Palestinian children throwing stones at an Israeli tank in the West Bank in 2003. Photograph: Mohammed Ballas/AP
One night in 2005, Israeli soldiers came for Huda Dahbour’s teenage son. He was gone for a year and a half. The damage done to their family – and so many others like them – was incalculable
by Nathan ThrallThu 21 Sep 2023
Huda Dahbour was 35 years old when she moved with her husband and three children to the West Bank in September 1995. It was the second anniversary of the Oslo accords, which established pockets of Palestinian self-government in the occupied territories. Jerusalem was still relatively open when they arrived in East Sawahre, a neighbourhood just outside the areas of Jerusalem that Israel had annexed in 1967. Huda was able to send her children to school within the city. They were under the age of 12, and Israel allowed them to enter without a special blue ID. But over time the restrictions grew, and from one day to the next Jerusalem was closed off to Palestinians by checkpoints, roadblocks and a tightening of the ever-more elaborate permit regime. On one occasion, the school bus was blocked from bringing the students home to Sawahre. Huda and half the parents of the neighbourhood spent the afternoon searching for their children, who finally showed up at sunset, after walking for several hours. Huda immediately took them out of their Jerusalem schools.
It was a fateful decision. Until then, her eldest son, Hadi, had lived up to the meaning of his name – “calm”. He was a quiet boy who rarely got into trouble. That changed when he had to start a new school, this one in Abu Dis, which was home to al-Quds University and the site of frequent clashes between local youth and Israeli soldiers. During the second intifada, the bloody 2000-2005 Palestinian uprising against the occupation, Israel cut off Abu Dis from Jerusalem by erecting an 8 metre-tall concrete wall, the “separation barrier”. It was a disaster for Abu Dis, whose businesses relied heavily on customers from the city. Shops closed, land values dropped by more than half, rental prices by nearly a third and those who could afford to moved away.
Israeli troops were stationed outside Hadi’s school practically every day. To Huda, their presence seemed designed to provoke the students so they could then arrest as many of them as possible. The soldiers would stop them on their way out of classes, line them up against the wall, frisk them and sometimes beat them, too.
In her work as a doctor with UNRWA, the UN relief and works agency for Palestinian refugees, Huda saw things that made her afraid for her sons. She had witnessed a soldier shoot a boy who threw a stone at a tank. The soldiers stopped her from going to help him as he fell to the ground. At home in Sawahre, listening to the nightly news of West Bank killings and closures, she had trouble sleeping. She knew Hadi was out throwing stones.
The stress began to show in her body. It started with headaches that became severe. Then at work one day she had the sensation of cold liquid inside her head. She had double vision and difficulty walking. When she got home, she took a nap and woke up 24 hours later. Huda understood that she had been in a coma, a sign that she might have a cerebral haemorrhage.
She needed an operation, but the Palestinian hospitals in the West Bank and East Jerusalem weren’t equipped to perform it. She couldn’t afford treatment in Israel. Finally, she obtained a letter from the Palestinian Authority – from Yasser Arafat himself – promising to cover 90% of the 50,000 shekels (then around £6,000) in costs, and brought it to Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem.
The surgery was a success, but the stress that had possibly caused the haemorrhage only intensified. One Sunday in May 2004, when Hadi was 15, he and his friends were shot at by Israeli border police. Eyewitnesses told the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and the AFP news agency that the boys had not taken part in any hostilities. Hadi told his mother that they had been minding their own business, drinking Cokes, when the soldiers started to fire at them. One of the bullets hit Hadi’s friend, who was sitting right beside him. The boy was killed immediately.
After that, Hadi confronted the soldiers with new determination. Huda would see him and his friends in the street, recognising him despite the black-and-white kaffiyeh covering his face. She kept her distance, though, not wanting the soldiers to see that she was his mother so that they would find out where he lived, and then come to their home to arrest him at night. But less than a year after Hadi’s friend was shot, Israeli jeeps and armoured vehicles surrounded Huda’s home at 1.30am. Troops approached from all sides and banged loudly on the door. Huda knew why they had come.
Huda wanted to delay the inevitable, to have a few more seconds with her boy, so she ignored the banging, opening the door only when the soldiers began kicking at it. They had their weapons trained on her as she quietly asked what they wanted, tears running down her face.
“We want Hadi,” one of the soldiers said. Huda demanded to know the accusation. “Your son knows,” she was told.
“I’m his mother. I want to know,” she said. They ignored her.
Hadi’s younger brother Ahmad, who was 13, came with her as she led the way to Hadi’s room. Ahmad told his mother not to cry; it would only make it harder for Hadi. Huda tried to contain her fear, knowing that any attempt to stop the soldiers from taking Hadi could put his life in danger. She imagined them killing him there in front of her, saying that it was in self-defence.
