write this, fifteen of them known to me, either personally or through their families. Five Dhuqaan brothers are among them (three of them have sworn affidavits in the PCATI book ‘Back to a Routine of Torture’- Maher no.23, Samer no.24, and Raslan no.41). Four Freitakh brothers were there when I left, countless Daraghmahs, Abu Hamdans, six journalists including the gentle, brave cameraman Sami al-Assi of Nablus TV, at whose side I have witnessed some 11 massacres in Nablus. His ‘Administrative Detention’ has been renewed yet again -” for taking pictures.
Sheikh Billaal recently commented that the world has not given the issue of Palestinian Political Prisoners enough attention. 8,000 men, women and children enduring much more terrible conditions than those of Abu Ghraib. But without photographs or evidence of any kind. Their lawyers are now being arrested when they venture to the prisons, even Israeli lawyers!
Over the past few months the situation in the prisons has deteriorated into an intolerable nightmare of ill-treatment and torture. In 2003, when I carried out a series of interviews with families of prisoners and released men, talking about previous periods, I found that the prisoners excelled in purity of thought and dedication to their just cause. Prison life was very devout in the midst of the Israeli brutality and was filled with love, concern for others, tender care for the sick and wounded, and mutual support.
I was shown hundreds of pictures from inside the prisons and they show an unimaginable level of deprivation – the food for the whole Naqab for ‘Eid , for example would hardly have fed a large family. Everything is shared and no one takes more than he needs. Tear-gas canisters and bullet-casings litter the ground. Burned tents and destroyed belongings are scattered everywhere -” evidence of frenzied attacks on defenceless men.
The pictures show whole groups of young men kneeling beside sick or dying friends who have been seriously injured by the guards, comforting them with extreme tenderness and giving whatever they can. Tents were filled with men studying and with devout religious observance -” an affection-filled life which was, and I am sure still is, a complete mystery to the sadistic Israeli guards. I know this from the family of Abdel Nassir ‘Issa, ‘the Prince of the Prisoners’. His brother-in-law, Ahmad (murdered prison welfare officer for Nablus), took hundreds of these pictures detailing the Zionist crimes -” they are out of the country now and thousands of miles away.
The situation has worsened now: praying is severely punished and copies of al-Qur’an are routinely defiled. There have been no pictures for seven years or more, few prisoners are released, books and studying are not allowed; prisoners are, beaten every day, tear gas is fired into small unventilated cells, solitary confinement lasts for years, humiliating strip searches are conducted as a matter of course, rape is a tool of the torturers, food is bad, full of insects and maggots and insufficient to maintain life over the long term, no proper personal care facilities are provided and the filthy cells are crawling with every kind of biting insect, resulting in terrible skin infections all over the body.
The families of the prisoners constantly beg the ‘world’ to intervene to save the lives of their children and fathers but no one with power is listening. Some 200 Palestinians have already died under torture -” the nephew of Nasser Uweiss from Balaata was 17 when the Israelis tortured him to death last autumn. Just try and work out what kind of a psyche has a man who can torture a child until he gets weaker and weaker until he dies with the torturer’s hands on his body. The exceptional and beautiful Nasser Uweiss has himself been in solitary for several years now, but he is very, very strong and, Insha’Allah, he will not break.
I am sure that many readers will be absolutely shocked and sickened by what I have recorded here -” unlike Abu Ghraib there are no witnesses here in Palestine now. This is a very small part of what has happened to a cultured, friendly family whose remaining members have retained their love and humanity, and their dignity, in full measure through it all. The complete account of the years of abduction and aggression, intimidation, incarceration, and brutal torture of this family alone requires a book. I hope that one day I will find the strength to write it. There are thousands of families with similar stories of Israeli terrorism, in the beautiful, peace-loving land of Palestine.
The Geneva Declaration on Terrorism (1987) mentions particularly “the ongoing struggle of the Palestinian people for their homeland in the face of Israeli and United States military and paramilitary policies.” It states: “As repeatedly recognized by the UN General Assembly, peoples who are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes exercise of the their right of self-determination have the right to use force to accomplish their objectives-¦”
“Such lawful use of force must not be confused with acts of international terrorism. Thus, it would be legally impermissible to treat members of national liberation movements in-¦Central America-¦ Northern Ireland-¦Palestine, and South Africa, among others as if they were common criminals.”