The price of peace: Interview with detained activist

Injuries that Sami sustained during interrogation. (Lazar Simeonov)

Twenty-three-year-old Sami from al-Essawaya village near Nablus has always believed in peaceful coexistence with Israelis. However, he and his family have paid a dear price for his convictions.

“I worked for six years inside Israel,” he said, “just in supermarkets, any work I could find. Me and my friends would jump over the wall at Qalandiya because we were not allowed to pass through.” He describes himself as free of political affiliation: “not Fatah, not Hamas, just peace.” Through time spent working in Tel Aviv he became acquainted with members of the Sulha peace project, a group that works “rebuild trust, restore dignity and move beyond the political agenda.” Sami helped to distribute their literature and attended conferences, before being invited to a three-day retreat at the Latrun monastery in Jerusalem. Permits were obtained for him and ten friends, along with roughly 30 other Palestinians.

Daisy, a Jewish Israeli resident of Jaffa and long time Sulha member, describes the gathering and meeting Sami. She said that “It was like a mini festival, people sleeping outside, playing music and all eating together. There were people from all religions and nations, even a Buddhist monk sent by the Dalai Lama. The organizers arranged the paperwork for [the Palestinians], so that they could attend. When I met Sami for the first time he was so pleased to be there, showing his permit certificate to everyone and speaking Hebrew.”

After three enjoyable days, encouraged by the positive atmosphere, Sami felt confident enough to make a bold step. He invited Daisy and Tal, also from Jaffa, to visit al-Essawaya and spend a few nights in his home. Despite some apprehension, neither having stayed in a Palestinian village before, both accepted.

“They came for Eid one year ago,” Sami recalled. “They stayed in my family home for three days. We killed a sheep together, went for walks and they talked with people from the village. I told everyone the Israelis were for peace and nobody had a problem.” Daisy agreed, adding that “His family and the people I met were very welcoming and happy to see me, just on a human basis.”

After two days Sami’s brother received a call from a Palestinian policeman. “They asked him why an Israeli was in our house and he told them that I invited them. My brother passed me the phone and the policeman asked, ‘Why do you have them? Are you going to kill them? Are they hostages?’ I said no, it’s for peace and he put down the phone.” Sami believes a collaborator inside the village informed the police and gave them his brother’s number.

Daisy and Tal were shaken by the call and wanted to return home. “We thought to go somewhere so that Sami and his family would not get in trouble,” Daisy explained. “We drove together back towards Israel, with me driving. We were thinking to explain to someone at the checkpoint what had happened, that we had not been kidnapped, but we were scared.” On the way Daisy was called by an officer with the Shabak, Israel’s internal security agency also known as the Shin Bet, who identified himself as “Dan.” “He was very threatening. I told him nothing was wrong, we hadn’t been kidnapped and everything was OK. Sami asked to speak to him and tried to explain about the peace project but I could hear that he was being threatened.”

Their car was stopped at a checkpoint trying to enter Israel. Looking back Daisy regrets what she calls a “big mistake.” For Sami it was the beginning of a nightmare. “The soldier asked me: ‘Are you Sami?’ I said yes and he said to ‘go with him.’ I asked him, what is the problem. He said; ‘don’t talk, shut up’ and all of us were taken to a prison inside the Ariel settlement.”

Daisy and Tal were held for a day, facing many consecutive hours of interrogation by Shabak officers.

“They told me they were opening a file on me and impounded my car. They kept asking me why I was with Sami and calling me a whore. It was very intimidating; I was shocked at how I was treated.” The next day, without her car, Daisy was released and warned not to return. She asked what would happen to Sami, but the officers said only that it wasn’t her business.

Without informing his family or anyone else, the army had transferred Sami to the infamous Hadarim detention center which also houses Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. Like many of the 11,000 Palestinians kept in Israeli jails, Sami was not formally charged but went through debilitating sessions of interrogation and torture.

“At first I was in isolation. I didn’t see anyone or talk with anyone. Then the guard began to ask me questions: Why do I want to kill Israelis? [Am I a] Hamas terrorist? I say I want only peace and he laughs and tells me I am lying.” A year later, Sami’s scars from sustained beatings are highly visible, with cigarette burns dotted all over his skin. He believes the officers knew he posed no threat, but they were softening him up for a different reason.

