Israel’s Release of Palestinian Lawmaker Lets Her Forget the Larger Prison for a Moment

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Khalida Jarrar at home after being released from Israeli prison, March 2019.
Khalida Jarrar at home after being released from Israeli prison, March 2019.Credit: Alex Levac

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Khalida Jarrar at around 1 P.M. Sunday to congratulate her on her release from administrative detention – detention without trial – which had lasted 20 months. At his side was his intelligence chief, Majed Faraj, who was actually the first to congratulate her. She responded by congratulating Faraj for his recovery from an illness; he then gave the phone to Abbas, who said that he had “missed her.”

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This is a routine exchange of pleasantries, almost like the American ‘How are you?” – and Jarrar responded as is customary, saying “I missed you too, Abu Mazen,” using Abbas’ nickname. He told her that he and Faraj were on their way to Baghdad, to what official spokesmen would later define as an important meeting with the Iraqi government.

According to reports on several websites, the last time Jarrar and Abbas met, at a meeting of Palestinian leaders in June 2017, she sharply criticized Abbas’ punitive policies toward Gaza. She also assailed the security coordination with Israel.

There were even reports that Abbas was planning to block her participation in leadership meetings, which include the executive committee of the PLO, different factions in the (now formally dispersed) Palestinian Legislative Council and the heads of various organizations. A month later Israel’s Shin Bet security service and the army arrested her at home.

This week, though, both Abbas and Jarrar sounded at ease during their brief exchange. Their conversation took place between Jarrar’s interview with a local TV station, a conversation with Haaretz, a phone call from a senior Fatah member inquiring about a good time to visit, and a short visit from an emotional and teary acquaintance who came to hug Jarrar not knowing there had already been a mass welcoming event.

Based on experience, following a previous incarceration of Khalida and her release in June 2016, Khalida’s husband Ghassan knew that their house would be too small for all the well-wishers. Ahead of her release he rented a hall at Ramallah’s Catholic church for three days, six hours a day, beginning on the day of her release a week ago Thursday.

Several thousand people showed up during those three days. People came in delegations and as individuals, from Hebron and Jerusalem, Jenin and Tul Karm, Haifa and Nazareth, from villages and refugee camps, young and old. There were people with or without political affiliations, people Jarrar knew and many she didn’t. There were celebrities and ordinary folk, former prisoners (“I’m on leave between arrests,” one of them joked), as well as probable future prisoners. Every Palestinian family has experienced a detention or a stint in an Israeli prison by one of its sons or daughters for the crime of opposing the Israeli occupation.

Jarrar shook hands, hugged people, and talked in a relaxed manner with anyone who sat down beside her, as if that person were the only one in the hall. She had her photo taken with anyone requesting a selfie with her, and gave short interviews. Most of all, she laughed and smiled a lot.

“For a long time we haven’t smiled so much or been in such a good mood,” wrote on Facebook a feminist activist who was among the people greeting Jarrar. As another woman put it, “How good it was to meet everyone, and for a change not at a mourning tent.”

Collective depression

The reception was an invitation to taste the flavor of “national unity,” to experience together a sweet moment inseparable from the constant sense of burden experienced alone and together, brought about by a life under foreign rule, a hostile and violent one. This was an opportunity to overcome, for three days, the collective feeling of depression and helplessness caused by internal political, economic and social fissures, setting aside for a short time fears about an escalation of violence by Israel. This was an opportunity to celebrate together a release from a small prison while ignoring for a moment the big cages.

“I’m still confused, I think it will take me two or three months to get used to it,” Jarrar said. At home, too, she was all smiles, laughing with her guests. The laughter was contagious, coming from the heart. Ghassan was busy making coffee or tea, coming in with loaded trays, offering baklava and chocolates, insisting that guests eat, trying to make sure that Ajwa, the orange tabby cat, didn’t run out when the door opened for another guest.

“How is Tamar?” Khalida wanted to know Saturday at the church hall, referring to Israeli lawyer Tamar Peleg.

On Sunday she contacted the 93-year-old Peleg, who since the first intifada and until not very long ago represented hundreds of administrative detainees, including Ghassan Jarrar, Palestinians who were imprisoned by Israel without trial or indictment and with no assumption of innocence. “I won’t forget what you did for the detainees,” Khalida told her. “I think about you a lot and miss you.” This time the “miss you” wasn’t a pleasantry.

