Selected writing: Middle East

Can Iran’s young ring the changes?

June 7, 2009

As a crucial election looms, young Iranians are once again standing up against a repressive and brutal regime

Four layers of curtains prevented Havva from ever seeing out of the window of the small apartment in an affluent neighbourhood of central Tehran that she once shared with her husband and young daughter. More importantly, as far as her husband was concerned, the thick folds of material ensured nobody could ever see in to catch sight of her — even though their apartment was on the second floor and overlooked only by a tall willow tree.

Not once in nine years of marriage was Havva allowed to pull those curtains back.

When I ask Havva gently what drove her to finally try to take her own life, she wrings her hands, revealing scars on her wrists. Over a period of four months she made numerous suicide attempts. The first were undoubtedly cries for help. The final time she thought she had ensured success by swallowing 140 tranquillisers and barricading herself in her home. But a last-minute call to a relative to say goodbye raised the alarm. Emergency services broke in, and she was rushed to hospital, where she remained on life support in a coma for several days. “There was no one incident that pushed me to do this, just very heavy pressure for a long time until I understood I couldn’t take it any longer,” says Havva, a strikingly beautiful 31-year-old who asks to be identified only by this pseudonym (meaning “Eve” in Farsi), since she comes from a rich and prominent Iranian family. “All my dreams were destroyed when I married at 17. There was no light, no hope in the way I was forced to live,” she says. She talks in a low voice of how she could never leave the house without her husband’s permission, nor make friends, work or resist him forcing himself on her several times a day. “But it is the traditional way. I thought that was all there was.”

Havva’s experience is far from unusual in modern-day Iran. Despite some advances in women’s rights over the past decade, and the fact that 60% of the country’s university graduates are now female, legally and socially women are still considered far inferior to men. In the words of the lawyer Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel peace prize, “criminal laws adopted after the revolution took away a woman’s human identity and turned her into an incapable and mentally deranged second-class being”.

When Havva refers again to the curtains that she felt symbolised the crushing restrictions imposed on her by her marriage, the apartment feels claustrophobic and suffocating. It’s an all-too-common feeling in Iran today. As the country sits on the cusp of what many regard as the most significant presidential election since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini deposed Reza Shah Pahlavi from his Peacock throne at the start of the Islamic revolution 30 years ago, denouncing westernisation and ordering every woman to cover herself with the chador, there is wide acknowledgment that Iran is sitting on a powder keg of barely suppressed fury at the stifling political, economic and social constraints its citizens have had to endure under the leadership of the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

While deep discontent is felt at all levels of society, it is the women and young of Iran — 60% of Iran’s 70m population are under 30 — who are the most frustrated at the backward turn their country has taken in the past four years under Ahmadinejad’s fundamentalist administration. If this Friday’s presidential poll is truly open and democratic, which few believe it will be, their votes will be crucial in deciding the outcome, just as they were in propelling the reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami to power, twice, in landslide victories between 1997 and 2005. Khatami was prevented by a two-term limit from standing again in 2005, and it was then that Ahmadinejad, the ranting former mayor of Tehran and a religious zealot, took over the presidency. After throwing his clerical hat into the ring once more in the early stages of the current race, Khatami quickly withdrew, having reportedly been warned by the country’s ultra-conservative forces that he would suffer the same fate as Benazir Bhutto if he continued, leaving the opposition reformist camp fielding little-known candidates.

It was when Khatami was still in power that I last visited Iran, nearly 10 years ago. The light he let into this long-suppressed society by throwing open the country’s political curtains, if only partially, was refreshing. Though, even then, the conservative mullahs who opposed him, and who pull the real levers of power in Iran by controlling religious institutions that run parallel to and oversee every branch of government, saw to it that most of his reformist legislation was quashed. Hundreds of activists continued to be jailed and killed. But during his time in office, Khatami oversaw a brief flowering of civil society, advocated freedom of expression and promoted a series of legal reforms to the rights of women. These included giving women limited divorce rights, previously reserved only for men, and easing constraints on the Islamic dress code that had once made shedding the chador an offence punishable with prison and 74 lashes.

At that time there was an explosion of colour on the streets of the capital, with growing numbers of women throwing off the drab floor-length black cape in favour of knee-length coats and shoulder-length head coverings or bright headscarves. In the past four years, many women have gone back to wearing the chador, not out of piety, but out of self-protection as the country’s “morality police” are once more omnipresent, stopping, fining and arresting girls and women whose hijab is not “modest” enough, resulting in a police record potentially preventing them from getting a job or studying in future.

But during the easing of social constraints overseen by Khatami, Havva was finally able to divorce her husband. She has since acquired a psychology degree and supports herself and her 11-year-old daughter by working with an organisation that counsels young people on how to avoid depression. In recent years, the demand for such help has burgeoned beyond the capacity of Iran’s mental-healthcare professionals. Iran’s suicide rate, especially among women, is increasing, as is prostitution, alcoholism and gambling — though there are no reliable statistics on the prevalence of any of these as, officially, such problems do not exist.

The one serious social problem the government is unable to deny is drug abuse; Iran now has the highest rate of opiate addiction in the world. Ten years ago it was officially confirmed that there were 2m heroin and opium addicts in Iran, then equal to 2.8% of the adult population. This figure is thought by some to have now doubled.

“In a society where so much is prohibited, everything somehow becomes allowed,” says an Iranian expert on drug abuse. “As soon as a young person buys a forbidden pop CD or DVD of a western movie or banned alcohol on the black market, he or she comes into contact with an illegal underworld, and that is quickly exploited. I worry the moral decay in my country is increasing so rapidly that a point will be reached soon where it is very hard for us to turn back,” she adds. She, too, requests anonymity for fear of government reprisal for airing such pessimism.

In stark contrast to the cautious, but outspoken, optimism of some of those I met a decade ago, an atmosphere of extreme suspicion and paranoia now prevails in Iran. As I struggle on occasion to understand what people are trying to tell me, my interpreter explains that his countrymen have become used to talking in metaphors rather than saying clearly what they feel. “In Iran there is an expression that the walls have mice and the mice have ears,” says one young woman, meaning that Iran’s intelligence service is 70m strong — the country’s entire population.

Only those who have already paid the price of standing up to authority, with prison sentences and other sanctions, or those who enjoy some degree of protection from retribution thanks to powerful family connections, seem prepared to voice their opinions freely. Among them is Zahra Eshraghi, granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini, the country’s first supreme leader and author of the 1979 Islamic revolution. With rare candour she says she believes her grandfather, whose own brutal suppression of dissent led to the death of tens of thousands of political opponents, would disapprove of the repressive methods of Iran’s current regime.

Her black chador slips constantly down the back of her head and shoulders as we sit talking, revealing a bright silk Burberry headscarf knotted under her chin and an elaborate diamond brooch in the shape of a flower beneath her religious garb. “Please don’t take any photographs of me like this,” she asks politely of the photographer.

Eshraghi, 45, refuses to be drawn on her feelings about wearing the black veil, despite confessing in an interview with The New York Times six years ago that she hated wearing it and regretted the fact that the chador had been forced on women. “There must have been some mistake in the translation,” she says disingenuously. Voicing such views about a garment symbolic of the sacred is clearly more problematic in the current climate. When she spoke openly of her frustration at having to wear the chador — which she said she only did because of her family status — her husband was one of the most visible reformist politicians in the country, and his brother, Khatami, was president. As former head of the interior ministry’s youth department, Eshraghi has also been an influential figure in the reformist movement. But her outspoken criticism has led her more recently to be disqualified from running for parliament by the Council of Guardians — the powerful and deeply conservative body loyal to Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which vets, and can block, potential candidates.

Yet Eshraghi cannot contain herself when I ask what her grandfather would think of Iran’s present state of affairs. “Things would not be the same if he were still alive. I would talk to him and he would listen to me, as he always did,” she says, glancing across at a photograph in a cabinet of her daughter as a young girl curled up beside Ayatollah Khomeini, who died aged 86 in 1989. She implies her grandfather mellowed with age, astounding as that might sound to relatives of thousands of political prisoners he ordered killed in mass executions the year before he died. She says if Khomeini were still alive, he would have adjusted his views to take in some of the rapid changes of the past 20 years, especially the expectations of more freedom among the young.

“For the past four years, we have been living in the most closed society we have had since the revolution,” she continues. “That is in stark contrast to the ideals of the revolution, which were freedom and independence.” Eshraghi’s hazel eyes take on a piercing quality when she talks about the way women activists have been harassed and imprisoned in recent years for trying to improve women’s rights — which she supports in her work for an NGO promoting the education of women.

In the lead-up to this month’s presidential election, a renewed government crackdown on those who oppose or challenge the ruling conservative forces has led to repeated waves of arbitrary arrests and harassment directed not only against women’s-rights activists, but also student leaders, trade unionists and human-rights workers. Even Shirin Ebadi’s Centre for the Defence of Human Rights was closed down six months ago because it allegedly “threatened national security”.

Dozens of women working on a controversial petition, the “One Million Signatures Campaign”, calling for equal legal rights for women, have landed in jail, some subject to 20 lashes, beatings and solitary confinement. One, Alieh Eghdam-Doust, is now serving a three-year sentence in Tehran’s feared Evin prison — notorious for torturing, raping and killing inmates. Most legal changes the campaign is seeking are rights women in the West take as given. These include equality in divorce (even the law amended under Khatami holds that a man can divorce his wife at will whereas a woman must prove her husband guilty of misconduct); more equality in child custody, normally granted to fathers after children reach the age of seven; and fairer inheritance legislation. Currently wives are entitled to only one-eighth of a husband’s estate when he dies, this to be shared between wives if the marriage is polygamous, the rest going to the children; daughters are only entitled to half of what sons inherit.

The petition also calls for the age at which a girl can be married to be raised from 13 to 18, and the age of criminal responsibility for girls to be raised from 9 to 18 (it’s 15 for boys). Iran is the only country in the world that still executes child offenders; one young woman, 22-year-old Delara Darabi, was hanged in early May, while her appeal was still being heard, for a murder she vehemently denies having committed at 17. The petition also calls for honour killings, the stoning to death of women for adultery and polygamy to be banned, and the wearing of the hijab to be a personal choice.

“I don’t think anyone should be arrested for what they believe in,” says Eshraghi, who has also signed the petition. “You may live in paradise, but if you’re not free you have nothing.”

Among those who’ve paid for supporting the campaign is Parvin Ardalan, one of its founders. She was held in solitary confinement at Evin prison after being charged with threatening national security with her work on the petition. She is appealing against three separate jail sentences, totalling more than three years, on related charges. “We’re challenging the status quo, and as far as the government is concerned that threatens national security. If these laws are changed then Iranian society will change fundamentally,” she says. But one lawyer supporting some of those jailed goes further, explaining the authorities justify their crackdown by claiming the campaign is a front for foreign intervention: “They still do not believe this is a domestic, grass-roots movement. They accuse us of instigating a ‘velvet revolution’ and say we’re under the influence of foreign countries trying to subvert the regime.” In recent years the campaign has opened branches in Europe and the US to collect signatures from Iranian women living abroad, which, she argues, “hardly constitutes subversive activity”.

“At the heart of this is the fact that if women are given equal rights, it will open the way for more democracy in this country, and those who oppose women’s rights here in Iran oppose democracy,” says Narges Mohammadi, vice-president of Shirin Ebadi’s now-banned Centre for the Defence of Human Rights. “But people, especially women and the young, are now so fed up with the constraints and injustices they face, I believe we’re near to a tipping point, and if changes don’t come soon, Iran will face a very serious crisis.”

Two days after we sit talking in Mohammadi’s office she is stopped trying to board a plane to attend a Nobel-committee peace conference for women in Guatemala. Her passport is confiscated and she is forbidden from further travel abroad.

Another of those who have had their passport confiscated in recent months is the former student spokesman Saeed Razavi-Faqih, charged in absentia while studying in France with “propaganda activities against the system” for posting comments critical of the regime on internet sites. He has also been jailed in the past in Evin prison for alleged “subversive activity”. Razavi-Faqih fears, despite widespread discontent, that the turnout in a country where more than 50% routinely vote may not be high enough in the coming elections to oust Ahmadinejad: “Coverage of the election in the state-controlled media has been very low-key. It’s not in the government’s interest to promote a high turnout, because low numbers of voters favour Ahmadinejad and his fanatical support base, who’ll vote no matter what. I fear when Khatami left the race we lost the game. The other opposition candidates are so uninspiring. They are out of touch with the young.”

It is only in the past two weeks that opposition candidates have been allowed access to state media to put their message across. In an effort to reach out to the young, some have tried garnering support by posting speeches and slideshows on Facebook. But even though more than 20m Iranians have access to the internet, the regularity with which government censors block sites means access to such messages is patchy.

