I Have No Personal Needs

How does it feel to be released from prison straight into celebrations, conferences and intense courtship by the international media? If you're Tali Fahima, it's like a step in your transformation from a freedom fighter into a celebrity activist.

Tali Fahima ended the first day of her release from prison at a private party that was held in her honor in the evening by left-wing activists who supported her from the moment her name hit the headlines. The small apartment was packed with thrilled people who drank white wine and came to hug, kiss and touch Fahima. For a moment, the place looked like the bustling headquarters of an election campaign. A computer terminal that was hooked up to the Internet offered frequent updates about Fahima, the television positioned in the center of the room broadcast reports about her release, drawing applause and cries of joy, and cameras flashed. Every few minutes Fahima's conversation with one of her ardent supporters was interrupted and a telephone was placed next to her ear accompanied by a whisper - "Tali, the Guardian wants to interview you," "Tali, a call from the Daily Telegraph," "Tali, it's from Jordan TV, what should I say?"

Fahima smiles in surprise and sometimes repeats the name of the international media outlet with obvious amazement, adding "Walla!" and giving herself to the interview. More and more people arrive and it's clear that Fahima doesn't know all of them, but it's important for each person in the room to go over to her and introduce himself, to shake her hand and have his "Fahima moment," the moment in which he achieves a symbiosis with her and becomes her ardent supporter.

She hushes the crowd in order to say a special thanks to the people who are dearest to her: attorney Smadar Ben Natan, Yael Lerer, the actor Juliano Mer Khamis and his 6-year-old daughter, Mili. "Your photograph lit up my cell," she says to the girl.

"I spoke to Zakariya Zubeidi today," Mer Khamis says, smiling, "and I have to tell you, Tali, that I wasn't aware of the depth of your influence on the refugee camp in Jenin. A big celebration was held in your honor in the heart of the camp, in the square, and shots in your honor were even fired in the air - an honor reserved for released Palestinian prisoners."

Fahima laughs: "You know, Jul, what I don't understand is how the Shin Bet [security service] hasn't arrested you, how it is that you're not in jail." Everyone laughs and little Mili says with great earnestness, "We will all go to jail."

I'm a political celeb

On Wednesday, January 3, Tali Fahima was released from Neveh Tirza women's prison after 877 days, or, according to the count of radical left-wing groups, after two years, five months and 26 days. As part of a plea bargain, her prison term was cut by a third, on condition she admit to several offenses.

On the evening of January 4, Fahima and a few of her friends went to a crowded Tel Aviv restaurant, a gay-friendly bastion of the city's social-oriented left, whose daily clientele includes musicians, journalists and artists. That evening, for example, the musicians Shlomo Shaban and Yehudit Ravitz were there, along with most of the staff of "Highway 40," the social-environmental newspaper of the southern town of Mitzpe Ramon. Fahima is the center of attention. The cynical Tel Avivans, excited by her presence, approach her with unabashed admiration, mumble a few confused words and express support. A paparazzi photographer from the weekly entertainment magazine Rating lurks for her as she leaves, the final confirmation that the former security prisoner has become a celebrity. In another minute, the young woman who was accused of treason and generated a wave of hatred, whose very name still causes ripples, might find herself on the list of the most desirable singles in town.

On Friday she is in Jaffa, in Yafa, an Arab-Jewish bookstore and cafe. Her presence is taken as perfectly natural. Every once in a while someone goes over to her table, shakes her hand and congratulates her for her stand. The ritual is repeated in the adjacent grocery store.

How do you reconcile the Tali Fahima who in the eyes of the right is a despised traitor, and who to the left is an iconic freedom-fighter?

"I try not to get into that. In the meantime I haven't yet encountered harsh reactions on the street but the opposite - a great deal of warmth and support. But I know there will be problematic reactions, and that's all right, I'll cope. I think the public understood that the Shin Bet framed me. The public saw that the indictment evaporated and that it was ridiculous and off the wall. And I'll tell you something else: In the past two and a half years, when I was in prison, something has changed in the public. The people don't believe so much in institutions. People already know that what they're told on the news today is not necessarily the truth. They see the behavior of the police in interrogations, the behavior of the Prisons Service and the government, and they understand they are not being told the truth.

"As for the left, I'm happy and proud they call me a freedom fighter. That's a compliment, and I'll channel this popularity into action."

How do you explain the warm embrace of the left?

"The left that is embracing me knows that what happened to me could happen to them. The Shin Bet has always investigated left-wingers. They abduct them, bug them and harass them - that's nothing new. The left understood that each one of them could be the next Tali Fahima, and that this is where the danger to the Israeli society and democracy lies."

What is your connection with Zakariya Zubeidi, the commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Jenin?

"Close friendship; friendship that melts walls."

What do you say about the reports that you and he had an affair?

"You have to understand that Jenin is not a place for having fun, there's no place for a good time. When you're in Jenin, you don't think about love. Jenin is wallowing in disgraceful poverty, in an effort to survive, in war and in struggle. When you're there it's hard to get free of the sights, the smell of death in the air, the children's fear. In Jenin love is a luxury. Who has time for that?

"But I can understand how from here, from Israel, from a society that can go on living its life comfortably despite the occupation, people talk in terms of an affair and love. But you know what? Despite everything, it's marginal to me, the slander that I was supposedly Zubeidi's lover. What is more serious from my viewpoint is that they claimed I was involved in planning a terrorist attack, that I wanted to bring in a bomb, that they alleged that I was a terrorist. That's like giving people a license to kill me."

