"Don’t Think About the Children"

Why was Asma Abu al-Haija arrested? Why did she have to spend nine months in prison, sleeping on the floor of her cell? Why was a woman arrested, not interrogated, not accused of anything and then released nine very difficult months later, without any explanation? Just because she is a Palestinian, so anything can be done to her? Was she really arrested solely in order to put pressure on her husband, the Hamas spokesman in Jenin, who is also in Israeli prison? Is this legal? Moral? Could there be any other reason? If so, why wasn’t she brought to trial for it? Forget justice, but what about a drop of compassion for a sick woman with a brain tumor, who is going blind, has undergone brain surgery twice, who has five children left alone at home in the refugee camp, without a mother, without a father, without their older brother?

All these questions continue to hover in the attractive home in the heart of the Jenin refugee camp, the home to which Asma Abu al-Haija finally returned a few weeks ago. She returned to her five free children and to a house that had been refurbished, and of course, there was much happiness.

Asma says the children became very independent when she was away. One after the other, they returned from school one afternoon this week, kissed their mother and tossed down their bookbags, as if nothing unusual had happened. Only 7-year-old Sajida still gets up sometimes in the middle of the night, frightened by the sound of tanks or jeeps in the street, and leaps into her mother’s bed to hold her tight. Sajida has not forgotten that cold, dark night in February when the soldiers came and took her mother away. She won’t ever forget it.

The birdcage is gone. For all those months, while workers repaired the house that had been wrecked by an IDF missile and the children were living there alone, the birdcage hung on the wall of the guest room and the chirping sounds gave the lonely children a little feeling of hope and warmth. Now only the electric doorbell at the entrance to the house still chirps like a bird.

“I want Mommy,” Sajida told us on our first visit about six months ago. A month later, she proudly displayed the new dress–beige with embroidery–that she had bought for her mother for NIS 100 at the Al-Wafa store in Jenin, and the brown sandals and white veil–all in anticipation of her mother’s release. Israel had just promised to ease conditions for the Palestinians and to make some goodwill gestures, and the people of Jenin were sure that the most humane gesture would be to release the ailing Asma.

Imad, her teenage son, got up early in the morning and went to the checkpoint to meet his mother. He stood in the sun for two hours until he realized that, goodwill gestures or not, his mother was not coming. There was much crying at home, and then they went back to their lives, without a mother or a father.

Asma Abu al-Haija was born 40 years ago in Jenin. At 19, she married a man now known as Sheikh Jamal, a religion teacher and son of the imam of Jenin. They lived in Yemen and Saudi Arabia for 10 years and returned to Jenin during the Gulf War. Since then, Sheikh Jamal has been in one prison after another: Six months in the Palestinian Authority prison, followed by seven arrests by Israel. He was wanted for two years by the IDF, and was caught and arrested about two years ago. In the brief interludes between his incarcerations, he appeared on international Arab television stations as the Hamas spokesman in Jenin. Asma says her husband is a politician. They haven’t seen each other for two years. Six months before Jamal was apprehended, their eldest son, Abd al-Salam was sentenced to 87 months in prison for his activities in Hamas. Jamal is still awaiting a verdict in his trial.

On February 11 of this year, at 3 A.M., soldiers knocked on the door of the house. Asma got dressed and went downstairs. She was ill, suffering from terrible headaches caused by the tumor in her brain. The soldiers burst in, overturning everything in their path. The children were terrified. Sajida and Hamzi, the two youngest, cried. They were all ordered to go out into the street, in the cold and rain, until the search was finished. Then they were all brought into one room and a soldier called `Captain Jamal’ came in.

“We want to take you in for questioning,” the captain said.

“I haven’t done anything. I just take care of the children,” Asma tried to protest. “The Shin Bet wants to talk to you. Two words and you’ll be back home.” Having no choice, she accompanied the soldiers. She says she didn’t take anything with her, because Captain Jamal said it would just be “two words” with the Shin Bet. The children shouted. Banan, a 17-year-old girl, said to the soldiers: “Take all of us, then. Why do you come and take someone else every time?” And Asma told the captain that she had to call someone to watch the children until morning. She was sure she’d be back very soon. But she remembers hearing one of the soldiers say to the children: “Find yourselves another mother.”

They took her in a jeep to the IDF detention facility in Salem. She tried to ask why they couldn’t just question her at home. At Salem, other soldiers ordered that her hands and legs be bound and that she be blindfolded. She tried to explain that she gets severe headaches from a brain tumor. But the soldiers told her: “It’s the law here. We have to.” She asked to see a doctor. They brought her a female prison warden. She was put into a small room and there Asma took off her headscarf and showed her the scars on her head from her two surgeries. The warden told the soldiers: “She really does have scars on her head.” But Asma remained bound and blindfolded. They offered her something to eat and she refused. At noon, she was taken to the Neve Tirza women’s prison in Ramle. There was no interrogation and no Shin Bet.

“I have a brain tumor,” she told the prison doctor the next day. She was suffering from pain and dizziness. She says the doctor told her: “Don’t think about the children. If you think about the children–it causes headaches.”

