Memories that attack like a dagger

Memories that attack like a dagger

Smoke billows during Israeli strikes in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. May 13, 2024 (File/AFP)
Smoke billows during Israeli strikes in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. May 13, 2024 (File/AFP)
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Given his experience, Yahya Sinwar knows that nothing can break the will of an Israeli government and its generals like one of its soldiers being taken prisoner by the Palestinians.

In 1988, Sinwar was arrested, not for the first time, and sentenced to four life terms. But in 2011, he was freed, along with more than 1,000 other Palestinians, after Hamas agreed to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom it had abducted five years earlier. The prime minister at the time was Benjamin Netanyahu, who responded to last year’s Al-Aqsa Flood operation with the ongoing bloodbath in Gaza and his current attempt to invade Rafah.

It is the norm that Israel will never abandon its efforts to release any soldier who is held captive. It could resort to force to ensure their release, even if the price it pays is costly. Should that fail, then it could turn to arduous and costly negotiations.

The issue of prisoners and exchanges is old and painful. Every prominent Palestinian leader dreams of earning the medal of liberating Palestinians from their torture in Israeli prisons.

CNN this week aired a report about the suffering of Palestinian prisoners at an Israeli military base-turned-detention center in the Negev desert. It spoke of rotting wounds and limbs being amputated due to prisoners being shackled for too long. The report jogged my memory. During the early days of my career, my profession allowed me to learn about the suffering of prisoners and a captive country called Palestine. The country witnessed a river of prisoners and several exchanges, but the river of blood and detainees will never stop without the birth of an independent Palestinian state.

I will share a few memories with the reader. Back in 1979, Fadel Shrourou, a leading member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command, asked me if I wanted an intriguing story. No young journalist would pass up such a proposal. I asked him about the time and place. Smiling, he replied: “A car will come to pick you up.”

My profession allowed me to learn about the suffering of prisoners and a captive country called Palestine

Ghassan Charbel

I waited in front of the An-Nahar building in Beirut and, soon, a car with tinted windows drove up to me. The driver and his companion were both armed. I asked the companion where we were going and he said he had yet to receive the details. After some 20 minutes, the car veered off the main road and we changed cars. I asked them why and they said: “Israel is watching on the ground and in the air.” My excitement only grew from there.

Reaching our destination, the companion asked me if I recognized the place. I said I did not, when indeed I did. It was Abra, east of Sidon in southern Lebanon, only a few kilometers from my own village. I did not tell him I knew where we were because I did not want to ruin the trip.

We then headed to a residential building, where we were welcomed by some obviously nervous men. Entering an apartment, I found myself face to face with an Israeli prisoner. It was the first time I had ever found myself under the same roof as an Israeli, a soldier no less.

I asked him who he was and he identified himself as Abraham Amram. He revealed that he was taken prisoner during the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in 1978. Then, like all prisoners, he went on to criticize the Israeli government and urged it to comply with the demands of his captors. He also said the PFLP-GC had treated him well and provided him with medical care. However, after his return to Israel, he published a book in which he said his captors had held him in Syria and that he was severely tortured during his detention.

On the way back to Beirut, the companion apologized for the security measures of the journey. He said the area was at the mercy of Israeli jets and that Israel would not have hesitated in carrying out a ground operation had information about the meeting been leaked.

Later, on March 14 the same year, I was at Damascus airport for a flight on a Bulgarian Tupolev plane that was transporting Amram. Shrourou was in charge of the trip and he worried that Israel would hijack the Tupolev. Amram himself was worried that Menachem Begin’s government would make a move that would lead to his death. He tried to conceal his fear by asking whether his wife and children would be waiting for him when we arrived at our destination.

The plane landed at Geneva airport. A plane flying in from Israel was also there, carrying 66 Palestinian prisoners. With tensions riding high, the Red Cross carried out the swap. Amram was not allowed to get out of the Bulgarian plane before all Palestinians had exited the Israeli aircraft.

The Palestinians were overjoyed with their newfound freedom. Amram’s jet flew toward Tel Aviv and the liberated prisoners were flown to the Libyan capital, where they were received at Tripoli airport by PFLP-GC leader Ahmed Jibril and Abdessalam Jalloud, who was representing Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

As I recall this incident, I need to recount some testimonies. Fatah’s Abdullah Hilal Tohma recalled how he infiltrated Palestinian territories in 1967 with another Palestinian called Yasser Arafat. They parted ways in Nablus city. Tohma would be detained and held prisoner by Israel, while Arafat would later become the guardian of the Palestinian dream.

Hafez Dalqamouni recalled the horrific torture he endured during his time in Israeli captivity. He said an Israeli doctor insisted on amputating his leg and that, later, during interrogations, his captors would beat the leg that was amputated.

A.A.A. recalled how she was paraded naked in front of Israeli soldiers and how they attempted to penetrate her body using a stick. She was serving two life sentences.

The “mother of all horrors” was recalled by R.Y.A. of the PFLP who was imprisoned after carrying out several attacks against Israel. One attack targeted the British consulate. She recalled: “They stripped me naked, brought in my father and ordered him to have sex with me. He fainted from horror.”

I am now using the initials of the two liberated women prisoners. Back then, I was a young journalist with few reservations. I released their full names along with their photos. In Beirut, famed poet Mahmoud Darwish read their recollections and told me: “This killed me. This is peak brutality. I couldn’t sleep that night.”

I have heard many painful recollections throughout my career. But R.Y.A.’s statements were the most brutal. The CNN report reminded me of the suffering of prisoners. The recollections living in my memory attacked me like a dagger.

  • Ghassan Charbel is editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. X: @GhasanCharbel

This article first appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat.

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