Just Children

Gideon Levy

The father is in prison. The older brother is in prison too. The mother is also incarcerated - held without trial and with a cancerous tumor in her head. Four of the five children are on their own, in Jenin.


HA'ARETZ

Wednesday, June 4, 2003

The children of the Abu al-Haija family: Hamzi, Sajida, Asem and Imad
(Photo: Miki Kratsman)
 

he expressions on their faces say it all - gloomy stares without a trace of a smile. These children obviously know hardship and suffering. They sit on the filthy couch in the middle of an unfinished room in the Jenin refugee camp, and tell their story. They haven't seen their father in nearly a year. And it's been almost six months since they last saw their mother. In all that time, since she was arrested, they haven't even heard her voice. 

It's hard to believe. The state, which jailed the mother without a trial, won't even allow her to phone her children. Not a single phone call to see how the five children who were left alone without a father and mother are getting along. Is this justice, compassion, humanity? No - it's because of "regulations" and "security considerations." 

The children's older brother Abed is also in prison. Their father Jamal is accused of belonging to Hamas. Their mother, Asma, who is ill with cancer, is in administrative detention - imprisoned without an indictment or a trial. And Abed, who followed in his father's footsteps, was recently sentenced to 87 months in prison. The family's home partially burned down during the Israel Defense Forces incursion into the camp in April, 2002. 

Asem, 16, and Imad, 15, the two big brothers, are thrown together with 11-year-old Hamzi and seven-year-old Sajida in the ruined house. The two little ones still smile shyly once in a while, but even this smile is terribly sad. The ponytail-holder in Sajida's hair is the only reminder that this is just a little girl. They may be the children of Hamas, but they are still children. 

This is the Abu-al-Haija family. Has anyone thought to look in on how they're doing? The IDF Spokesman, on the eldest son's sentence: "In his arguments, the defendant's lawyer mentioned the fact of the father's imprisonment and the mother's illness." The Prison Service: "The security prisoner is not permitted phone calls due to a regulation that applies to all security prisoners in Israel." 

The chirping of the birds in two cages in the corner of the room gives the house a semblance of calm. The walls of the house were damaged by an explosion when it was hit by a rocket during the IDF incursion last spring into Jenin. A year later, local residents gathered to fix it up and some construction workers from the camp are busy plastering over the sooty walls. A couch and table are the only pieces of furniture, and scraps of the workers' food are strewn about. 

During the incursion, the soldiers looked for the father, Jamal Abu al-Haija. They didn't find him, but took his 18-year-old son instead. Four months later, in August, the father was captured as well. The IDF says that the father was the Hamas spokesman in the Jenin area. A few months later, the mother, Asma, was also arrested and sent to administrative detention in Neve Tirza prison. No one knows why. Large photographs of the father and his son in wood frames lean against the wall in the corner of the room, waiting to be hung up once the wall is repaired. The father is bearded and smiling slightly. They won't show a photo of the mother, not even for a moment. Because she's a woman. 
 

     A `Hamas politician' 

The mother was overseeing the renovations of the two rooms of the house before she was arrested. The funding for the renovations came from UNRWA. The door to the house is still pocked with bullet holes. After their house was wrecked, the children lived for a while in various rented rooms arranged by the camp committee and then in their cousin's house and in their own house, as the repairs got under way. Banan, 17, is in 12th grade and studying at her aunt's house for the matriculation exams; Asem, a 10th-grader, goes to the Shar'in high school; Imad is in ninth grade in the UNRWA school in the camp; Hamzi is in fifth grade and Sajida is in first grade. 

Their father Jamal is the son of refugees from Ein Hod. Now 42, he lived in Saudi Arabia and Yemen during the 1980s, and worked as a teacher. In 1987, he returned to Jenin and became a private tutor in Koran for children. His father, who died a few months ago, was the imam of the Jenin mosque. Jamal has been arrested before, including during the first intifada. He spent a few years in an Israeli prison and was once also arrested by the Palestinian Authority and jailed for nine months. He was last freed in 1999. His son Asem says that they would see him from time to time on Al-Jazeera and on Abu Dhabi Television, first as a spokesman for the camp and later as a representative of Hamas. But the men working on the house, one of whom is also a relative, say that Jamal was a "Hamas politician" and not a military man. 

The birds' chirping grows louder. The children look sad and neglected. Little Sajida looks a little neater, with red earrings in her ears. She changes into a different dress for the family photo. 

They were sleeping on the second floor when the Apache helicopter fired a rocket at their house. The children and their mother hurried downstairs, to the room where we are sitting now. On the second day of the incursion, soldiers came and shot at the doors of the house. The next day, they returned and ordered all the men to come outside. Asem says that they set off two explosions inside the house - one in the living room and one in the stairway. Then they ordered all the neighbors to gather in one apartment. 