Leading opposition candidates have also struggled to show they represent a break with the past. The opposition frontrunner Mir-Hossein Moussavi was last active in politics 20 years ago when he served as prime minister during the devastating 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war; he was then considered a hardliner, and he only looks like a reformer now compared with the fanatical Ahmadinejad. The track record of the reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi, another opposition candidate, is hardly more inspiring. A former speaker of the parliament, he is best remembered by the older generation as the former head of the Martyrs Foundation in the wake of the revolution, making him particularly hated by many exiles for the part the foundation played in the mass expropriation of private property. Karroubi also failed to beat Ahmadinejad when he ran for president in the last election. When I meet Karroubi, he is keen to expound on one of his newly favourite themes: women’s rights. In an attempt to win the crucial female vote, he has been promising to pay more attention to the concerns of women, and vows he will be the first president to appoint a female member to the cabinet if he wins. The meeting is pointedly held at the Research Institute for Enhancing Women’s Lives. Karroubi strokes his white beard when asked what specific changes he would make to the laws concerning women’s rights, and answers vaguely that he has “always had an open mind when it comes to women’s affairs”. He only becomes animated when I raise the thorny issue of polygamy, which, though culturally alien to the majority of Iranians, Ahmadinejad’s administration has been quietly promoting; 67 of 290 members of the country’s parliament, the majlis, are understood to have more than one wife. “They try to keep this secret, which shows they are ashamed of it,” says Karroubi, condemning polygamy as “little more than legalised sexual relationships”.

One heroine of the revolution who considered running for president herself in this election is the former vice-president to Khatami, Massoumeh Ebtekar. She was once the radical mouthpiece of students who stormed the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, seizing 52 diplomats and holding them hostage for more than a year. The last time I met her, she was reticent and guarded. This time she is outspoken in her condemnation of the current regime’s “Taliban-like policies of wanting to keep women in the home”. Ebtekar, who supports Moussavi, does not rule out running for president in future; although the constitution does not explicitly exclude a woman running, some doubt whether the Council of Guardians would approve of it. But she says her priority now is to promote rather than dilute the opposition, and she wants to animate the young to vote, though she offers few fresh ideas on how to do this. “We need major change in the political and economic direction of this country,” she says, in her office in Tehran city hall, where she is now a city councillor. “We need more freedom of the press, more freedom for opposition parties…” At this her chador-clad assistant gesticulates firmly that my time is up and I am ushered out, reminded that, regardless of the outcome of this week’s vote, real power in Iran will continue to rest in the hands of the country’s conservative clerical regime.

Saeed Leylaz, one of Iran’s most influential political and economic analysts, disagrees: “This is a very important moment in Iranian history. All revolutions reach a point where they either progress to democracy or descend into dictatorship. We are at that pivotal stage now.”

Ahmadinejad’s populist economic policies, the reason he was elected in the first place, have led to soaring inflation. Unemployment has risen rapidly, and Iran’s economy has been hit hard by the oil-price crash, which has curtailed the spree of state hand-outs that Ahmadinejad built his popularity on, and on which Iran’s ruling mullahs who support him have relied. The country is still shackled by multiple sanctions, the latest imposed for its failure to halt its uranium-enrichment programme. Despite overtures by President Barack Obama to engage in talks, few expect international relations with Iran to be normalised any time soon.

“Iran’s economy is now teetering on the brink of disaster,” says Leylaz, who is allied to Moussavi’s election campaign. “We will have difficult times no matter who is elected. But if Ahmadinejad is re-elected we will be heading off the edge of a cliff.”

At first glance there is little evidence that the capital’s youth feel a sense of impending disaster as they stand chatting and laughing outside the bars and ice-cream parlours that line one of the main roads of Sa’adat Abad, a middle-class district in northwest Tehran. Even though they are just a stone’s throw from Evin prison, some daring young women risk arrest by donning skintight jackets, instead of chadors, and headscarves that reveal shocks of bleached hair. When a patrol car of morality police order two teenage girls dressed this way to sit in the back while a charge sheet against them is drawn up, they try to look nonchalant, and wave across at friends, smiling. Other cars full of teenage boys and young men cruise past the patrol unit, with some male passengers shouting out their names and phone numbers to girls on the pavement. This is speed-dating Tehran-style. Mixed-sex socialising and parties outside the family are formally forbidden. But they take place behind the scenes, many arranged in such ad hoc street exchanges.

When I speak to young people, they’re nervous at first and unwilling to give personal details. But when I ask them if they’ll be voting in this week’s elections their answer is a unanimous “100% yes”.

“I believe there will be a last-minute rush to vote,” says Faraz, 23, an engineering student. “Freedom is the key issue. People don’t feel secure when they go out on the streets. They’re afraid they’ll get arrested, particularly the young. We want change. We want to feel hope for the future, and to have a good time. We want this to be a good country to live in, where the government cares about what’s happening.”

As one young doctor confessed to me, “The problem with Iran is the bowl here is often hotter than the stew.” That is, too little attention is paid to domestic problems and too much to matters outside the country — such as funding terrorism and international posturing by Ahmadinejad against his nemesis, the USA, “the Great Satan”.

“But we have to be optimistic. We have to believe change is possible,” says Hannaneh, 20, a shy trainee teacher. “Anything is better than this.”

As she and her friends turn to walk away, I find myself fervently hoping their generation gets the chance to throw Iran’s curtains wide open.

On the trail of Gilad Shalit, the lost soldier

September 14, 2008

Two years ago, the 19-year-old Israeli conscript Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Palestinians. He has since become a pawn in the Middle East conflict. But where is he hidden? Christine Toomey goes to the Gaza Strip in search of the answer. Photographs: Heidi Levine

The dusty strip of land where the shy Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped at dawn on June 25, 2006, is a desolate place. To one side is a kibbutz called Kerem Shalom, or Vineyard of Peace. But there is nothing peaceful about this southernmost corner of Israel’s border with Egypt and Gaza.

Tall concrete crash barriers, lookout posts and razor wire surround the kibbutz, and beyond them army watchtowers loom close to barricades fencing in the Gaza Strip. One of the watchtowers is still scorched by explosives used by the Palestinians in the daring kidnap. As we stand taking in this scene, a convoy of armoured Jeeps career towards us, and Israeli soldiers pulling on flak jackets leap out, telling us to leave immediately, that the area is subject to sniper fire.

With the intense afternoon sun bleaching the landscape, it is hard to imagine the half-light in which the cross-border raid took place. A surveillance camera captured grainy images of Shalit being bundled by gunmen towards an opening cut in the fence surrounding the vast open prison that Gaza has become. They had entered Israel undetected, burrowing an underground tunnel more than half a kilometre long through sand and clay beneath the fence and exiting behind Israeli military lines.

Armed with anti-tank missiles, grenades and automatic rifles, the assailants killed two Israeli soldiers and seriously injured four more.

The only trace of Shalit, a tank gunner, was part of his bloody uniform found close to the tank in which he was patrolling the border area. From this it was determined that the 19-year-old had been wounded in the attack, though the extent of his injuries is still unknown.

More than two years on, Shalit’s awkward smile continues to appear regularly in the pages of the Israeli press. His kidnap sparked a new chapter of war in the never-ending Middle East conflict. And his continuing captivity is seared into the consciousness of both sides: the Israelis, who seek his release, and the Palestinians, who see him as a bargaining chip to secure freedom for hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails, many of them women and children. The fate of the young conscript, and the possibility of a prisoner exchange to free him, has been the focus of intense, if intermittent, diplomacy. While Egypt has been acting as mediator, France and the EU are making demands for more progress (the Shalits hold dual French/Israeli nationality).

But apart from the release of three brief letters, undoubtedly dictated by his captors, and a stilted audio tape in which Shalit says he needs a prolonged stay in hospital, little is known about him. Some question whether he is still alive since the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two Israeli soldiers captured by Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia within weeks of Shalit’s kidnapping, were returned recently in exchange for five Hezbollah militants, including a notorious triple murderer.

The continuing uncertainty is damaging the morale of young conscripts like Shalit in a small country that relies for its security on every teenager signing up for national service. In an effort to bolster the spirits of new recruits who wanted to know what was being done to secure his release, Israel’s chief of staff, Lt Gen Gabi Ashkenazi, confidently stated on August 4: “We are making every effort to make sure Gilad Shalit returns home as soon as possible. We know Gilad is alive; we know where he is held and by whom.”

I am sitting in the airy living room of Shalit’s home in Israel’s northern hills bordering Lebanon when his father, Noam, receives a phone call about what Ashkenazi has just said. A glower of frustration clouds the engineer’s face. “I don’t think it’s something serious, nothing new,” he says as he hangs up the phone. Towards the end of our meeting, however, he confesses: “The army is not keeping us informed about what is going on. The person handling all negotiations is a former secret-service officer who doesn’t believe he has to give us any information.” When I tell him I am leaving for Gaza the next day in search of clues to the fate of his son, he tells me not to go: “It’s too dangerous.” Shalit’s mother remains a silent presence in the house as we speak.

To travel into the Gaza Strip is to enter into a heart of darkness in the Middle East. The pain and hatred of those I will meet there does little to inspire hope of a happy outcome to the hostage situation. The raw power-mongering of Palestinian politicians and the militant factions I encounter is matched by the cold calculations of Israel’s leaders, who have worked out the exact price they are prepared to pay to secure Shalit’s release. In the face of this cynical standoff, Shalit’s family is left in agonising limbo.

Passing through the Erez checkpoint from Israel into Gaza is to move from relative prosperity and order to dire poverty and chaos. The first sight that greets you is the twisted metal and rubble of what was once a bustling industrial estate, razed to the ground by the Israeli military in one of many bombardments of the area since Shalit was kidnapped. More than 1,000 Gazans have been killed by Israeli security forces since his abduction.

Nearly every building on the northern outskirts of Gaza City is pockmarked with bullet holes or scorched by Israeli shellfire. But pressing deeper into the city, traces of a different, internal conflict emerge.

After Ashkenazi raised hopes that Shalit might be freed, the government swiftly rowed backwards, stating that all the chief of staff meant was that Shalit was being held in Gaza by Hamas. To say that Hamas controls Shalit’s fate is to state the obvious, as it now exercises almost absolute power in Gaza. A year ago Hamas staged a virtual coup there, seizing power from its rival, Fatah, with whom it had agreed to share power after winning a parliamentary majority in 2006. But even this one fact is far from simple.

In the days after Shalit was seized, three different armed factions claimed they had been jointly involved in the kidnapping: the al-Qassam Brigades (the military wing of Hamas), the Popular Resistance Committees (which include members of Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad) and a previously unknown group calling itself the Army of Islam. Loosely linked to Al-Qaeda, the Army of Islam, which gained notoriety for the kidnapping of the BBC reporter Alan Johnston, is regarded by many as the private army of the infamous Doghmush clan, who are sometimes referred to as “the Sopranos of Gaza City” for their involvement in organised crime.

One of my first meetings in Gaza is with Mahmoud Zahar, the militant hardliner and co-founder of Hamas. Zahar is the real power behind the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and the one person who might be expected to deliver answers about Shalit. But the stooped 63-year-old surgeon is the first of many brick walls I come up against in Gaza. Like nearly all of those I speak to, he will not confirm where we are to meet until minutes before the meeting. He fears being targeted not only by Israeli missiles – which have homed in on the precise whereabouts of many Palestinian leaders, killing them in lightning air strikes – but also by gunmen from Fatah and by the Doghmush clan.

Zahar’s heavily guarded base is in the heart of Doghmush territory, in the Sabra neighbourhood to the south of Gaza City. At first we are due to meet him as he finishes midday prayers at a mosque there. Gunmen standing guard outside the mosque say he is too afraid of sniper fire to worship there – though he later denies this. A call then comes telling us to go to his home, where we are instructed to sit on plastic chairs outside the front door to await his arrival. It seems an unlikely place to meet if he is worried about being targeted: the entrance is overlooked by tall, apparently empty, bullet-scarred buildings with broken windows – perfect sniper perches.

But when he eventually arrives, Zahar doesn’t linger long. “Nobody from the political or military wing of Hamas knows where Shalit is,” he says, disingenuously, sitting by my side in a starched safari suit. “Only the small group who kidnapped him know. They are very secretive.”

He says he has no idea of the conditions in which Shalit is being held, only that they must be better than those of the more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners whose release Hamas is demanding for his safe return. Before we are ushered out, Zahar allows us into the basement of his spacious three-storey house, where he has built a shrine to two sons killed in Israeli air strikes in the past five years.

Before meeting others in the armed factions responsible for Shalit’s kidnapping, I try talking to more moderate Hamas politicians.

Dr Ahmed Yousef, one of Hamas’s top political advisers, is a suave academic much more comfortable than Zahar with media contact.

As we sit talking in his sweltering office, he boasts of his role as a consultant to the American thriller-writer Tom Clancy on subjects related to terrorism. But on the subject of Shalit, Yousef, too, is tight-lipped.

“The Israelis have Gaza under such a high level of surveillance, they can smell what we’re eating,” he says, “so nobody will talk about Shalit. It puts them in great danger if they do.”

Then he adds: “I don’t recommend you go around asking too many questions about Shalit. People get suspicious.” I was warned before coming to Gaza that I might be regarded as a spy.

“You have to understand the people in Gaza,” Yousef continues. “They can’t see why the world is so concerned about one Israeli soldier captured by freedom fighters resisting occupation when nobody takes any notice of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held illegally.”

Yousef’s argument ignores the fact that hostage-taking is a war crime. But it underlines Palestinians’ grievance about prisoners held in Israeli jails. There are some 9,000 Palestinians in prison in Israel, many held without charge or trial on “administrative detention orders” that are often renewed for months or years. After Shalit’s capture, dozens of democratically elected Hamas politicians, including a third of the Palestinian cabinet, were arrested; 45 are still in detention.

