Umm Jaber (left) and Umm Ibrahim at one of the weekly demonstrations in solidarity with political prisoners in Israel. (Eman Mohammed)
Adopting more children seemed to be an unusual thing to do for Handoma Wishah, known as Umm Jaber, as she had already raised six children of her own and got most of them into college. Yet she says it was easy to make what could have been a tough decision. Umm Jaber “adopted” about 40 adult men of several Arab nationalities without hesitation. The story began in the 1980s, after four of her sons were jailed by the Israeli army.
Yasir, then 20, was sentenced to three years, Basem, 24, to a year and a half, Ziad, 38, to two years and Jaber, 35, to life — all of them for charges that they jeopardized Israel’s “security.” Despite the hardship of having four sons imprisoned, she maintained her composure and like other mothers of detained Palestinians, went to visit them.
“Behind the Israeli bars in Shatta prison, I heard from my son Basem about a prisoner from Lebanon called Bilal Dakruk who had no one to visit him, and was on the edge of breaking down. He suggested I start visiting him and I said yes, of course.”
Soon, Umm Jaber surprised the Israeli prison guards by handing them a list of about 10 other prisoners she wanted to visit. It was an even bigger surprise when she got the approval, not knowing that the number would increase even further over time.
Umm Jaber remembers the look on her friends’ faces when she told them the details of her first visit to these lonely prisoners. “They all began to arrange other visits on which they would accompany me next time,” she said. “I felt so optimistic after seeing everyone getting excited about this idea. Not long after we started to organize protests in front of the International Committee of the Red Cross, hunger strikes and demonstrations near the Israeli settlements. Eventually some of my adopted sons were freed and we all knew it was going to work so we had to do more.”
Visits to Dakruk were among Umm Jaber’s happiest moments: “I knew he had a mother who was concerned about him somewhere in Lebanon and I felt as he was one of my family too, so I had to take care of him. I’m no hero for doing so, because Bilal spent 14.5 years in Israeli jails without being charged. The least I could do is to comfort him there. You should have seen how his face would light up every time I came for a visit.”
One day in the summer of 1990, Umm Jaber heard an aggressive knock on her door. The Israeli army came to arrest her and her daughter Shama who was then 17. The arrest warrant allowed the army to hold them for only about five hours, but it was enough time for five Israeli officers to interrogate and attempt to terrorize her.
Through this experience she understood how prisoners felt while living the constant nightmare over and over again, each day. She recommitted herself to carry out what she started until no prisoner of any nationality would have to go through it again.
As soon as she was freed, Umm Jaber went to visit her adopted son Ahmad Khalifa, from Libya, and Ali Jumaa from Syria. Days after her release Umm Jaber received a letter from Yasir Shaker, a prisoner in al-Jalma prison, asking his adopted mother to pay him one last visit. He had just been diagnosed with kidney failure.
She recalled, “I rejected that this visit would be the last. I went directly to various human rights centers asking for their help so my son Yasir would get treated abroad, and then I went to tell him that it was not going to be my last visit to him!” Umm Jaber and Shaker had to wait for about a year to get a response from the Israeli government. Luckily Shaker’s health held up during that time and the day he was sent to France for an operation was also his release from incarceration.
“I danced and sang victory songs that day, knowing that somewhere far away Yasir’s family was doing the same,” she said.
Umm Ibrahim, a friend of Umm Jaber, remembers the shock she and other prisoners’ mothers felt when they heard about the 1993 Oslo agreement which did not say anything about their sons’ prospects for freedom — a key Palestinian demand. “Umm Jaber and I felt so disappointed, we went out in the streets near settlements and lay there, declaring a hunger strike after the Oslo announcement. It was the only hope we had for the Palestinian prisoners. However we never stopped visiting Umm Jaber’s adopted sons, in addition to a few extra ones like Sultan Abd al-Rasoul from Egypt, Ali al-Baiaty from Iraq and Farouq al-Shara from Jordan. It was so clear that the numbers of [illegally-held] prisoners were increasing but it didn’t break us down.”
Another chapter of Umm Jaber’s story was related to Samir Kuntar, the Lebanese prisoner who was among those included in the July 2008 exchange between Israel and the Lebanese resistance organization Hizballah. Samir Kuntar was imprisoned by Israel for nearly three decades for his role in the killing of an Israeli man, his young daughter and a policeman, though Kuntar claims the man was killed by Israeli fire and denies responsibility for the death of the girl.
“I met Samir while I was visiting my son in 1986,” Umm Jaber explained. They were sitting in the visitors’ area and she noticed a young man speaking to a woman across the table. “I heard him asking her not to come anymore because he didn’t want to tire her by coming and going to the Israeli jails and getting frisked every time. At that moment I felt an instant feeling of responsibility towards him, so I told the woman not to worry because from now on he is my other son. I adopted him then, and since that moment I loved him and looked after him like I did my other children.”
Kuntar had been sentenced to five back-to-back life terms in prison, a total of 542 years. So for the 19 years of his imprisonment, Umm Jaber went to visit both her sons. After Umm Jaber’s son Jaber was released, she returned to Hadarim prison, this time with papers just to visit Kuntar. She was turned away. Israeli prison officials gave the reason that such visits posed a “security threat.”
Umm Jaber went to an Israeli court asking for the right to visit Kuntar. She argued that since she had been allowed to visit him for 19 years during her own son’s detention, the state had no right to stop her visits now.
“I kept hoping that the Israeli government might let me see Samir, I told them he is my adopted son.”
Although Kuntar wasn’t released in 1999 with other Palestinian prisoners, she kept waiting for a miracle as the one that brought 10 of her adopted sons home. She hosted 10 of her adopted sons who had nowhere else to go after prison cells had been the only home they knew for years. Umm Jaber and Hisham Abed al-Razeq, himself a prisoner inside Israel for nine years, started to demand that the Palestinian Authority provide houses for them.
Umm Jaber expressed bittersweet feelings the day she got them another home: “when we managed to get them apartments it was a very tiny step on the way to having their lives back. I felt the pain they had inside while leaving my house, they became a part of my family and me, they were like the bird leaving the nest.”
From 1980 up to the present, Umm Jaber has never missed a single protest for prisoners’ relatives and families, believing that no negotiations will end the suffering of her adopted sons in Israeli jails along with 11,000 other prisoners. She believes that their families’ demonstrations, holding up their pictures and calling for their release, can be a force that breaks prison bars.
Eman Mohammed is a Jordanian-Palestinian freelance photojournalist and reporter based in the Gaza Strip since 2005.