Israel’s “most wanted man” finally tells his story

25 January 2013

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The infamous photograph of Abdel Aziz Salha was published on the front pages of newspapers worldwide.

Palestinians may not recognize the name Abdel Aziz Salha but most have seen a photograph of him. On 12 October 2000, almost two weeks after the eruption of the second intifada, Salha was photographed extending his blood-stained hands out of a Ramallah police station window, following the fatal stabbing of an Israeli soldier.

The scene came after two weeks of horrifying bloodshed; up to that point, 85 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli fire during unarmed protests, including 10 holding Israeli citizenship; five Israelis had been killed.

The two Israeli soldiers had just mistakenly driven into areas of Ramallah nominally controlled by the Palestinian Authority; they were then detained by PA police and held in the police station before it was stormed by Palestinian protestors, led by Salha, and brutally killed.

The bodies of the two army reservists were mutilated by some in the crowd that had gathered outside the building and then dragged into Ramallah’s city center. Immediately following the killing of the two soldiers, Israel launched massive retaliatory airstrikes against PA targets in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including the Ramallah police station.

Now aged 32, Salha is average-sized, dark-complexioned and well-dressed; he is almost bald, wears glasses and elegantly wraps a scarf around his neck. He has a speech impediment but I could not bring myself to ask him about it.

Salha, who is originally from Ramallah, was released and forcibly transfered to Gaza after the latest prisoner swap agreement between Hamas and the Israeli government.

Guarded feelings

As Salha initially told his story, he seemed very careful to not mention anything about his feelings, and what exactly pushed him to kill the Israeli soldier. When I tried to elicit from him the details of the incident, he politely refused.

“I believe it is not the right thing to speak about such incidents because it is not going to make a difference whether people know the details or not. People just want to satisfy their curiosity, and this will be at the expense of our own lives,” Salha said. “It will only harm us [those who killed Israeli soldiers] if we keep speaking and boasting about what we did, and also it will be used against us by Israeli media.”

“Does that mean you regret what you’ve done?” I asked him.

Looking ponderous, Salha remained silent for a moment before replying, “It just means we should not speak about how we feel about what we did.”

Media

Nonetheless, I could not fail to notice that Salha has a deep interest in the media. As soon as I stepped into his house, I found that he was watching a news briefing in Hebrew on Israel’s Channel Two. He also insists on referring to a specific, and important, detail that, according to him, the Israeli media have deliberately and consistently omitted in any reporting of the stabbing incident.

“Earlier on that day, one Palestinian from Ramallah was murdered by Israeli settlers from a settlement neighboring Ramallah,” Salha said in a low voice. “After they had killed him, they cut his ears and threw his body. This is the reason there were thousands of protestors across Ramallah on that day, and accidentally, we got the word that there were two Israeli soldiers held in one Ramallah police station.”

Salha was referring to the death of a Palestinian man who was reported to have been savagely killed by Israeli settlers. His funeral procession was the angry crowd that the Israeli reservists had come across. A forensic investigation by Physicians for Human Rights later found that the man was most likely killed in a car accident.

Salha, who has an extremely troubled relationship with media, has continuously rejected requests to speak to the media or be interviewed by journalists.

“I’m wary of journalists, and I’m particularly dubious of Israeli media. They manipulate your own words in a way to make the spin they like and portray you in the most appalling image ever in order to serve their interests. They have been persistently pursuing me both when I was in prison and after my release. And obviously, for them, I stand for the worst in Palestinian prisoners. I am their worst image which they would like to have.”

He paused, gestured and then added, “Then they would project that bad image of you and say, ‘look, these are Palestinian prisoners! Oh world, how can you support such people?’”

Israeli prison

In June 2001, after eight months as a fugitive, Salha was captured by Israeli authorities and sentenced to life in prison. He served 11 years in jail before his name was included in the list of Palestinian prisoners who would be released in exchange for the captured Israeli soldier. Salha spoke discursively on the experience of living inside Israeli prisons.

