Hajj Muhammad Salim Dudin says he has spent a third of his life travelling between Israeli prisons to visit his four sons.
“I know all the jails in Israel by heart. I visited all of them,” said the 68-year-old farmer with a sigh.
Hajj Muhammad’s household is a symbol of the suffering Palestinian families whose relatives are political prisoners in Israeli jails.
He lives in a modest three-room house in the hamlet of al-Alaka al-Fouka, about 32km southwest of the occupied West Bank city of Hebron. Despite the hamlet’s remoteness, it has not escaped the brutality of Israeli occupation.
Hajj Muhammad’s trials first began shortly after midnight on 28 December 1980, when crack Israeli soldiers stormed his home to arrest his eldest son, Yasir, on suspicion of belonging to Fatah, President Yasir Arafat’s group.
Yasir, 42, is married and a father of five children. He was in and out of Israeli prisons for much of 1980-1993.
Since his first detention in 1980, the family has become a constant target of Israeli reprisals, raids and arbitrary arrests.
The 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel did not end the family’s plight since the village, like the bulk of the Palestinian countryside, remained under Israeli control.
Hajj Muhammad recalls one incident in 1997 when he says Israeli soldiers tried to murder his other son, Khalid.
“They came to arrest him, but I suspected that they actually wanted to kill him and then claim he tried to escape. So, I handed him over to the commanding officer, after which the soldiers ganged up on him like mad dogs. How would you feel watching your child being beaten mercilessly before your eyes and you can’t do anything to help him?”
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Soon thereafter, the Israeli army arrested Hajj Muhammad’s remaining sons: Ayad, 27, Khalid 18, and Musa, 22, on grounds of having ties with the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, or involvement in anti-occupation attacks.
“The army came around midnight, pounding and cursing. They dragged them from their sleep, handcuffed and blindfolded them and then struck them on the head,” he said.
The Israeli authorities imprisoned the four brothers in separate jails, hundreds of kilometres apart.
Ayad, a staff nurse working for the Red Crescent Society, was sent to al-Fara camp near Tulkaram. Khalid, now a school teacher, was sent to a desert camp known as Ketziot near the Egyptian border while Musa was sent to the notorious Ramleh prison.
Musa was then subjected to intense psychological and physical torture for 240 consecutive days.
With his four sons behind bars, Hajj Muhammad took to the road, commuting between the offices of the Red Cross to inquire about the whereabouts of his sons and offices of “those greedy lawyers who are only interested in grabbing money from the poor families of the prisoners”.
“Coping with this pain and overwhelming daily suffering became a way of life,” the Hajj said.
The financial burden began taking its toll as he planned for costly weekly visits, organized by the Red Cross and Red Crescent society.
Ayad and Yasir’s children would “break my heart by constantly asking ‘where is dad, and when will he come home?’ ”
“It is like fighting on 10 fronts at the same time, where you either have a nervous breakdown or do what you can until God brings about a breakthrough,” said Hajj Muhammad.
He admits to sometimes giving in to despair.
Israeli prison officers could be brutal, he said, recalling an incident in Hebron during a visit to Musa, who is serving a life sentence for attacking an Israeli army vehicle and killing a soldier.
“The prison officers told me to wait 30 minutes. When Musa didn’t show up, I began to have suspicions. I asked the officer again if Musa was there and he asked me to wait five more minutes.”
“How would you feel watching your child being beaten mercilessly before your eyes and you can’t do anything to help him?”
Hajj Muhammad, a father of four Palestinian detainees
“Then a secret service agent asked me my name. He grabbed me by my neck and dragged me for a hundred metres on the ground,” he said, adding he was “mortally humiliated”. He fainted and later regained conscious in the hospital.
Coming from a society which places high value on personal dignity, this incident was a severe blow to his pride.
Resistance from prison
Then, there are the hardships endured because of his children’s own struggles.
In the last three months, Musa has gone on two hunger strikes in protest at being shackled and placed in open-ended solitary confinement. The first strike lasted for 32 days, during which Hajj Muhammad fretted even more about his son’s health.
Earlier this month, Hajj Muhammad received a call Musa was dead after going without food for 22 days, and water for three days.
The news turned out to be inaccurate. After pressure from the Red Cross and human rights groups, Musa was transferred to a prison hospital where he recuperated.
Musa is serving a life sentence
The prison authorities also promised to end their inhumane treatment. But as soon as Musa was back in jail, he was subjected to the same earlier conditions.
Hajj Muhammad’s son Ayad is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence at the Meggedo detention centre in the northern West Bank. Khalid and Yasir, on the other hand, were recently released.
“I hope God will not punish us in the after life,” said Hajj Muhammad while rolling his eyes upwards. “We have had more than enough suffering in this life.”