Freed From Israeli Prison, Khalida Jarrar Is Mourning Her Daughter but Won't Stop Speaking Out Against the Occupation

Upon her release from prison last week, Palestinian legislator Khalida Jarrar visited the grave of her daughter, whose funeral Israel barred her from attending. ‘They think we have no feelings, that we are not human beings,’ she says

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A photo of Khalida Jarrar hugging her deceased daughter Suha, in the family’s home in El Bireh.
A photo of Khalida Jarrar hugging her deceased daughter Suha, in the family’s home in El Bireh.Credit: Alex Levac

A Nissan Juke straight out of the wrapper. Ghassan Jarrar bought the car three months ago for his daughter Suha. The subcompact SUV was driven 198 kilometers (123 miles) before Suha died suddenly, this past July, at the age of 31. Now her mother, Khalida, will drive it, following her release from prison last week. She was incarcerated for two years for “holding office in an illegal association” – this in a land where any organization, if it’s formed by Palestinians, is illegal.

Still grieving for her daughter, Khalida was driven last Sunday directly from Damon Prison on Mount Carmel to Suha’s grave, while the new car remained parked next to the family’s home in El Bireh, adjacent to Ramallah, a sad memento of the deceased daughter.

Israel displayed the full scale of its hardheartedness by not allowing Khalida Jarrar, a member of the Palestinian National Assembly and a political prisoner in every sense, to attend Suha’s funeral. At the time, she had two-and-a-half months left in her prison term, which she served in full, with no reduction. When we visited this week, she was sitting on the second floor of the family’s handsome stone house. Ghassan, as always, enveloped her with infinite warmth and love. Yafa, Suha’s sister and the couple’s only other child, had arrived from her home in Canada together with her husband, James Hutt, so they are finally able to mourn their tragedy together.

Suha had suffered from problems in her digestive tract. On the day of her death, July 11, Yafa, who worried constantly about her sister’s health, had called her from Ottawa. When she got no response, Yafa quickly called a neighbor in El Bireh, who broke into the family’s house. Suha was in bed, lifeless. Her father was at work in Jenin, her mother was in prison. A postmortem, found that she had died of septic shock, caused by a perforated ulcer and the spread of fluid in the abdominal cavity. The ordeals of her mother, to whom Suha was very attached, certainly did nothing to improve her health.

Four times the young woman was present when soldiers burst into their home in the dead of night to arrest her mother. Khalida Jarrar was jailed four times during the past few years. On the last occasion she was imprisoned, it was eight months after her release from a 20-month incarceration without a trial. This time, she was accused of being active in the political arm of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Right-wing circles in Israel successfully spread the lie – originally started by the Shin Bet security service – that Jarrar was involved in the August 2019 murder of Rina Shnerb, from the settlement of Dolev. However, that was completely groundless, and there is no mention of it in her indictment.

Khalida Jarrar with her daughter Yafa.Credit: Alex Levac

Jarrar emerged from prison in elegant black attire. Now, at home, she is also dressed in black – T-shirt, pants and face mask – lending her the look of a young girl. She lost weight in prison, though nothing of her spirit. At 58, she has spend almost five years of her life in Israeli prisons. She suffers from several illnesses, and during her last imprisonment alone, she was taken three times to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa for tests. Each time, her hands and feet were shackled, but she says she received all her medications in prison.

Her biggest complaints relate to the decrepit situation at Damon Prison – where the showers are not in the rooms, which makes things very difficult for the 36 Palestinian women incarcerated there – and to the fact that the prison canteen stopped selling radios; visits during the coronavirus crisis were stopped; it was impossible to phone home; and also to what she calls the “detention of books.” Books she had initially been permitted to read were confiscated by the guards. “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,” by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, in Arabic translation, was taken away. Incitement. Dictionaries were banned, too. More incitement. Also taken was Antonio Gramsci’s “Prison Notebooks,” though it was later returned with a different cover. Now the anti-fascist Italian thinker is in an Israeli prison.

On July 9, a Friday, Jarrar’s two daughters took part in a program for prisoners broadcast on Palestinian radio. In this weekly program, family members of the thousands of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, who are prevented from speaking with their loved ones, and sometimes also from visiting them, call the station and direct their comments to the inmates. Yafa and Suha were regular participants, Yafa via Skype from Ottawa, Suha from Ramallah. Their mother tuned in every week.

On the last Friday of her life Suha did very little talking and quickly yielded the floor to Yafa, who as always had prepared a detailed written text for her mother. No one knew that this would be the last time that Khalida would hear the voice of her daughter, who apparently was already feeling unwell. The last time Khalida saw Suha was in February 2020, via video, in the courtroom, and the last time she hugged her was on the day of her arrest: October 31, 2019. Suha was scheduled to visit her mother in prison on August 4, but by then she was no longer alive.

