Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth - www.jonathan-cook.net

The forgotten prisoners

Al-Ahram Weekly – 14 August 2003

Early one morning two years ago, as the fields below the small hilltop town of Deir Hanna in the central Galilee soaked up the dawn light, Diana Hussein’s life changed for ever. Woken by violent knocking at the front door, the 43- year-old school nutritionist found several dozen armed Israeli police surrounding her house. They were looking for her 16-year-old son Rabiah, asleep inside.
 
For an hour and a half, five men searched his bedroom, looking through photos, opening up his collection of radios, confiscating his Umm Kulthoum tapes and trawling through files on his computer. All they found of note was a screensaver that read “Rabiah Saleh Hussein from Deir Hanna in occupied Galilee”, a reference to the capture of the Galilee in the 1948 war that founded Israel.
 
The computer and Rabiah’s other possessions were bagged up and taken from the house. The boy was arrested, his parents told only that he was wanted on “security matters”.
 
The next day, on 2 September 2001, the family’s lawyer heard the charges against him. He and a schoolfriend were accused of planting a plastic bag on 31 August 2001 at a road junction where soldiers congregate. The bag was safely detonated in a controlled explosion by the army.
 
According to the charge sheet, the two schoolboys were recruited by Fatah activists in the West Bank city of Jenin, 40km south of Rabiah’s home. The Palestinian who talked them into the attack, says Diana, was subsequently revealed as a collaborator with the Israeli security services.
 
Two years later Rabiah, dubbed leader of a “teenage terror gang” by the Israeli media, is in Ashkelon Prison serving nine years as a security prisoner — along with more than 6,000 other Palestinian political prisoners in jails and detention centres across Israel and the occupied territories.
 
But unlike the other detainees, Rabiah’s name, and the names of a further 110 Palestinian security prisoners who are also Israeli citizens, have not been included in official Palestinian demands for prisoner releases.
 
Also left off the Palestinian lists are almost all of the 361 imprisoned children under 18, including some 80 girls, says Diana, who is now active in the Committee for Political Prisoners, an Israeli group lobbying for the rights of security prisoners.
 
According to figures published by Defence of Children International, only 13 children were released last week — and this only because it suited Israel’s purposes. All but one were due to be released within days or weeks.
 
In the end 334 security prisoners were freed last Wednesday, much to the anger of the Palestinian leadership, which had been hoping for signs of far more good will from Israel.
 
But the plight of jailed Israeli Arabs, as the community of one million Palestinian citizens is known by both Israelis and Palestinians, is hardly a pressing concern for either side.
 
With the hudna growing increasingly shakey, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is primarily concerned with shoring up support among the main militant groups — Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — as they demand to see some concrete results in return for their restraint. He has been pressing for figures in these groups to be freed.
 
And the Israeli government, far from wanting to reassure Arab citizens of its best intentions, has been waging a relentless campaign of incitement and intimidation against them since the outbreak of the Intifada.
 
It has been putting their political leaders on trial and publicising any link it can make between the community and Palestinian terror. A fortnight ago the police even staged a very public arrest of the leaders of a children’s summer camp in the Galilean village of Kabul, accusing the organisers of inciting against Israel. Last week, and unreported by the Israeli media, the charges were rejected by a court in Akka.
 
In the current climate, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sees no obvious benefit from showing compassion to Israeli Arab prisoners, even to those — in the much vaunted phrase of his right-wingers — with “no Jewish blood on their hands”.
 
Diana says she is angry that Israeli Arabs, particularly impressionable youngsters like her son, have been used as pawns by both the Palestinians and Israelis in their national struggles and that neither side is now willing to take responsibility for them.
 
True, she admits, the Palestinian leadership has never officially sanctioned the involvement of Israeli Arabs in the armed struggle, but in practice militant factions, particularly those in West Bank towns like Jenin close to the Green Line, the pre-1967 border, have been recruiting youngsters.
 
Last Sunday she travelled to Ramallah to see the Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, along with Knesset member Azmi Bishara and 60 other Israeli parents, to urge him to include the Israeli Arab prisoners on the Palestinian Authority’s lists.
 
But their meeting with Arafat — like previous talks with Abbas and the prisoners minister, Hisham Abdul-Razeq — failed to bring results. Arafat politely said it was not possible, adding that Israel in freeing some 80 criminals this week as part of the release had shown it had no good will on the issue.
 
“The Palestinian leadership has abandoned my son and the others,” she said. “Their release doesn’t serve anyone’s interests, only justice, so they are ignored.”
 
At his trial in July 2002 Rabiah and his friend, both juveniles, were found guilty of placing explosives at the Golani Junction and received nine years each. Three other boys, who Diana alleges had merely expressed sympathy with the Palestinian cause to Rabiah, were each sentenced to several months.
 
Diana is still shocked by her son’s involvement. A quiet, intelligent boy who was doing well at school, he had no history of political activity or criminal behaviour. She says his participation in such an attack can only be understood in terms of what has been happening to Palestinians, both inside the country and in the West Bank and Gaza, in the past three years.
 
“Rabiah was profoundly troubled by the events of October 2000,” she says, referring to the shooting dead of 13 unarmed Palestinian citizens by the Israeli police in the Galilee during protests at the start of the Intifada.
 
“He was in the same class as Asil Asleh [a peace activist and one of two boys shot dead in the neighbouring town of Arrabeh]. Although Rabiah didn’t participate in the protests, he watched from the garden, using binoculars to see what was happening in the fields below. He even saw Asil being shot.”
 
Diana thinks that privately Rabiah started to make the link between the way Israel’s Palestinian citizens were treated by the police and the way Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were being treated by the army. “Maybe those events reinforced the sense of how Palestinian he was — not just in his own eyes but in the eyes of the state.”
 
The circumstances in which Rabiah was recruited to the armed struggle, however, make the normally calm Diana visibly angry.
 
The family befriended a 22-year-old man from Jenin, Ahmed Salam, one of many itinerant Palestinian workers who move between the West Bank and Arab villages and towns in northern Israel, selling small items or doing odd jobs.
 
Although Salam hung around Deir Hanna, he had no family or place to live. So Diana and her husband, Saleh, let him stay next door, in the home of Saleh’s late father. Rabiah would often take Salam food or coffee.
 
Although Salam told everyone he was a student at the University of Jenin, he was in fact a double agent, says Diana, both recruiting local youngsters for Fatah and informing the Israeli security services of what was going on in the area.
 
Unknowingly, Rabiah and his friends were being lured into a trap set for them by Salam, a man in the pay of both Fatah and the Israeli Shin Bet.
 
During their many evenings together Salam said that if Rabiah wanted to help his people he could arrange for him to meet with Fatah leaders in Jenin. On 30 August Rabiah collected a plastic bag filled with explosives and took it to the Golani Junction.
 
Salam disappeared the next day. Diana says he fled back to Jenin, but not before apparently telling his Israeli handlers who had planted the bomb.
 
“Rabiah’s bomb hurt no one, he has no Jewish blood on his hands. As an impressionable youngster who was failed by Fatah and by his own state he ought to be high on the list of those to be released. Yet no one is even considering freeing him.”

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