A Rare Moment of Humanity in an Israeli Military Court

Yafa and Suha Jarrar have spent their whole lives visiting their parents in Israeli custody. As children, it was their father. Now, it's their mother, Palestinian parliament member Khalid Jarrar.

Alex Levac

It was a one-of-a-kind moment of grace, humanity and compassion in the dominion of injustice and evil known as the military court of Judea, in the West Bank. In a spontaneous decision, Israel Prison Service officer Bassem Kashkush allowed Yafa and Suha Jarrar to approach their mother, Khalida, and embrace her. Even the elders of the court can’t remember anything like it.

The young women walked up to their mother, hugged her long and hard, and the tears flowed unbidden. Mother and daughters cried; the husband and father, Ghassan Jarrar, wept bitterly. The sympathizers and international observers who are attending Jarrar’s trial cried, too, and a tear was even spotted in a female prison guard’s eye. “What’s this, is everyone crying here today?” she blurted out.

Twenty-nine-year-old Yafa hasn’t seen her mother for about a year, and her sister, Suha, 24, for about six months. Last week they arrived from Canada for a vacation. They are both graduate students, Yafa working toward a doctorate in law, Suha about to begin her Ph.D. in environmental studies, and this week they had an emotional reunion with their mother in court. Unlike in previous hearings, Jarrar was brought to the courtroom without iron shackles on her feet.

Khalida Jarrar, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, has been in detention for almost three months. At first she was in administrative detention, as Israeli authorities had no intention of putting her on trial. But after a wave of international protest, she was remanded in custody until the conclusion of legal proceedings against her and indicted on 12 counts – all of them saliently political – which include such ludicrous charges as attending a book fair and visiting a released prisoner in his home. Her trial began this week in the Ofer military prison courtroom.

Internationally, Jarrar is a story, but in Israel she’s a non-story. The judge, Lt. Col. Zvi Heilbron, like the prosecutor and the judge in the previous round of hearings, wears a skullcap. This military court increasingly resembles a synagogue.

The hearing this week was short and preliminary. “See you soon,” “We are proud of you,” the daughters cried out to their mother, before she was taken back to Sharon Prison.

Afterward, in a splendid old house in Ramallah that belongs to a friend of the family, we spoke to the two impressive young women about their mother and father. Yafa and Suha, like many of their peers, are veterans of night raids on their home, when their father was taken away – he had been arrested no fewer than 14 times before their eyes – and their parents were humiliated. As the daughters of a left-wing Palestinian family, they are secular, modern in their outlook and very involved in the international campaign to obtain their mother’s release.

Suha reinserted the stud in the piercing on her chin – she thought she wouldn’t be allowed to enter the courtroom with it. The family of another female prisoner brought them a present from their mother: cases for a lighter and for a pen, handcrafted in plastic by the most famous Palestinian prisoner in the world today, Khalida Jarrar, mother of Yafa and Suha, whose names are embroidered on the covers.

Suha was born during one of her father’s incarcerations and saw him at home for the first time when she was three. When she visited him in prison, she could not reconcile the man in the photos with the person behind the iron bars. At the time, if a prisoner’s child was small enough, it could be handed to him through an opening.

Suha remembers when she became too big to sit on her father’s knees. She remembers the cold Hebron prison and the long ride to the Ketziot facility, in the Negev desert. Dad would give them cookies he had baked in prison, in the shape of their initials.

Until 2002, which was the last time Ghassan was arrested, their childhood was marked by rough trips to different prisons. But what the daughters remember most vividly is the drum-like steps of the soldiers in the middle of the night, and the crude pounding on the door with rifle butts. They grew up thinking that this was the routine way of life of every child in the world.

Yafa, who left to begin her studies abroad a dozen years ago, recalls the winter of 1990. There was snow in Ramallah, the soldiers came again to take away her father, and she ran upstairs to get his gloves. She didn’t find them, only her mother’s, and she still carries a burden of guilt over the event. She was never afraid of the soldiers, she insists. There was only one time when Yafa was apprehensive: She had an orange lollipop in the cupboard, and the soldiers came at night to do a search. She was afraid they would take her candy. That didn’t happen.

“She was only afraid for the lollipop, not for her father,” Ghassan recalls now, laughing.

Suha, who has been gone for five years, remembers that during one of the arrests, she held onto the edge of her father’s pants and wouldn’t let go until the soldiers pried them apart. She was five at the time. The last time the Israel Defense Forces took her father out of his bed and took him away, she was 12. She remembers that she was sleeping on a mattress on the ground floor – they were afraid to sleep on the upper floor because of IDF snipers – pretending to be asleep, until a soldier kicked her to make her get up.

Suha recalls that she saw her father putting on his shoes. When soldiers came at night and her father put on his shoes, she knew what was going to happen. She burst into tears. Her father tried to calm her – “Halas [enough], sweetie” – and Suha remembers a soldier imitating her father mockingly. She also remembers that they weren’t allowed to open the curtains in the bedroom. Once she did and a sniper’s bullet whistled past her.

The only time Suha was genuinely afraid, she says now, was last summer, when dozens of soldiers swooped into the house in order to present her mother with an order banishing her to Jericho. That night Ghassan was sleeping in his factory in Beit Furik, which manufactures colorful plush toys, and Yafa was in Canada. Khalida and Suha were alone in the house.

Suha: “I was 23 already, and I can’t describe to you how helpless I felt, how frightened and scared I was. I was shaking all over when they came. I was always afraid of the moment when they would come to arrest my mother. At one point I even thought of throwing her off the balcony, because I was so afraid of what would happen to her. I remember telling the soldiers not to touch her cat. I told them that they didn’t have the right even to look at him. He’s so attached to Mom.”

Yafa: “It wasn’t until I studied human rights, in Canada, that I understood that they [IDF forces] had been using us as a human shield for years. They always ordered us to open the doors and closets for them. My Canadian lecturer told me, ‘You were a human shield.’”

The daughters were in Canada – Yafa in Regina, Saskatchewan, Suha in Ottawa – on April 2 when Khalida was arrested. It was evening in Canada and nighttime in Ramallah when Suha’s cellphone rang; it was her father calling, she saw on the screen. She was filled with foreboding. Had her mother been arrested? Maybe the cat had died? Suha took a deep breath and answered: “What happened, Dad?” He replied curtly: “They took Mom.”

Suha, feeling her world had come unraveled, started to tremble.

Yafa was at work in Regina, waitressing. Her boyfriend arrived and said, “They arrested your mother.” It was still April 1 in Saskatchewan, and Yafa was certain that her friend James was pulling her leg.

Last week, Yafa and Suha met in Frankfurt and from there went on to Ramallah. Suha: “We knew it would be hard to come back to a house without Mom. We have a homecoming routine: Dad waits at the bridge [Allenby Bridge, connecting Jordan to the West Bank], Mom cooks our favorite foods at home. Then we get into Dad’s car and call Mom and tell her we’ve crossed the bridge and we’re on the way. We get home and Mom is standing on the balcony, waving to us. Then we go up the stairs and hug and kiss, and give Mom the chocolates from the duty-free shop.

“But this time only posters of her were at the entrance. Mom wasn’t on the balcony and the house was empty. We knew it would be hell. Almost approaching a feeling of mourning or loss. Bitterness and injustice.”

As to the hugs in court, Suha says she knows that prisoners replay such a moment in their mind for a long time, so she didn’t want to cry and get her mom upset. But she couldn’t help herself. Khalida managed to tell her daughters that she’d heard them on the Radio Palestine program in which people dedicate a song to a prisoner. They told her not to worry: Ajwa, the cat, is fine.