Huda wanted to hug her son, but she knew if she touched him she would fall apart. She asked the soldiers to let him take a winter coat. It was still cold. Where would she be able to find him, she wanted to know. She was told to come see him in the morning in the nearby settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. She watched them put zip ties around his wrists, pushing him out the door and through the garden toward one of the jeeps. It felt as if her heart had left with him.
For two weeks, Huda drove from one detention facility to another in search of Hadi, from Ma’ale Adumim to Ofer prison to the Russian Compound in Jerusalem to the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, using her UNWRA work permit to pass checkpoints and enter settlements barred to most Palestinians. But she never saw Hadi, and was unable to learn where he was being held. She couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t laugh, couldn’t smile. She couldn’t bring herself to prepare any of the dishes that Hadi liked. She didn’t want to leave her house or go anywhere she might be forced to carry on a normal conversation, as if she weren’t in the deepest grief, as if Hadi were not gone.
Huda retained a Palestinian lawyer, who charged $3,000, but she told me that Ismail, her husband, refused to pay. He blamed Hadi and Huda for the arrest. Why had Hadi been out throwing stones and not at school? Why hadn’t she stopped him?
This was more than Huda could bear.
Huda had met Ismail in Tunis, soon after she finished medical school at Damascus University. Her father had suggested that she join the Red Crescent in Tunisia, where her uncle, who was a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), would be able to look after her. The PLO’s headquarters were in Tunis at the time, after the organisation had been forced out of Lebanon in 1982.
Ismail had come to her clinic with tonsillitis while on a visit from Moscow, where he was completing his doctorate in international relations. He was also the head of the Palestinian student union there, a fast track to national political leadership, and was in Tunis for a meeting of student union activists from around the world. Five years older than Huda, Ismail looked a bit like a hero in an action movie, with a mane of shaggy, sandy brown hair and a thick moustache.
Huda had three conditions for any potential mate: he had to be educated, a member of the Fatah faction of the PLO – which to her meant a person of moderation, like her father – and, unlike most of the men she knew, not intimidated by a successful, intelligent woman. In concrete terms, that involved supporting her plan to go back to medical school to become a specialist. Ismail met all three. They were engaged five days after they met, and then Ismail returned to Moscow. Huda joined him the following year, living in the university dorms. She loved Moscow and Russian culture, and was impressed with how literate and well educated the people were.
After learning Russian, she began studying paediatrics, but soon got pregnant, and it changed her in ways she hadn’t expected. She could no longer bear the sight and sound of children in pain. Huda was ready to switch fields when Ismail learned that Arafat had appointed him to a diplomatic posting in Bucharest. She talked to one of her teachers about staying alone in Moscow to complete her training. The teacher advised against it: husband and wife are like a needle and thread, she said – where the needle goes, the thread must follow.
In Bucharest, Huda had to start again, learning Romanian and applying to a new medical school. She took it as an opportunity to change her speciality to endocrinology. She enjoyed the logic and critical reasoning that the discipline entailed and, more practically, thought there would be no emergency work, so that after her child was born she would not be called away at night.
They named their baby daughter Hiba, “gift”. The birth put a strain on the marriage. Hiba was difficult, crying all the time, and Huda said she received little support or sympathy from Ismail. She was single-handedly nursing and taking care of Hiba, studying endocrinology, serving food to poor Palestinian students in Romania, and hosting dinner parties for diplomats, visiting Palestinians and Romanian officials.
A few months after Hiba’s birth, Huda became pregnant again. By the end of her third trimester, she was worn out from a year of soothing Hiba’s relentless crying, so she chose an aspirational name for the second baby – Hadi, “calm”. She travelled to Syria to give birth, where she had the support of family. Back at home, she recalled, Ismail maintained that the stress was of her own making: she was the one who chose to stay in medical school while raising two young children who were just a year apart. If she wanted to pursue her speciality, he had no objection. But he would not be helping with cooking, childcare or hosting; she was free to study when all of that was done.
Somehow she managed, learning Romanian, finishing her training, raising her children, hosting dinners and even having a third child, Ahmad, in 1991. Though exhausted and unhappy in her marriage, she appeared to be fortunate and content: a successful doctor with a distinguished husband and three young children.
After Israel and the PLO signed the 1993 Oslo accords, thousands of exiled PLO cadres were able to return to the new autonomous areas. Though Huda wasn’t eligible to go on her own, not having worked for the PLO, she could do so with Ismail. But he didn’t want to leave Bucharest, an elegant riverside capital lined with Beaux-Arts buildings, dubbed the Paris of the east. He enjoyed the life of a diplomat. Huda insisted on leaving, however. She knew how Israel operated, she said: if they didn’t go now, they would not be allowed to enter Palestine later. Privately, she had another reason for wanting to go. She dreamed of having a child born on Palestinian soil. This was her chance to replant a seed in the land from which her family had been uprooted a half century earlier.
