A sugary-sweet photograph of a pair of lovers against a backdrop of the sea. She’s resting her head on his shoulder, he’s holding her hand, they’re both smiling contentedly. Pasted on the photograph is another picture, of a little boy, his eyes looking into the distance, holding a bottle of water to his lips. At the bottom of the photo, an inscription in Arabic: “Despite the distance, our hearts are united.” It’s a photomontage of a moment of happiness that has never been in the real world. Mom, dad and their only son, who have never been together. A father who hasn’t ever met his son, a husband who has only been permitted to be with his wife for a single month. Blame the occupation.
The father is Mohammed Nazal, a 37-year-old Palestinian from the town of Qabatiyah, near Jenin. The mother is Ilham Nazal, a Moroccan woman of 38, born in Oujda, on the border with Algeria, who today lives in France. The boy is Mahmoud Nazal, their son, born in 2016, when his father was in an Israeli prison; Mahmoud has never met his father. The sea in the background is the Dead Sea, photographed from the Jordanian side, during the one month in which the couple managed to be together after their marriage.
Since then they’ve been separated, a family torn apart whose only wish is to live together, be it in France or in Morocco. But Israel has refused to let that happen: Nazal was prevented from leaving the West Bank via Jordan to France, to be united with his family, by order of the Shin Bet security service. He was arrested during a family visit in the West Bank, and since then was classified by the security branches as “internationally denied.” On February 16, the Jerusalem District Court was to deliberate his fate, in the wake of a petition submitted on his behalf by Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual. But on Tuesday of this week – following a query to the spokesperson of the unit for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories – Haaretz was informed that the ban has been lifted and that Nazal will be able to leave the territories and be united with his wife and child when the Allenby Bridge crossing, now closed in the current coronavirus lockdown, reopens.
Mohammed Nazal lives alone in a dank one-room apartment in an old, chilly stone building located in the western quarter of Qabatiyah. He’s utilizing all the internet-based means of communication to stay in daily touch with his wife and son. Daily? It’s every minute, every hour, he says. They know everything that’s happening with him, he knows everything that’s happening with them.
A father who hasn’t ever met his son, a husband who has only been permitted to be with his wife for a single month. Blame the occupation.
“People live together for years and know each other less than I know my wife and son,” he says, as though to console himself. “It’s actually from a distance that things open up. On the phone you have to explain everything in words, more than you explain when you’re together.”
Nazal was born in Jenin 37 years ago, and at 20 left the territories to study in Cairo. He registered for economics but didn’t like it and switched to computer studies. Two years later, in 2007, he returned to Jenin, staying with his parents for four months before returning to Cairo to continue his studies. This time he majored in English literature at the Arab Open University. Afterward he began working in Cairo, selling electronics products. Like many young Palestinians, Mohammed thought he would remain in exile and not return to his homeland to live.
In 2015, he moved from Egypt to Jordan and found a job in a plant nursery. There he had his first real meeting with Ilham, who was visiting Jordan from Morocco with her family. Their relationship had actually begun seven years earlier, via the internet: They wrote to each other and spoke on the phone when Ilham was studying office administration in Paris. Finally they decided to meet in Jordan and marry there; Mohammed’s sisters also arrived from Qabatiyah.
The couple intended to hold a wedding celebration later, in France or in Morocco; they weren't sure where they would live, at that point. The Jordanian bureaucracy didn’t make their marriage easier, demanding a slew of documents. In the end, though, they were wed, in December 2015. After the wedding, and a month's honeymoon in Jordan, Ilham returned to her apartment in France, intending to wait for Mohammed to join her.
On January 27, 2016, Mohammed’s life turned upside-down. Before heading off to France and embarking on his new life, he decided to visit his family in the West Bank – where he had not been since 2007. At the Allenby Bridge, he was pulled aside an Israeli security official and told to wait. After several hours, he was taken to an interview room, where he was informed that he was under arrest. No one would tell him why, he recalls, saying that he was in a state of shock. He describes the process of his detention down to minute details, how he was handcuffed and taken away, and in the end found himself being interrogated by the Shin Bet for 40 consecutive days in an Ashkelon facility.