While Zahar and Yousef are reluctant to discuss Shalit, members of the Doghmush clan are happy to brag about how well he is being treated. I meet them in a garage of one of the many buildings the clan owns in the Sabra district. Abu Khatab Doghmush, a 51-year-old clan elder, is sitting with family on a sofa pushed against a wall. As I take a seat with my interpreter, I notice a bullet on the floor in front of me.

Abu Khatab insists that the Army of Islam is not holding Shalit. “The only faction that controls his life now is the Qassam Brigades,” he says, his heavy gold watch flapping against his wrist. “But I can tell you that Shalit is living in a paradise. Our religion of Islam demands that we look after prisoners even more than we do our own people.” He rejects speculation that Shalit is locked deep in an underground cell booby-trapped with explosives: “He’s not being kept in a closed room all the time – this would not be healthy. He can go out and take fresh air.”

Abu Khatab then makes an extraordinary claim: “Every year a party is held to celebrate his birthday. Yes, there is a cake and candles, music, everything.” Shalit, born on August 28, 1986, has now spent three birthdays in captivity.

The claim that Shalit is being well treated is repeated by everyone I meet. His plea that he needs hospitalisation is dismissed by Abu Khatab. “No, it is I who require hospitalisation,” he says, kicking off his plastic sandal to reveal a foot eaten away by gangrene. He then lifts his shirt to show a festering wound from recent stomach surgery. “We have no medicines in our hospitals. Look at how we are forced to live. We blame the western media for siding with Israel,” he says, growing increasingly agitated. It is time to leave.

That night, as we drive south towards Rafah, where it is thought most likely that Shalit is being held, a squad of heavily camouflaged al-Qassam soldiers appear out of nowhere and march along the road towards us, chanting praise to Allah. As Heidi, the photographer, leaps out to start taking pictures, our driver tells me not to move from the car and goes after her. The soldiers quickly disappear into provisional barracks nearby.

Over the days that follow, repeated attempts to talk to the al-Qassam Brigades are rejected. Again and again I am referred back to Hamas political leaders such as Zahar as the only ones able to speak about Shalit. With Zahar and others claiming only al-Qassam knows anything, the circle of professed ignorance and denial is closed.

In my search for clues to what happened to Shalit after he was smuggled into Gaza, I then seek out the families of the two Palestinian gunmen killed in the operation.

Ahlam Farwana is the mother of Mohammed Farwana, a 21-year-old university student recruited to take part in the attack by the Army of Islam. She sits on a plastic chair sunk in the sand outside her daughter’s house close to the sea in the village of Qarrash. When I ask what happened to her son, she shakes her head and cries. “The first I heard of what he was involved in was when people started arriving at my house, early on the morning he died, asking if I had heard the news,” she says. “I was in shock. I had absolutely no idea. Even my brothers said, ‘Is it really your son who has done this – the calm one, the good one?’ Nobody could believe it.

“The day before the operation he was looking after an injured bird in his bedroom. He was so gentle. When men from the Army of Islam came to tell me my son was a martyr, I refused to meet them. I was very angry they had wasted my son’s life. I told them never to return, and they didn’t.”

But as we sit talking, I am unaware that behind us, on one of the balconies of the house, a man is listening to us closely. The more questions I ask, the more uneasy he apparently becomes, until he picks up his mobile and starts making calls. “We should leave now,” our driver whispers urgently. As we drive away, he mutters that the man’s Taliban-style clothing, long hair and beard mark him out as a member of the Army of Islam. When I hear that, little of what Ahlam Farwana had to say seems of much relevance.

Pressing on further south to Rafah, I arrange to meet the spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, or PRC, which co-ordinated Shalit’s kidnap. Again we are not told of the meeting place until minutes before it is confirmed: a screened-off section of a restaurant, the owner of which is deaf and dumb.

When Abu Mujahed arrives, I am taken aback. We have spent time watching young PRC recruits training – all wear black balaclavas and carry AK-47s. But 24-year-old Abu Mujahed wears a beige suit and brown shirt, a look that would not be out of place in a cheesy video on an Arabic music channel. He has come straight from his brother’s wedding, he says, before explaining in clear English (he is studying multimedia technology at university) precisely how a prisoner exchange should work.

“After the Israelis free the first 100 Palestinian prisoners, Shalit would be moved to Egypt. Once he’s in Egypt, the Israelis would have to free 1,000 more of our brothers and sisters before he is released. We were very close to agreeing a deal a year ago, then the Israelis stopped negotiations. We were amazed that they were prepared to go back to zero. It is the Israelis who are putting obstacles in the way of an agreement.

“If we do not see some results soon, we will be forced to close the file,” he concludes ominously.

When I ask how much he knows about Shalit’s whereabouts and the conditions he is kept in, Abu Mujahed repeats the mantra that he is being treated well, “according to our religion”. Only a small group know where Shalit is held, he claims, and they communicate by means of dead letter drops, mobile phones being too easy to track.

Our next meeting in Rafah – with the family of Hamed Rantisi, the second gunman killed in the kidnapping – sends a shiver down the spine, revealing the depth of hatred felt by those Palestinians who want to see Israel wiped from the map. Like 80% of Gaza, the Rantisis live below the poverty line: when Mariam, Hamed’s mother, opens the fridge, it contains nothing. Mariam, her husband, their five surviving sons and their families exist on handouts of just 1,500 shekels (about £230) a month paid to the families of those “martyred” (killed) or injured in clashes with Israelis.

“I don’t know or care where Shalit is,” Mariam snarls. “All I know is that he is alive and my son is dead, and they won’t even give me his body. Hamas made a mistake allowing messages to be passed from Shalit to his family. They should have made them conditional on my son’s body being returned to me. If I had my way, I would kill Shalit. We are a family of fighters. I hope all my sons become martyrs to liberate Palestine.”

After we leave the Rantisi family’s squalid home, another PRC loyalist, Issa, agrees to take us to the site of Shalit’s abduction, on the other side of the Israel-Gaza border.

Issa knows so many details of the kidnapping that I ask if he was involved. He denies it, but says the operation took six months to plan and was masterminded by the PRC commander Jamal Abu Samhadana, who was killed in an Israeli air strike two weeks before Shalit was seized.

There has been much criticism of Israeli intelligence for failing to stop the attack, despite having picked up information several days earlier that an operation in the area was imminent. Israeli ignorance of where the soldier was taken after the kidnap can be judged by Palestinian claims that collaborators were caught sifting through the household rubbish of doctors in the Rafah area who might have treated Shalit for his wounds and discarded bloody dressings.

None of those I meet in Gaza or later in Israel give any indication that Israeli intelligence officials know where Shalit is being held now – not surprising, since Gaza, a narrow strip of land just 25 miles long, with a population of 1.4m squeezed into a maze of towns and refugee camps, is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. And even if his whereabouts were known, it is widely accepted that any military exercise to free Shalit would put his life in too much danger.

Israel pulled its settlers out of Gaza in 2005, but it still controls who goes in and out of the territory. Since Rafah airport was destroyed by Israeli bombardment, the only way Palestinians can get out of Gaza is via a series of checkpoints controlled by Israel, or one controlled by Egypt. But the checkpoints are almost constantly closed in the face of continuing Palestinian rocket attacks on nearby Israeli towns; they remained closed even during a ceasefire this summer. People cannot leave Gaza to work, and desperately needed goods cannot enter.

To circumvent these restrictions, a burgeoning network of tunnels has been dug beneath Gaza’s border with Egypt. Once clandestine, they now mushroom openly on the outskirts of Rafah, their entrances surrounded by plastic sheeting like giant beach windbreaks. Shalit may already have been smuggled out of Gaza into Egypt along one of these tunnels.

) ) ) ) )

The greatest fear for Shalit is that he will turn into another Ron Arad. Arad was a lieutenant-colonel in the Israeli air force who, more than 20 years ago, parachuted out of his damaged fighter jet on a bombing mission over Lebanon and was captured by the Lebanese Shi’ite Amal militia. When two years of negotiations for his release as part of a prisoner swap failed, and his usefulness to his captors as a bargaining tool dwindled, there were reports that he was “sold” to Iran, but his true fate has never been established.

As recently as two months ago, images of Arad saturated the Israeli media again when Hezbollah handed over two photographs of him in captivity and fragments of a diary he wrote, along with the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev. One photo showed Arad in pyjamas, bearded, hollow-eyed and clearly injured. It haunted the Israeli psyche and reinforced the feeling that politicians had not done enough to bring the airman home.

In a country founded on self-preservation and the principle that “never again” will its people be held captive, failure to deliver one of its sons or daughters from the hands of the enemy is among the gravest political sins. Though never publicly acknowledged, a directive called the “Hannibal procedure” is thought to operate still within the Israeli military. It rules that soldiers may subject kidnappers attempting to abduct one of their own to the fire power needed to kill them, even if it endangers the life of the soldier in question. “Better a dead Israeli soldier than a captured one” is the thinking behind the secret order, the logic being that the Israeli public copes better with its soldiers dying than being held hostage.

The prospect of Shalit being passed from the hands of Hamas militants – over whom their political masters exert control – to more ruthless and unpredictable extremists with unclear aims is a scenario that frightens his family. As long as Shalit’s current captors see him as a precious bargaining chip – as part of a prisoner exchange and also as a deterrent to Israel’s reinvasion of Gaza – his safety seems assured.

The danger lies in negotiations between Israel and Hamas breaking down. To find out how near this is to happening, I talk to a retired intelligence officer close to the Israeli negotiating team. We meet in a cafe in a small town north of Tel Aviv.

The chilling clarity of the Israeli position only emerges at the end of a lengthy conversation. “We have named our price – 450 prisoners in exchange for Shalit. If they don’t want to pay it, so be it,” says the former intelligence officer, drawing the interview to a close.

For the previous hour he has spoken about the difficulties of dealing with Hamas – condemned internationally as a terrorist organisation – and how hard it is for the Israeli public to accept the release of convicted murderers as part of any prisoner exchange, as is being demanded.

But less than two weeks after we meet, the political games the country’s leaders are playing behind the scenes – and the way these make Shalit’s position ever more precarious – are exposed. With the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, embroiled in corruption scandals and close to resigning, the cabinet desperately seeks to regain high ground by announcing that 199 Palestinian prisoners will be released imminently. The move is meant as a goodwill gesture to bolster the embattled Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, based on the West Bank, and to breathe new life into the peace process. It is also meant to send a message that diplomacy, not violence, is the way to win concessions.

Since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip last year, the moderate Abbas, Yasser Arafat’s heir as leader of Fatah, has been increasingly sidelined. The release of the prisoners, including two of the longest-serving convicted murderers in Israeli jails, was intended to boost Abbas and Fatah and to deepen Palestinian divisions by pulling the rug out from under Hamas. Most of those freed were members of Fatah; none were Hamas supporters, none from Gaza.

Hamas reacted instantly by threatening Shalit. “If the stubbornness continues,” warned Abu Obeida of the al-Qassam Brigades, “the enemy should consider Gilad Shalit as Ron Arad No 2.”

) ) ) ) )

Noam Shalit is not a man to show his feelings. He holds his emotions coiled tight and, after two years of family anguish, always appears ready to spring into action at the slightest indication that he can influence negotiations to secure his son’s release. During my journey through Gaza,

I discover that behind the scenes he has tried to establish direct contact with those connected to the kidnapping. Several people I speak to say he has called them. Even as Olmert’s reign draws to a close, Noam continues to hold meetings with the prime minister, with his possible successors and with international diplomats. But Noam’s impotence in exerting influence on the key players seems to be reflected in his faraway stare.

The second time we meet, in a Tel Aviv hotel, I struggle to decide whether to tell him about the yearly birthday party, with cake and candles and music. Three weeks later, his son will spend his 22nd birthday in captivity. On his 20th birthday his family released 2,000 balloons at the site of his kidnapping, with messages attached calling for his release. This year there are no such plans. Thinking this claim that his son is being well treated might be a crumb of comfort, I do mention the party. But as Noam Shalit winces, I realise I have made a cruel mistake.

“Time is against Gilad,” he says. “They say the state is doing its utmost to bring him back, but in terms of results – there are no results.

“Gilad is not much of a talker. He’s very shy and introverted. His passion is following football and basketball on TV. He wanted to serve in a tank unit like his cousin, though he could have joined a non-combat unit because his health profile is borderline.” (Gilad has problems with his eyesight and his back.)

Asked how he thinks his son is coping with captivity, Noam replies: “We hope he is strong. But he was very young when he was kidnapped. How can we know? How can anyone know how they would react in such a situation?”.

Next Sunday, a rally will be held in central London followed by an event at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, to highlight the plight of hostages worldwide, especially Gilad Shalit ( )

9,000 in prison in Israel

Imad Taqatqa, 15, is one of an estimated 9,000 Palestinians – including about 70 women and more than 300 children – being held in Israeli jails. His parents, Rihab and Sami, hope he will be released as part of an exchange for Gilad Shalit. Imad, who is awaiting trial on charges of throwing a Molotov cocktail, was shot in the foot and arrested close to a Jewish settlement near his home outside Hebron, in the occupied West Bank. Of the hundreds of Palestinian children imprisoned in Israel, about half are behind bars for throwing stones.

