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For a month now, Azam Azam's family has been sitting in a protest tent opposite the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. His wife Amal and three of her four children - her daughters Inas, 17, and Shifa, 12 and her son Motta, eight, who have stopped going to school. Another son, 15-year-old Ziyad, is completing the school year at the Ben Shemen Youth Village, and comes to the protest tent on the weekends. Azam's brothers and Amal's sisters are also there regularly in shifts of two or three days. They do not leave Amal alone for a moment, just as they have been doing at home in Maghar (a Druze- Muslim-Christian village in Galilee) during the six and a half years that Azam has been held in an Egyptian prison on charges of spying. Their protest tent is adorned with the Israeli flag and a poster declaring "Yes, Sharon can free Azam."

A hidden thread connects the protest tent to the home of soldier Benny Avraham, whose father has been lobbying world leaders in a desperate attempt to clarify the fate of his son and two other captured soldiers in Lebanon, and to the home of the family of soldier Daniel Hiller, which exhumed his coffin from the grave with a demand for an independent investigation of the Israel Defense Forces' declaration that he had committed suicide.

Although the three tragedies are quite different from each other, this hidden thread of lack of trust in the system links them. A profound, disturbing lack of trust that causes the families to refuse to come to terms with conclusions that are delivered officially, or with statements that "the authorities are doing everything possible." Thoughts and actions that at one time would have been unimaginable have become possible and doable in this crisis of trust.

"Woe unto a people that begins to lose faith in its government," says Kuftan Azam, Azam Azam's brother. "I believe Sharon is taking action, but he is not taking enough action."

The protest tent was set up by the Azam family on behalf of the father. For six and a half years, once every two weeks, Amal, accompanied by some of her children and a close relative, went to visit the prison in Cairo where her husband is being held. Each time they brought him food ("He doesn't like the prison food," says his family, "and anyway he is afraid that the Egyptians will put something in his food") and they spent two or three hours there, as much time as the prison authorities allow. In general, these visits were the elixir of life for Azam as well as for the members of his family.

A month ago, everything changed. Azam came out of his cell for only five minutes, looking angry and despondent, crying the whole time.

"Is there any news about my cause?" he asked his wife.

"Not yet," she replied.

"Have you met with the prime minister?"

"Not yet," replied Amal, "but we already have an invitation. Now we are waiting."

The reply only increased Azam's anger. "I don't believe anyone," he said and rose from his chair. "Go away and don't come back. I don't want visits and I don't want to see anyone. The only one I want to see is the prime minister, when he comes here and takes me home." Then he said that if the matter was not resolved quickly "they will hear very bad things."

After the hints and the forthright remarks about his intention to commit suicide at their last meeting, the family became very fearful.

"Go put up a protest tent in front of [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's office," he ordered his wife. "In any case, at home you just sit there, and in the tent you also sit." Then he got up and left, leaving them with the burden and the fear. Amal Azam says that for two days all she did was cry, anxious and very hurt, and then she decided to do as he said. They bought a tent, they bought a small refrigerator. Since then, they have been there.

Not heroine material

Nothing in Amal Azam's life prepared her to be the heroine of a great drama. She never dreamed of being Avital Sharansky, fighting for the release of her husband. In truth, her dreams were modest. She attended school only through sixth grade, because this was customary for many Druze women at the time; she married her cousin from the same village, had four children and saw fulfillment in her work as a housewife.

She will never forget the day her husband's brother Sami told her that her husband was in jail in Egypt. Motta was a baby at the time. She had been waiting for Azam's return from one of his trips to Egypt in connection with his work at a textile factory when suddenly the news came. In a single moment her life changed completely; suddenly she was the wife of someone whom the Egyptians considered a spy; suddenly the Azam family was famous throughout the world; suddenly she was meeting prime ministers and government ministers. But most of the time she simply shuts herself up at home, surrounded by her family, with a pleasant expression and extinguished eyes.

A spark of youthfulness lights up in her eyes, albeit only for a moment, when she describes the way her husband was before the arrest. "A real man," she says and smiles. A stubborn man, it must be noted.