His interrogators claimed that during his studies in Cairo he had assisted the Mujahideen Brigades, the military wing of the Mujahideen organization in the Gaza Strip and one of several different militias there, including those affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Shin Bet accused him of having engaged in arms smuggling from Libya to Egypt and from there to Gaza, and of recruiting activists for the Brigades. Nazal denied the charges outright. His roommate in the students’ apartment in Cairo had been active in the organization – something he had discovered only later, he says – and he had sold him civilian electronic equipment, such as computers and tablets, as part of his work in sales, but that was totally unconnected with the activity of the militant organization.
Mohammed Nazal was sentenced to 20 months in prison, which he served in full, first in Megiddo Prison and afterward in the Ketziot facility in the Negev desert.
Throughout the entire period, he did not see his wife, who had become pregnant while they were together in Jordan. On one occasion she was given permission to come to Israel to visit him for 45 minutes, after which she would have to return immediately to France – but Nazal was against it. He was convinced that they would be together in a few months in any case. Mahmoud was born in France on September 18, 2016. On August 22, 2017, his father was released from prison and went to visit his family in Qabatiyah, almost two years after the original plan.
After spending a few weeks with his family, Nazal decided he would leave the West Bank for France, to join his wife and son. But he was turned back at the Allenby Bridge: This time he was denied departure from the territories. He tried to leave three more times and was turned back every time. His world fell apart, though it’s hard to see that on the face of this smiling, optimistic man who seems to be totally devoid of bitterness, hatred or anger at what was done to him. The last time he went to the bridge he was told, “Don’t come back here again.”
Nazal thus became a prisoner of Zion. He turned to several Palestinian human rights organizations, but they weren’t able to help him. He then approached Hamoked, in Jerusalem, which decided to muster its resources on his behalf and back his struggle to be free. A few days ago, Maisa Abu Saleh-Abu Akar, an attorney from the NGO’s legal department, filed a petition on Nazal’s behalf with the Jerusalem District Court, in its capacity as an administrative affairs court. Hamoked took this step after failing to get a direct response – or at best getting only partial and evasive replies – from the Israeli Civil Administration in the territories. The 10-page petition detailed the grounds for allowing Nazal to exercise his basic right to leave the territories and be united with his family, and provided a record of all the requests the NGO had made on his behalf but had gone unanswered.
“Submitted herein is an administrative petition requesting the court to order the respondent to give grounds for not replying to the petitioners’ requests with the obligatory speed and why the respondent should not allow the petitioner’s departure from the West Bank to Jordan via the Allenby Bridge and from there to France, so that he can be united with his wife and his son, who reside there,” the petition states.
On Tuesday, Haaretz sent a query to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. Within a few hours a reply was received from a spokesperson: “The denial of the resident’s departure abroad was rescinded by the relevant security bodies. When a decision to open the Allenby Bridge is announced, said resident will be able to apply to the relevant authorities in Jordan to coordinate his departure.”
Hamoked’s executive director, Jessica Montell, stated in response to the decision: “Every year Hamoked handles hundreds of cases of refusal to allow Palestinians to go abroad. In 70 percent of the cases the army lifts the refusal upon the submission of a court petition. This attests to the arbitrariness of the apparatus of these denials. We are pleased that Mohammed will finally be able to meet his wife and his son, but it’s infuriating that he was denied this for four years and that it was made possible only after the submission of a third petition to the court.”
Nazal reacted with restraint, as though he didn’t believe it, when we called to give him the news. The Allenby Bridge was closed this week, as are all of Israel’s points of entry, but when it reopens, after the end of the current lockdown, he will be able to go free and be united with his wife and son. We made a date to meet again in Morocco.