Bedouin and board in the Sinai

January 28, 2007
Travel and Comment

Lured to the southern Sinai by the legend of its nomadic tribes and biblical landscape, Christine Toomey found more than she bargained for when she went camel-trekking, camped under the stars and fell under the desert’s spell

A new moon hung briefly above us before dipping below the horizon, leaving the desert sky shimmering with shooting stars. After just a few minutes of watching these silent, starry games, my daughter whispered to me: “There are so many, I’m running out of wishes to make!”

As we lay side by side in the open air at a small Bedouin encampment in the southern Sinai, those words felt like fleeting confirmation I had raised a reasonably contented child. What more could I have wished for at the start of a journey in the summer when it seemed she was passing from childhood to becoming a young woman?

“Nights in the desert are rare opportunities offered to a few,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in his classic book Wind, Sand and Stars, which accompanied us as we set off across a small section of the vast peninsula splitting Africa and Asia at the point that the Red Sea forks into the Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez. And as we moved on the following night to camp in a dry wadi, where sand dunes swell like waves against rock cliffs, I realised this was a rare time of shared peace.

As our two Bedouin guides went in search of scrub wood to build a fire to prepare our evening meal, we were left briefly alone. The sun washed the sandstone cliffs pink before setting, leaving the deep basin where we sat a metal grey; the only sound was the rustling sand caught up in gusts of wind. Despite my reservations about taking a teenager used to the conveniences of urban living on such a trip, I found she, and I, fell quickly into a desert mindset. When we were set the task of keeping the spot where we were bedding down for the night lit, we both set about trying to imitate our Bedouin guides in building improvised storm lanterns, cutting empty water bottles in half, partially filling them with sand and sticking in a lit candle before replacing the top to protect the flame.

Related Links
  • Bedouin and nomads

At the very start of our trip we had packed up our sleeping bags at 3am to climb to the 2,285-metre summit of Mount Sinai – the mountain where Christians, Muslims and Jews believe that God delivered his Ten Commandments to Moses. Starting the ascent in the middle of the night meant we would reach the summit to watch dawn break over the furthest reaches of the southern Sinai’s jagged mountain ranges. Since the guidebooks had described the climb as “easy except at the summit”, walking seemed a safer prospect than getting on a camel for the first time, in the dark, to go up a mountain.

But while my daughter had loped ahead like a gazelle, my extra years made the climb more of a challenge, especially the 750 rocky and uneven steps that scale the last section to its peak. Resting in the shade of St Catherine’s monastery, built on the slope of the mountain at the site of what was believed to be the biblical burning bush, I was only thankful we had not attempted the alternative, more difficult, route to the top: a towering ladder of 3,750 rocky stairs called the Steps of Repentance, hewn out of the mountain by one of the early monks as a form of penance.

When such reflections on the passage of time and mortality hit home, Saint-Exupéry is good company. Wind, Sand and Stars, after which the company that had arranged our trip was named, is the French pilot’s account of how he survived a near-fatal crash in the Libyan desert in 1935, and contains a moving, detailed account of what it feels like to be on the point of death. As we set out across the Sinai’s eastern sandstone desert on camels, with August temperatures nudging 50C, I can begin to imagine what that might feel like.

Most of those who travel with Wind, Sand & Stars, which supports environmental projects that encourage traditional Bedouin ways of life, plan their trips in spring, autumn and winter, when desert life is more manageable. But even then this is a harsh environment: temperatures can sink as low as -10C at night, and every aspect of life is geared to survival.

As a result, many Bedouin have long since abandoned their traditional ways, explain our guides, A’id, who is from the southern Sinai’s largest Mizayna tribe, and Zaid, from the smaller Jabaliyya tribe. While we sit around the campfire, drinking sweet mint tea with a delicious meal of rice, lamb, salad and watermelon, they talk of how increasing numbers of the estimated 25,000-40,000 Bedouin from disparate tribes in the southern Sinai have succumbed to the lure of an easier life on the coast. This is encouraged by the Egyptian government, which, frustrated with their itinerant ways, offers the Bedouin permanent housing, with running water, electricity and education for their children. All of A’id’s children, for instance, now live on the strip of coast facing the Gulf of Aqaba, as does he for much of the summer. But when the temperatures start to drop in autumn, A’id says he still feels the strong pull to return to the desert, wandering for weeks with his camels.

Most of the men’s tales revolve around food and water. First they trace the arc of the Milky Way, explaining that here it is known as the “fruit path” because, at its brightest in these parts in July and August, it marks the time when the precious crops of figs and mulberries grown close to the oasis can be harvested. Then they tell the story of the Thoria star that disappears and reappears around late May, which is taken as a sign by wild camels to return to their familiar watering holes before their humps shrink.

When we prepare to bed down for the night, the two men roll out their blankets a discreet distance from ours, and laugh as we fret that we might find a scorpion or snake in our sleeping bags. Scorpions hold no fear for the Bedouin. One of the few traditional customs most Bedouin women still observe in the days after giving birth, they say, is to boil one of the creatures, dry and crush it, then spread the powder around their nipples before their babies suckle, to help their newborn develop a resistance to scorpion venom.

Writing this in London, such a custom seems less reassuring than it did when I was crouched by a campfire in the Sinai. But then I open Saint-Exupéry’s memoir and sand trickles from its pages, and I remember feeling that many extraordinary things seem possible in the desert – not least the realisation that everything that matters is in front of your eyes in that very moment.

The women’s war

August 6, 2006

Christine Toomey, winner of Amnesty International’s 2006 award for best magazine article, puts on the veil of a Hamas wife. In the midst of the latest Middle East crisis, she swapped her safe London home for the West Bank to live with a Palestinian leader and his wives. There she found herself in the front line of two wars of survival — one political, the other polygamous

The two wives were suspicious at first. Their husband, Wael al-Husseini, had tossed a coin in the direction of his eldest son and, tongue in cheek, instructed him to go and buy an extra mattress. The women, I sensed, did not find the gesture as amusing as did the husband they shared. With it an extraordinary agreement was sealed. I was to return to live with the family, a third woman in a Hamas household, to tell the story of Hamas women, hundreds of thousands of whom, like these two wives, had voted Hamas into power – an election victory that slapped Israel in the face.

Their husband, Wael, had been elected to the Palestinian parliament in the spectacular Hamas victory in January, and it is wives and mothers like them who are the key to understanding why the Islamic movement –condemned internationally as a terrorist organisation – has been propelled into power.

When Palestinian women voted for Hamas in record numbers – a vote certain to lead to confrontation – few expected it. That religious women, long ignored as “silent walking tents”, were finally flexing their electoral muscle, was put down to widespread frustration with the corruption and incompetence of Fatah – the faction once led by Yasser Arafat that dominated Palestinian politics for 40 years – and also to a Hamas election campaign targeted at female voters. But there was more to it than that.

Many believed the peace process was already dead and, as one analyst observed, “When people lose hope in reality, they turn to God.” There was no way of knowing, when I first met the al-Husseini family, that in the time I would spend with them I would soon discover why so many women have become, in the analyst’s words, “hooked on Hamas”.

Hamas was then observing a ceasefire. No suicide bombers had been sent by the group into Israel since the former underground movement suspended such terrorist tactics last summer in an attempt to build an image fit for mainstream politics. Newsreel of the 10-year-old Huda Ghalia clutching her head in grief as she circled the bodies of her dead family, killed by Israeli shells as they picnicked on a Gaza beach, had yet to flicker onto television screens around the globe. Israel still disputes responsibility, but the next day, Hamas declared its ceasefire over, and set in train the events, with the kidnapping of the Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit, that have since plunged the Middle East into open warfare with the bombing of Lebanon. When I entered the al-Husseini home to live as a “Hamas wife” – hours after the kidnapping – the region had yet to descend into the violent maelstrom that has followed.

“Wael is leaving the country. He has to attend a conference in Lebanon. He is not sure when he’ll be back. Come tonight,” my interpreter had urged me. That a Hamas politician was attempting to embark on a trip abroad as the eye of the storm approached seemed suspicious. Yet there were few signs of tension when I arrived at the family’s home in Ar-Ram, near Ramallah in the West Bank.

A breakfast of hummus, falafel and bread had been laid out. The family was relaxed as we sat down to eat, even though Israel was then on the verge of moving its tanks into Gaza. I could not believe a member of Hamas would be allowed to leave the country. But Wael was confident. He planned to drive east to Jericho and board a bus to leave the West Bank by crossing the Jordanian border. I was to go with him as far as the border, and then return the next day to stay with his wives and children.

From the start, the family was open about their domestic arrangements. They live in a spacious two-storey concrete home built by Wael to accommodate his expanding family by the side of the madrasah – an Islamic school for 600 pupils – of which he is headmaster. His second wife of two years, Khulud, 35, and their six-month-old son, Hamzeh, live on the top floor. Alia, Wael’s first wife of 20 years, who is 10 months younger than Khulud, lives on the ground floor with her six children: three girls – Ni’mah, 17, Arwa, 16, and Bara’a, 6 – and three boys – Khaled, 15, Seif, 12, and Omar, 10.

In accordance with Islamic teachings, which stipulate that if a man takes more than one wife – and he can take up to four – he must give to each the same material support and attention, Wael spends one night upstairs with Khulud, the next downstairs with Alia, in strict rotation. “Everyone is happy,” says the 43-year-old Wael with a gleam in his eye. The truth is, there is a much more complex interplay of emotions at work. These are revealed as any misgivings Alia and Khulud might have had about their husband welcoming me into their home evaporate.

At the start, as expected in such a male-dominated society, it is Wael who does all the talking. The second eldest of five brothers and six sisters born in Bethlehem, he talks of how his brothers persuaded him to study engineering in Saudi Arabia, rather than medicine in Romania, “where he might be too tempted by beautiful women”. It was in Riyadh in the early 1980s that he became interested in the Muslim Brotherhood movement, from which Hamas would later spring. After working briefly as an engineer on his return to the West Bank, he opened an Islamic school and became involved in community activities, such as “planting trees and sweeping streets”, organised by the Islamic resistance movement Hamas.

Initially a non-militant movement, Hamas was widely believed to have the tacit support of Israel to counter the then popular nationalist and leftist groups belonging to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). But as soon as the group began to threaten Israeli security with violent resistance, the arrests started.

Despite, he insists, being involved in only grassroots community activities, between 1988 and 2005 Wael was arrested eight times and held in “administrative detention” – imprisonment without charge – for more than two years. In addition, in 1992, he was among more than 400 Palestinians with links to Hamas deported by the Israelis for a year to live in tents in a no man’s land in Lebanon in an effort to break the back of the movement.

Wael claims that on the journey, Israeli soldiers guarding them would urinate into plastic bags and then spray the contents over the prisoners, whose legs were chained to the seats of the bus.

As his wives and children sit listening, Khulud turns to me and confides: “This is the first time I hear such things. Stay as long as you like. Keep asking questions. If there is one thing I find difficult about Wael, it is that he is so secretive.” She flashes a smile in his direction.

At this, Alia catches my eye and looks resigned. “Not once was Abu Khaled present when his sons were born. He was in jail each time,” she says in a soft voice, using the Arabic term “abu”, meaning “father of”, in contrast to Khulud’s more familiar use of her husband’s first name. Not to be outdone, Khulud explains that when Wael was last arrested in September 2005, “I was not used to him being in prison.

I cried all the time. I went crazy because I love him,” she declares, to which Wael coos in appreciation. “No, it is I who cried more,” Alia interrupts, a steely note to her voice this time.

This exchange between the two women is the first sign of their underlying rivalry. What neither know is that during the hours I spent with their husband at his office that morning, he had spoken candidly of how he plays with their jealousy. “Alia tells me all the time, ‘You love Khulud more,’ while Khulud says, ‘You love Alia more.’ This is what keeps me going. This way I am in control,” he confides, with a broad smile. “Alia and Khulud compete with each other in trying to cook me the best meal and in the way they dress and behave.”

Much of the time the women remain covered in their hijabs, the head-to-toe coverings they delight in showing me how to wear, but when not, have on jeans and T-shirts. Khulud highlights her hair. Newly married, she seems more eager to impress. Basking in her adoration and the efforts of his first wife to compete for his attention, Wael sees no irony in his insistence that “women who do not allow a man to take a second wife are selfish”.

When I tell him that his flirtatious sense of humour does not fit the popular image abroad of Hamas fanaticism, his hackles rise. “The stereotype of a Hamas politician is as a terrorist – aggressive, uncivilised and a liar. Yes, there are extremists in our movement, just like there are extremists in the West. But to the West we are all al-Zarqawis and Bin Ladens.”

When I challenge Wael on the subject of suicide bombers, his reply is even more surprising. “I hate them 100%. They are mistakes. I hate that innocent civilians die in such acts, and I believe we will suffer a divine punishment as a result. Islam is clear that civilians should not be killed. But these are desperate acts by those who see no alternative. We are denied recognition as a state. We have no army. So every attack we launch on Israel is denounced as terrorism, while every attack they launch against us, in which so many innocent women and children die, is justified as legitimate military action.”

Hamas has launched more than 40 suicide-bombing attacks against Israel in the past 10 years, but Wael claims he has no knowledge of the movement’s military wing, the leadership of which is based in Syria. Yet on the journey to Jericho the next morning, he reveals that his eldest brother, killed in Jordan two years ago, was the head of a military cell of Hamas. At this, another of his brothers who is with us confides that he was once told by the Israelis that “they consider Wael more dangerous than our elder brother, because he is an intellectual… because he is so respected, he has great influence”.