After that last visit, and after he sent a letter to the prime minister in which he wrote that he will not accept any visits until his release, he has refused to see visitors and even refused to see the Israeli consul in Egypt who came to the prison to see him. He has always been like that, say family members. What he decides is what he does.

This characteristic has only reinforced the fears for his fate, and the members of the family are taking his threats seriously. Therefore they are now sitting in the protest tent without a deadline for leaving it.

"We will sit here until Azam is released," they say, caught in an impossible trap.

The Barghouti story

During the first half of the week, Azam's brother Kuftan was on duty, along with his wife Amira, who is Amal's sister. The women run the tent exactly the way they run their homes. It is spanking clean and tidy, with the fragrance of dishes they are cooking on a small gas camping stove filling the space. The children hang around with nothing to do, out of school, bored in the forced summer camp. Inas, the eldest, in any case "hates studying." But Shifa likes it very much, and in official Education Ministry tests, she came out top of her class in all subjects. Now the days go by with nothing to do, and very few people come to visit the tent. Last week Health Minister Danny Naveh and Minister without Portfolio Gideon Ezra visited, but did not bring any news. Likud MK Ayoub Kara, the head of the lobby for Azam that has renewed its activity, was also there.

Suddenly the big story broke about the possible release of Azam from the Egyptian prison in exchange for the release of Marwan Barghouti from his Israeli prison. Last Monday, while MK Kara was at a meeting of the Likud faction at the Knesset, he had a call on his mobile phone from "someone who is known for his close association with the family and with the Palestinian Authority, to whom I had never spoken in my life," says Kara. He was surprised, but the voice at the other end of the line said to him: "We know you are the most senior personality in the non-Jewish sector who can influence the prime minister, and we want you to act as long as [Egyptian intelligence official] Omar Suleiman is around and trying to bring about a hudna [temporary cease-fire]. At the end of the conversation the unknown caller gave Kara the telephone number of Marwan Barghouti's brother Maqbal.

Kara, who has been angry at Sharon ever since he gave preference to the other Druze candidate Majali Wahabi in the internal elections in the Likud, did not contact the prime minister. He says he checked at the Prime Minister's Office and he found out there are indeed backstage moves under way. He also did not phone Barghouti's brother.

"I had a problem in principle with this," says Kara. "I don't believe Azam and the criminal Barghouti should be equated. Azam is innocent. What kind of espionage could he do in Egypt in the textile industry? Spy in order to figure how they sew trousers? It is hard for me to see Barghouti go free, as much as I want to get Azam out of prison."

"I feel sorry about another missed opportunity. After we captured the Karine A [Palestinian weapons ship seized by the army last year], officials from the Egyptian embassy proposed an exchange for the Feast of the Sacrifice of eight Egyptians from the administrative crew of the ship for Azam. They proposed not presenting their release as a condition, but as a humanitarian act after which I would go to Egypt and meet with [President Hosni] Mubarak and he would offer a humanitarian gesture in return - the release of Azam. The Shin Bet security service approved and the Public Security Ministry approved until Uzi Landau came along and said that Sharon did not want us to do this. Two weeks later, Sharon freed the eight Egyptians without anything in return. Why? I don't know. Maybe because he had something personal against me."

The response from the Prime Minister's Office: "The information is not accurate. The issue was dealt with at the time by the professional level at the Prime Minister's Office and in the military, and to our regret it did not work out."

The issue of the deal of Barghouti in exchange for Azam came up at the meeting between the family and Sharon last week. Sharon told them that this is a story the Palestinians made up, that there really is no such idea and that he is not prepared to release Barghouti.

"What do we care what Barghouti did?" say members of the Azam family. "We want Azam."

Amal Azam says at the meeting, Sharon also told them how he had refused to hold a conference at Sharm el-Sheikh as long as Azam is imprisoned in Egypt. In this way, the prime minister tried to prove his commitment to the issue. The family members were impressed, but this is not enough. "He is taking action, but not enough action," they keep saying.

