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Dreams and Nightmares…

December 7, 2009

Palestine Monitor (palestinemonitor.org– exposing life under occupation)

Sami, 23, from Al-Essawaya village near Nablus, has always believed in peaceful coexistence with Israelis.

“I worked for six years inside Israel”, he tells me, “just in supermarkets, any work I could find. Me and my friends would jump over the wall at Qalandyia because we were not allowed to pass through.” He describes himself as free of political affiliation; “not Fatah, not Hamas, just peace”. Through time spent working in Tel Aviv he became acquainted with members of the Sulha peace project, a group dedicated to “rebuild trust, restore dignity and move beyond the political agenda”. Sami helped to distribute their literature and attended conferences, before being invited to a three day retreat at the Latrun monastery Jerusalem. Permits were obtained for him and ten friends, along with around 30 other Palestinians.

Daisy, a resident of Yaffo and long time Sulha member describes the gathering and meeting Sami.

“It was like a mini festival, people sleeping outside, playing music and all eating together. There were people from all religions and nations, even a Buddhist monk sent by the Dalai Lama. The organisers arranged the paperwork for them (Palestinians), so that they could attend. When I met Sami for the first time he was so pleased to be there, showing his permit certificate to everyone and speaking Hebrew.”

After three enjoyable days, encouraged by the positive atmosphere, Sami felt confident enough to make a bold step. He invited Daisy and Tal (also from Yaffo), to visit Essawaya and spend a few nights in his home. Despite some apprehension, neither having stayed in a Palestinian village before, both accepted.

“They came for Eid one year ago,” Sami recalls, “they stayed in my family home for three days. We killed a sheep together, went for walks and they talked with people from the village. I told everyone the Israelis were for peace and nobody had any problem.” Daisy agrees; “His family and the people I met were very welcoming and happy to see me, just on a human basis.”

After two days Sami’s brother received a call from a Palestinian policeman. “They asked him why an Israeli was in our house and he told them that I invited them. My brother passed me the phone and the policeman asked ‘why do you have them? Are you going to kill them? Are they hostages?’ I said no, it’s for peace and he put down the phone”. Sami believes a collaborator inside the village informed the police and gave them his brother’s number.

Daisy and Tal were shaken by the call and wanted to return home. “We thought to go somewhere so that Sami and his family would not get in trouble,” Daisy says, “we drove together back towards Israel, with me driving. We were thinking to explain to someone at the checkpoint what had happened, that we had not been kidnapped, but we were scared.” On the way Daisy was called by a Shabak officer, identifying himself as Dan. “He was very threatening. I told him nothing was wrong, we hadn’t been kidnapped and everything was ok. Sami asked to speak to him and tried to explain about the peace project but I could hear that he was being threatened.”

Their car was apprehended at a checkpoint trying to enter Israel. Looking back Daisy regrets what she calls a “big mistake”. For Sami it was the beginning of a nightmare. “The soldier said to me- ‘are you Sami?’ I said yes and he said to go with him. I asked what was the problem, he said; ’don’t talk, shut up’ and all of us were taken to a prison inside Ariel settlement.”

Daisy and Tal were held for a day, facing many consecutive hours of interrogation by Shabak officers.

“They told me they were opening a file on me and impounded my car. They kept asking me why I was with Sami and calling me a whore. It was very intimidating, I was shocked at how I was treated.” The next day, without her car, Daisy was released and warned not to return. She asked what would happen to Sami, but the officers said only that it wasn’t her business.

Without informing his family or anyone else, the army had transferred Sami to the infamous Hadarim detention centre which also houses Marwan Barghouti. Like many of the 11,000 Palestinians kept in Israeli jails Sami was not formally charged, but went through debilitating sessions of interrogation and torture.