It is little surprise then that, after being kept waiting at the border by Israeli guards for many hours, Wael is turned back, and returns home.

The hollow eyes of Alia and Khulud and ashen faces of their children bear witness to the trauma of the night before, when I meet them the next morning. Bara’a is in a state of shock as she wails: “Has Daddy gone? Why have they taken him?” The answer is both so simple and so complex that her mother says nothing. She simply hugs the girl close and sits in stunned silence.

It is left to Ni’mah to explain that her little sister had, incredibly, slept through the night when dozens of soldiers surrounded the house, pounding on the front door, shouting her father’s name and kicking open the back door of the family’s home just after midnight. She had not witnessed her father being forced to dress hurriedly at gunpoint in an upstairs room and then pushed downstairs into a waiting Jeep.

Only Khulud had witnessed the whole drama. That night had been her turn with her husband. She speaks in a faltering voice, her eyes red from crying, as she describes what happened. “Wael shouted to the soldiers from an upstairs window that there were children in the house, that they must take care not to harm them; that he would open the front door if only they would stop trying to break it down. He shouted to me to get him some clothes. When I brought him a nice shirt he laughed and said, ‘Where do you think I’m going, to a party?’”

That night, dozens of similar raids had been carried out across the West Bank in a blitz attack on the Hamas-led government. One third of the Palestinian cabinet – eight ministers, including the deputy prime minister – 20 MPs and more than three dozen municipal leaders had been seized from their homes and herded into a jail near Ramallah.

When there is still no sign of the kidnapped Shalit being released, the Israelis ratchet up the retaliation further. Air strikes are launched on the Gaza strip and rumours abound that the Israelis will soon move on the West Bank. Huge crowds flock to Friday prayers at mosques close to the al-Husseinis’ home in Ar-Ram and elsewhere. Fighting breaks out in Nablus to the north and, like everyone, I sleep fitfully. But the brunt of the Israeli offensive is reserved for Gaza. In the two weeks that follow, more than 60 Palestinians, including many women and children, are killed in continual shelling. One Israeli soldier is killed by friendly fire.

In the aftermath of the arrests, and with the violence escalating, I feared the last thing the family would want was a stranger in their midst. After his arrest, Wael’s two younger brothers, both surgeons, took charge, ordering that neither Alia nor Khulud, nor any of the children, should leave the house. That the family would see my presence with them as protection against further retaliation, however, proved more to the point. Not only was I invited to return to stay, but in the days that followed, they opened up to me in the absence of their husband.

When the family finally exhausted their description of Wael’s arrest, and Khulud and the children went to rest, Alia sat with me in a state of agitation. Her distress poured from her like a burst dam. For Alia it was not just the events of the night that had traumatised her. She was deeply upset that when she tried to embrace Wael as he was being bundled out of the house, soldiers pushed her away with their automatic rifles. “They did not realise I was his wife,” says Alia. “This for me was the worst.”

She hesitates only a moment before carrying on. “Abu Khaled got married when I was in hospital in Nablus recovering from an operation. I had scalded myself with water while making coffee for the children. I had third-degree burns and needed a skin graft. I knew nothing about the marriage. When I came home and found he had taken a second wife, I was in great shock. It was the most difficult thing for me.”


When she tried to leave to return to her parents, Alia says her husband’s family, in particular her mother-in-law, prevented her.

“I raged and screamed and said things I did not know I could say,” Alia explains, before talking of the distress of her children, none of whom attended their father’s second wedding. “Seif sat with a blanket over his head for days,” she says.

The reason Wael took a second wife, he told Alia, was “so that she [the second wife] could help with the housework”. But then Alia discovered that Wael had rented an apartment where he intended living part of the time with Khulud initially. “I begged him to stay with me,” says Alia. “He said he would stay the first two weeks. He stayed four nights. Then he went with her. But when he brought Khulud to meet me the first time, I did not cry. A miracle happened. I suddenly went very peaceful. I remained calm. That really got to her.”

Khulud’s version of events is rather different. She talks about how carefully she thought out a strategy to deal with what she clearly regarded as Alia’s passive aggression. Khulud had been married before, at 16. But when her husband divorced her after two years for failing to satisfy him, Khulud, unusually in such a society, forged her own path as a single working woman by opening a hairdressing salon, though she continued to live with her parents. “This experience meant I knew how to deal with all sorts of people. So I felt it would be easy to deal with the first wife. I heard she was a simple woman. She was aggressive with me at first. But I took it. I had, after all, come into her territory. I pretended to ignore her aggression. I think it was my strong character and independence that attracted Wael to me in the first place.”

Alia disputes this. “He only met her once before they signed the wedding contract. So I cannot imagine it was her character that he liked.” But she does admit Khulud has qualities she lacks. Little wonder. Unlike Khulud, whose second marriage came relatively late in life, Alia had been matched by her family with her husband when he was 24 and she was 14. “I was young. I didn’t know anything,” she says. “Khulud has mixed a lot with other people, heard their stories. She is more confident and, I admit, she is faster in doing the housework than me.

“Now I see my husband wasn’t interested in finding someone more beautiful. He just wanted to feel better. I love him and accept this as my fate. But I no longer feel I have a complete marriage with my husband. I kiss his socks when he goes upstairs to spend the night with Khulud,” she says, poignantly. “I find it very difficult when she calls him ‘my beloved’ in front of me.”

Khulud will later reveal that she did not know when she got married that the conjugal arrangement would be that Wael would alternate the nights he spent between her and Alia. “This is not easy for me either,” she says. Yet even on the nights Wael spends with Alia, she confides, he often comes to her floor of the house to rest in the afternoon “because it is quieter”. She and Wael also seem to laugh, touch and talk more, and it is hard not to conclude that Alia sees less of her husband than his new wife. Something she can hardly ignore since, though there is a shared main entrance, he has to pass the front door to her floor of the house to reach Khulud’s. During the day all these doors remain open so that the children can be with their father in whichever part of the house he is in, and the entire family eats together. But at night the doors are shut, turning the two floors into separate apartments.

Strange as such arrangements may seem, when secular Palestinian women have taken to the street in the past to protest against the practice of polygamy – according to official figures, practised by just 3% of the population, but believed to be more widespread – as “demeaning to women”, those involved in such relationships, like Khulud and Alia, have condemned them as narrow-minded. In the West, men take mistresses or divorce their wives – polygamy is more moral, they argue.

For although the two women confess their anguish about their shared marriage to me privately, in each other’s company they insist they get on “like sisters”.

During the days and nights I spend with them, I see how calmly the two women share out their domestic chores. The rhythm of the household revolves around them putting on a special hijab to pray with their children in an upstairs room five times daily. Alia does most of the cooking, Khulud the laundry. And while it is Wael’s task to shop for groceries, in his absence, this chore, as well as financial responsibility for the household, is passed to his second wife, Khulud. Alia is given only a small allowance.

Alia’s life seems much more restricted than Khulud’s. When, for instance, she tells her brothers-in-law, who took charge of the house after Wael’s arrest, she wants to visit her parents in Nablus, she is quickly rebuffed. Yet Khulud goes unchallenged when she announces it will help her feel better if she spends a day in the salon she has reopened.

So the following day I accompany Khulud to her salon in a neighbouring village. It is a tortuous journey. Although the village of Qatanna can be seen from a hilltop in Ar-Ram, and the trip to work used to take Khulud only 10 minutes, since the recent construction of what the Israelis term an “anti-terrorist separation barrier” – a towering concrete wall with electrified barbed wire that snakes for 400 miles through the West Bank and which has been judged illegal by the International Court of Justice in the Hague – the journey can take hours. As the series of buses I take with Khulud zigzag their way back and forth avoiding the wall, it is clear what a blight this barrier casts over the lives of Palestinians, slicing communities in half, dividing families and cutting many off from their places of work.

We also have to negotiate our way around the many Israeli “security roads” – high-speed links between settlements that Palestinians are banned from using – and encounter “flying checkpoints”, random roadblocks erected by Israeli soldiers to either stop traffic temporarily or seal off entire areas at will. “I’m not sure I can carry on doing this much longer,” says Khulud as we reach our destination. “So many people have lost their livelihoods like this. Our lives are being made impossible. No wonder there are those who explode with rage.”

Such frustration underlines the sense of hopelessness about the lives of Palestinians, in particular those of women, who bear the brunt of the consequences of the war. When I ask Khulud and Alia what future they see for their children, they say they want them to study, find good work, have families, have a happy life. “But what chance is there of that?” says Khulud.

When, together with Alia and Khulud, I look at pictures of female Hamas supporters wearing the green headbands favoured by the movement’s fighters, they both say they admire the women. “They are strong. I like it. If I had the opportunity I would dress like that,” says Khulud, who, when she then sees a photograph of a baby wearing a military-style balaclava while chewing on a toy grenade, says if the Israeli occupation continues she would like to see her son dressed like that too. “Sometimes as I rock Hamzeh I wish he was old enough to carry arms,” she declares.

With such wishes transmitted to the young, what hope is there of peace? As in any culture, hopes and values pass through a mother’s milk. With this in mind, I meet Wael’s mother, who looms so large in Khulud’s and Alia’s lives, and, it seems, who calls the shots. A few hours in her company are all that are needed for the dynamics of the family, personal and political, to fall clearly into place.

A cool evening breeze rustles the olive trees surrounding the house where Wael’s parents live with his two younger brothers, their wives and five children. The building is set within the walled compound of the madrasah where Wael is headmaster. His mother sits in an armchair and I approach her with some trepidation.

With one son killed and another in prison in a conflict for which – Wael’s mother reminds me – Britain bears historical responsibility, I am not expecting a warm reception. But Arab hospitality prevails. The wife of one of Wael’s brothers brings pear juice while his mother calls the other daughter-in-law to bring her a wrap. The old woman seems to be sizing me up. She squints at me for some time before speaking.

It is about Alia that Wael’s mother, called Ni’mah, soon begins to talk. “Alia was very young when she got married and naturally we thought she would mature. As a wife gets older she should improve in satisfying her husband’s requirements. But this did not happen.

“It is only under extreme conditions that a man takes a second wife. It took a long time to agree with Wael that it was the solution. But Alia should have been more attentive to her husband. A man needs attention. Wael likes organisation. He likes to look elegant. Khulud is a distant relative and so I have some control over how she behaves. If a husband takes a second wife, it is she [the first wife] who is guilty. If anyone is not capable of being a perfect wife to my son then they should be worried,” she huffs. From the way she speaks and what Wael has confided earlier, a “perfect” wife is one who is not only constantly mindful of her husband’s needs, but also a fast worker and frugal when managing the household.

Sitting opposite me as Ni’mah speaks are her youngest sons and one of their wives. When I glance at the young wife to see her reaction to this declaration, she is sitting on the edge of her seat, hands clasped, staring straight ahead as if to avoid attention. My heart goes out to her.

“I love my children very much,” Ni’mah continues. Her slight-framed husband, who has never taken a second wife, sits silently perched on a hard chair by her side. “I have always encouraged my children to be both patriotic and religious.” She goes on to describe how her family was expelled from a large land-holding near Jerusalem that had been theirs for generations, when the British withdrew from Palestine and the state of Israel was founded in 1948. “The word of God is more important than my children,” she declares. “And God says we should perform jihad to reclaim our land from those who took it. So if God insists I must sacrifice my children, I will do it.”

As I say my farewells to Alia, Khulud and their children the next morning, I have a deeper appreciation of the trials they face. A female Hamas MP, whose imprisoned husband has also taken a second wife, describes dealing with both situations in equally warlike terms. “Polygamy is like fighting a war,” she says.

“A fighter goes into war to defend his country knowing he might die, but does so for a noble cause; and God orders us to accept this. So I feel when I accept polygamy I am a fighter too, implementing God’s will, however hard it might be.” The “noble cause” of her personal battleground she defines as “the enjoyment of men and women”. But it is hard not to conclude that men enjoy the outcome of such intimate conflict a lot more than women.

While Wael languishes in jail, Alia and Khulud are left wondering to which wife he will return the first night he is released. The last time he was imprisoned, Wael was in such a quandary about treating both women fairly when released that he sought the advice of a religious leader. He was advised to return to the bed of the wife whose company he had not enjoyed on the night of his arrest: in that instance, Khulud.

Since this time Wael was arrested so soon after going to bed with Khulud, she hopes he will return to spend the night with her again. In keeping with her gentle nature, Alia is resigned to this prospect.

“I just want him home,” she sighs. “How can you raise children under such conditions, with their father constantly taken from them? All that is left is for us to put our faith in God and, for us, that means Hamas.”

Hearts and minds

June 25, 2006

When a Palestinian boy was killed by Israeli soldiers last year, his parents donated his organs — saving the lives of three Jews. Hailed as a triumph of humanity, it has also caused controversy. By Christine Toomey

More than anything else, on the morning of November 3, 2005, Ahmed Khatib wanted to buy a tie. “I want to look like a real bridegroom,” he told his mother and father as he paraded in front of them, proudly smoothing his hands over his new beige shirt and matching trousers – a bridegroom being the 12-year-old boy’s idea of the epitome of elegance.

