August 15, 2010
They were the feddayin... the freedom fighters for Palestine... They became a legend, a myth. They captured the world attention. Their cause became well known. Many Arabs and foreigners joined their ranks. They were pure. Men of principles. They were young and handsome. They nourished our dreams.
The feddayin were combating an immense injustice. Nowadays their case is still unresolved. They have abandoned their rifles. Nevertheless, many still believe the situation will change. Ibrahim Mansour Es-Safadi is one of them.
"There is no justice... If there were justice in this world there would not be the occupation... However, the weak is not weak for ever and the strong is not strong for ever... You go down and then you go up. Something will happen... The current situation will not last for ever...
"I'm from Safad, a town in the mountains in the northern historic Palestine. I was born in El-Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, on 7 February 1971. I'm 39 now. My family fled Safad in 1948.
"When I was a boy there were many fighters in Lebanon from El-Yarmouk. El-Yarmouk was the largest RC in the region and one of the three commercial markets of Damascus. All the Palestinian factions were present in the camp. In El-Yarmouk were smuggled goods from Lebanon. For instance, if there were no jeans in Syria the combatants brought with them jeans from Beirut or cigarettes and all sorts of items.
"Many fighters were going from EL-Yarmouk to Lebanon in an illegal way, through the mountains. The situation was similar to the today's Gaza tunnels. The fighters were coming back with supplies from Lebanon. For this reason El-Yarmouk became a large commercial market. It was in the seventies and eighties.
"My father didn't like the feddayin... at all... he didn't like them... but my grand-father was always speaking about Safad. In all the military operations against Israel there was at least a martyr from El-Yarmouk... always... because of the huge number of our youth in the Palestinian resistance... and there was a lot of injured too from El-Yarmouk.
"This was in the past! Months ago I have been in the camp... This doesn't exist anymore... Everything has changed!
"In 1982 the Israeli troops were in Beirut. Sharon... I saw him on TV... Sharon [the Israeli Minister of Defense] said that El-Yarmouk was a big problem because El-Yarmouk was the spring of the fighters. And Israel has to deal with this problem, he added. I saw Sharon speaking on TV about EL-Yarmouk. I was 11 year-old at that time and I heard that my neighbor was killed in Lebanon and my cousin too was killed by Israel...
"When I was walking in the streets of the camp... on all the walls and in all the refugee camps... What was on the walls? There was Che Guevara. I knew about Guevara from the walls of the camp... and I knew about Handallah [a Palestinian symbol]... This was the refugee camp! Alas, nowadays, this doesn't exist anymore... Nowadays... the business!!
"I joined the feddayin when I was 15. First, in 1982, at the age of 11, I went with some children to a section of the [marxist-leninist] Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the camp. 'What do you want?' they asked. 'We want to go to Lebanon.' 'Return to school!' was the answer.
"At the age of 15 I returned there again, but alone. Why did I go to the DFLP? Because it was the political section the closest to my hone! They told me: 'Go to school, then we shall see.'
"Towards the end of 1986 or the beginning of 1987 I left home and went with friends to Lebanon. My father, my paternal uncle and my maternal uncle didn't want. WIth three friends from the school I wanted to join the feddayin. We had the same age. One of them had already been to Lebanon and returned. So, he knew the illegal way through the mountains. I escaped from home... and I learned how to go and return on my own.
"My father was with the Baath party... my father worked with them. He asked his friends to capture me in Lebanon. The Syrian mukhabarat [general intelligence] were in Lebanon... They spoke with the Palestinian factions. The Democratic Front in Lebanon asked me to return home... and I was obliged to return.
"My three friends had no problems... Only me I had problems because my father was working with the Syrian authorities. However, I went another time to Lebanon, but I was forced to go back again to El-Yarmouk because of my father. I went back to school for one month and returned to Lebanon for the third time... although I was the first at school.
"I wanted to make a military operation against Israel. Because I was young, I was 17 at that time, it was forbidden for me to take part in any military operation. I went to Syria and made fake documentation. On the paper I was older. Once back in Lebanon I wrote a paper in which I declared I would take part in the operation on my free will. However, a leader from the Front said: 'You cannot take part in any sort of operation. First you should go to the Soviet Union to study at the military Academy.'
"I wanted to make the operation at any cost. Another time the leader said: 'Not possible' and another time the leader said: 'No possible'. At the end he agreed. I made problems with the Front in Beirut because of their refusal.
"There is a refugee camp in Beirut... its name is Shatila. In Shatila RC there was a war between Fatah and Abu Mussa. Fatah lost in 1988 and Abu Mussa became the head of Shatila. It was exactly like Fatah and Hamas in Gaza. Abu Mussa was a former Fatah activist who became a Syrian ally in 1987. Every day I was having problems with Abu Mussa in Shatila. Abu Mussa asked for my expulsion from Shatila. Consequently, the Front asked me to leave the camp. I replied that I will not leave the camp till the operation... because I wanted to do something against Israel.
"At that time all the Palestinian factions were represented in Shatila but Fatah. Abu Mussa in Shatila was like Hamas now in Gaza.
"The Front wanted to send me to the Soviet Union to study in the military Academy. The Syrians, the friends of my father, the mukhabarat and the Baath, wanted to send me to the Soviet Union to study security matters. I refused the two proposals. I only wanted to make an operation.
"For me the most beautiful thing in life was Palestine. I was thinking of nothing else...
"In 1987 started the first Intifada and the Minister of Defense Rabin gave the order to his troops to break the bones of the Palestinian insurgents. I saw on Tv the images of four youth whose bones were broken with stones by soldiers [in the West Bank]. My father prevented me to watch the news. When there were news bulletins on TV he ordered me to leave the room and he turned off the TV set.
"Finally, I was trained for the operation. It was a special training. It lasted for five months. We learned how to cross the Lebanese-Israeli border... how to cut the electrified fence...
"The target of the operation was a small and unknown colony, Margiliout, near Kiryat Shmona, in the north of Israel. We wanted to take hostages a number of inhabitants of Margiliout and to exchange them with Palestinian prisoners. We started the operation... and I myself became a Palestinian prisoner!
"We planned to keep the hostages in one of their underground shelters. They had everything inside and we could stay there for a long time... and the soldiers could not storm such a shelter. We prepared a leaflet: we will release the women, the children and the elderly.
"There was a seventy-percent chance of being a martyr or either I would be injured or captured. No one had never came back from an operation inside Israel. From an operation in South Lebanon one could return, but never from an operation in Israel. It was impossible.
"I was 17. With me were two comrades aged 23 and 24 respectively. One was from Jordan and the other one from Kuwait, but both were Palestinians.
"On 15 November 1988, in the morning, Yasser Arafat read the Declaration of Independence in Algiers, in front of the Palestinian National Council. Every political initiative should be accompanied by a big military operation.
"We were supposed to be at the border at 18:00. Do you know why? Because it's sunset... because during the night it's not the suitable time and during the day too. At sunset it's still clear but already dark. If the soldiers see you you are dead... They have special equipment to see day and night. At sunset the sight is weak. We were at the border at 19:00. We were one hour late. It was our fault...
"The Israeli troops fired at us an artillery shell. I was the most critically injured... not by bullets, but by an artillery shell fired by a tank !! They took me to a hospital but I didn't know where. From the window I could see South Lebanon. I was hospitalized for seventy days there.
"My right foot was bound to the bed and my wrists were bound to the bed. All the time six soldiers stationed in the room. They made an investigation. I was badly injured. I was half dead. The Israeli journalists came with the investigators and asked me: 'If you are released what will you do?' 'If I'm released I will return to make another operation,' I replied. All the Israeli media reported my words.
"Only the last day in hospital I knew where I was. The soldiers left and two policemen came, one of them was an Arab. The Arab policeman had read in the press what I said... I said I was a refugee from Safad. He asked me: 'Do you know where you are? You are in Safad!' All my body shook, my mind, all of me shook!
"After seventy days I was taken to another hospital in Ramla prison. I was on a wheel chair. I remained there for three months and then I stayed in Ramla prison till December 1989. From there I was transferred to Askalan central prison. I was able to walk only one year after my capture.