They arrived in September 1995. A year later, Israel halted entry of PLO personnel. Huda gave birth to their fourth child, naming the girl Lujain, which meant “silver” and came from the opening line of one of her favourite songs by Fairuz, the iconic Lebanese singer. It was the peak of what was called the peace process. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had just concluded the second Oslo accord, known as Oslo II, which delineated all the islands of limited Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories. Huda felt it was meaningless.
Rabin was emphatic that there would be no Palestinian state, no capital in Jerusalem, more settlements annexed to Jerusalem, more settlement blocs in the West Bank and that Israel would never withdraw behind the boundaries it had prior to the 1967 war, even though they comprised a full 78% of historic Palestine. Somewhere within the West Bank and Gaza – or the part of it that Israel hadn’t settled, annexed or set aside for permanent military control – the Palestinians would be granted “less than a state”, as Rabin called it. But even these crumbs were too much for some Israelis: Rabin was assassinated by an Orthodox Jewish nationalist a little over a month after Huda and Ismail and their children crossed into the West Bank. Hearing the news at his home in Gaza, Arafat wept.
The Palestinians who came to the occupied territories under the terms of the Oslo agreement were known as returnees. Huda thought the label was silly. She was a refugee in Syria, an expatriate when briefly living with her parents in the Gulf, an immigrant in Romania and now a returnee. She was on Palestinian land, but to what had she returned? Not to anywhere she or her father or uncle or grandmother knew. Huda’s husband was not allowed to return to his family’s home in Jabal Mukaber, because it was within annexed Jerusalem. He and Huda moved instead to part of neighbouring Sawahre, just outside the municipal boundary. Sawahre and Jabal Mukaber had once been a single village but, after Oslo, Palestinians from eastern Sawahre needed permits to visit their relatives in Jabal Mukaber, and even to bury their dead in the cemetery. Later the separation wall ran through the middle of Sawahre.
Huda felt out of place there. The villagers seemed rough-mannered to her, as though out of another time. Their dialect was hard for her to understand and she was embarrassed not to comprehend the basic speech of fellow Palestinians. Her neighbours struck her as hardened, too. They were mountain people, nothing like the cosmopolitan city-dwellers of the stories she had heard from her grandmother, who had been forced to flee the coastal town of Haifa in 1948. Even Haifa itself, when she was finally able to visit, bore no resemblance to her grandmother’s descriptions.
As a returnee, Huda felt a growing distance from the society around her. The returnees who had come with Arafat filled the senior positions in the new authority, the sulta, at the expense of the local Palestinians who had led the first intifada. It was only due to the sacrifice of the local population, the “insiders”, that the outsiders were able to return. But the lives of the insiders only got worse after Oslo. On top of greater restrictions on movement, employment plummeted as Israel replaced Palestinian labourers with foreign workers, recruited mostly from Asia. The year after Huda arrived, almost one in three Palestinians was out of work. Nearly every returnee, by contrast, had a job in Arafat’s expanding patronage network.
Ordinary people came to resent the returnees, holding them responsible for the constrictions of Oslo, the collaboration of the Palestinian security services with Israel, and the corruption of the sulta. The figures close to Arafat pocketed tens of millions of dollars of public money, much of it funnelled through a Tel Aviv bank account, and some even profited from the building of settlements. Arafat tried to make light of the matter. He once told his cabinet he had just received a call from his wife reporting a thief in the house; he assured her it was impossible because all the thieves were sitting right there with him.
Joking aside, Arafat knew he was threatened by the widespread unhappiness with Oslo – and with the authoritarian regime it had created. When 20 prominent figures signed a petition against the sulta’s “corruption, deceit and despotism”, more than half of them were detained, interrogated or placed under house arrest. Others were beaten or shot in the legs.
Huda was most troubled by the sulta’s security cooperation with Israel. Ismail worked in the Interior Ministry, which, relying on a wide network of informants, oversaw the surveillance and arrest of Palestinians who continued to resist Israel’s occupation. Huda was horrified by how many Palestinians were betraying one another. Even among her own staff at the UNRWA clinic, there were informants who reported on their co-workers, which led to visits and interrogation by Israeli intelligence. Huda refused to change her behaviour or censor herself, however, remaining defiantly political at work. For her, the job at UNRWA was never only humanitarian. It was always nationalist, too. Treating refugees meant she was doing something for her people.