His parents had bought him the clothes as a present to celebrate Eid-al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan. Ahmed was so excited about the day ahead that he had woken up much earlier than his siblings and, at dawn, had gone to the mosque to pray and visit the grave of his grandparents, as is traditional. Afterwards he returned home to help his mother make morning tea for the family. “He was the one who helped me most around the house,” Abla, Ahmed’s softly spoken mother, explains while rocking her youngest daughter in her arms. “He had a gentle character and knew his sisters were too little to start doing household chores.”

As the family sat sipping their tea, Ahmed kept talking about how he wanted a tie. “I told him all the shops would be closed. But he insisted that Nasser’s store would be open,” says Ahmed’s father, Ismail, a tall man with stooped shoulders and dark stains of anguish circling his eyes. “He was a good boy and I gave him a few coins to let him go and see.” So Ahmed set off at a run. As he wound his way through the narrow alleyways of the Jenin refugee camp in the Palestinian West Bank, he picked up his friend Hithem.

When the two boys reached the corner shop on the camp’s outskirts, they found it shut – as Ahmed’s father had predicted. But there was a crowd of children in the street letting off fireworks to celebrate the feast, so the two friends ran to join them and started to play.

Hithem stands anxiously shifting his weight from foot to foot as he points to the spot opposite the shop where the two boys played that day – a semi-enclosed area of wasteland that must once have been a row of buildings. Hithem bites his lip as he remembers what his friend said to him that morning. “He said, ‘I feel like I’m going to die today.’ When I asked him why, he said, ‘I don’t know, man. But I feel it.’ I was afraid for him.”

The game the boys played that morning was what kids in Britain call cowboys and Indians. In Jenin – the refugee camp partially flattened by the 2002 Israeli army assault that left 52 Palestinians dead – it is called army and Arabs. Ahmed was the Arab, Hithem the army. Hithem was dressed for the part: his clothes were camouflage and he carried a toy gun. The boys who play Arabs carry stones and pretend Molotov cocktails, he explains earnestly. At just before 10am, however, the boys’ game became horrifyingly real.

Earlier that morning, a small unit of elite Israeli soldiers had entered Jenin in search of a suspected terrorist. When word went around that the soldiers were there, Palestinian gunmen took up positions on rooftops, and a larger crowd of children congregated near Hithem and Ahmed. Afraid the situation would escalate, the Israeli army called in reinforcements. Several Jeeps full of soldiers and at least one armoured personnel carrier rolled into the street where the children were gathered, according to eyewitnesses.

As gunmen fired shots at the soldiers, hitting the side of one Jeep, the children started throwing stones towards the vehicles 130 metres away.

Hithem doesn’t remember why Ahmed dashed out of the protected area where they had been playing. Perhaps it was to get a clearer view of what was going on; perhaps it was to toss stones at the soldiers – though Hithem denies this. But what happened next is something he says he will never forget and “it hurts” to talk about.

Still crouched behind a wall playing army and Arabs, Hithem says he saw Ahmed suddenly collapse. Though he did not realise it immediately, his friend had been shot by Israeli soldiers – once in the head, once in the stomach. Terrified, Hithem says he tossed his toy gun in the direction that Ahmed lay and fled. While an older boy scooped Ahmed up and staggered off trying to reach a hospital, an Israeli soldier approached the children, picked up the toy gun and left. In an attempt to explain the killing of an innocent child, pictures of the toy gun they argued he was carrying would later be distributed to the press, laid out alongside a semi-automatic M-16 rifle to illustrate how like the real thing it had looked.

Ahmed clung to life for two days. When it was clear the hospital in the refugee camp did not have the resources to treat such serious wounds, his father called Abla’s brother Muhammad for help. He lives on the other side of the so-called “green line” drawn by the 1949 armistice separating Israel from the occupied territories. So Muhammad is an Israeli citizen and, as such, could request his nephew be airlifted to an Israeli hospital with better facilities. Ahmed was flown first to a hospital in Afula and then to one in Haifa. His parents were refused permission to accompany their dying son. As Palestinians are subject to travel restrictions, they had to request a permit to exit the West Bank. By the time this was granted, Ahmed had less than 24 hours to live.

What happened next made headlines around the world. When it was clear their son would not survive, Ismail and Abla took the decision to donate Ahmed’s organs for transplant. Within a day of their son’s life-support machine being switched off, Ahmed’s heart, lungs, liver and kidneys were used for transplant operations needed by six desperately ill Israelis – two Arabs and four Jews – five of them children.

Newspapers as far away as Ottawa and New Delhi carried stories heralding the Khatibs’ “Gift of Peace” and their “outstanding gesture of humanity”. “The name of Ahmed Khatib won’t go into the history books alongside that of Yitzhak Rabin or Yasser Arafat, but it deserves at least a mention,” the Los Angeles Times wrote. The shooting of Ahmed got barely a mention in the Israeli media the day it happened, so frequent is the death of a Palestinian child. But when news of his parents’ decision to donate his organs broke, it not only made the front page of most Israeli papers, but the country’s future prime minister Ehud Olmert called Ismail and Abla to thank them for a “gesture that would produce an atmosphere of deeper connection and goodwill between Israelis and Palestinians”. After this initial flurry of heart-warming stories, however, the Khatib family was forgotten as the media turned its attention back to the daily maelstrom of violence that engulfs the Middle East.

Yet what happened, not only afterwards but – more incredibly in light of their subsequent decision – what had happened to Abla and Ismail before their son was killed, provides a chilling insight into the dynamics of a conflict that between 2000 and the end of May 2006 has claimed the lives of 1,005 Israelis and 3,512 Palestinians, many of them – 119 Israelis and
695 Palestinians – children.

Our first glimpse of Ismail, Abla, five of their children, and other elderly relatives is as the family stands huddled together beyond the electrified wire fence, watchtowers and steel barricades of an Israeli checkpoint separating the West Bank area around Jenin from Israel. Despite having been told the previous day that they have permission to pass, the family is kept waiting beyond this barrier for more than an hour.

As the stalemate drags on, I approach one of the soldiers and ask if he is aware of the background of the family being kept waiting. He does not reply. Does he know, I ask, what happened to their son: that he was shot by Israeli soldiers while playing, and that his parents’ decision to donate the boy’s organs saved five lives, three of them Jewish? Silence. Does he know that the Khatib family’s decision was hailed as both “moving” and “noble” by senior Israeli politicians? Still no response. Growing increasingly frustrated, I ask the soldier if he had a terminally ill brother, sister, mother or father whose life depended on a transplant, would he not be desperately hoping for someone to make the decision of the family standing before him? Silence. Finally I raise my voice. Does he not feel ashamed at how he and others at the checkpoint are now treating this family? Still he says nothing, but in the shadow of his helmet I see one eye twitching rapidly, the only sign of inner turmoil.

Immediately I feel ashamed for having lost my temper. The soldier is just a conscript, barely out of his teens. I have only been here a few hours, yet already I am torn by conflicting emotions that must tear at the conscience of those not already entrenched in extremist positions.

When the family is finally allowed to pass through, we squash into two cars and travel to the village of El-Bqa’a in northern Galilee. Here the family have been invited to a party prepared by the parents of 12-year-old Samah Gadbaan, to give thanks for their daughter receiving Ahmed’s heart. The Gadbaan family – Druze Arabs often treated with suspicion and hostility by Israelis and Palestinians alike – are joined by the parents of Mohammed Kabua, the five-year-old Bedouin boy whose life was saved by the transplantation of one of Ahmed’s kidneys. Kayed and Fairuz Kabua have travelled for many hours with their son from the Negev desert in the south of the country to thank Ismail and Abla. Samah’s parents, Riyad and Yusra, also invited the families of the four Jewish recipients of Ahmed’s lungs, second kidney and liver – split between a seven-month-old baby and the 57-year-old woman. None have chosen to attend.

The father of a four-year-old girl, whose life has been saved by the transplantation of one of Ahmed’s kidneys, publicly stated afterwards that he wished the organ “had come from a Jew and not an Arab”. His comments deeply wounded the Khatib family, and were greeted with outrage by other Palestinians and many Israelis. Following the outcry, the ultra-orthodox family fell silent. I will meet them later. But before this, I hear Ismail and Abla’s extraordinary story.

For the hours they are hunched by my side in the back of a car on the way to Galilee, the grieving couple are preoccupied only with recollections of their son. They talk about how he loved to draw and play the guitar. At the house of the Gadbaan family, Ismail and Abla’s obvious pain amid the joy of those who welcome them is heart-rending. When Samah and Mohammed’s parents bring their now-healthy children to greet the couple, others in the room fall silent at the poignancy of the scene. Samah’s brother suddenly launches into an impromptu song of gratitude that his sister’s life has been saved. A parade is then organised to march through the town in honour of the Khatibs, followed by a formal ceremony and many speeches of thanks in the town hall. It is a long day.

Back in their home in Jenin the next day, the couple are exhausted. Ismail is also on edge. He is due to leave early the next morning for Italy, but by midnight has still not received permission from the Israelis to leave the camp. He has been invited to attend a peace conference in Milan, one of several such invitations from abroad, and to meet with a group interested in helping him set up an organisation he wants to found. It will be aimed at raising awareness of the need for organ donors, and would also help sick Palestinians find medical treatment beyond the confines of the occupied territories. With no prospect of a transplant, his elder brother died of kidney disease years ago – a crucial factor in Ismail’s decision to donate his own son’s organs. Ismail is also hoping to finalise arrangements for his eldest son, Muhammad, to travel to Florence, where he has been invited by philanthropists to finish his school studies.

“I want to get him out of this place. I would like all my children to study abroad,” says Ismail. “I want Muhammad to fulfil his brother’s dreams through education, not by taking vengeance for what happened to Ahmed. I don’t want my son to become a militant.” It is a legitimate fear. Raised amid the gun culture of years of warfare, it is the militants of extremist factions who regularly send suicide bombers into Israel, and whom children in the camp widely regard as heroes. Within days of Ahmed’s death, pictures of him were pasted up alongside posters of the many suicide bombers – martyrs, as those here call them – who have come from Jenin.

Then Ismail begins to speak about his own childhood, spent entirely within the densely populated refugee camp, established by the UN in 1953 for those who lost their homes after the founding of the state of Israel. He talks of being sent to prison at 15 for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, and of spending a total of five years in jail after that for offences including throwing Molotov cocktails. He talks of being abused in prison, of being forced to stand for days with his hands against a wall and a sack over his head into which someone had urinated. But it is when he and Abla start to speak of what happened to their family during the 2002 Israeli army incursion into Jenin that the most disturbing story emerges.


Because the couple’s two-storey house stands near the top of a steep incline from which much of the refugee camp can be seen, it was taken over by Israeli troops and used as a lookout post. Together with their children and other relatives and neighbours – 29 in all – the couple were herded into a small windowless room and kept there under armed guard throughout most of the military operation. “We had to ask permission to go to the toilet and to make food for our children in our own house. It was humiliating,” Abla recalls. But while the women and children were kept like that for a week, Ismail and a brother were hauled from the room and used as human shields – pushed into house after house in front of soldiers, testing to see if the buildings were booby-trapped. In the confusion following one explosion, the brothers, unhurt, managed to break free. But later Ismail was recaptured and used as a shield again. This time he was stripped naked to ensure he did not have a bomb strapped to his body, and his shoulder was used as a gun prop.

Rather than talk about how this made him feel, Ismail describes the fear of the Israeli soldiers: “One was so afraid he started crying and his commanding officer shouted, ‘Shape up! You’re not in Bethlehem!’”Amid the confusion of gunfire, Ismail once again escaped, and this time managed to flee the camp. Two days later, soldiers released his family and they also fled Jenin.

“When the fighting finally stopped, I was one of the first to set foot back in the camp,” says Ismail. “The smell was incredible. There were body parts spread all over the rubble. Part of our house was destroyed. My children saw all this. They were extremely affected. They kept asking me questions I was incapable of answering.”

Ahmed was nine at the time. The following year, Ismail says, his son was hauled by an Israeli soldier into one of their tanks, given a broom and ordered to clean it. “Ahmed tried to make a joke of it afterwards,” says Ismail. “He said the tank was disgusting inside where the soldiers had dirtied themselves. He said the soldiers had tried to give him biscuits and crisps. But he told them, ‘I don’t need your stuff. My father can buy me what I need.’” After listening to the details of such humiliation and tragedy, I cannot help but ask the couple how they could find it within their hearts to donate their son’s organs, knowing that because they were in an Israeli hospital, they would almost certainly go to people of the same nationality as the soldiers who had shot Ahmed. It is a question many others in Jenin also asked: the couple’s decision to donate their son’s organs did not find unanimous support. Anticipating this, and so to safeguard his family, Ismail sought the approval of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, the most senior Islamic cleric in Palestine, before telling the hospital of his decision.

In answer to my question, Abla speaks of the final hours of Ahmed’s life. As she and Ismail sat beside his hospital bed, she recalls being surrounded by parents all praying for their sons and daughters. “As we sat reading from the Koran, the other parents read from the Torah. Then one of these mothers came over to us and began to pray for Ahmed, and we went and prayed for her son,” she says, pulling Ahmed’s little sister Takwa tight against her breast. “We are all mothers and fathers. We all love our children. The message I wanted to send with what we did was, ‘Stop killing children!’”

