Selected Articles from Ha'aretz
Refugees In Their Homeland
September 15, 2000
Two young Jordanian-born
men from Jabalya in the Gaza Strip desperately wanted to find temporary
work in Israel. They were arrested at the Erez checkpoint because they
were carrying borrowed ID cards. Long after completing their prison terms,
they continue to languish in jail, without a trial and without visitors.
Deportation looms and they may never see their families again
fathers: Mohammed al-Batash (left) and Mohammed-Khir al-Najar. "We
came back to our homeland because we thought the situation here was
better."(Photo: Miki Kratsman)
This is a story about two
young men whose only sin was their desire to find work - at almost any cost.
Two young men who were in desperate need of money to ease, however slightly,
the burden of caring for huge families. Two young men without identities or,
more accurately, without identity cards, who in their desperation, borrowed
ID cards from friends so they could cross the barrier of the vast
"prison" in which they live - the Gaza Strip - and find some
pickup work in Israel. But luck was against them: They were arrested at the
Erez checkpoint on the Israel-Gaza border, one of them as he tried to leave,
the other as he tried to enter the un-Promised Land.This is a story about
two young men who were caught, arrested, tried, sentenced, imprisoned and
punished for their actions, all according to the law, but who now remain
prisoners without a trial. A story about two young men whose families are
not allowed to visit them in prison under these circumstances. A story about
two people from the same village, in this case Jabalya, former neighbors in
the poverty-stricken village, now neighbors in Nitzan Prison in Ramle, who
Mahmoud al-Batash tried to
get into Israel to find work in order to save a little cash to help his
family of 18 buy a few extra provisions for the holy days; Salameh al-Najar
attempted to find work in Israel to save a little money before his marriage
to his cousin, Amal. There is no connection between the two young men, apart
from the fact that they are neighbors and that both tried desperately,
though separately, to enter Israel to find work.
Mahmoud was caught on January
12, 2000 - the day he tried, for the first time in his life, to cross the
border of the prison in which he lived most of his life and to enter Israel;
Salameh was caught about a month earlier, on December 3, 1999, on the day he
tried to return home after being expelled from the Galilee town in which he
had tried to find work.
Both have been imprisoned
ever since, both have completed serving their sentences, and both are cut
off from their families. Neither of them has any inkling of what Israel,
which jailed them, plans to do with them. They can't even start counting
down the days till their release because they simply have no idea - no one
has bothered to tell them - how long they will remain incarcerated without
trial, whether they will ultimately be permitted to return to their meager
homes in Jabalya, or whether the village will also become an unreachable
destination for them.
Jabalya - a destination? You
have to see the homes of these two young men - the living conditions of the
18 members of the al-Batash families, and of the 16 members of the al-Najar
family - to which they long so powerfully to return. But it is there, in the
village on the edge of the terrifying refugee camp of the same name, that
their families live; that is where their homes are, however wretched their
lives. And now the two young men are liable to find themselves expelled even
from there, and sent across the border, far from their families, to the
country where they were born and to which they do not want to return.
If the deportation orders
that have already been issued are carried out, they will be severed from
their families forever. Their families will remain in Gaza but they will be
in Jordan, and neither will be able to visit the other.
But who on earth cares
whether they return to their homes in Jabalya? Or why? Does it matter to
Israel if Mahmoud al-Batash and Salameh al-Najar live in Jabalya, which is
within the area of the Palestinian Authority, or in the al-Wahadath refugee
camp in Jordan? Ah, yes, there have been agreements. But is life just a
series of regulations, clauses and accords?
For these two young men,
despair is easier to bear in Jabalya than in Jordan. So why not let them go
back there? After all, their only sin was to be born in Jordan in the course
of the wanderings of their parents who, like them, once also left Jabalya in
a desperate quest for a livelihood.
For assuming the identities
of their friends, the two deserve to be punished - and they were. But now,
where is mercy? Where is compassion? Humanity? Not here. Not toward
Palestinians. The house by the cemetery Try to imagine a more squalid place
to live than in the house next to the cemetery in Jabalya in the Gaza Strip.