Under the terms of your release, you are forbidden to leave the country and to make contact with Zubeidi. Will you go to Jenin nevertheless?

"I cannot violate the conditions of my release, but I'll shift the struggle to here. The situation can be changed from here, too. There are others who can go to Jenin." She laughs. "I miss him very much and it's hard for me that I can't talk to him, but I'm in their hearts and they are in mine."

And afterward?

"I'm not allowed to enter there for three years. Who knows - maybe peace will come and we'll all be able to go in without checkpoints and restrictions. Today I'm already aware of the Shin Bet thing, and if necessary I will appeal in court. But maybe I'll be able to persuade Zubeidi to come for a visit? What do you say - will the Shin Bet give him an entry permit?"

From the moment she left prison, Fahima started working, as though she didn't need a moment to herself, to digest the transition from incarceration to freedom. At the beginning of the week, she took part in two conferences, one on the High Court of Justice and the targeted assassinations, the other entitled "Security prisoners or political prisoners?"

What are your plans for the near future?

"I'll join Juliano's Freedom Theatre in Jenin; I'll do fund-raising from here. I want to organize conferences and legal advice for security prisoners and to bring about an investigation of the liquidation of Abu Halifa [Mahmoud Abu Halifa, Zubeidi's deputy, was killed in September 2004, when an Israeli missile struck his car in Jenin]. In the next few days, I intend to hook up with left-wing organizations and associations to work to change Israeli public opinion about the targeted assassinations and to appeal the Supreme Court decision on the subject."

Before changing Israeli public opinion, do you have a place to stay?

"At the moment I'm staying with friends in Jaffa. I'll rent an apartment very soon. I have no personal needs."

And do you have a personal future?

"That's private."

Why do you run away from personal subjects?

"Obviously everyone is motivated by personal interests, but I feel that my private life is moving aside, because I devote the whole day to this activity. There's no fun. Two and a half years ago, I was stopped at a checkpoint just as I was trying to enter Tul Karm. A group of mistarvim [Israeli troops disguised as Arabs] stormed me and shouted 'Jish, jish, army, army,' and arrested me, and I was taken to a Shin Bet interrogation and to detention. From my point of view, I have now left prison and I'm continuing from the same point at which I was arrested. I'm now standing at the entrance, on the threshold of Israeli society, and continuing what I have to do."

Do you sometimes reflect on the path you took?

"I don't look and observe and ask myself where I came from and where I am now. I'm not that kind of person. I don't have that. As I see it, people undergo processes in life, that's natural, there's no reason to wonder about it. There is what lies ahead. I don't look back, only forward."

You yourselves are Arabs

Tali Fahima's journey from the south and from the right wing to Tel Aviv and the radical left remains an unanswered puzzle. She was born in the Negev town of Kiryat Gat 30 years ago to a traditional Mizrahi family - one of Middle Eastern descent. "To this day, I am traditional," she emphasizes. "I very much like the Jewish tradition, the belief and the holidays." Fahima has two sisters, one older and one younger; her parents were divorced when she was seven.

"My father was a drug addict," she says. "I grew up in a single-parent home, with a mother who had to provide for us and also do the housework. But why is that important?" Again she stops, opting for the political over the personal. "That's not important, that's not what took me to Jenin," she says, and then agrees to relate that she went to a regular school and then to a boarding school and served in the Israel Defense Forces as a clerk and afterward as a noncom in the Transportation Corps. After her service she frequently visited New York, where her sister lives.

Were you political as a girl?

"No, definitely not. I was far removed from that. I grew up in a home that was busy surviving. I wasn't occupied with ideology and I had no ambitions to save the world - I didn't have time for that. Politics was a luxury in the home I grew up in. You have to bring food, raise children, there's no time for thoughts like that."

At the age of 23, she moved to Tel Aviv. "I held two jobs for a long time," she says. "I worked as a clerk in a lawyers' office until 4, and at 5 I was on the job as a waitress. After that I focused on the office job: I became the office manager and I didn't need another job. I was ambitious. I wanted to get ahead.

"I came to Tel Aviv with nothing. I moved into an empty apartment and I told myself: Only new things will enter here. My ambition was to save up for law studies, because I was fascinated by that field, and things went pretty well - I kept up an apartment by myself. I had a good life, a life of comfort, with the possibility that the emotional place, which was cluttered with childhood and adolescence, would open up to new horizons."

It was just then, however, that the second intifada erupted and suicide bombers started to blow themselves up in the streets, and Tali Fahima started to become political. "I felt that the fear was paralyzing. That had a powerful effect on me; I had a hard time with the atmosphere. I grew up in a right-wing home where Arabic was spoken - my grandmother watched the news in Arabic and the culture was Arabic, but we hated Arabs. We were afraid of them. My reaction to the suicide bombings was a desire for vengeance - I wanted God to wipe out the Arabs.

"At that time I looked at everything through typical right-wing eyes. They're killing us, we will kill them. But something happened in my life. I felt that reality was infiltrating my life. At work I was exposed to the human rights issue and after work I would go home and watch current events programs obsessively. There was a moment when I started to ask questions to try to understand what made people do such a monstrous thing. I didn't understand why a person would take that attitude toward his life, why he would give up his life, why they were such nullities. It didn't make sense.

"This was where the process began, from my point of view: from the place where I started to take an interest not at the level of left or right, but at the human level. I started to feel that I wasn't getting information from all the television channels, that actually I wasn't able to learn anything about those people. I went to the Internet, to left-wing and Palestinian sites. That was rough. I was sure that what I was seeing there was fabricated, because we don't shoot children."