"We stayed there for three days," Asem says. Afterward, they were told to leave the apartment and the refugee camp. They walked, empty-handed, to the town. On the way, they saw two bodies, Imad recalls. They knew them - their neighbors Shalbi and Abdel Karim Sa'adi. They stayed with their grandfather, their mother's father, until the incursion was over. They didn't hear anything from their father. And when they returned they saw what was left of their house. 

It wasn't easy to find alternative living quarters for them: No one was eager to rent space to the family of a wanted man. The IDF could come and demolish it. The children lived in three different rented places over the past year. They saw their father just once, very briefly, about six months ago in the courtroom, three months after he was arrested. Since then, he has been imprisoned in isolation in the Be'er Sheva jail. Their brother Abed is in the Shata prison and two weeks ago was sentenced to more than seven years for belonging to Hamas. 

Their mother was arrested on a holiday eve four months ago. They had come back from visiting relatives for the Feast of the Sacrifice and then the soldiers arrived at 2:30 in the morning. Again there was the knocking at the door, gunfire and the order to come outside in the middle of the night. Outside it was cold and rainy. They were taken to wait inside a nearby store while the soldiers searched the house. A half hour later they were told to return home, but then the children heard an explosion. Imad was terrified. The commander told Asma to accompany him outside. Asma was afraid to go outside and leave the children alone. The officer told her in Arabic that they were going to arrest her. 

"What's the problem?" she asked. "They'll explain it to you at the jail," she was told. Asma refused to get up from where she was sitting and then the officer warned: "If you don't get up, we'll take you by force." 

The children saw and heard. Since 1999, Asma, 37, has had recurring bouts of cancer, with a type of brain tumor. She has undergone brain surgery twice and her children say she was due to have another operation right after that holiday. Her vision has been affected and she has severe headaches. How is she today? The children have no idea, of course. The Prison Service says that she has been examined. 

Hamzi and Sajida clung to their mother's dress and wouldn't let go. They say the soldier pushed them aside and took her away. Asma was put into the Jeep and they haven't seen her since. That was in early February. She was given six months of administrative detention, which could be extended indefinitely. The children were left all alone. At five in the morning, the neighbors came and asked what had happened. Then they took the children to their aunt's home. 

Assistant Prison Service spokeswoman Chana Nitzan, on the arrest of Asma Abu-Haija: "This was an administrative arrest in accordance with an order issued by the IDF. The detainee is a woman who had previously been ill with cancer. When she arrived at the Prison Service on February 11, 2003, a series of medical examinations and follow-up was begun in order to determine her medical condition and to check that the cancer had not returned. The security prisoner is not permitted phone calls due to a regulation that applies to all security prisoners in Israel. The Prison Service permits family visits as long as the IDF permits the entrance of visitors from the territories." 

The IDF Spokesman, in regard to the father and son: "Jamal Abu al-Haija was arrested on August 26, 2002. On November 27, 2002, an indictment was issued against him charging him with membership in Hamas, having a paid position in this organization, conspiracy to perpetrate suicide bombings and involvement in the dispatching of the terrorist who carried out the suicide bombing on the bus at the Meron junction in August 2002. 

"His son was arrested on March 26, 2002 and on April 10, 2002, an indictment was submitted charging him with the crimes of membership in Hamas, manufacture of numerous bombs, hurling one of them at an IDF tank, and with acting on behalf of another militant to find out if a certain other person was willing to commit a suicide bombing for the organization. On May 20, 2003, he confessed to a revised indictment as part of a plea bargain arrangement, was convicted and sentenced to 87 months imprisonment. In his arguments, the defendant's lawyer mentioned the fact of his father's incarceration and his mother's illness." 

About the administrative detention of Asma, the spokesman says: "During a judicial review hearing on March 20, 2003, the detainee's lawyer, Tamar Peleg, argued that her client is ill with cancer and she presented detailed medical documentation about her condition. The military judge at the hearing approved the administrative detention order for the full period stated in it, and addressed her medical condition based on the professional opinion of the facility's doctor. These arguments also came up during the appeal hearing on May 13, and here, too, the judge approved the original decision, while repeating the stipulation that the prisoner must be examined and treated in accordance with the judgment of the facility's doctor." 

Sajida sprays herself with some cheap perfume. "I want Mommy," she says and covers her face with her hands. "There's no one to take care of us," says Hamzi. The five children come to the house sometimes to see how the rebuilding work is going. Asem, the oldest one left at home, is responsible for the bird cages.

E-mail: levy@haaretz.co.il
                                           
 

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