Struggling to Explain the Palestinian Prison Escape to My Child

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The statue of Nelson Mandela in Ramallah, which was given as a gift by the city of Johannesberg.
The statue of Nelson Mandela in Ramallah, which was given as a gift by the city of Johannesberg.Credit: Umm Forat
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Umm Forat

I’m an Israeli-American lawyer, Jewish, married to a Palestinian resident of Ramallah, and author of the Hebrew-language book “Maqluba – Upside-Down Love,” which describes how we met and fell in love. This blog is about raising our two children, 7-year-old Forat and 3-year-old Adam, in the West Bank and more recently in the United States, where we’re spending a sabbatical year.

We are trying to lead ordinary lives in an extraordinary and unforgiving reality, one that I will share with you. I have changed people’s names to protect their privacy. My real name is Sari Bashi, and I’ve been writing this blog since 2019 under the pen name Umm Forat, which means Mother of Forat in Arabic. I invite you to visit my website: www.ummforat.com.

“Ima, are you happy that they escaped?” Forat asked me. It was a Monday morning, the eve of the Jewish new year. I awoke to the news that six Palestinian prisoners had escaped from Israel’s Gilboa prison. When I returned from my morning run, I updated my partner, Osama, who had awoken with our children, seven year-old Forat and three-and-a-half year-old Adam. We compared versions from the Israeli and Palestinian media, each describing a different event: an act of heroism by freedom fighters, according to Palestinian journalists, and a menacing threat by dangerous terrorists, according to Israeli journalists.

Forat knew about prisoners and prisons from the years we lived in Johannesburg. As a toddler, she played in the fountain installed at the feet of a huge statue of Nelson Mandela, among the founders of the African National Congress’s military wing, who was convicted of terrorism and spent 27 years in prison. When we returned to the West Bank, a smaller statue of Mandela had been installed in the residential neighborhood of Tireh in Ramallah, a gift from the city of Johannesburg. Forat played there too, riding her scooter and climbing on Mandela’s feet. At her school in North Carolina, where we are living temporarily, she learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and the letters he wrote from prisons. And now she’s reading a book about Harriet Tubman, a Black woman who escaped slavery in the years preceding the American Civil War and returned to the South multiple times to free other people, constantly on the run from police enforcing the laws of slavery.

Osama and I do not, to say the least, identify with the principles of the Islamic Jihad movement, to which five of the six escaped prisoners belong. I recognize the context in which the movement is operating, of resistance to a violent occupation, under circumstances in which the Israeli authorities suppress all resistance – violent or peaceful. Forat wanted me to interpret the prisoners’ escape for her, but I didn’t know what to say.

“Ask Baba,” I told her.

Harriet Tubman.Credit: H.B. Lindsley,AP

“Baba, are you happy they escaped?” Forat asked.

Osama hesitated, looked at her and then answered: “Yes. That doesn’t mean I agree with what some of them did, but yes. It gives hope.”

“What did they do?” Forat asked.

“They did a lot of things, but they resisted the occupation,” I told her, and I added the word in Arabic, il-ihtilalal. Still, she asked me what occupation is.

“Those people who don’t want to share, the ones who stand at checkpoints and don’t let Baba pass,” I told her.

“And you don’t agree with that, right?”

“Right, sweetheart. And the political prisoners who fled the prison also don’t agree and fought against the occupation, even though they used means that Ima and Baba don’t agree with.”

Osama was riveted to his telephone, reading the news with excitement. “For so many years, we haven’t dared, we haven’t tried to resist,” he said. “And here – they took initiative. They got up and did something. And for a change, there’s solidarity, support, because every Palestinian family knows what it’s like to lose a son to prison.”

“Are you happy, too, Ima?” Forat asked.

“I’m afraid for them,” I told Forat, still trying to decipher my feelings. “All the soldiers and police officers are looking for them, and there’s nowhere to run.”

“Like Harriet Tubman?” Forat asked.

“Yes,” I told her. “But there’s no safe North for them to reach.”

Israeli Border Police searching for the escaped prisoners, earlier this month.Credit: Gil Eliahu

‘Do you also oppose the occupation?’

Four days later, I awoke to the news that two of the prisoners had been captured. Osama and Forat joined me in the kitchen. I put a hand on Osama’s shoulder and updated him.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” I said to him.

“Ima, are you sad that they were captured?” Forat asked me.

“I think so, sweetheart.”

“Why?”

“Because too few people are willing to put themselves at risk, in order to resist the occupation.” I felt the power of Israeli control over Palestinians, and the fragmented, fragile nature of the resistance to that control.

“Baba, do you also oppose the occupation?” Forat asked.

“Yes, habibti,” Osama answered. He has never told her about his participation in the First Intifada: The flyers he distributed to coordinate labor and commercial strikes, the baskets of food he brought to families whose livelihoods were interrupted, the classes he taught children, during the periods in which the army closed the schools, and also – the stones he threw in the direction of the soldiers controlling, or trying to control, his refugee camp. Since then, Osama has channeled his resistance into his research and teaching at the university, trying to arouse critical thinking among students who were born after the 1993 Oslo accords, after the Palestine Liberation Organization abandoned its liberation work in favor of local governance and coordination with the Israeli authorities.

I wanted Forat to know all that and to be proud of her father. I wanted her to know that her parents are searching anew for ways to resist the occupation, in the current reality of despair and fragmentation.

A court hearing on extending the remand of the escaped prisoners in Nazareth, last week.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Struggling to write

Days passed, and Israeli security forces caught the other four prisoners, too. I struggled to write this post. I anticipated the reactions of readers who see the prisoners as “terrorists” and nothing more, just as whites in South Africa considered Nelson Mandela to be a terrorist. I also struggled to clarify, for Forat, an explanation of the meaning of their escape, which apparently did not include a plan for what to do after they left prison.

One of the prisoners, Mohammad al-Ardah, who has been in prison for 19 years, since he was 20 years-old, described the escape in simple terms: He sat in a thicket and ate prickly pears, he wanted to get to know the Galilee and maybe reach his mother in the West Bank city of Jenin.

Osama always says he hopes that Forat will grow up to be on the side of the oppressed, whoever they are. I still don’t know how to interpret the prisoners’ escape for Forat, but at the very least, I hope she’ll grow up to identify with their longing for freedom.

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