“At first I was in isolation. I didn’t see anyone or talk with anyone. Then the guard begins to ask me questions, why I want to kill Israelis, if I am Hamas terrorist. I say I want only peace and he laughs and tells me I am lying.” A year on Sami’s scars from sustained beatings are highly visible, with cigarette burns dotted all over his skin. He believes the officers knew he posed no threat, but they were softening him up for a different reason. “After 12 days he comes to me and says that I can go if I can do some work for them. I say it’s not a problem, but what? He says ’just see what happens in your village and tell me’. He shows me hundreds of dollars and says every month he can give me more, and a new house and whatever I want. I say I don’t want it, I don’t need money. Kill me if you want but I wont be a spy for you. If I do the people from my village will know and they will kill me. He said ’if you don’t want, all your life will be in jail’.”

“I say I like jail, that’s no problem. But in my heart I was very afraid. If he forget me, what could I do? If he kill me what I can do? If my mother ask where Sami? She would never know.”

Meanwhile Daisy had returned to Yaffo, but despite “many phone calls, talking with Sami’s family and calling every police station, it was impossible to find him. I wanted to see what they did to him, but the army told me he was not in any prison in Israel. Eventually I found out he was in Hadarim, when another prisoner called and told me to contact Sami.”

After speaking with Sami, she visited him in Hadarim.

“I was able to pass him some basic things, like clothes and cigarettes. I couldn’t get any information, but I could see the marks on his face. He said he needed a lawyer, but couldn’t afford one.”

After 20 days, Sami was told he could pay a bail fee of 500 shekels, which confirmed his suspicion that they knew he was no threat.

“Daisy paid the money and after they let me go. I returned to my home and that day my brother was called by the guard, he said “if you talk I will kill both of you”. One month later, several IDF jeeps entered Al-Essawaya. Sami was woken at 3am when they broke his door down. “The soldier said if you don’t want to work with us we will beat your family and your father will not be allowed to work in Israel. I said if you hurt my family I will kill myself, but they took my brother. They keep him in prison for a month and every day they beat him, so bad that he cannot have children. While he is there they break into his office and do 16,000 shekels of damage to it. Nobody will give him that.” After his brother was released he visited a doctor, who told him a course of hormones to restores his fertility would cost 300 shekels a day. The course would last five months, with fees totalling around 45,000 shekels. “My brother is now 30”, Sami says sadly, “he says he doesn’t want money or anyone to repair his office. He just wants to marry and have children. I feel that I have broken his life.” Since then his cousin has also been arrested and imprisoned, while a close friend who also attended the Sulha retreat has been in Hadarim for 10 months. Sami shows me a letter his friend sent and reads me an extract; “don’t get in trouble, don’t try to make peace, because his eyes are everywhere.”

I ask Sami if the impact on his family makes him question his commitment to peace activism. Do they blame him for their suffering? Does he regret anything? “I feel that it is now more important”, he says, “After I got home from Hadarim my father asked me to stop. He said ‘you’re not big or important enough for it’. But I told him I need to do something, even if it’s not big. If everyone in Israel and Palestine do something small like me there can be peace. It’s not just me that want to do this, I know people on both sides that want it also. Now my father understands and supports me, even my brother who cannot have children says it’s good. I am more committed now, my whole life is for this”. As testament to his conviction Sami continues to invite foreign people to stay with him, with his family’s blessing. Last month he hosted a Dutch activist, at the risk of more trouble from the police.

Sami remains confident that peace is inevitable.

“I believe one day soon there will be peace, with all people living together in one state. Some days I talk with settlers, I ask why we cannot go in each other’s villages. I invite them to my home. They say it is a nice idea.” Sami intends to study political sciences and maintain links with more international peace groups and those inside Israel. I speculate that he is too well known now to the police, indeed he was picked up again two weeks ago, to get away with any rule breaking. “I’m happy with what I did and I will do it every time. People here are afraid to help because they will have a problem, we know the police try to stop us doing peace work. I know what I do makes problems for me but if you do something good it lasts forever. I want to die and sleep well.”

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