Saturday, April 4, 2009

From jail to jail: a mother from Balata

24 March 2009

Omm Ahmad Khadeash is a mother and grandmother who has spent most of her life living in Balata Refugee Camp, near Nablus in the West Bank. She is around 70 years old and has seen everything from the Nakba in 1948 to the brutality of the second Intifada.
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Omm Ahmad Khadeash
Pictures: Palestine Monitor

Omm Ahmad was born in a village called Ejzem, near Haifa. Her village was expelled and destroyed by the Israeli military in 1948. Her family fled to Huwarra, near Nablus, and then moved to the Balata Refugee Camp when it was created in the 1950’s.

Balata Refugee Camp is known for being very political, the heart of the resistance. Many Fatah resistance leaders in the Intifada came from the camp. For this reason, the Israeli military has been especially hard on the people of Balata. Imposing curfews, conducting nightly raids of the camp in which they break down doors to the houses and destroy things inside, beat people—men and women, arrest, and sometimes kill people for being active in the resistance.

Omm Ahmad married at 15 and has seven sons and five daughters. Every one of her sons has been imprisoned. She has never experienced a time where all of her sons were at home together.

At the moment, she has six sons out of prison. One was released two months ago and another, Khaled, is still in prison—with a sentence of over 1000 years for being one of the Fatah leaders in Balata. He has four children, the youngest, Aboud, was born on the day his father was imprisoned.

Now Omm Ahmad takes care of Khaled’s wife and family—just as she has taken care of all of her sons’ families while they were imprisoned.

Omm Ahmad is well-known in Balata for intervening when the Israeli soldiers raid the camp and try to arrest anyone. She will run out and get in the middle of the fight; screaming, and saying “this is my son! This is my son!”—no matter who it is that they are trying to arrest.

She will “give the signal” to the other mothers around the camp and they will all run down and scream at the soldiers, and others will join in; screaming or throwing stones.

One time, Omm Ahmad saw Israeli soldiers running after a young girl. They caught her and started beating her.

“I began screaming and brought all of my daughters with me to where the soldiers were. Some other women heard us and joined us, screaming. We created a big chaos and the soldiers left the girl.”

Another time, Omm Ahmad saw soldiers running after a teenage boy who was carrying a flag. When he ran past her house she grabbed him and took him inside. When the soldiers came to the door she blocked them from getting in, and started screaming. Soon, other women started screaming and people began throwing stones.

She had a real fight with the soldiers and even took a gun from one of them. But because there was so much chaos around them from the screaming women and kids throwing stones, the soldiers decided it wasn’t worth it and left.

During the second Intifada, when the Israeli soldiers would impose a curfew on the camp for being active in the resistance, Omm Ahmad would ignore the curfew and take food and other supplies around to all her sons and daughters and their families.

“It was dangerous, but I did not care”, said Omm Ahmad.

Omm Ahmad has spent most of her life traveling from one prison to another visiting her sons.

“I have never had all of my sons at home at the same time.”

Her only son in prison now, Khaled, has a sentence of over 1000 years. His only chance to be released from prison is if the prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel is successful. Hamas, who is holding the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, is trying to reach an agreement with Israel. In exchange for releasing Shalit, Hamas is asking Israel to release 450 Palestinian political prisoners—the prisoners who have consecutive life sentences—and Khaled is on that list.

Omm Ahmad was only recently given permission to visit Khaled; once a month—before that she was not allowed to visit because she is known as a “trouble-maker” by the soldiers. Khaled’s wife is only allowed to see her husband once or twice a year.

Visiting her sons in prison is like a “trip to hell”. Khaled’s prison is in southern Israel, on the border with Egypt. So when Omm Ahmad makes the trip to visit her son, she must get up before 3am and go to the special bus station in Nablus that has buses specifically for taking family members to different prisons.

The visitors must go through many checkpoints, getting rigorously searched at each one. Another humiliating process they must go through before they can visit their family members is being stripped naked.

The trip is exhausting, humiliating and takes an entire day. After all of this, Omm Ahmad is allowed to see her son for less than an hour.

Recently, Omm Ahmad and all of the families of the prisoners on the exchange list received more bad news. The talks between Hamas and the Israeli government failed, once again.

Hamas requires that all of the prisoners are released to the West Bank or to Gaza. But Israel has rejected some of the prisoners on the list and has also said that the only way they will release the remaining prisoners is by deporting them to other Arab countries. Omm Ahmad is worried that Khaled may not be released while she is alive.

“They took our sons. They took our land. They stole it from us…they have this belief that this is their land and we should not be here.”

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Omm Ahmad and some of her grandchildren. Some have grown without never seeing their father
Picture: Palestine Monitor

These days, Omm Ahmad does not intervene when the soldiers come to the camp. She says that the soldiers do not care whether they beat a child or an old woman anymore. There is nothing she can do to help, and she said she is losing faith that things will change.

“We have tried everything. We tried the non violence in the 1st Intifada—just throwing stones. In the 2nd Intifada we tried violence, with the guns. It was very brutal. Now we have tried the negotiations—the peace process. Israel does not respond to anything. Why must the Palestinians respect the agreements, but not Israel? We have tried everything and each time we make a little progress but in the end we are always back at zero.”

And every time the Palestinians actively form a resistance, peaceful or violent, they always end up losing something in the end. More Palestinians are expelled, more settlements, and the wall are built.

“It’s too much”, says Omm Ahmad. “The Palestinians are arguing with each other over power! For what? For a chair? For a state that actually does not exist? We are in a very difficult situation.”

“Release the prisoners, let our sons come home! Take Palestine, we don’t want it anymore. We just want to live our lives—this is not life”, says Omm Ahmad. “At the end it’s really not worth it. I’m tired; I’ve spent most of my life going from jail to jail. There was never a time when all of my sons were at home together. It’s too much!”

As Omm Ahmad tells her story, she also makes sure to explain that this is not just her story. This is the story of many other mothers in Palestine. Boys are imprisoned for consecutive life sentences. Their parents die, waiting for their children to be released from jail.

In the end, it sounds like Omm Ahmad has lost hope for a solution to her problem, or for Palestine. But she says, “The hope remains, it is always there, like our faith in God. But I am a human being, a woman, a mother. I have a right to feel this way. I have to take care of my grandchildren and the wives of my sons while they are in prison. It’s too much.”