Najat al-Agha, known as Um Diya, is in her sixties and shows up every week outside the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza City.
Every Monday, mothers, fathers, wives and children of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons gather there to demand the freedom of their loved ones.
There are currently more than five thousand Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including hundreds in administrative detention — held without charge or trial by Israeli military court orders.
Al-Agha’s son Diya has already served 22 years of a life sentence. He was accused in 1992 of storming an Israeli settlement and killing an Israeli army officer, she says.
“Diya was supposed to be released as part of last year’s agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel to release dozens of those detained before the Oslo accords were signed in 1993,” Um Diya said, referring to the peace agreement signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. She held portraits of Diya and Muhammad, a second son who is also imprisoned by Israel.
Israel had agreed to release 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners as part of a US-brokered deal to resume negotiations. After releasing 78 men in three groups, Israel unilaterally reneged on releasing the final group in March.
Diya al-Agha was supposed to be among the last released.
Muhammad al-Agha is in the eleventh year of a twelve-year sentence. “My son Muhammad was accused of engaging in the second intifada that broke out in 2000,” Um Diya said.
Constant griefVisibly emotional, Um Diya spoke about the agony of her sons’ absence.
“I am a mother and I have two other grown children, in addition to the ones who are in detention,” she said. “However, over the last long years, I can’t ever remember feeling happy.”
“Every year during Ramadan, when family members gather around for a meal, I stay silent and sad for a few hours before breaking my fast,” she said.
In a few days, Muslims all over the world will mark the month of Ramadan by abstaining completely from food and water from sunrise to sunset.
Um Diya hopes that the Palestinian Authority and international organizations can help bring her sons and other Palestinian detainees home from Israel’s prisons.
She contrasts the lack of attention received by Palestinian prisoners to the spotlight placed on three Israeli youths who went missing while hitchhiking between settlements in the occupied West Bank on 12 June.
Israel claims that the youths were abducted by members of Hamas.
“Can you imagine, three missing settlers have generated sympathy from world leaders for the families of those settlers? We come here to protest weekly, but no seems to be listening,” Um Diya said.
“From 2006 to 2011, Israel banned us from visiting our sons in detention because of the abduction of one soldier, Gilad Shalit. Is that just?”
Um Rami Anbar, in her late fifties, also comes to the weekly protest to call for the release of her son Rami. She said that he was “kidnapped” by Israeli forces in 2002 at a checkpoint in the center of the Gaza Strip. Accused of “armed action against Israeli forces,” he was sentenced to eighteen years.
“Rami left behind a wife and a daughter,” his mother said. “I see the six remaining years of his sentence as a nightmare, as if they are sixty years. I have high blood pressure and diabetes. I cannot be sure I will see my son again.”
Rami, his mother said, is her eldest son and acted as the head of the family when his father was jailed by Israel for six years. “When he was only nine, Rami took responsibility for his younger siblings and for me,” Um Rami said.
“I call on all mothers around the world to stand by us, so that our sons are freed,” she added. “I recall when Shalit was abducted in Gaza, the United Nations hosted the parents of Shalit to talk about their ordeal. Why is the world not standing by us?”
Longing to hold a grandchild
Nidal al-Sarfiti wore a neat suit and a Palestinian kuffiyeh — the traditional checkered scarf — around his neck as he took part in Monday’s gathering.
“My son Ali was snatched by the Israeli army in 2000, when he was lining up to get a magnetic ID card to enter Israel,” al-Sarfiti recounted. “The day he was arrested I advised him not go to, because we learned that youths were being arrested when they got to the Erez checkpoint seeking work permits.”
But Ali insisted, his father said. “He told me, ‘I got a permit three times already, I don’t think I will be arrested.’” Ali received a lengthy sentence, al-Sarfiti explained, for belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a secular, leftist political party and armed resistance group Israel has deemed illegal.
Al-Sarfiti, a retired civil servant, was also overcome with emotion as he spoke about his son.
“My grandchildren, my daughters and their husbands gather at my home, every year during Ramadan. Despite their pleasant presence, I do not feel pleasant at all,” he said.
“I always wish for the moment that I’ll be able to hold a grandchild from my own son, Ali, especially since I lost two other sons, who died early at an age.”
During feasts such as Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, al-Sarfiti said he feels “bitterly alone” as he pays customary visits to family members without Ali by his side.
He, like the other parents outside the Red Cross offices, faces another Ramadan with a loved one behind Israeli bars.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.