The family last saw Asma Abdel-Razzaq Salih, a 25-year-old mother of two, at the beginning of February this year. It was 1:00 a.m. when the Israeli soldiers arrived at the house, and dawn was breaking as they took her away.
In the West Bank and Gaza incarceration of Palestinians is a regular occurrence; it happens all the time. But at least, it is customary for due process to be followed. Charges are eventually laid and court proceedings ensue, or, alternatively, no charges are brought and Administrative Detention is confirmed in their place. Administrative Detention is the process whereby a person can be held in prison, on the basis of undisclosed and untested evidence, for as long as the authorities wish.
In Asma’s case there are two unusual — and disturbing — elements. First, Asma is one of only seventy Palestinian women prisoners being held by Israel for Intifada-related reasons — all of them are held at Ramleh jail in Israel. Secondly, and more importantly, she hasn’t done anything wrong. The authorities accuse her of …nothing. No charges have ever been laid.
Effectively, Asma has been kidnapped and held hostage for the past nine months in the harshest of circumstances because the Israeli army has been looking for her husband and could not find him. They still cannot find him. Asma is being kept in prison simply as bait — like the chicken in a sack used cruelly to draw a fox out into the open.
This is the 21st century, and a modern, democratic country does not steal a woman away from her family in the middle of the night and lock her up in a stifling, insect-infested cell with five other inmates and hope that her husband will ride over the hill to rescue her. Nor should soldiers subject a young boy — as they did with Asma’s five-year-old son Ali - to a full body search and questioning while ransacking his home in the wee hours of the morning.
As Palestinians are not allowed to cross into Israel, Asma receives no visits from her immediate family. They live in Silwan — a hilltop village with some of the most beautiful views in Palestine — and only her aunt, whose home is in East Jerusalem, possesses the requisite Israeli identification documentd.
In the brutal world of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Asma’s situation could continue indefinitely. This morning, when I visited the family, they had not yet been informed what it is that the husband is supposed to have done or where he might be. Not surprisingly, they are all quite distraught — little Ali and his t3-year-old sister Selma particularly so. And they are powerless. They can’t even employ a lawyer as that is forbidden by the authorities and food parcels are not allowed either. More worrying still, the aunt from Jerusalem confirms that Asma’s health — particularly her breathing — is deteriorating rapidly.
I sat in the high-vaulted room in their centuries’ old house next to the mosque. I sat with Asma’s mother, her grandmother, aunt, cousin, and sister ranged on a line of chairs before me. The ancient house, the internal walls and ceiling, the women’s clothes, and their headscarves were white — dazzlingly white with splashes of colour. It was a scene reminiscent of a film by Fellini.
Although it is Ramadan, and assuming correctly that I am not Muslim, the women insisted I drink a glass of cool juice after my journey from Jerusalem; a journey which should take thirty minutes, but in fact took more than three hours because of roadblocks and diversions. A young woman sat next to me; her headscarf was white and she wore a blue dress. A student of English at Birzeit University, she was there to interpret.
The atmosphere was soothing and peaceful. One person spoke at a time. I asked all the questions and only once did someone else take the initiative, and that was at the outset. Asma’s mother reminded me in a quiet and dignified manner that it was the British who were the architects of the Palestinians’ misfortune — a comment not intended to offend. It was simply a statement of fact that she felt needed to be made.
No one in the room had any illusions that an article by a Briton like me will influence the Israeli authorities, or that publicity will expedite Asma’s release. The women have lived too long under Israeli occupation to believe that. They just needed to speak out. They just want the truth to be told.
Nick Pretzlik is a British writer and activist who is currently traveling in, and filing reports from, Occupied Palestine. He can be reached through his wife, Dr. Ursula Pretzlik at email@example.com.