“Do you have children?,” Asma asked her. “That’s different. You’re in prison and your situation is different,” was the reply. For the next seven months, Asma had no contact with her children, who were at home alone. She had no idea how they were, what was happening to them, who–if anyone–was looking after them. She asked the prison supervisor to at least let her call home once, but was turned down. The supervisor suggested that she get a lawyer to talk with the children, but Asma wanted to hear their voices herself.

“The security prisoner was denied telephone calls because of the procedure that applies to all security prisoners in Israel,” was the response at the time from the Prison Service. Asma complained to her lawyer, Tamar Peleg-Sarik, that she wasn’t receiving proper medical attention. About a month after she was arrested, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) sent an urgent letter to the prison authorities requesting that a CT Scan be arranged for Asma. It was two and a half months before the examination was performed.

PHR informed Prof. Shlomo Melamed, director of the Glaucoma Institute at Sheba Medical Center, and he volunteered to go the prison to examine her. He found that Asma had completely lost her vision in her left eye and that she was suffering from severe headaches, dizziness and nausea.

Horrified, Prof. Melamed posted a stinging article on the Internet: “It is incomprehensible that this woman could be held in detention without trial for eight months. Where is the human compassion? Where is the famous Jewish mercy? Why has she not even been permitted to speak to her children by phone, throughout her imprisonment?” Tear gas used to quell a disturbance by the female prisoners affected her especially hard and caused ferocious headaches.

When Asma finished serving her first term of administrative detention–six months–and was expecting to be released, the next blow fell: Her detention was being extended by another five months. She says she fainted when she was told the news. All she knew was that a military judge had approved the regional military commander’s request to extend her detention without trial, saying she was a terrorist. She is convinced that her incarceration was intended solely to put pressure on her husband, who was imprisoned in Be’er Sheva.

There was one happy moment: One day in September, during the daily walk in the prison yard, a warden came up to her and told her that she had visitors. Asma was brought into the visiting room and there, on the other side of the partition, for the first time in seven months, she saw her five children. She says she couldn’t believe her eyes–45 minutes of happiness. Physicians for Human Rights had arranged the visit, after much strenuous effort. Four of the children were given permits and one, 15-year-old Imad, was not–for security reasons. But in the end, he also snuck in for the visit. After they all finished crying, she asked them the questions she had wanted to ask all those months. How things were at home and at school, and who was looking after them, and what they were eating. Sajida and Hamzi sat there speechless most of the time, hardly able to speak.

For nine months, she slept on the floor. Eight prisoners in a cell with six beds. Asma was the last to be put in the cell and so she had to sleep on the floor, brain tumor or not.

The Prison Service’s new spokesman, Ofer Lefler, said this week: “This is an administrative detainee (who was released on November 10, 2003), entitled by law to be kept separate from other prisoners and thus certainly entitled to a bed. At her request, the detainee was transferred to living quarters and kept with other security prisoners, despite the shortage of space in the prison system. Therefore, she was forced to take turns sleeping on a mattress and not on a bed, as a result of an internal decision by the prisoners.”

Asma’s second period of detention was subsequently shortened to three months. On the 10th of last month, she thought she was being released, but an officer told her that her release had been postponed again. But later that afternoon, when she had almost despaired, they came and told her to pack her things. With hands and feet bound, she was taken to one of the checkpoints near Ramallah. At ten that night, she was sent on her way, into the dark night, far from her home.

A Palestinian passerby invited her to sleep at his house. From there, she called her children. “I’m out!” she told them. At six in the morning, she got up and started on the long way home from Ramallah to Jenin. She was on the road until two in the afternoon, having waited at checkpoints and resorted to circuitous dirt roads–an ailing woman finally on the way home to her children, after nine months in prison without trial.

Shooting children

Last week, this column told the story of the killing of three children from Burqin and neighboring Jenin one Saturday in November. One of the children was Ahmed Zarouna, age 12. The IDF spokesman said, “The force fired toward a Palestinian who climbed on an armored vehicle, apparently in order to steal a machine gun that was on it.” In order to justify the killing even further, the IDF spokesman also said that 12-year-old Ahmed was “a Hamas activist known to the security forces.”

A reservist who served in Jenin wrote to me the day after the article was published: “I think you should know that the brigade commander of the sector (a secondary brigade) gave an unequivocal order that was relayed to us that says that if a child climbs onto a military vehicle, he should be killed. Shoot to kill immediately. The explanation given was that he could take IDF equipment or toss a grenade into the vehicle. In talking with my officer and with other soldiers in the company, we agreed that this was an irrational decision, that there was no reason here to kill and that such a matter could likely be solved without any gunfire. I think that this order verges on the totally illegal. In any case, this is the explicit order as it is given to soldiers who arrive there.”

Shooting to kill at children? In response, the IDF spokesman did not deny it: “The IDF does not elaborate on the rules of engagement. However, an inquiry will be conducted regarding the specific aforementioned order. Unfortunately, experience has taught us that a person who climbs onto a military vehicle could pose a lethal danger to the occupants of the vehicle by shooting or use of a Molotov cocktail, bomb or grenade.”