Ismail nods agreement and then repeats a practised phrase: “Hope comes from suffering and we, as a people, have suffered a lot.” When I press him further, he says: “Look,” with a deep sigh, as if explaining an obvious truth, “a sense of common humanity is much bigger than any feelings of bitterness and revenge.” Try telling that to some of those whose lives were transformed by the action Ismail and Abla took.

The Jerusalem district of Ramat Shlomo lies less than 100 miles south of Jenin. But the newly built and immaculately maintained suburb seems much further removed from the virtual slum conditions of the Jenin refugee camp. It is here that Tova Levinsohn sits cradling her daughter Menuche. Menuche is four now, and with her golden curls, round cheeks and saucer-like eyes, she looks like a Botticelli angel. But Menuche did not always look so healthy. A year and a half ago she suffered sudden kidney failure, after which she spent three days a week undergoing dialysis.

Menuche was put on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. On November 6, the day after Ahmed died, the doctors called with the news of an available organ. “I burst out crying. It was such an emotional moment. They were tears of happiness,” recalls Tova. Within hours, Menuche was having surgery at the Schneider children’s hospital in Petah Tiqwa near Tel Aviv.

At one point Tova describes the Khatib family as “messengers of God”. “We believe God sent them to give us the kidney,” she says. Her husband, Yaakov, claims he does not recall making the comment about wishing the kidney that saved his daughter’s life had come from a Jew, not an Arab. “Some people say I said wrong things. But I don’t really remember,” he said. “Menuche was still in surgery when I was asked by the media what I thought. I didn’t know how to react. It was all so shocking. I was so tired I hardly knew what I was saying.”

Be this as it may, it is the casual comments both he and his wife make subsequently that signal a sad disregard for the circumstances in which their daughter received her new kidney. It is six months since Ahmed’s death as I sit talking with the Levinsohn family, and Tova turns to me looking for me to jog her memory. “I’m in the process of having a social worker help me write a letter to the family to thank them,” she says. “What’s their name again?” And then she adds: “It’s not usual for Arabs to give to Jews, you know.” Asked how he now feels about what he said, Yaakov says he “didn’t truly appreciate what they [Ismail and Abla] did at the time. It was a big thing”. As he speaks, Tova mutters: “They didn’t have any choice, really.” Then Yaakov continues: “After all you get from Arabs, you know, they are the enemy, trying to do bad things, and then there they are donating organs.”

Such views, Yaakov explains, have been greatly influenced by the time he spent in the Israeli army, during which his duties included identifying the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed in the conflict. “It is a very hard situation here.” “That’s right,” Tova chips in. “On the one hand we are very appreciative, but on the other hand they are continuing with their terrorist attacks.”

Tova is right in that once Ismail and Abla made the decision to donate their son’s organs, medical ethics meant they could not stipulate to whom those organs would go; though nor, the couple say, would they have wanted to. This has meant in the past that donated organs of Israelis killed in suicide bomb attacks have also gone to save the lives of Palestinians. But it is the Levinsohns’ seeming inability to look beyond the fact that the donor came from “the other side” that is most striking. They are not alone in this. The family of the teenage girl who received Ahmed’s lungs, I am informed, is so anxious about the reaction of those in their orthodox community to finding out that she received her transplanted lungs from an Arab child, that they refuse to be identified. And when I meet the 57-year-old Jewish woman to whom part of Ahmed’s liver was transplanted, she makes her view clear in three different ways: “It was not important who the organ come from. I did not want to know… I just wanted to get the liver… It was my own situation I was very sad about.”

Ina Rubinstein, her husband and two children moved to Israel from Uzbekistan 16 years ago to escape persecution by nationalist forces there. “It was a big relief to come here, but then we found things were not so easy here either,” says Ina, who was just hours from death when the transplant of part of Ahmed’s liver was performed. The operation did not go well. Ten days later she received a second successful transplant. “Of course it was a pity what happened to the boy, and I am grateful to his parents,” Ina finally concedes. “But the people I really want to thank are the doctors who saved my life.”

Such grudging attitudes are counterbalanced only by that of the parents of the seven-month-old girl who received the other part of Ahmed’s liver. Anat and Amnon Beton called their baby daughter Osher, meaning “happiness”, and pictures of her cover the walls of the couple’s home in Akko, north of Haifa. But Osher lived for only two days after her transplant operation. “It’s a pity. I would have been so proud if my daughter had lived with Ahmed’s liver,” says Anat. The reason the couple did not attend the Gadbaans’ party, they explain, was because they are still observing a period of mourning.

“If I could have gone I would have hugged Ahmed’s mother,” says Anat. “I would have taken her and told her thank you, told her that her loss gave life to five people.” Amnon says: “We have friends who are Arab and Christian. We want peace. It did not matter to us that the liver came from a Palestinian boy. We are all humans.”

In the months following Ahmed’s death, the Israeli human-rights organisation B’Tselem wrote to the chief military prosecutor of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) demanding a criminal investigation be opened into the shooting. Soldiers had not used crowd-control measures such as tear gas, but instead had used live ammunition as the first resort, B’Tselem argued, describing it as another example of the IDF’s “trigger-happy” policy. According to witnesses, Hithem’s account that his friend had not been carrying a toy gun is true – though one said the boys had been throwing stones at the soldiers.

For the past three years, B’Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) have been petitioning the IDF’s judge advocate general’s office to open criminal investigations into the killing of every Palestinian not participating in fighting. In response, the state attorney’s office last month told the High Court of Justice that military police have been increasing the number of criminal investigations against Israeli soldiers suspected of killing “non-combatants”. In the four years to July 2004, it said, the army had conducted 80 investigations, while during the following year, 55 new cases had been opened, and in the nine months after that, 40. The reason for this increase in investigations, it said, was that a lessening in Palestinian violence meant less reason for civilians to be hurt. Human-rights workers argue a different case. They say there has been an escalation in Israeli military action since last autumn, when Israel resumed targeted killings, and an even further increase since Hamas came to power this year. Such violence is widely viewed as a form of collective punishment for a people who voted in a party that refuses to recognise the state of Israel’s right to exist.

But even this increase in the number of criminal investigations means that of the 3,512 Palestinians killed by the Israeli security forces from September 2000 to May 2006 – more than half of whom are believed not to have been participating in fighting when they died – only 175 investigations have been opened. Of this total, 19 cases, involving the deaths of 26 people, went to court, and seven of these resulted in convictions; six on charges such as illegal use of a weapon. The number of convictions on the charge of manslaughter: one – a situation that B’Tselem argues amounts to a “de facto climate of impunity” for killing civilians.

As to the killing of Ahmed, the IDF say that while they “regret” the shooting, they can find “no justification” to open an investigation. Puzzled that their written response to my inquiry – B’Tselem is still waiting for a reply to their demand – refers to Ahmed as “the man”, I call to confirm we are talking about the shooting of a 12-year-old boy. “We want to emphasise that he looked older than he was,” a spokeswoman says.

In Jenin I walked the 130 metres from the place where Ahmed was shot to the position from which soldiers in a Jeep are said to have targeted him. My eyesight is not good, yet I could clearly see that Ahmed’s friends, with whom I had been talking at the spot where he fell, were children.

Trying to make sense of what Ahmed’s death and such reactions to it say about what is going on in the Arab-Israeli conflict, I visit the grand mufti of Jerusalem. But instead of a spiritual response, I find myself on the receiving end of more political diatribe about the current mess in the Middle East being the fault originally of the British, who with the Balfour declaration of 1917 supported the formation of a Jewish national home in British-mandated Palestine.

Finally, I remember the words of another grieving father I had met in Jerusalem several years before. Rami Elhanan lost his beloved 15-year-old daughter, Smadar, in a suicide bombing attack nine years ago, and has spent much of his time since touring Israeli schools talking about the conflict and the need for it to end. “Sometimes I feel like a boy with his finger in the dam, talking about peace when the flood of violence and hatred has already swept away the wall,” he said. “But I believe strongly that the minute the price of not having peace exceeds the price of peace, then peace will come. And the loss of a child is the highest price any parent can pay.”

Discussing the politics of murder

June 11, 2006

Christine Toomey was invited to lunch with one of Israel’s most wanted and implacable enemies, Zakaria Zubeidi, whose disciples are trained in the cause of martyrdom

The black cloud of minute shrapnel shard shrouding much of Zakaria Zubeidi’s face, including the whites of his eyes, is so surreal and sinister-looking that I am momentarily mesmerised as he approaches me to take a seat by my side for lunch.

Even before we start talking I unconsciously strain a little closer to make out the full extent of the disfigurement. When I realise I am staring and may cause offence, my eyes drop to waist level and I catch sight of the man on Israel’s list of most wanted terrorist suspects adjusting his belt before sitting down. There is a large revolver – a 9mm Smith & Wesson, I later learn – prominently tucked into the top of his jeans.

This is not someone, I remind myself, anyone would want to upset in a hurry. Suddenly I no longer feel hungry. “Just a little for me, please,” I whisper to the wife of our host, a neighbour of one of the safe houses used by this head of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade in the Jenin refugee camp on the Palestinian West Bank.

As far as the Israelis are concerned, this man is a chief strategist of suicide bombers in the camp they refer to as “the capital of suicide terrorism”. Over the past four years, according to Israeli government sources, at least 83 Israelis have been killed and 686 more wounded in suicide attacks for which the al-Aqsa brigades have claimed responsibility. But to those in Jenin, who call him simply by his first name, Zakaria is both a godfather of the Palestinian resistance movement and a Robin Hood figure to the poor. To the children of the camp, raised amid the gun culture of so many years of warfare, he is a cross between a superhero and a pied piper, a man they idolise and yearn to follow.

In seeking a rare interview with Zakaria I am fully expecting that, if he does agree to see me, the meeting will last only a few minutes. “Zakaria never stays in one place for long,” my interpreter warns me more than once. So when he does come, I constantly anticipate he will cut off our interview and leave. As the photographer
zooms in on his face, I motion her to back off again to avoid rankling him prematurely. This is much to the later chagrin of my editors.

Yet Zakaria seems relaxed. He is dressed in a much more casual manner than I’ve been led to expect. Instead of the usual combat gear, semiautomatic M-16 rifle and lines of ammunition strung across his chest, he is wearing Fila trainers, jeans and a cream-coloured T-shirt with the logo “13lbs of denim attitude” printed across the right breast. He is in a reflective mood and not only stays to finish lunch but, once the plates have been cleared away, eases his tall, lean frame back in an armchair to sip strong, sweet tea and carry on talking.

Just before he appears in the room, a tall, gaunt figure identifying himself only as “Ramsey” takes a position on a sofa opposite me. As we exchange greetings, I notice that Ramsey keeps eyeing the open door behind my back. I calculate that he must be some sort of scout making sure the coast is clear. But as we await the arrival of the man described by one prominent Israeli politician as an “accomplished and proud terrorist”, Ramsey seems happy to answer questions. So, if Zakaria is such a prime target, I ask, how is it he has not been arrested or assassinated in one of the Israeli security forces’ “targeted killing” operations?

“There have been intense campaigns to get him. But so far he has been lucky. The people who move around Zakaria are extremely intelligent and, up until now, no collaborator has managed to get into his circle,” Ramsey replies cautiously. “Usually the people who get killed have weaknesses,” he adds. “They love money or they love women.”

Yet Zakaria, just 29, clearly loves the latter. When he does slip behind me with feline agility a few minutes later, to be greeted by outstretched arms from Ramsey and our host, one of the first things he mentions is he has become a father for the second time. His son, aged two, now has a sister. And two years ago a 29-year-old Israeli woman, accused of being Zakaria’s girlfriend, was arrested and charged with “contact with a foreign agent in a time of war”. Both the woman, a former legal secretary called Tali Fahima, and Zakaria have denied their friendship was romantic. But the allegations stuck with the Israeli public, for whom the “Fahima affair” became a national scandal. As a result, Fahima, who openly boasted her admiration for the man “who does so much for his nation… yet cannot even remain in the same place for half an hour”, is still sitting in an Israeli jail.

Before speaking to me for the first time, Zakaria smiles to acknowledge congratulations on the birth of his daughter. Apart from his disturbing facial disfigurement – the result of fragments of shrapnel embedded in his flesh as he mishandled a bomb three years ago – I see that, when he smiles, he could be described as handsome. His smile bares a perfect set of teeth in a curiously symmetrical crescent moon, a feature that has led some to describe him as clownish. But Zakaria is no fool, despite his education being interrupted at an early age by a lengthy spell in prison for throwing stones and Molotov cocktails.

Unlike me, Zakaria has a healthy appetite. As we start to talk he tucks into a large plate of makloobeh – a mix of rice, roasted cauliflower and chicken flavoured with cinnamon, cumin and cardamom. He smothers dollops of yoghurt on top of the mix before spooning it into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully, considering each question before answering. For most of the hour we sit talking, he speaks in quiet, measured tones. He displays little emotion until he mentions the death of his mother, killed in the spring 2002 Israeli offensive against the refugee camp. The army raid followed a suicide bombing by a Jenin resident in which 29 Israelis died. As tanks rolled into the camp, hundreds of homes were reduced to rubble, leaving 2,000 Palestinians homeless. At the end of 10 days of fighting, 23 Israeli soldiers and 52 Palestinians, including women and children, were dead.

