Twilight Zone /From 'wanted' to welcome
Bilal al-Ahmar recently returned after nine years in hiding to his family home, where his brother - a veteran detainee in Israeli jails - lives with his Jewish lawyer-wife and their children.
Bilal al-Ahmar returned home a few weeks ago. For nine years, he hadn't been back to his house, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. His elderly mother now lives on the first floor; the second floor is home to his brother Abed, Abed's wife, Jewish American lawyer Allegra Pacheco, and their three children: Quds, Jalil and Carmel.
Pacheco's aunt lives not far away, in the settlement of Efrat, and one of her cousins lives in nearby Alon Shvut. Abed and Allegra, who is originally from New York, speak Hebrew to each other; Allegra speaks English with the children and Abed speaks Arabic to them.
The spacious family home in Duha, a Bethlehem suburb, is a peculiar mix of America and Palestine: Pictures of relatives from New York sit on the shelf along with photos of the lost village of Yazur, from which the Ahmars' parents were expelled to the Deheishe refugee camp, where Abed grew up. On the wall is a large inscription in English: "No return, no peace." Strewn about are toys given to the kids by their Jewish grandparents.
We visited this house often during the intifada years. On the balcony where we sat during our recent visit, we once met a group of six young masked men, armed from head to toe. Since then, all but one have been killed. The single survivor of the group, Ibrahim Abayat, now lives in Spain, where he was exiled after hiding in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem during the siege imposed by the army there in 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield. Bilal al-Ahmar almost sought refuge in the church then as well, but fled at the last moment, thinking it would not be the best hiding place.
We were also here for the wedding of Abed and Allegra, a sad event in the midst of the uprising, when the groom was between stints of administrative detention. He is one of the all-time veterans when it comes to such detentions, having racked up 16 years in prison, 12 of them without trial. Five months after the wedding, he was arrested again.
When the Ahmars' first child, Quds, was born seven years ago, when Ahmed was in prison, we published the baby's picture in this newspaper in the hope that somehow the father would see his child's face for the first time. (The couple's engagement ceremony, which took place in Megiddo Prison, was photographed by Miki Kratsman; those photos are also on display in the living room.)
Between one period of imprisonment and another, we would go with Abed to Deheishe, where we reported on various stories of the occupation, of shortages and deaths. Once we went together to the home of the Shamarhas, whom we described as the poorest family in the camp. "This is where the next terrorist is growing up," we titled the article.
Bilal now gazes longingly at the family photo albums. It's all so strange and new to him. For nine years he was in hiding and never came home. Or called. The last time the soldiers arrested Abed, they were searching for Bilal. "We didn't find the 'package.' We took his brother," they reported back, Bilal recalls. Abed spent more long months in administrative detention on account of his wanted brother.
Since he was suspected of being a key activist in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Abed was tortured by the Shin Bet security service while in prison, and suffered physically for months afterward. Since his last detention, he has completed his law studies and now plans to sue the Israeli government and the Shin Bet in the International Court in The Hague because of the torture he endured.
"There is no statute of limitations on war crimes," Abed says, "and I say that as a lawyer." He adds that he dreams of appearing as a lawyer one day in the courtrooms of Israeli military judges Adrian Agassi or Yoram Haniel, neither of whom he remembers very fondly.
Over time, the view from the Ahmars' balcony has changed: The skeleton of a building atop the opposite hill in Bethlehem, which was supposed to be Yasser Arafat's house and was abandoned for years, is now the Al-Ahaliya College; the other unfinished structure nearby has been completed and is a music conservatory. The yard of the family's house is different, too, and now holds a small pen for goats and sheep raised by the Ahmar brothers. Abed is supplementing his income as deputy mayor of Duha by producing cheeses, and after years of hiding, his brother has apparently accumulated a lot of know-how related to raising livestock.
Pacheco, who first met Abed in 1996, when he was an administrative detainee and she represented him as a lawyer, has been working in recent years for an international organization in Jerusalem. Quds, Jalil, 4, and daughter Carmel, 2, run about the house; their mother is seven months pregnant and expecting another daughter. They plan to name her Majdal, after the village upon whose ruins the city of Ashkelon was built.
Forty years old, unmarried and lacking a profession, Bilal observes the household in sad silence; the long years of hiding have left their mark on him. After Operation Cast Lead, last year, he was granted partial amnesty by Israel, to help preserve calm in the West Bank. In return, he had to turn himself over to Palestinian Authority custody. He had been detained since then by Palestinian intelligence services, and released from prison in mid-March. According to a report by the Palestinian news agency Maan, 77 Fatah men, including Bilal - who claims he is innocent of any wrongdoing - were officially removed from Israel's "wanted" list then, after signing a pledge renouncing the use of violence and turning in their weapons. He is prohibited from leaving the Bethlehem city limits.
He is happy to be back home, of course, after all those years, to see all the children that were born in the meantime, but is also upset by the changes that took place in the interim: the wall that surrounds his city, the dismal economic situation and the friends who've been killed. The first thing he did upon his release was to visit the grave of his father, who died while Bilal was in hiding; he didn't dare attend the funeral.
Ahmed recalls that the last thing their father mentioned before dying, in the midst of yet another army raid on the city, was Bilal. A wanted man causes more concern and worry for the family than one who is in prison. The whole time, Bilal was only about four kilometers from home, though he did not return even once; he never used a cell phone or moved about while armed. Several times, he could see from afar that his home was surrounded by soldiers. "Even Allah wouldn't have been able to catch him," says Abed with a smile.
Bilal was arrested for the first time when he was 13 and locked in a cubicle for a month; two of his fellow detainees died, he says, in the course of interrogation. Today he dreams of flying abroad in a plane for the first time ever, and of going to the beach - neither of which is possible at present. He now spends most of his time tending the sheep. He became accustomed to sitting in silence during all his years of hiding.
His young nephews still refer to Bilal as "Uncle Mishu" - his name while in hiding. They seem confused by having a Jewish mother and a Muslim father, who spent most of their lives in an Israeli prison, and now by the so-called wanted uncle, who suddenly came in from the cold and is part of their household.
Meanwhile, Quds is practicing to be a star player on the Palestinian national soccer team; his mother is looking for a private tutor to teach him and his siblings Hebrew. His grandmother from New York is coming to visit again soon, and he has already visited America with his mother several times. When the grandmother comes here, she divides her time between the one daughter in Bethlehem and the other in Efrat.
One day in November 2002, tanks began to surround the Ahmars' house; Allegra called human-rights activists from international organizations to come show solidarity with them. At 3 A.M., soldiers raided the house, searching for Bilal; upon not finding the "package," they deliberated over whether to arrest Abed or Louis, the third brother. The fourth brother, Ayman, was already in detention at the time. They decided to take Abed, who was kept in administrative detention for 20 months, just five months after his wedding. Abed recalls how he once snuck into the warehouse of the Ketziot Prison, stole some chocolate bars and gave them out to other prisoners.
Even today, after Bilal has reunited with his brother, the family's happiness is not complete: Louis is in administrative detention.
Abed, who predicted the outbreak of the second intifada several months before it happened, is now convinced that a third uprising is imminent. He says the brunt of Palestinians' anger is currently directed at the PA, but will soon be aimed at Israel because of Israel's provocative construction policy in East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Allegra and Abed tell young Quds that Daddy is a refugee, that the family hopes to return to Yazur one day, and that there are good Jews and bad Jews.
Two weeks ago, the extended family went out to eat at a Bethlehem restaurant. Who's the visitor, the waiter asked, referring to Bilal. "An uncle who just returned from France," they told him.
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