The yard of the house in Beit Awla, north of Hebron, resembles a community center playground: lots of children running around playing - the 18 children of Jihad al-Aqal. The living room also looks like a public space: it's a vast hall in which dozens of chairs and sofas are scattered around. This is the family's meeting place.
Above the hall are two more floors, one for each wife and her children. On the second floor are the first wife, Hirbiya, and her 12 children; the second wife, Miada, and her six children live on the third floor. The first wife has a living room in beige, the second in crimson. The first wife has a bigger kitchen - she has twice as many children as the second. Only five days separate the birthday of Rami, son of the first wife, and Narwan, daughter of the second, half-siblings. Several more of the children appear to be almost the same age, like classmates.
Until a year ago, Jihad divided his nights meticulously, a night on each floor, a night with each wife, but for the past 10 months the parents' bedroom on the third floor has been empty. The bed is made, the perfumes in place, but Miada is gone. Israel is prohibiting her return, even for a visit. She made the mistake of her life when she went to Jordan to visit her ailing mother, and now she cannot return. Her six children keep asking about their mother, speak to her by phone every few hours, and the text messages also fly back and forth - "Where are you?" and "What are you doing?" - every few minutes. Jihad photographs the children with the mobile phone and sends the images across the border several times a day. Motherhood by cell phone.
Last week, the High Court of Justice held a hearing on Israel's refusal to grant permanent residency status to foreign partners of Palestinians in the territories. The refusal has been in effect for seven years. At the beginning of the intifada, Israel decided to stop handling such requests, just like that, arbitrarily and sweepingly. It is estimated that about 50,000 people - men, women and children - in the West Bank have no papers or permits. In two months, the state will have to explain this policy to the High Court.
That might be too late for Miada al-Aqal. Her parents are natives of this land; she herself is Jordanian-born. She married a native, Jihad, who is also her cousin, both of them originating in the same village. She has lived here for more than 10 years, raising her six children in Beit Awla, but now she is not being allowed home, not even for a visit. Over the phone, she threatens to commit suicide; she can't go on living cut off from her children.
The Israeli edicts are breaking up families. The files of Musa Abu Hashhash, the Hebron area field worker from the human rights organization B'Tselem, bulge with similar cases that ended badly. Here, for example, is the story of the al-Aqals' neighbors in Beit Awla: Mohammed al-Amla, a teacher, married his cousin, Amal, in the 1990s, and she had the temerity to visit her family in Jordan in 2002. Since then she has not been allowed back, and their four children are growing up without a mother in the house. After five years of forced separation, Mohammed had enough; he recently married a different woman. In revenge, Amal's parents forced her to marry a new husband in Jordan three months ago. The occupation destroys families.
Mohammed al-Amla, the teacher, did not have the financial resources to mount a struggle to get his wife back. Jihad al-Aqal, an affluent contractor, is sparing neither means not resources, plying lawyers and machers with money to help him bring his Miada home. "Where is mom? Why isn't she here?" her children ask, but it is impossible to answer. Try and explain to 2-year-old Kinaz that Israel is not allowing her mother to be with them in their home in the occupied West Bank.
We first met with Jihad at his office, high up in an office building in the heart of Hebron. Apart from Ramallah, there is no other West Bank city as animated and bustling as Hebron. While masses of settlers streamed to the area occupied by Israel during Sukkot, life in the Palestinian part of the divided city went on as if there were no occupation. Luxury cars, modern stores, high-tech office buildings - something good has happened to Hebron in the past few years.
With a silver ring on his finger and pointed shoes on his feet, sporting a neat goatee and equipped with a trendy Isuzu jeep, a cellular phone and a Mirs wireless device in a sheath, Jihad takes out a business card in Hebrew: "Al-Aqal Co. for construction, commerce and general contracting. CEO: Jihad al-Aqal." The Isuzu has Israeli plates. Jihad speaks fluent Hebrew and has an entry permit to Israel. His company is now building in Gedera and Modi'in. Al-Aqal is helping to build Israel, in partnership with the Israeli firms Tidhar and Maoz Daniel. On his office walls are photos of his construction sites in Israel; in Petah Tikva, too, he now has "5000 square meters of installing marble." He has a high opinion of himself: "In contracting I am a top gun."