As the call to prayer echoes through the narrow, winding and still battle-scarred streets of Jenin, Zakaria talks about the special affinity he feels he has with its children, and the loss of childhood, including his own. He recalls being sent to a prison as a boy of 14 at the outbreak of the first intifada uprising against Israeli occupation. The previous year he had been shot in the leg by an Israeli soldier for throwing stones. Despite six months in hospital undergoing four operations, he was left with one leg shorter than the other and a slight limp that is still noticeable. “I had already been injured by soldiers, then I was sent to prison for six months; there they made me the representative of the other child prisoners and I started taking their problems to the head of the jail,” he explains. Soon after his release, he was sent back to jail; this time for 41/2 years for throwing Molotov cocktails.

“I was transferred from the child area to the adult area of the prison, and the adults dealt with me as a child. I could not absorb what was happening. In the children’s section I was looked upon as a leader. How could I be demoted to a child again after so much experience as a leader?” While in prison he was recruited to the ranks of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. After he was released from jail in the wake of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, he joined the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) police force. But disillusioned by the PA’s nepotism and rife corruption, he soon left and got a job, briefly, as a construction worker in Tel Aviv. Arrested again for failing to possess a work permit, he was sent back to Jenin, where he took a job as a truck driver transporting flour and olive oil. He lost this job when the occupied territories were sealed off by the Israelis at the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000. It was after witnessing the killing of a close friend by Israeli soldiers the following year that he turned to armed militancy and bomb-making.
But it is what happened before he was jailed the first time as a child, and what happened after the outbreak of the latest intifada, to which Zakaria returns again and again. It is this that holds the key to the man he is today. It is here that his bitterness and buried pain lie. “I was injured at 13, put in jail at 14. Where is my childhood? Where has my childhood gone?” he repeats with self-pity. “Did you know we had a children’s theatre in the camp before that? Arabs and Israelis. They used to come to my house to practise,” he says with a sudden, sour laugh.

The theatre group he talks of was the initiative of an Israeli peace activist called Arna Mer-Khamis, who married a Palestinian and became a prominent human-rights campaigner. During the first intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Israel closed all Palestinian schools in the occupied territories for a time, she started a series of learning centres for Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza. As part of an initiative to foster understanding between Palestinians and Israelis, she opened a children’s theatre in Jenin called Arna’s House, run by a group of dozens of Israeli volunteers. The rehearsal space for the theatre troupe was the top floor of Zakaria’s house. It had been offered by his mother, Samira, a widow struggling to raise eight children alone, who believed peace between the two warring sides was possible. Zakaria’s father had been an English teacher prevented from teaching by the Israelis because of his membership of Fatah. To support his family he became a labourer in an Israeli iron foundry until he died of cancer.

At the core of the troupe were six boys: Zakaria, then 12, his older brother Daoud, and four others around the same age. There was Ashraf, an extrovert who dreamt of becoming a professional actor; Yusuf, whom Zakaria described as “the most romantic and sentimental of all of us”; Yusuf’s neighbour and best friend, Nidal; and Ala’a, a withdrawn boy traumatised by the demolition of his home by Israeli forces as collective punishment for the actions of an older, jailed brother. Zakaria talks of the time he spent with the troupe as one of the happiest of his life. A time when the children “felt like real people, people who mattered”.

As the boys acted out their fantasies and frustrations in this room in Zakaria’s house, Arna’s son, the Israeli actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, started making a documentary about their lives. Over a decade later, following the 2002 Israeli incursion into Jenin, he returned to find out what had happened to the boys and complete his documentary, Arna’s Children, released in 2004 to critical acclaim. Zakaria was by then a member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. His brother Daoud had been sent to jail for 16 years for terrorist activity. The other four – Ashraf, Nidal, Ala’a and Yusuf – were all dead. Also dead was Zakaria’s mother, killed a month before the incursion, when Israeli forces had already started staging lightning raids on the camp. Samira had sought refuge in a neighbour’s home, but had briefly popped her head out of a window and was shot by an Israeli soldier and bled to death. Zakaria’s brother Taha was killed by Israeli soldiers shortly afterwards.

But it is not just the deaths of his mother, brother and friends that have embittered Zakaria. It is the deafening silence afterwards of those in Israel’s peace camp who he had thought were his friends. “Not one of those people who came to the camp and were our guests as part of the theatre group, fed every day by my mother, called to say they were sorry my family had died,” he says. “Not one of them picked up a phone.”

Perhaps I have not spent long enough with the Israeli families of those killed by suicide bombing attacks, although I have spent many hours sitting with them. But in these moments, before Zakaria adopts a more bravura performance, what I hear are the words of a still wounded child. “That is when we saw the real face of the left in Israel; the left who later joined the Sharon government,” Zakaria continues. “So anybody talking about the peace camp in Israel does not convince me. I have no more confidence in the left, and this is a scary development. When you lose hope, your options are limited,” he says with a deep sigh, slumping back in his chair again. “So this is how suicide attacks happen. When people lose hope. When a suicide bomber decides to carry out an attack, he’s fully convinced there is no more hope.”

“Look,” he says, “there is a war being waged against us on every front, including economic. What else can we do? How can we pit our strength against the power and military capabilities of the Israelis? How can we fight on the same level? If you use Apaches [helicopters] and F-16s [fighter jets] against me, of course I am going to use a suicide attack against you.”

As he fixes me with his gaze, I consciously try not to look away before he does, as a challenge to what he says. But he outstares me. So how can this bloody cycle of violence on both sides ever come to an end, I ask, fully expecting the pat answer he duly returns: “It will only end with the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and with making sure that Palestinians have their rights.”

Unlike the recent victors in the Palestinian election – the radical Islamic movement Hamas, which refuses to recognise the right of Israel to exist – those allied to Fatah, such as al-Aqsa, still support a two-state solution of an independent Palestine alongside the state of Israel. Within this context, the power and influence of extremists such as Zakaria cannot be overestimated. In the run-up to the election of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president in early 2005, Abbas travelled to Jenin to pay court to Zakaria. When crowds chanted Zakaria’s name, not that of Abbas, as the gun-toting militant hoisted the 69-year-old former schoolteacher onto his shoulders to carry him through the streets, the message was not lost on the elderly politician. Even Arafat paid homage to the young firebrand, Zakaria recalls, once patting him on the back and saying: “Zakaria, buddy, I love you. We’re marching to Jerusalem!”

“Look,” Zakaria says. “Whoever thinks we can live under occupation is mistaken t-o-t-a-l-l-y,” drawing out the last word for emphasis. “We are present and we have the
right to live. Our children have the right to live, and if we feel we have come to the point where Palestinian children don’t have the right to live, then childhood and the whole concept of childhood in the world is finished.” So we return to childhood. But what about those whose childhood is cut short by Palestinian suicide-bombing atrocities, I badger him. And it is here our discussion enters the realm of fantasy. “I have not in all my resistance hurt a child. I am against hurting children. In the Aqsa-brigade suicide attacks never did a child die. Most of the acts I’ve been involved in are shooting acts,” insists the man sat before me with a gun at his hip.

Exactly what he has and has not been involved in should be a matter for the courts to decide. According to Israeli sources, at least six children have been killed and many more injured in suicide attacks for which al-Aqsa have claimed responsibility. Yet it will almost definitely never come to a court appearance. If Zakaria does not himself become a shahid, or martyr, as suicide bombers call themselves, he faces the near certainty that he will be targeted and killed by Israeli security forces, as have previous heads of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.

Zakaria admits he does not expect to grow old and seems resigned to the prospect that his children will grow up without their father. There have been numerous attempts to assassinate him. One, by an elite unit of Israeli border police two years ago, left five Palestinians, including a 14-year-old boy, dead in a shoot-out. Soon after we meet, Israeli security operations are again stepped up throughout the West Bank. Nine Palestinians are killed close to Jenin and nearby Nablus, and Zakaria is again on the run.

When I dismiss his claim about avoiding child targets as nonsense, Zakaria starts to backtrack. When a suicide bomber walks into a shopping mall or cafe or onto a crowded bus and blows himself up, he is oblivious as to whether or not there are children among those he intends to murder, I insist. “When kids are targeted, that’s a mistake,” Zakaria blusters, before cranking his political posturing up a gear. “Every time we have a suicide attack it is a reaction to an aggressive Israeli attack. Our attacks are not strategic attacks. All the attacks of the Aqsa brigades have been reaction to big Israeli aggressive attacks. Since we all feel that we are targeted, we follow an Arabic saying, ‘Don’t die before showing you’re a strong opponent.’ We have no problem with Israel. We have a problem with the occupation. We in Palestine have the highest level of independence and integrity of thinking.”

From here our discussion descends to absurdity. When I challenge him about the fundamental barbarity of the act of suicide bombing and the waste of the young lives of the suicide bombers, he insists the al-Aqsa brigades have never used a child in attacks. The case of a 16-year-old boy who, four years ago, positioned himself alongside a group of elderly people playing chess before detonating the bomb he was carrying, killing himself and two others and wounding 40 more in an attack attributed to al-Aqsa is ignored. And what about even younger boys, I argue, caught at checkpoints with bomb belts strapped to their waists? “Ah yes,” Zakaria concedes. “But they were intending to be caught. rA true suicide bomber will never be stopped by any checkpoint. These boys you are talking about go to the checkpoint desiring to be caught to escape their bad economic situation. They want to go to prison – they can study better there.”

The idea that teenage suicide bombers are deliberately allowing themselves to be caught by the Israelis so they can get a bit of peace and quiet to do their schoolwork behind bars is clearly preposterous. But when I laugh out loud, Zakaria tries to drive the point home, gesticulating with his finger in the direction of my pen and notepad. “I would like you to know. Write it down! We do not use children for such acts.”

As the tension in the room rises, the curtain billows away from the window again to reveal the wide-eyed children gathered outside, clearly listening to what is going on inside. Glancing at the innocent faces pressed against the tilted glass slats at the window, Zakaria muses on his attraction to the children of the refugee camp.

“They like me because I can talk to them. I always come down to their level. They are proud to know me. Other kids will ask, ‘Do you know Zakaria?

Have you spoken to him?’ Kids look up to me as a fighter. I am a symbol of resistance. It is important they see I am not too big to pay attention to them, that I care about them. I want them to know Zakaria is easy to reach. Zakaria is there to speak to. These things make kids come near to you.”

So, pied piper? Manipulator of innocence? Terrorist? Wounded child? Resistance fighter? Superhero? To understand is in no way to excuse, but Zakaria Zakaria is no enigma. Following the arc of his life in this extraordinary encounter, I conclude it little wonder he is all of these.

Then, just as he had entered with no warning, little ceremony and children following in his wake, the man who has been compared to a cat with nine lives slinks quietly from the room.

Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ brigades

The al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades emerged at the start of the second intifada. The intifada was sparked by Palestinian outrage that Ariel Sharon and 1,000 armed guards had entered their holy site — the Haram al-Sharif, or “Noble Sanctuary” containing the al-Aqsa mosque — in east Jerusalem. The brigades consist of local clusters of armed activists believed to be affiliated with Fatah — the political organisation founded by Yasser Arafat that ruled the Palestinian Authority until Hamas won an overwhelming majority in January’s elections. Fatah leaders claim there is no supervisor-subordinate role between Fatah and al-Aqsa, and that they have never been able to exercise effective control of the martyrs’ brigades. Local al-Aqsa brigades are believed to be loosely structured and driven by charismatic personalities such as Zakaria Zubeidi. When I try to confirm with Israeli authorities the charges Zubeidi is wanted on, I am stonewalled. I am instructed to trawl through government records of 135 suicide and other bombing and shooting attacks carried out in Israel since September 2000 to see how many the al-Aqsa brigades have claimed responsibility for. Total: 20.

Theatre of war

In 1989 the Israeli peace activist Arna Mer-Khamis opened a children’s theatre group in Jenin called Arna’s House. Zakaria is one of the few members still alive

YusUf Sweitat

After graduating from high school, Yusuf became a homicide investigator with the Palestinian police. But in 2001, after witnessing the killing of a 12-year-old girl by an Israeli tank, he joined the Islamic Jihad extremists. At 22, after making a video of himself and a friend reading the Koran, the two drove into an Israeli town and opened fire, killing four, before being shot dead by Israeli police.

Ashraf Abu el-Haje
Ashraf joined the al-Aqsa brigades in early 2002. He and Yusuf’s cousin Nidal died at the age of 22, at the height of fighting during the Jenin incursion. They were killed by an Israeli helicopter missile after hacking out a hole to make a firing position in a wall of Zakaria’s house (the same room he and the other child actors used as a rehearsal space).

Ala’a Sabagh
After Arna’s theatre group disbanded, Ala’a dropped out of school and joined the al-Aqsa brigades. During the Jenin incursion he was captured by the Israelis. On his release, after giving a false name, he returned to Jenin and became head of the camp’s al-Aqsa brigade. In 2002 an Israeli aircraft fired a missile into the house he was hiding in with the leader of the Islamic Jihad. Both were killed.

Zakaria Zubeidi
Juliano Mer-Khamis, who made the documentary Arna’s Children, calls Zakaria “a charmer, who always took care of his appearance”. While few of those in Israel’s peace camp, hosted by Zakaria’s mother, took any interest in what happened to his family after she was killed, Mer-Khamis stayed in touch and is now founding a theatre in Jenin: