October 21, 2011
"I will remain committed to Islamic principles and will not renounce Hamas; the movement has taught me a lot."
Just before she was due to fly to Amman, I met the only female Palestinian prisoner from Jordan involved in the Hamas-Israel prisoner exchange agreement, the woman dubbed the "gem of the deal", Ahlam Al-Tamimi. She was released after spending 10 years in Israeli prisons and detention centres and the deal with Israel means that she has been spared having to spend the rest of her life in a prison cell; her original sentence was 16 life terms.
We met at Cairo Airport's Sheraton Hotel and, with her characteristic smile even her slightly emaciated figure could not disguise Al-Tamimi in the centre of the gathered multitude. Her innocent air impugns the Israeli judge who passed sentence on her. Al-Tamimi's faith in the justness of the Palestinian cause confirms that she was born for the sake of the resistance and struggle; her faith in the Creator gave her strength to withstand the harshness of prison.
Alaa' Hamza: What is the story behind your engagement to your cousin Nizar Al-Tamimi, even though you are from the military wing of Hamas and he is from the Fatah equivalent?
Ahlam Al-Tamimi: Initially, it was purely a familial attachment ungoverned by factional politics even though our link is a practical demonstration of the factions' call for Palestinian unity. As Nizar and I have been united by this engagement we hope to be a beautiful demonstration to the factions of the unity that is possible, God willing, through comprehensive reconciliation.
AH: Did the engagement to Nizar begin in prison?
AAT: Yes, in August 2005 when, through our respective lawyers we sent messages to our fathers, who then arranged the formal engagement.
AH: Did you meet in prison?
AAT: I was only allowed to see Nizar once, on 1st March 2010, on my way to an interview with Israeli intelligence, who wanted to know the nature of our relationship and what we would do in the future. They were concerned about their security and the implications of our attachment for them.
AH: Did you ever think that your marriage would take place?
AAT: My faith in Allah was great and this gave me hope and support. My strong connection with Allah was a rope that did not break. It was the primary source of my determination to get married. I put my trust in Allah and it looks as if He did not let me down.
AH: What will you tell your children about your struggle?
AAT: First of all, I ask Allah to bless us with children for [and she is smiling at this point] I do not know what Allah has destined for us in the end. However, my story is one of many from the stories of Palestinian prisoners; every prisoner has a story which carries lessons for us all. God willing, I will not only relate the story of my husband and I to any children we may have, but I will also tell them the stories of all the prisoners and martyrs of the Palestinian people as every single one carries within it a significant lesson. It would be unjust to reduce the struggle of the Palestinian people to the story of me and Nizar alone.
AH: And what will you tell them about the years of detention and prison?
AAT: Both the positive and the negative aspects. I will teach them the lessons learned; being imprisoned by the enemy is an education in every sense, and a life, in as much as the individual enters it completely empty-handed and leaves full of experiences, insight and life stories which enrich one's experience and makes leaders.
AH: Given that you are affiliated to Hamas, if your children wanted to follow their father into Fatah would you object?
AAT: Of course not; all Palestinian factions are our brothers and we respect all principles. It would be a personal decision for them to make wherever they may be; it depends on the personality of the individual. Regardless of whether a person is affiliated to Hamas to Fatah, he or she must teach their children the right character, and the factions do not interfere in this; if someone has been raised in accordance with the correct Islamic faith, they will raise their own children accordingly.
AH: After your wedding ceremony, will you stay with Hamas and your husband with Fatah?
AAT: Naturally. I pay tribute to all the sons of Fatah and I respect the choice of my husband-to-be. As for me, I shall remain true to my ideology and affiliations. I embraced them with conviction; Hamas is the faction that has taught me so much and I will not renounce it.
AH: How will your marriage take place if he is in Ramallah and you have no choice but to live in Jordan as part of the exchange deal?
AAT: We were promised by the organisers of the deal that Nizar would be transferred from Ramallah to Gaza during the coming month where arrangements guaranteed by the Egyptians and the brothers in the Movement will take place; the arrangements for the completion of our marriage form part of the overall agreement.
