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Israel and the occupied and autonomous territories, Gaza: the sons of Umm Abed

07-03-2002 Feature

Attired in a embroidered black dress, her dignified features half hidden by a white muslin shawl, 75-year-old Umm Abed (not her real name) said, emphasizing every word: “My son, a teacher, was arrested in 1985. When he was detained he was interrogated for three months and 20 days. I felt such pain...”.

When her son, Abed, was finally transferred to another prison, his mother was allowed to visit him thanks to the ICRC's long-established programme designed to ensure that Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza can keep in touch with their loved ones held in Israeli jails. The programme, launched in 1969, has suffered many interruptions over the years but has nevertheless enabled thousands of detainees to receive visits from their families. As for Abed, he was released in 1999.

During one of Umm Abed's visits to her son she met and befriended another detainee, a young man from Lebanon. Other mothers visiting their imprisoned children did likewise, with the result that a number of prisoners whose families were unable to enter Israel to see them no longer felt completely abandoned. But things did not go well for Umm Abed's " adopted " son. The old woman was told by the authorities that her visits to him were going to be stopped.

All Umm Abed's requests to be allowed to continue her prison visits were turned down. She then decided to join a weekly protest held in front of the ICRC office in Gaza City by the families of detainees. Umm Abed soon took to her new role: she is always the first to arrive and the last to leave. “I will come every week until things change”, she said with quiet determination. “A nd I have a message for Israeli mothers: We are not terrorists. We feel pain when our children’s blood is spilled. And we feel the same sense of horror as you do when violence happens, anywhere.”

On 31 December 2001, Umm Abed finally received permission to visit her adopted son again for the first time in nearly three years. “It was one of the happiest days of my life”, she exclaimed afterwards. In January 2002 the old lady paid him two visits, but was refused permission to go a third time. At the moment she has no idea when, if ever, she will once again see the man for whom she has been a gleam of light in a dark world.