Thursday 18 December 2003

Sharon's War on Palestinian Kids

"Don't Think About the Children"

by Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz

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."

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