Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by the Palestinian resistance from his tank and held for five years, is known worldwide as a “victim” of the “terrorist” Palestinians.
But seeing how little the world knows of our Palestinian political prisoners infuriates me. There is not only one. Nearly five thousand Palestinians are behind Israeli bars, which are more like “a grave for the living,” as my dad, who spent 15 years in Israel’s prisons, frequently describes his detention.
Last night, while following the latest news on political prisoners, I saw a headline reading, “The medical situation of the detainee Muhammad Brash is deteriorating.” I’m certain few have read that name before.
Muhammad Brash, like every Palestinian hero locked up in Israel’s jails, has his own story, a human and heroic story that would touch any heart. I didn’t know him before I coincidentally – and tearfully – read his letter, “Don’t tell my mother that I have become blind.”
I want to introduce you 32-year-old Muhammad Brash to you in depth. But I’ll let his own poetic words first tell you who he is. Here is my translation of his letter:
Don’t tell my mother that I can no longer see. She can see me, but I can’t see. I fake my smiles when she shows me the photographs of my siblings, friends, and neighbors, as she doesn’t know that I have become blind after illness spread in my eyes until the darkness filled me.
Don’t tell her that I waited several years to have a cornea transplant surgery. But the Israeli Prison Service kept procrastinating and procrastinating, giving my eyes every reason to leave me.
Don’t tell her that the last thing I remember from the sweet days when I could see was a small child, running toward me, waving the Palestinian flag, and yelling, ‘A martyr, a martyr.’
Don’t tell my mother that the shrapnel of the bombs which managed to hit me is still settling in my body, and that my left leg was mutilated and replaced with a plastic one. Don’t tell her that the other leg rotted and dried of blood and life.
Don’t tell my mother that the prisoner survives a lifeless existence and is treated as subhuman. He is sentenced to see only ashes and iron, darkness and hopelessness.
Tell her I am alive and safe. Tell her I can see, walk, run, play, jump, write, and read. Don’t tell her I shoulder my pains on a walking stick, and can see every martyr as a moon, soaring in the sky and calling me with the power of lightning, thunder, and clouds.
Don’t tell her I suffer from sleepless nights, and that I live under the mercy of painkillers until they drug my body. Don’t tell her that I keep losing my things, and I barge into the iron beds or another prisoner sleeping close to me, to wake him to help me reach the bathroom. Don’t tell her that wakefulness always hurts me and sleep never visits me.
Don’t tell her that Israel, a country in the 21st century, has turned its prisons into places where diseases are planted and bodies slowly ruined.
Don’t tell her that I have learned the names of horrible illnesses and strange medications, along with all types of painkillers, while watching my friend Zakariyya fall into a coma, with an ending unknown to me.
Don’t tell my mother about the sick prisoners whose diseases launched fierce wars against their bodies: Ahmad Abu Errab, Khaled Ashawish, Ahmad al-Najjar, Mansour Mowqeda, Akram Mansour, Ahmad Samara, Wafaa al-Bis, Reema Daraghma, Tareq Asi, Mutasim Radad, Riyad al-Amour, Yasir Nazzal, Ashraf Abu-Thare, Jihad Abu-Haniyye. The merciless Israeli prisons slaughter them; there is an illness and a carelessness in a country that enjoys slow death sentences and funerals for others.
Tell her that I never stop dreaming of being wrapped in her tender arms. My nostalgia for her is great, and her soul never leaves me. Tell her that I have kept her gifts: my Arab tongue, my purity, my symbols stuck on the wall, all of which soothe my pain every time the light disappears around me.
Tell her that I always embrace her holy prayers, to survive the dark cloud that surrounds me after the pain has spread in my body and tortured me. I might return to her or I might not, but I leave the answer to this question open, although I’ve chosen to be spiritually close to her heart. Tell her I am sorry I have no control over my future.
Tell her I am not too far from her, and I get closer every time a bird flies and a fire burns in my eye, and barbed wires wound me, carrying me to her arms.
Learning about Muhammad
This letter began my spiritual relationship with Muhammad Brash’s persona. He became a new source of inspiration in my life and deepened my faith in the cause of the Palestinian political prisoners.