“After 12 days he told me that I can go if I can do some work for them. I say it’s not a problem, but what? He said, ‘just see what happens in your village and tell me.’ He showed me hundreds of dollars and said every month he can give me more, and a new house and whatever I want. I said, ‘I don’t want it, I don’t need money. Kill me if you want but I won’t be a spy for you. If I do the people from my village will know and they will kill me.’ He said, ‘if you don’t want to, the rest of your life you will be in jail.’ I said ‘I like jail, that’s not a problem.’ But in my heart I was very afraid. If he forgets me, what could I do? If he kills me, what can I do? If my mother asks, ‘where is Sami?’ she would never know.”

Meanwhile, Daisy returned to Jaffa. She explained that despite “many phone calls, talking with Sami’s family and calling every police station, it was impossible to find him. I wanted to see what they did to him, but the army told me he was not in any prison in Israel. Eventually I found out he was in Hadarim, when another prisoner called and told me to contact Sami.”

After speaking with Sami, she visited him in Hadarim.

“I was able to pass him some basic things, like clothes and cigarettes. I couldn’t get any information, but I could see the marks on his face. He said he needed a lawyer, but couldn’t afford one.”

After 20 days, Sami was told he could pay a bail fee of 500 shekels ($131), which confirmed his suspicion that they knew he was no threat. “Daisy paid the money and after they let me go,” Sami explained. “I returned to my home and that day my brother was called by the guard. He said, ‘If you talk I will kill both of you.’”

One month later, several Israeli army jeeps entered al-Essawaya in the middle of the night. Sami was woken at 3am when they broke down his door. He described the scene: “The soldier said ‘if you don’t want to work with us we will beat your family and your father will not be allowed to work in Israel.’ I said, ‘If you hurt my family I will kill myself,’ but they took my brother. They kept him in prison for a month and every day they beat him, so bad that he cannot have children. While he was there they broke into his office and did 16,000 shekels [$4,221] of damage to it. Nobody will give him that.”

After his brother was released he visited a doctor, who told him a course of hormones to restore his fertility would cost 300 shekels ($80) a day. The course would last five months, with fees totaling around 45,000 shekels ($11,873). “My brother is now 30,” Sami said sadly, “he says he doesn’t want money or anyone to repair his office. He just wants to marry and have children. I feel that I have broken his life.”

Since then his cousin has also been arrested and imprisoned, while a close friend who also attended the Sulha retreat has been in Hadarim for 10 months. Sami displayed a letter his friend sent and read an extract: “ ‘Don’t get in trouble, don’t try to make peace, because his eyes are everywhere.’”

Does the impact on his family make Sami question his commitment to peace activism? Do they blame him for their suffering? Does he regret anything? “I feel that it is now more important,” he explained. “After I got home from Hadarim my father asked me to stop. He said, ‘You’re not big or important enough for it.’ But I told him I need to do something, even if it’s not big. If everyone in Israel and Palestine does something small like me there can be peace. It’s not just me that wants to do this, I know people on both sides that want it also. Now my father understands and supports me, even my brother who cannot have children says it’s good. I am more committed now, my whole life is for this.” As testament to his conviction Sami continues to invite foreign nationals to stay with him, with his family’s blessing. Last month he hosted a Dutch activist, at the risk of more trouble from the police.

Sami remains confident that peace is inevitable. “I believe one day soon there will be peace, with all people living together in one state. Some days I talk with settlers, I ask why we cannot go to each other’s villages. I will invite them to my home. They say it is a nice idea.”

Sami intends to study political science and maintain links with more international peace groups and those inside Israel. “I’m happy with what I did and I will do it every time. People here are afraid to help because they will have problems, we know the police try to stop us from doing peace work. I know what I do makes problems for me but if you do something good it lasts forever. I want to die and sleep well.”

Kieron Monks is a freelance reporter from London, writing for Ma’an News, Palestine News Network and publications in Europe. A version of this essay was originally published by the Palestine Monitor and is republished with the author’s permission.