According to Salha, the worst thing about captivity is that one’s life is utterly dominated by the “capriciousness of Israeli soldiers.” Salha added, “They control you wholly, your every move, your speech, your thinking, everything. And they’re nerve-wrackingly unpredictable. For example, they would allow this book today and when they see you reading it the next day, they would confiscate it.”

Elaborating on what he meant by the “capriciousness of the Israeli soldiers,” Salha described another incident: “Of the more than 20 jackets which my family brought to me when they would come on visits over the 11 years I spent in prison, only two were allowed in. I was once wearing a jacket when one of the Israeli soldiers saw it. He immediately stopped me and ordered me to take it off instantly. They just want to do anything to provoke you into reacting so that they can punish you according to their own ‘justice system.’”

Transfer

Salha was transferred to a number of Israeli prisons, which he explains is an Israeli prison tactic meant to obstruct the “process of stabilization” which prisoners start to undergo after spending some time inside one Israeli jail and getting acquainted with their fellow prisoners there.

“Israeli prison authorities constantly transfer some prisoners from one prison to another in order to prevent them from adapting to new life conditions in prison and to have prisoners live in a continuous state of complete uncertainty, so they are never able to live in stable, though temporary, conditions,” he told me. Salha called these relentless transfers a form of “torture.”

“I often happened to be one of those who would be transferred. I would pack my clothes, books and other stuff and get ready to be transferred very early on the next morning. Normally, it would take you four hours to go from, say, Nafha prison to Ashkelon prison. However, when prisoners are transferred, it might take up to five days. Some of your stuff which they themselves allowed in would be confiscated, and, with your hands and legs chained, you still have to carry your things all by yourself. Also prisoners would have to urinate with their hands and legs in chains. Sometimes I used to spend these four days without food, only a bite of tomato or something, just because I did not want to be in that situation.” Salha sipped his tea before he concluded, “they only want to deprive you of your dignity.”

Hope and guilt

Despite all of this and having been sentenced to life imprisonment, Salha never lost the hope of living outside prison walls or of seeing “the sky without a fence.” He spoke about how he received the news of his impending release from Israeli prisons as part of the prisoner swap deal.

“When we first knew about the capture of [the Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit, a state of worry and anticipation descended over us. We followed the developments of the infighting between Hamas and Fatah, the Israeli blockade [of Gaza], and the most optimistic of us hoped that a few of the elderly Palestinian prisoners would be freed in return for Shalit. We never expected that more than 1,000 prisoners including people like myself would be released.”

Lamenting leaving his fellow prisoners behind in jails, Salha said that he feels “guilty” that he has been released while there are thousands of Palestinian prisoners who are still languishing inside Israeli jails.

“There are prisoners who have spent 30 or 20 years in Israeli jails and others who have spent 11 years in solitary confinement [i.e. Mahmoud Issa] who are still inside prison,” he said. “The last days I spent inside prison were some of the hardest. I could not help looking in my fellow prisoners’ eyes. How could I be released while all these people will have to stay behind bars for the rest of their lives? It is disheartening.”

Although he says he is adapting quickly to life in Gaza, Salha still cannot comprehend the enormity of changes which have swept through his life over the past decade: from being a 20-year-old living quietly with his family in Ramallah, to becoming the most-wanted fugitive in the West Bank, to a Palestinian prisoner in Israel sentenced to life in prison, and finally to being released and forcibly transferred to Gaza, away from his family. Gaza is still strange to Salha, who now lives with his wife in a spacious, well-decorated apartment ten minutes from the sea.

“The night we were released and driven to Gaza City on a road along the sea, it was the first time I saw the sea in my entire life,” he reminisced. “I was awed to see water in such tremendous quantity, and it was the first time I felt truly free.”

Mohammed Suliman, 23, is a journalist from Gaza. Mohammed has recently obtained a master’s degree in human rights from the London School of Economics. His writings appeared on different online publications including Al Jazeera English, The Electronic Intifada and openDemocracy.