Why Has a Play About a Terrorist Shot to the Top of Israel's Agenda?

This week, Walid Daka read the play, based on his letters from prison, that has sparked a political furor. He wonders whether those attacking the play have read it, and why Rabin’s assassin has fathered two children, while he can’t even touch his mother during visits.

Alex Levac

For the first time, this week, Walid Daka received a copy of the play. His wife, Sana, wrapped up the pages of “A Parallel Time” and brought it to him on her visit to the Hadarim detention facility, near Haifa. A 40-minute visit twice a week is allowed, divided by a glass wall, no physical human contact. It’s been more than 15 years since they were married in the prison, and no conjugal visits have been permitted. Thirty years behind bars, without a single day of furlough, without a single phone call to his family allowed, not even when his father lay dying.

This information is of interest to few people in Israel. For the majority, Daka is a despicable Palestinian terrorist with no rights or any semblance of humanity, who murdered Israeli soldier Moshe Tamam in 1984 and – they think – wrote a hate play that must be banned.

In the past few days, the accusation that he tortured the soldier before murdering him has been added to the public indictment against him. Reality and fiction intermingle in propaganda that populist politicians are only too happy to feed on, ranging from Yair Lapid (“We must not fund a play about the life of a terrorist who kidnapped and murdered a soldier”) to Naftali Bennett.

In fact, Daka was convicted of being the commander of the squad that kidnapped and murdered Tamam, but he did not take part in kidnapping, torture or murder. An Israeli citizen, he was supposed to be freed in the fourth round of prisoner releases to which Israel committed itself during negotiations overseen by U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, but which it reneged on at the last minute. If he were a Jew who murdered a Palestinian, or a Jew who murdered a Jew, he would have been released long ago. If he were Yigal Amir, who assassinated a prime minister, he would be allowed conjugal visits with his wife.

But Daka doesn’t fit any of those categories. He is a prisoner from Baka al-Garbiyeh, in northern Israel, and a fine writer, as his letters from prison show. I met him in 2001, in Shata Prison in the Jezreel Valley, and though the fact of the meeting had to remain secret, the intensity of the encounter stayed with me. The meeting took place in the wake of letters he sent me that referred only to the fate of other prisoners, not to his own.

In 2005, with his permission, I published the resonant, impressive letter he wrote to “My dear brother, Abu Omar,” referring to Azmi Bishara, then a Knesset member. That letter is the basis of the play “A Parallel Time,” a production of the Haifa-based Al-Midan Theater and written not by Daka but by the playwright Bashar Murkus, who also directed. The play is about the life of three inmates in an Israeli prison.

“I am starting to count the days of my 20th year in prison,” Daka wrote a decade ago. “In the past I didn’t ask. Time had no meaning for me. It was not important to me how much time had passed, in the broad sense of the word. I was interested only in the minutes that passed quickly during the short visits from my family, the minutes that did not suffice for asking all the questions I had listed on the palm of my hand.

“Here we are not allowed to use a paper and pen during the visits. Memory is our only means. I forget to look at the lines that began years ago to be etched in the face of my mother, forget to look at her hair, which she started to dye with henna to conceal the white, so I won’t ask her real age. And what is her real age? I don’t know how old my mother is. My mother has two ages: her chronological age, which I know, and the age of my imprisonment, the parallel age, which is 19 years.

“I am writing to you from the parallel time. We don’t use your ordinary units of time, like minutes or hours, except during the moments when our time meets your time next to the visitors’ window. Then we are forced to pay attention to those same units of time.

“One of the young participants in the intifada who came to us, told us that many things in your time have changed. Telephones no longer have dials, car tires don’t have inner tubes.

“We have been stuck in parallel time since before the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. We have been here since before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before the first Gulf War, and the second, before Madrid and before Oslo.”

This week he was visited by Sana, his wife, and by Assad, his brother. Walid told them, “I did not murder, kidnap or torture. I was not present at the murder or at the kidnapping, as the media claim. Nor did I write the play; they lied about that, too. When I was tried, there was torture during interrogations that doesn’t occur today, and there was no supervision of the Shin Bet, the way there is today.

“Doesn’t Israel have any other problems?” he continued. “Such as the Palestinian problem, or Iran? Only the play about Walid Daka? And I want to ask: Did anyone among all those who are now on the attack actually see the play? What bothers them – the content or the funding?

“A film about Yigal Amir has been made. Yigal Amir has conjugal visits with his wife and has already fathered two children. And I've not been allowed even to touch my mother. I do not ask for pity or for forgiveness. What I did was a result of a struggle. Everything has changed since then in Israel, I too have changed. But I don’t want to talk about the change, because that might be taken to mean that I have changed my principles. You should talk about matters that are more important and more fateful. I understand the feelings of the Tamam family. But I don’t want to capitulate to the street. I have my principles.”

Assad, whom we met as he emerged from the prison after the visit, told us what his brother had said. We met Assad before, in March 2014, when he was preoccupied with making spectacular preparations to celebrate his brother’s imminent homecoming. The date was set for the following week, and Assad had already bought 200 balloons to be released into the skies above Baka al-Garbiyeh on the day of Walid’s return. The road leading to the family’s home was repaved, the city’s children created a large inscription out of stones: “Hurriya” – freedom. The aged mother, Farida, now 85, wasn’t lucid even then, but Assad has continued to bring her to the prison to visit her other son.

Assad Daka has seen “A Parallel Time” twice and been moved on each occasion. The play was performed for the inhabitants of Baka al-Garbiyeh a few months ago in the theater hall of neighboring Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, and nearly 1,000 attended.

“I don’t understand the opposition to the play,” Assad says. “If it’s the budget, I don’t care. But if it’s the content – if people saw it, they would understand. It’s about how a prisoner spends his time in jail by building an oud, how the time passes outside but not in prison, how Walid writes a letter to his unborn child.”

Sana Daka declined to be interviewed this week. She has despaired of the possibility of being allowed a conjugal visit with her husband before he serves out his full sentence of 37 years. Assad, too, says he has no illusions. Before they left the glass wall, Walid asked about Khader Adnan, the administrative detainee (imprisoned without trial) who has been on a hunger strike for more than 40 days. Sana managed to catch a glimpse of him this week, together with Dr. Anat Matar, from the philosophy department of Tel Aviv University, through the ring of guards at Assaf Harofeh, the medical center in which Adnan is hospitalized, shackled to his bed. Walid and Adnan once shared a cell.

Assad’s coffee house, Café Napoli, in the center of Baka al-Garbiyeh, has expanded since we were last here, but it’s unlikely that its owner has recovered from the devastating disappointment of his brother’s not being released from prison. The walls of the café are still covered with quotes by Walid.

Ten years ago, he wrote, “I could have continued my life as a house painter or a gas-station attendant, as I was doing until my arrest. I could have married a relative at an early age, and she would have borne me seven or 10 children. I could have bought a truck. All this was possible. But I saw the horrors of the Lebanon War and the massacre in Sabra and Chatila, and they shocked me.

“To stop feeling the shock and the trauma; to stop feeling the sadness of human beings, any human beings; insensitivity in the face of horrors, any horrors – that, for me, is a nightmare. That is my measure of surrender.”