Protesting neighbors

In the nearby protest tent were people who understood this story in a completely different way. There, for two months, 13 local council heads - 12 Druze and one Circassian - have been striking against unequal distribution of resources and deepening cuts in the budgets for their local councils. In all of these bodies, the employees have not received their salaries for between four and seven months. The men wander back and forth between the two tents, although they don't really mingle.

"Ask the heads of our local councils what they've done for Azam," they challenge in the family's tent. In the local councils' tent, the protesters are cautious on the topic of Azam. A new generation of local leaders has arisen in the Druze sector, people who are educated and savvy about the ins and outs of the manipulations used in dealing with them.

"A deputy director of a government ministry said in our presence: `It is necessary to change the formula for transferring funds to the local councils; the Druze have understood the old formula,'" says Wahib Habish, head of the Yerka local council. In their current struggle, this is bad timing to talk with them about Azam. "We bring up the issue at every opportunity," they say evasively, resorting to general statements.

Only Salim Saida, head of the Peki'in local council, says outright: "It's impossible to work in fog like this. If [Azam] didn't do anything, that has to be clear. If he spied on behalf of the state, we have to know. Let them say he spied, but in a situation in which they deny it, and the prime minister also changes the location of a conference because of Azam - what are we supposed to understand from this except that Azam was sent by the state? In order to know what to do, we have to know what happened."

Doubts of this nature never come up in the family's tent. As far as they are concerned, Azam is innocent, the victim of some incomprehensible plot. Their statements, both about the Egyptians and about the government and its head, are cautious.

Perhaps because of natural distance, Fadul Nawaf, a striking worker from Peki'in, dares to say aloud: "If Azam were a Jew, Sharon would be trying harder, that's for sure. Sharon is acting, but not with his whole heart. If he loves the Druze, then he has to speak with Mubarak every day. All the Druze think the way I do."

Hillal Ibrahim, an IDF soldier and a neighbor of the Azam family, adds quietly: "People really do think that."

Says Arakan Azam, Azam Azam's nephew and a psychology student, who is "on duty" in the tent: "No one knows exactly what happened there. Even his wife doesn't know. But I think the other way around: If he really was an agent of Mossad, they would have released him, just like they immediately released the two Mossad people who got into trouble in Jordan. There's something strange about this. The only good thing that has happened is that in the beginning it was the family's story and now it's the entire ethnic group's story."

But for the family, it is no longer enough to make it "the entire ethnic group's story." As far as they are concerned, this is an Israeli story, everyone's story, a humanitarian story that should interest everyone. At this stage, the success is limited. After the first week, during which there were many visitors, and after the day the story of the Azam-in-exchange-for-Barghouti deal looked like it had a chance, interest in them waned. Within the constant racket of terror attacks, eliminations, outposts and evacuations, it is difficult to muster attention and prolonged interest. The list of signatories to the petition for Azam's release is growing very slowly.

"If we see that we're not making progress, we will ratchet up the struggle," declares Kuftan Azam," although he doesn't exactly know how. "We know that we don't have any power of our own. We will ask for the public's help."

In the midst of this silence and despair, attorney Yaakov Bitton entered the tent for a moment. He popped in from the nearby Supreme Court, signed the petition and left.

"It does us good when someone comes in," says Amal, to whose worries new ones have been added. Before, there were the loneliness and the endless trips to Egypt, which began by going down to Eilat at 10 o'clock at night via the Jordan Rift Valley road and Jericho, in constant fear of terror attacks and of staying in Egyptian territory as members of the Azam family. Immediately after the visit ended, they would leave for home, 24 hours straight en route. Now she is afraid for Azam's life lest he carry out his threat and commit suicide, and she is worried about the children, who are hot during the day and cold at night in the tent, and they themselves are worrying about their father whom they no longer remember at all in a normal situation.

"The prime minister told us that it doesn't bother him that we're sitting here," she says, clinging to her old habit of being considerate toward everyone, not bothering anyone. During one of the nights of troubled sleep, she dreamed that Azam came to the tent, didn't say a word and just took them home.