On the morning of July 11, Jarrar was listening to the radio, a regular habit. The radio is almost the prisoners’ only connection to the outside world. She was tuned to a current events program on Wattan FM, which broadcasts from Ramallah. At 8:40, shortly before the end of the program, the anchor stopped the discussion and said, “From here we send our condolences to Khalida Jarrar, on the death of her daughter.” Darkness abruptly descended on her. She was stupefied. All the inmates gathered around her. In the first moments she was torn between the faint hope that the announcement was a mistake and the awareness that it was apparently true.

Khalida Jarrar visits the grave of her daughter at the Ramallah city cemetery on September 26, 2021, following her release from an Israeli prison.Credit: ABBAS MOMANI - AFP

“I believed it and I didn’t believe it,” Jarrar recalled this week. By the time her three lawyers arrived, a short time later, having been sent by the family to convey the news, she already knew the awful truth.

A public campaign was launched for her release to attend the funeral, but Jarrar held out few hopes. She knows the authorities, she says, and many Palestinian prisoners have been barred from attending funerals of their closest relatives – indeed she too had not been allowed to attend her father’s funeral, so why would they let her now?

Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev (Labor) has said he tried to help her but was unsuccessful. As for the Israel Prison Service, no one expected anything from them, not even in light of the fact that Jarrar’s release from prison was approaching.

“That is the attitude,” she said this week. “I don’t think they see us as human beings. They don’t think we have feelings. It’s part of our punishment and it is a very wicked punishment. Lacking any humanity.”

She knew that under the circumstances on that fateful day, she was permitted to make one phone call. At 8 P.M. guards told her that she had the right to a call and asked her whether she wanted to make it in the evening or the morning. She wanted to call immediately, of course. She was told she had 10 minutes to speak with Ghassan. She thinks they spoke for 14 minutes, but he corrects her now: 17 minutes and seven seconds, exactly. He checked. A few days later the prison authorities also agreed to let her talk to Yafa, who was then on a beach in Canada that Suha loved. The two sisters were very close.

The bereaved family: Khalida and Ghassan Jarrar flanking their daughter Yafa and her husband James Hutt. Credit: Alex Levac

A memorial prayer service for Suha was held in Damon Prison, and similar prayers were held in all the facilities where Palestinians are incarcerated. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal called to offer their condolences. Two representatives of the 58 Palestinian minors who are also incarcerated in Damon were allowed to pay her a condolence visit, which moved her deeply. Sometimes they shouted to her from behind the cell walls.

A year earlier, on Khalida’s birthday, her fellow inmates prepared a present for her. Without her knowledge, they took photographs of Yafa and Suha from her shelves, wrapped them in aluminum foil that they removed from the disposable food packaging used for the special meals of the diabetic prisoners, and presented her with the photos of her two daughters on a silver background. Now, she retrieves the pictures to show a visitor. A gift was also once made for Ajawi, a 7-year-old cat with thick brown fur that belonged to Suha. The women made a gray wool doll with a cat’s face that a released prisoner brought to the family’s home. Ajawi is now sprawled on an armchair, waiting for Suha, who will never come back.

Khalida Jarrar, as impressive as ever, did not crack. Only once during our conversation did she break into tears, when we talked about the potatoes that “Susi” liked to prepare for her father. Ghassan quickly embraced his wife and gave her tissues. When we asked her later if she would continue with her political activity, Ghassan leaped in with the answer ahead of her: “There’s no question about that.”

To which Khalida added, “I have started to teach at Bir Zeit University [near Ramallah] and I have started to write about the prisoners from the political aspect. They say that is politics. I am a legislator who represents my people. And my people lives under occupation. I am part of a people that lives under a colonialist regime. Is there any people that accepts its occupiers? This is what I have always done. I spoke about the occupation and its crimes against my people. No one should evade punishment in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and no occupied people has accepted its occupier. I will continue to talk about these subjects, because that is my credo. They know that I have no connection with the murder of the settler. They only wanted to incite against me.”

Ghassan asks to add: “During the eight months [between the two incarcerations] in which Khalida was free, she changed her life. She devoted her time to teaching at Bir-Zeit, and they know that. But they don’t want Khalida on the outside. They needed a victim after Ein Bubin [where Rina Shnerb was murdered]. They had to placate the settlers.”

The guests are given a photograph of Suha on a plastic stand, with the words “I loved you, I will remember you” inscribed on it. When will you be arrested again? Khalida Jarrar: “With an occupation like this, there’s no way to know. But even so I ask: How can they not be ashamed? How can they not be ashamed? And when you’re not ashamed, you can do anything.”

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