That is where the al-Batash family, two aging parents and their 16 children,
have always lived. Originally, it was a clay dwelling. When they returned
from their exile, they demolished it and built a house of plaster in its
Now it is in disarray, part
of it finished and part of it incomplete. There are no bulbs in most of the
lamps. A sand path leads to it from the road and there is a small orchard
next to it. No, the orchard does not belong to them. If it were theirs, they
might not have had to leave then, at the outset of the occupation in 1967,
when they went to Jordan to look for a better living than Mohammed, the
father, had as an occasional construction worker here in occupied, paralyzed
Barefoot, unshaven and
wearing a knitted head-covering, Mohammed longs for his son. Mahmoud, 21, is
the 10th of his 16 children and was born in the al-Wahadath refugee camp in
Jordan. Five months after the onset of the occupation, the family left
Israel. A few months after the advent of peace and the establishment of
Palestinian self-rule - or what was represented as such - they returned to
Jabalya. However, they were unable to return legally, so they came back as
visitors, tourists in their own land.
The Israeli authorities gave
the al-Batash family visas to visit Gaza for three months and then extended
them for an additional four months, the maximum allowed. That was in 1994,
and since then they have lived here illegally, in the house next to the
A Jew who leaves his country
can return whenever he wishes, at any time, and continue to be a citizen in
good standing. Should he choose to leave his homeland, a Palestinian will
not, however, be able to return in most cases.
The father looks despondent,
weary: His son Mahmoud left for Israel on January 12, and since then, he has
not seen him. Until that point, Mahmoud worked at pickup jobs in Gaza,
earning NIS 30 for a day's work. And he only found work on five or six days
a month. As he had no ID of any kind - his Jordanian passport had long since
expired - his good friend, Riad Damida, offered him his ID card. The two
look alike; a lot of young people without ID cards do the same.
With the false ID card,
Mahmoud thought to take the safe passage route to the West Bank and from
there, to cross into Israel and make it to an Arab village. He had Taibe or
Nazareth in mind, thinking maybe he could find work there for a few weeks,
until the holiday. He wanted to help his family with purchases - especially
clothing - for the holiday, a particularly heavy burden in light of their
other onerous demands.
Mahmoud took nothing with
him. Only the clothes on his back. His father says he did not even take
tomatoes or a pita. His mother, Fatma, shouts, "Not tomatoes and not
The soldier at Erez was
extraordinarily perceptive. She noticed immediately the difference between
the photograph on the ID card and the bearer of the card, and she had
Mahmoud arrested at once. A few of his friends, who also carried borrowed
cards, managed to get through.
Ten days later, an indictment
was filed against Mahmoud for being present in the region without a permit,
and for attempting to leave without a permit under section 90 of the
Security Provisions Order, Article 2 of the Closing of the Region Order, and
Article 19 of the Rules of Criminal Responsibility for Offenses Order. He
was also charged with entering a military zone without a permit
("violating the Closing of the Region Order by entering the area of the
"The defendant lied when
he presented himself as someone else, with the intention of deceiving
another person," the indictment stated. The judge, Major Meir Lahan,
sentenced him to four months in prison with a four months' suspended
sentence, and recommended that the case be transmitted to "the legal
adviser of the GD [Gaza District]" so it could be examined "as to
whether there is cause or need to issue the defendant a deportation order to
Mahmoud called home from Erez,
said he had been arrested and hung up. Since then, he has called every few
days using a magnetic phone card that his sister - the only person allowed
to visit him - brings him. She is entitled to see him every two weeks, but
comes only once a month because the family can't afford the bus fare to the
prison. Mahmoud's parents and his brother cannot visit because they, like
him, do not have ID cards. He served his time in Be'er Sheva Prison and was
transferred to Nitzan Prison in Ramle, to await his deportation.
Deportation? The family says
they have heard nothing about any plan to deport Mahmoud. Now, even the
lawyer they hired, Anan al-Barosh, is prohibited from visiting his client
because he has no permit to enter Israel. An Israeli lawyer they wanted to
take asked for $2,500, a fantastic amount for the family.
"Is there any point in
asking for a loan and going to the High Court of Justice?" the father
asks, his voice subdued, exuding helplessness. A single photograph Mahmoud
appears in a photomontage, one photograph superimposed on another, in the
al-Batash house. It's a double portrait of a young man, as though
prophesying a future when the borrowed identity of the subject of the
portrait would determine his fate. Disconsolate, the father looks at the
photograph, the mother bursts into tears, and then they are all crying, the
parents and the brother.