Al-Aqal is 44. In 1995 he took his Jordanian cousin, Miada, now 35, as his second wife. The wedding took place in Jordan. The father of the bride, the groom's uncle, insisted on the venue as compensation for the fact that his daughter was becoming a second wife. Immediately after the wedding, the couple went to Beit Awla, where Jihad had built a separate floor in the house for Miada. The children were born in rapid succession: four sons - Munthasar, 11; Aysar, 10; Mohammed, 8; Mustafa, 7 - followed by two daughters: Narwan, 4, and 2-year-old Kinaz. All of them are half-brothers and half-sisters of the dozen children of the first wife.
After about a year, the couple paid a three-month visit to Miada's parents in Jordan and then returned to Beit Awla - that was still possible at the time. But after the second intifada erupted, everything changed. For six years, Miada did not dare go to Jordan to visit her parents, for fear she would not be allowed back. Her visitor's status had expired and Israel was not issuing new permits.
Last December, Miada's mother became ill. Now the husband's strict ban on his wife's leaving the country was to no avail. Miada told him that she was going to visit her mother, come what might.
On December 17, 2006, Miada fled the house, leaving behind six children, including a 1-year-old infant girl. When Al-Aqal discovered that his wife was on her way to Jordan, he immediately got in touch with all his contacts in the Palestinian Authority, and eventually found out that she was at the Allenby Bridge. A Palestinian policeman whom al-Aqal knows detained Miada. According to Jihad, she told him by phone, "If you do not release me and do not let me go, I will throw myself under the wheels of a bus."
Jihad told the policeman to arrest his wife - "She has small children here," he explained - but the policeman said he had no cause to detain her. Miada got on the phone to her husband again: "If you love me," she told him, "if you respect me, let me spend a month with my parents, and then I will come back." Now Jihad guffaws: "She thought she could leave and return. That's a woman for you. A woman of home, a woman of food, not of politics."
After crossing the bridge, she called again: "Thank God, I am across," her husband quotes her in Hebrew. Jihad immediately called his father-in-law/uncle to inform him that his daughter had fled the house and was on her way to them. Was he angry? "Of course I was angry. Very angry."
After a month of longing for her husband and children, Miada called and told Jihad, "If you do not take me back home, I will kill myself." Jihad went to Jordan to visit his wife and try to get her a visa. To reassure her and dissuade her from suicidal thoughts, he told her he already had the visa. She asked him to fax it, but he said he would come in person.
They were together for two months in Jordan, and applied to the Israeli embassy in Amman for a tourist visa. Jihad also applied to the Civil Administration in Beit El for a family unification permit. He hired three Israeli lawyers to push the request, but to no avail. In his wife's Jordanian passport, which is in his possession here, is a stamp confirming that the visa request was made. He also has a receipt attesting to the request from the Civil Administration. After spending two months in Jordan, Jihad told his wife that he had to return home, to his first wife and his children and also, of course, to his business. To advance the prospects of a tourist visa, he bought his wife a house in Jordan and opened a bank account for her. Nothing helped. Miada was in total despair. "Everything is a bluff," she said to her husband the evening before he left, "everything is a mess. If you do not get me back to my children, I will run away and disappear from everyone, from my parents and the children."
Jihad says his wife has gained 20 kilograms because of her distraught condition. She was also hospitalized for several days in Amman. Jihad visited her again in August, when her mental condition deteriorated again. The Israeli embassy informed him that his wife could not enter the territories because she is married to a Palestinian. Is that clear?
A spokesman for the Civil Administration said this week, in response to our query:
"According to our information, Miada al-Aqal was illegally in Judea and Samaria since the end of 1996. Her entry into the region for three months only was made possible at the time on the basis of a visitor's permit and owing to the death of a member of the family. Because Al-Aqal was illegally present in the region for more than 10 years, we cannot verify the reliability of the other details. It goes without saying that no application regarding her residency was received by the Civil Administration [during that period]."
A call from Miada: She wants Jihad to visit again. Jihad promises her that within the framework of the talks between Ehud Olmert and Abu Mazen, a solution will be found for her problem, too. "Your name is on the lists," he tried to reassure her, deceitfully. "I ended up a liar," he says. "What other choice do I have? What can I tell her? I have hired another lawyer. A suffocating person will try every possibility." Last week he submitted another request to the Civil Administration, together with a document describing the children's plight.
"I am waiting for God, [hoping] that we will at least get a visiting permit. I am buddy-buddy with the Israelis. My record there is clean. I am like one of theirs. Why are they doing this to me? They know me well. Are you with me? They know me well. I am known to the Shin Bet [security service]. I am in their good books. Instead of helping me, this is what they do to me? I never made any problem.
"Yesterday, after the meal ending the fast [of Ramadan], Narwan, the 4-year-old, said: 'My brother told me that mom is on the way.' I left the living room and cried."
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