"My lawyer was the Israeli Lea Tsemel. I got 30 years but because I was only 17 the sentence was reduced to 20 years. And thanks to the Oslo Accords I was released after 11 years.
"In Askalan prison I was furious because the operation failed, but I was happy because I tried... at least I had done something!
"From outside you imagine that 20 years in prison is a long time, but in prison there is an intense life. All the time spent in jail helps you to improve yourself.
"Do you want to hear something beautiful? How do the prisoners remain alive in jail. It's a big issue... it's a big issue! In Askalan there were 3,000 books in the library! I don't think such a library existed in Gaza City at that time. We had not only books in Arabic, but also in English, French, Italian, Hebrew. In jail you are very busy. There are rules in jail. Everything is perfectly organized. There is a leadership which looks after the prisoners. It is like a government. We were 600. And there is also the work for the political faction... In Askalan I was the head of the Democratic Front.
"In jail you should not think you will be released early. If you think so you will be defeated... because inside there is an ongoing conflict with the prison authorities. If I think that tomorrow I will be freed I'm lost... I should be very strong.
"I have forgotten how one day I knew I was going to be released... The same happened during the investigation in hospital in Safad... I became amnesic... for that I said nothing.
"One day I arrived in Gaza, but I don't remember that day. I have forgotten... I only remember one thing: there were so many people waiting for us in Gaza. We were forty prisoners released that day. We entered the Strip through Sufa crossing. All the Strip, all the strip, came to welcome us. It was on 15 October 1999. We were the latest group to be released following the 1993 Oslo Accords. We were the so-called Arab prisoners. This group included fighters from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Lebanon and Jordan. Most of them were from Palestinian descent like me.
"I left the prison with only a pair of pants, a shirt, a tower, a teeth brush, a mirror. It's all... and a bag containing block-notes, papers, copybooks that I filed during my detention. I was 28-year old. All the forty were prevented by the Israeli authorities to leave the Strip for ever. This was the condition attached to our release.
"I passed the Tawjihi in jail [matriculation exam]. We studied the Hebrew language with Druze prisoners citizens of Israel... they were feddayin. I registered at the Hebrew University and studied politics and media for two years and I got the diploma.
"The other two comrades who took part in the operation with me were sentenced to 30 years. After ten years there were released. Now they are in Jordan. When the [Hamas leader] Khaled Mashall was poisoned by the Mossad while he was in Jordan in 1997 or 1998, five from the Mossad went to Jordan to give the antidote. Additionally, the authorities of the Kingdom demanded the release of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and of a number of prisoners, including my two comrades because they were holders of a Jordanian passport.
"In April 2000 a delegation of former female prisoners from Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza wanted to meet in Gaza City the Minister of Prisoners' Affairs. One of the girls was from Silwan, in East Jerusalem. She was arrested at the age of 15, in 1992, and sentenced to five years for an operation on behalf of Fatah. She was released after two years. When I met her she was 23. Her name was Nasmiyeh Reshaq.
"We got married after a long time... after one year! Our son Mansour is now 8 and Mohammad 3. Each time my wife went to Jerusalem to give birth she was prevented to return to Gaza for three years. We have been married for nine years and a half now, but in total we have been separated for six years. When my wife couldn't re-enter Gaza after the birth of Mansour, an Israeli Mukhabarat called me and proposed me to collaborate with them if I wanted the permit for my wife. I refused.
"In November 2009 I went to Syria to visit my family after an absence of 22 years. I have forgotten the day I returned home. I know my mother was weeping that day because I saw a video. I spent four months in Syria.
"I was an opponent of Oslo. There was something wrong with Oslo. We are in need of freedom and independence. In the Oslo Accords we didn't find what we needed. The current situation is the direct consequence of Oslo.
"Everything in my life is a problem because of the Israeli occupation... Nevertheless, I 'm happy because I 'm in Gaza... but I 'm upset because of the situation... Do you know, Flora, why I'm happy here? I'm happy in Gaza because here I'm a citizen... in Syria I was a refugee..."
- Flora Nicoletta is an independent French journalist living in Gaza. She is currently working on her fourth book on the Palestinian question.