In his telephone calls from
prison, Mahmoud tries to reassure them and tell them not to worry, not
mentioning a word about the deportation order that has already been issued
against him. Does he know about it and does he want to hide the bad news
from them, or has no one bothered to tell him what lies ahead? He tells his
family that the uncertainty about his future is driving him crazy. When he
called last Friday, Mahmoud apparently said, "If they would only tell
me how much longer they intend to go on holding me. I am ready to suffer,
but I want them to tell me for how much longer."
Do they regret having
returned to the Gaza Strip?
"I wish we would have
died rather than come back here," the father replies quickly.
"Here, things are harder than there. Here, we are in prison. We have no
identity and no definition. Six years without ID cards. Our son is in prison
and we cannot visit him. The homeland is important, but our situation living
in it is hard, harder than it was in exile."
They have already applied to
the Palestinian Authority, whose officials told them that the fate of their
son's case is completely up to Israel.
The mother: "Maybe they
will show a little mercy and let him come home? I want so much for our son
to be with us. Or at least they would tell us what they still want from him
and how much longer they will hold him."
The cousin: "Maybe you
could tell them to allow his cousin to visit in Ramle. Maybe they will let
his cousin come? He has two cousins, maybe they will agree?" Salameh's
saga Naked children, yellow chicks, cats, a mule, between a few hovels and
skeletons of houses - at the end of another sand path in Jabalya, Amana and
Mohammed-Khir al-Najar live with 14 children. Their Salameh has been in
prison since last December. Bearing a remarkable likeness to his neighbor
Mohammed, father of the prisoner and potential deportee Mahmoud al-Batash,
Mohammed-Khir al-Najar also wears a knitted head-covering and is also
Unlike the implacable despair
of the al-Batash family, the parents here are all smiles. A matter of
temperament. They, too, left when the occupation began in 1967, and are also
displaced persons. They, too, returned when the signs of peace and
Why did they return?
Mohammed-Khir leans against his mule cart and sighs, "We came back to
our homeland because we thought the situation here was better." The
older children - Nafez, Issa, Najah - were born in Jabalya and have ID
cards; the rest of the children were born in a suburb of Amman and live in
Jabalya in the Gaza Strip illegally, like their parents who returned as
visitors to their land.
Salameh, 24, also wanted to
help out a little on the eve of his marriage to Amal, so he, too, borrowed
an ID card. He succeeded in fooling the soldier at Erez and got to the West
Bank; from there he entered Israel, his destination being the village of
Arrabeh in Lower Galilee. He was there for 10 days until the local residents
expelled all the workers from Gaza, apparently because a woman in the
village had been assaulted.
Salameh had to return to
Jabalya. But, with incredible bad luck, he was arrested at Erez as he tried
to get back home. A trial, four months in prison, six months' suspended.
The judge, Lt. Colonel Nissim
Sarussi: "This is the plague of the region ... At the same time, we
cannot ignore the remarks of the learned defense counsel that the
circumstances that led the defendant to commit the offenses are related in
character to the shaky economy of the entire region. However, I am obliged
to be warned that according to [previous] judgments, an appeals court does
not consider economic circumstances to be mitigating circumstances."
Again, a recommendation for
Since then, Salameh, too, has
been in prison, long after completing his sentence waiting - and yet not
waiting - to be deported.
Amana, the mother: "The
poor kid. All he wanted was to save up a little money to get married. My
heart burns for him. I didn't celebrate the last holiday because he wasn't
here with us. I can't even bring myself to answer his telephone calls. If I
talked to him on the telephone, I would break down. We are helpless, all we
have left is God."
No one visits Salameh, who
has been in prison for nearly a year. His family doesn't have money for the
trip; in any case, only his brother, Nafez, is permitted to visit. He has
done so only once. Salameh calls every Saturday to ask how the family is
While I was visiting the two
families, who live about 15 minutes' apart, the Central Council of the
Palestine Liberation Organization convened and postponed the declaration of
an independent state. The IDF spokesman "These are two residents of
Jordan who are in the region illegally. After they were convicted in a
military court, deportation orders were issued against them by the Military
Commander under the Prevention of Infiltration Order. The handling of the
deportation is coordinated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Until the
deportation is carried out, the above-mentioned are being held in detention
under the said order."
So simple, so legal. So just
and so humane