The Rights and Wrongs of an Incarcerated Hamas Man

Jamal Abu al-Haija has been denied visitors for 12 years, from all but one daughter. Now his sick wife wants to visit him.

It’s been more than 10 years since my last visit to this house on the slopes of the Jenin refugee camp. The children have grown up; some have become prisoners. Their mother, who was also in prison for a time, is still suffering from a brain tumor.

The house, wrecked by a missile fired at it by an Israeli Apache helicopter in 2002, has been rebuilt. The birds in the cage are chirping once more. And the father of the family, Sheikh Jamal Abu al-Haija, formerly the head of Hamas in the camp, is still, of course, incarcerated in an Israeli prison. Having served 12 years of a sentence of nine life terms, he has some way to go along the path to freedom.

In June 2003, when I first visited this house, five of the family's six children were facing their fate alone. Their father had been convicted of involvement in a 2002 terror attack in which nine people were killed. The eldest son, Abed, had been sentenced to 87 months in prison for his military activity in Hamas. And the mother, Asmaa, was placed in administrative detention (arrest without trial). She spent nine months in prison, all the while suffering from a brain tumor; she was not given the right even to phone her children, who remained alone at home. “Children of Hamas, but still children,” I wrote at the time.

Ten years later, Asmaa’s condition has not improved, though she has had two operations. Abed is back in jail, awaiting another trial. Amad, one of his younger brothers, was arrested a month ago. Assam is wanted by the Palestinian Authority, and Hamzi, who was 11 when I was here last, and is now learning the hair-styling trade, is wanted by Israel.

On December 18, 2013, Israel Defense Forces soldiers came to arrest Hamzi. He managed to escape but his friend, Nafaa Saidi, was shot and killed by the soldiers from the roof of the house in which we are now sitting. Now 21, Hamzi hasn’t been sleeping at home, for fear the soldiers will return to arrest him, but he joins us now for a conversation in the living room.

It’s not clear what he’s wanted for, or how high a priority it is to arrest him: The IDF has not been back since the deadly incident last December. Two weeks ago, however, Hamzi received a phone call from a Shin Bet security service officer who said his name was Shalom.

“I will soon come to take you,” he told Hamzi. “We need to finish the story between us.”

When the soldiers arrived to arrest Hamzi last December, he and three friends were in this living room, eating knafe (a sweet cheese pastry) in celebration of the birth of a nephew. The rest of the family was visiting the new mother and the newborn in the hospital. At first the four young people present thought a PA force had arrived to arrest Hamzi, and they ran up to the roof. They then discovered that it was the IDF. Nafaa was killed, the others got away.

But the chief preoccupation of the members of this Hamas household now is Asmaa’s dream to visit her incarcerated husband at least once. It’s been 12 years since she last saw him, during his trial at Ofer Prison, near Ramallah. The last time she submitted a request to visit him, through the International Red Cross, she received the following reply, she says: “Don’t ask again. You don’t have a chance of receiving a visiting permit.”

Hardly anyone else in the family has been allowed to visit either – not Abu al-Haija’s wife or his sons, or one of his two daughters. Only the youngest daughter, Sajida, 17, is occasionally allowed to visit him in Eshel Prison, in the Negev. The last such occasion was about four months ago.

Hamzi hasn’t seen his father since his arrest and has only a vague recollection of him. Jamal was kept in isolation for eight years, a period in which he was not allowed any visitors at all. His son Abed was imprisoned with him for a short time, but were separated. Jamal’s daughter Benan, now a lawyer, is denied the right to visit her father, perhaps because she was once arrested herself, in 2007, and detained for 23 days.

Asmaa, a cordial woman, betrays no outward signs of her physical suffering. A recent diagnosis by a radiologist, Dr. Jamal Sofan, found that she has “large bifrontal encephalomalacia,” referring to a softening or loss of brain tissue. Ten years ago, Prof. Shlomo Melamed, the director of the glaucoma center at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer – who examined Asmaa on behalf of Physicians for Human Rights – found that she had lost her sight in her left eye and was suffering from severe headaches, dizzy spells and nausea. She is now being treated in a Nablus hospital, after having been refused permission to get treatment in Israel or Jordan.

Her home, Asmaa says, is now refuge for “Hamas retirees.” Last August, a neighbor, Majed Lahlouh, 20, a third-year student, was killed on the way home from his job as a bartender at the local Tropicana café, when he got caught up in an incident in which youngsters were throwing stones at an IDF unit that had come to arrest a wanted person affiliated with the Islamic Jihad.

Little has changed in this hardscrabble place since I was here to document the circumstances of Lahlouh’s killing, except that a house was burned down in the course of a family feud.

Jenin refugee camp is one of the toughest and poorest in the territories, and always has been. While the city of Jenin is experiencing relative economic prosperity – Israeli Arabs are now permitted to enter the city, and even parking meters have been installed in the streets – the camp is still the same: militant, defiant, conflicted, violent, dangerous, jobless and armed to the teeth. Palestinian Authority security forces don’t dare enter it, but the IDF conducts raids in its alleyways every few nights. Recently, a popular committee made up of representatives of all the organizations in the camp was established, and as a result the residents' situation has improved slightly.

What hasn’t improved is the situation of Abu al-Haija’s rights. Isn’t even a Hamas man who was involved in a suicide attack entitled to the basic right of family visits? Isn’t his sick wife entitled to visit him? And his children? Abu al-Haija is not the only Palestinian prisoner who has been deprived of visiting rights for years. This is how Israel treats all security prisoners from the Gaza Strip and a large number of those from the West Bank, too.

Israel Prison Service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman stated, in response to an inquiry from Haaretz: “The prisoner receives visits from his family members regularly. The IPS has not examined the question of a visit by his wife, because the prisoner has not submitted any such request. If a request is submitted, it will be considered in the usual way, according to the procedures.”

Alex Levac