Gideon Levy
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

Two 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 never met.

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 place.

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 Jabalya.

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 cemetery.

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 anything."

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 Erez Terminal").

"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 Jordan."

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 unshaven.

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 independence loomed.

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 deportation.

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 doing.

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



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