AH: Describe the moment you set foot outside the prison.
AAT: Believe me, I thanked Allah; it was an indescribable moment and the feelings that were inside me cannot be put into words. I did not really believe it was happening until I met the brothers here in Cairo.
AH: What was your life like before you were arrested?
AAT: I was like any other Arab girl studying (Media and Journalism) at Bir Zeit University; I was already working within the profession for the magazine "The Birth" and for the television programme "Independence". I lived with a modest family.
AH: How did you come to join the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades [the military wing of Hamas]?
AAT: Through a university colleague who noticed how affected I was by the tragic conditions and the bitter reality of the Israeli occupation. That was the first step towards me joining the Brigades and getting to know Abdullah al-Barghouthi [a renowned leader, very intelligent and enthusiastic with strong nationalistic ties and religious sentiments], and from there I turned from journalism to being the first woman in the Al-Qassam Brigades.
AH: Tell us about your early days in the resistance.
AAT: By the grace of Allah, my first activity was in July 2001. I walked through the streets of Jerusalem to identify and select locations for resistance operations. Resistance is the key word; this was in self-defence in the face of the occupation of our land and in response to the assassination of our leaders by the Israeli army. Many prominent martyrs fell and, in reality, the Zionist guns did not differentiate between their targets and other Palestinians.
AH: And what about the Jerusalem operation?
AAT: My role was to assist in a martyrdom operation inside Occupied Jerusalem. Thanks be to the Almighty, the operation succeeded in rocking the pillars of the Israeli occupation.
AH: What was the operation like?
AAT: I toured Jerusalem by car in order to identify a route for the martyr, Ezzadine al-Masri, so that he could carry out the operation. The following day, I accompanied Ezzedine and my role ended as soon as I got him to the location for the operation.
AH: Why did you take part in a martyrdom mission?
AAT: Our families bring us up from infancy to love our homeland and sacrifice for its sakeů and when I returned to Palestine in 1999 [from Jordan]ů I arrived in my own country, which was the common denominator of my conversations with my parents. I knew that ours was a family who had given many martyrs and prisoners; we have suffered from the Israeli occupation. And as such, my defence of Palestine was a duty.
AH: How were you arrested?
AAT: They came for me at my house in the Nabi Saleh area of Ramallah at three o'clock in the morning. Israeli occupation soldiers backed-up by armoured vehicles raided our house and took me to an interrogation centre.
AH: What happened immediately after your arrest?
AAT: Actually, I was arrested just after my mother's death; we were still in the mourning period. The first time I went down for interrogation in Maskoubia Prison I felt heartbreak and pain; however that gave me strength to face the Israeli interrogator who used torture to try to extract a confession from me. I was in a small, dark, tomb-like underground cell; I turned to Allah and renewed my relationship with Him, building a rope of communion unknown to anyone beside myself and Him. This relationship with Allah allowed me to see that everything was beautiful. It made me steadfast even though I was in a confined and extremely cruel place beneath the earth. By Allah's grace, I was able to get through the interrogation, which was the most difficult phase of the detention.
AH: You were sentenced to 16 life terms and the Israeli court recommended that you not be included in any future prisoner exchange deals as you represent a danger to the occupation. As such, did you ever anticipate being released as part of the "Loyalty of the Free" exchange?
AAT: As I said, I trusted in Allah and when you do that you often get more than you expect.
AH: Did you ever feel frustrated in prison or consider going back on your choice of resistance?
AAT: No, neverů however, I was convinced that negotiations and armed struggle are needed by the Palestinian cause at all times.
AH: What was the most difficult situation you faced in prison?
AAT: After the initial interrogation I was exposed to several difficult situations. The Israelis took away all of my rights and the court decision was very unfair; it was decided to isolate me from other human beings and they implemented this judgement by putting me in "al-Ramlah" isolation. On more than one occasion over the ten years I was placed in solitary confinement. However, I used to overcome this by going on hunger strike; I rebelled against isolation and extracted my rights from them using the hunger strike as a weapon.
AH: Ahlam Al-Tamimi, thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us.