Hadi’s arrest brought the marriage to breaking point. If Ismail refused to pay for a lawyer, Huda felt, he was no longer willing to act as a father, and she no longer wanted him in her life. Quoting a passage from the Qur’an in which Khader, a servant of God, parts with Moses, she asked for a divorce. If you refuse to grant it, she said, I will tell everyone that you’re not a nationalist and you won’t support your son. Huda saw that she had frightened him and Ismail agreed to give her the divorce.
After two weeks, the lawyer called to say that Hadi was being held at a detention centre in Gush Etzion, south of Bethlehem, and would soon have a hearing at the military court at the Ofer prison, between Jerusalem and Ramallah. He was lucky to get a hearing so early, she was told. Other parents waited for three, four and five months before their children were brought to trial and they could see them.
Huda was instructed to come early for a thorough security check. After waiting for several hours, she entered a cramped courtroom. Only the military judge, the prosecutor, Hadi, his lawyer, a translator and a few soldiers and security officers were present. The chances of Hadi being released were nonexistent; the military court’s conviction rate was 99.7%. For children charged with throwing stones, the rate was even higher: of the 835 children accused in the six years following Hadi’s arrest, 834 were convicted, nearly all of whom served time in jail. Hundreds of them were between 12 and 15 years old.
Just before the hearing began, Huda learned that Hadi had confessed to throwing stones and writing anti-occupation graffiti. She was told that it was forbidden to speak to Hadi or attempt to touch him – the judge would throw her out if she tried. When Hadi was brought into the courtroom, he was chained at the leg to another prisoner. Huda managed to stay silent, but gasped as she saw a large burn mark on his face. Now crying, Huda stood up and through the translator demanded a halt to the proceedings. She was a doctor, she said, and could see that her son had been tortured.
The Israeli military judge barked at her to be quiet and sit back down. Huda refused, insisting that Hadi lift his shirt and lower his pants so the court could see that his confession had been extracted under torture. The judge allowed it. Hadi’s body was covered with bruises, as if he had been beaten with batons. Huda shouted that the soldiers who tortured him should be tried. As the judge adjourned the hearing, Huda rushed to her son, ignoring the yelling of the guards, and gave Hadi the hug she had suppressed on the night of his arrest. She imagined she could warm him with her hug, before his stay in the cold prison cell. The judge bellowed: this would be the last time she would touch her son until he was released.
Hadi’s lawyer, who encouraged the family to take whatever deal was offered, brought a proposal for 19 months in jail, with a reduction to 16 months for a fee of 3,000 shekels, then around £360. The sentence was lighter than that received by some of Hadi’s friends and classmates; about 20 of them, ranging in age from 12 to 16, had been arrested at the same time. A number of the students had blue IDs, unlike Hadi. This allowed them freedom of movement in Jerusalem and throughout Israel, and their sentences were roughly twice as long as the others. There was a condition attached to Hadi’s deal: Huda had to drop any claims against the soldiers who had tortured him. In any case, the lawyer said, there was no chance of the soldiers being prosecuted. No one would testify against them. Hadi took the deal.
He was transferred to a remote tent prison in the Naqab desert, where Huda visited him as often as she could. Whatever she brought for Hadi, she would bring for the other inmates as well. They were teenage boys, many of them quite poor. On her UNRWA salary, she could afford to give them gifts that their parents could not. She brought books, hoping they would help keep up the boys’ spirits. Hadi’s friends would tell her the names of the girls they loved, and she came back with grains of rice that had been inscribed with the girls’ initials. On one holiday, she arrived with a tapestry of a blue sky and stars for the roof of their tent.
Huda spent nearly 24 hours travelling for each 40-minute visit. The relatives would sit on one side of a glass partition, the prisoners on the other. Some inmates were not permitted visits by their wives or parents or children over 15, and others were forbidden visits altogether. The prisoners and their relatives would speak to one another through a small hole in the glass, the voices barely audible on the other side. Only young children were allowed to make physical contact. Huda would watch as mothers pushed reluctant boys and girls to embrace fathers who had become strangers. The children cried and the fathers wept, too.
Hadi’s year-and-a-half in prison was the hardest stretch of time in Huda’s life. It opened her eyes to a hidden universe of suffering that touched nearly every Palestinian home. A little over a year after Hadi’s release, a UN report found that 700,000 Palestinians had been arrested since the occupation began, equal to roughly 40% of all the men and boys in the territories. The damage wasn’t only to the affected families, each of them grieving lost years and lost childhoods. It was to the entire society, to every mother, father and grandparent, all of whom knew or would come to learn that they were powerless to protect their children.
This is an edited extract from A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: A Palestine Story, published by Allen Lane on 3 October and available at guardianbookshop.com