Jarrar was first arrested in 1989 for participating in a demonstration on International Women’s Day, March 8. In April 2015 Jarrar was arrested at home and convicted, after a plea bargain, of membership in an illegal organization, of providing forbidden services, and of incitement. She received a 15-month sentence and was released in June 2016.

A year later, in July 2017, soldiers again barged into her home in the middle of the night and arrested her – a member of the suspended Palestinian parliament, an elected representative in a faction named after Abu Ali Mustafa, the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was assassinated by Israel in August 2001. He was replaced by Ahmed Sa’adat, who was convicted of involvement in the assassination of far-right Israeli politician Rehavam Ze’evi in October 2001 and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

When Jarrar was arrested, her interrogator had nothing to ask her; the military prosecution couldn’t even come up with allegations that would allow for a show trial. “I was arrested and don’t know why,” Jarrar said. “Actually, I know that it was for nothing, and that’s scary. Do they expect us to sit at home and say nothing?”

Her father’s death

During the two periods his wife was in prison, Ghassan would say that he bore his own detentions much better than he did Khalida’s. But now she was surprised by the question “did you feel the same way? Was it easier to bear your own imprisonment rather than that of Ghassan?” After a long reflection she said: “I now understand better how difficult prison is. It’s true that I worried about Ghassan when I was in prison, about how he manages alone at home.” Then she laughed her rolling laughter.

The hardest experience in prison was her father Canaan’s death a month and a half after her arrest. That experience – the death of a loved one while you’re in prison – is one shared by thousands of Palestinians.

Jarrar relates how one day she and the prisoners’ representative were called at 5 P.M. to the clinic at Sharon Prison. “I was puzzled. I didn’t have a clue. There was a team of wardens there, one of them Druze, who began by saying the usual words of consolation before telling me about my father, showing me a death certificate sent to the prison by Mahmoud” – attorney Mahmoud Hassan from the Addameer prisoner support rights group that Jarrar headed before being elected to the legislative council.

She continued: “When I returned to my cell, they allowed a few female inmates from other cells to come and take part in my grief. The next day they let me talk by phone to my family, for 20 minutes.”

Her father, who owned a toy store in the center of Nablus, was unwell. The day before her last arrest she visited him in the hospital. Her daughter Suha reminded her this week: “You brought him a pea dish you had cooked.”

Suha asked her what change struck her most when she came out of prison. She immediately replied: the deterioration in the health of her mother, who can now barely walk. Here’s another collective Palestinian experience: Time in prison seems suspended, frozen, only to be rediscovered, once a person is freed, by parents who have aged and children who have grown.

Despite the difficulties of prison life, Khalida took advantage of her time behind bars. She read and studied, but mainly encouraged other female prisoners and detainees to study, read and discuss human rights, women’s rights, prisoner rights, their status in society and discrimination.

It is said that the tradition of studying and reading, practiced by Palestinian security prisoners in the past, has dwindled since the end of the 1990s. In recent years some prisoners have tried to revive it, and Jarrar joined the trend. Last year, on the eve of International Women’s Day, the government of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah revoked several laws discriminating against women; this led her to initiate a celebratory discussion within prison walls. On March 8 they studied the achievements of International Women’s Day.

The parliament Jarrar was elected to in 2006 was suspended most of its tenure, but some of the legislators, mainly belonging to small left-wing parties, including Jarrar, tried various ways to influence the public discourse about social issues such as the Palestinian Authority budget and women’s rights.

In prison, Jarrar made good use of her former sociopolitical experiences. But in prison, she says, she became more closely familiar with social issues such as violence against women, a phenomenon that has driven some women to get arrested on purpose or attempt suicide by brandishing a knife in front of soldiers. “Prison isn’t where you belong or a solution for you,” she told those women. Women released from prison say she was always available, supporting and helping them during crises.

Don’t say you don’t have an opinion,” she would say. She was happy to discover during her last detention term that one of these women, for example, has become more assertive and plans to run in local elections when she gets out of jail. “Living for a long time in close quarters with women from all walks of life and geographic areas, holding conversations with them,” Jarrar told Haaretz, further increased her understanding of “how much these women suffer” under occupation and in Palestinian society.

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