Muhammad somehow managed to smuggle his moving letter from Eshel prison during the campaign of disobedience, the 22-day mass hunger strike launched at the end of September 2011. He shared his own experience of medical neglect, attempting to shed some light on the Israel Prison Service’s inhumane practices against him and his comrades. Quality medical care always tops the list of our detainees’ demands whenever they start a mass hunger strike.
Eager to know Muhammad Brash in depth, I searched every possible source for more information on him. I wished I could visit his family and listen to their story first-hand. Sadly Israel’s apartheid made it impossible for someone from Gaza to meet another from West Bank, even though it’s only a couple of hours away.
A message from Muhammad’s brother
After a long search, I found a Facebook page called The Detainees Muhammad and Ramzy Brash. Only then I realized that Ramzy Brash was Muhammad’s brother, who shares his prison cell and is also sentenced to life-long detention. I left a post on their page saying how moved I was by Muhammad’s letter. Shortly after that, I received a message from his 22-year-old brother, Hamza Brash, saying he was ready to tell me all about Muhammad.
Muhammad’s family is originally from Abu Shosha village, which was ethnically cleansed in 1948. His grandparents fled to al-Amari refugee camp in Ramallah, where they still live.
Brother killed by Israeli soldiers, Muhammad wounded by a bomb
At the start of the second Intifada – which began in September 2000 – Israeli occupation forces invaded al-Amari, massacred people, and demolished their houses. An armed soldier shot Muhammad’s 15-year-old brother Subri, cutting his life short while he was throwing a stone. This moved Muhammad to join the resistance and defend his people’s dignity and sense of security.
At the same time, Muhammad worked as a policeman. In 2001, he had a night shift, guarding a Palestinian police station 50 meters from an Israeli checkpoint. As he entered his car to return home, it exploded. Later he learned there had been a bomb inside it. There was suspicion over who had done it, but his brother responded, “We have only one enemy: Israel! The rest of the story will prove to you that their denial of the responsibility for this crime is a lie.”
“Muhammad was found quite far from the explosion,” Hamza told me during a phone call. “People thought they had found a martyr. But thankfully the bomb didn’t kill him. It only left him blind with one leg.”
Muhammad was carried to a governmental hospital. But even while he was half dead, he was attacked again. “A masked man entered his room and stuck his fingers in Muhammad’s eyes, already blinded from the bomb,” Hamza said angrily. “After that, he was sent to a private hospital and was never left alone without guards.”
Arrested in 2003
“But how did he end up in prison?” I asked.
“On 17 February 2003, the Israeli army besieged al-Amari preparing for a detention campaign,” Hamza replied. “We never expected that Muhammad would be the target. After his disability, how could he threaten Israel’s security?”
“A huge force of Israeli soldiers raided our house,” he said. “They found Muhammad leaning against a wall, trying to stand. They attacked him and started shackling and blindfolding him, as if he could see or run away. The soldiers started harassing him because of his disability.” Hamza told me that he heard the head soldier telling Muhammad, “We wanted you dead, but when we heard that you were alive, we thought you should be our guest.”
Muhammad didn’t fear them. Hamza heard Muhammad telling the head soldier, “I’m sorry for you, you coward!” The head soldier laughed at him wondering “How come?” Then Muhammad answered him with pride and slight smile, “If you weren’t a coward, you wouldn’t come besiege the whole camp with thousands of soldiers to arrest a disabled man like me!”
At first, the Israeli court sentenced Muhammad to seven lifetimes. But then it was reduced to three life sentences plus 35 years in light of his health condition. “As if this merciless court made a difference! ” Hamza said angrily. “A life sentence was enough to make Israel’s prison his grave.”
Muhammad has served ten years of his sentence, and no one knows if he will ever be released. Ever since his arrest, he has suffered from medical neglect every day. It’s this that left Muhammad in two forms of darkness: His blind eyes that see no colors but black, and his dark cell where he dies every day and may spend the last day of his life.
More than 50 prisoners are either physically or mentally disabled. And as Dad said, recalling his imprisonment, “Being detained by the merciless jailers of the Israel Prison Service is enough to threaten your psychological health.”
Most of Israel’s shameful crimes, which offend any sense of propriety in any heart with any shred of conscience, were committed in the name of security. But how can they justify them in Muhammad’s case where he can hardly endanger their safety?