Majd Oweida: The jailed robot designer from Gaza
Israel has accused the 23-year-old talent scout of cyber-crime, in a case his family calls incomprehensible.
Gaza City – Majd Oweida arrived at the Erez crossing on February 23, en route to the occupied West Bank, in the hope of fulfilling a lifelong dream to organise a programme that introduces talented Palestinians to the world.
This was to be the first time that Majd, a 23-year-old electrical engineer, would set foot in a part of Palestine outside the electrified fence surrounding the besieged Gaza Strip. Excited, he posted a selfie to Facebook, in which he held up his Israeli-issued entry permit.
But as soon as he entered the Israeli zone of the Erez crossing terminal, Majd’s trip took an unexpected turn.
His colleagues, including his brother Amjad, lost contact with him for hours. Suspecting he was being subjected to a routine interrogation, they continued to wait after they reached the Israeli side of the crossing. As night descended, they headed towards Ramallah, expecting that he would soon join.
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Later that night, Amjad received a call from the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s liaison office, informing him that Majd had been arrested by Israeli forces. The family was not informed about Majd’s condition or whereabouts.
More than two weeks after his arrest, Majd’s lawyer was permitted to visit him in hospital, provided that he did not publicly disclose any details of that visit. The reason for Majd’s hospital visit remains unclear.
Then, on March 23, Majd appeared in court, charged with working with the armed wing of Islamic Jihad and leading a cyber-team that allegedly intercepted Israeli military drone feeds, hacked signals from Israeli police street cameras, and coded a programme that collected flight information from Israel’s Ben Gurion airport.
Some of this information was allegedly used to detect which areas were hit by Palestinian rockets, in order to improve the aim.
In court, Majd, who pleaded not guilty, told his lawyer that he had been locked in a small cell at the Ashkelon prison, where he was subjected to daily interrogation sessions that lasted for hours.
“He was put in complete isolation and denied his right to talk to his attorney, which gravely breaches the basics of fair trial,” Samir al-Manama, Majd’s lawyer from the al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera.
Majd’s family and many Palestinians say the charges are incomprehensible.
“They charged Majd with counts that even a professor in computer science cannot do,” said Jawad Oweida, Majd’s father. “My son never knew as much as how to hack an email, let alone breaking into sophisticated military communications.”
Majd’s case was investigated by the Shin Bet and the Israeli police counterterrorism unit, and none of the alleged evidence against him has been publicly disclosed. Representatives for the Israeli police and justice ministry, and for the PA, declined Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the matter.
Majd, who appeared in court again this month and was referred to a special committee to examine his mental capacity and computer skills, is due back in court in late June.
Since he was a young boy, Majd has been keenly interested in computers – a passion that Jawad ascribes to Majd’s mother’s work as a computer programmer.
Jawad bought Majd his first personal computer at the age of 13.
“I recognised and supported his talents,” Jawad told Al Jazeera. “All through his adolescent years, I took him to several computer courses to promote his skills.”
We believed factions divided the Palestinian people, and we wanted to remain just Palestinians.
Majd soon stood out among his peers for his proficiency with computers. Teachers entrusted him to instruct students his own age during computer science classes, and he represented his school at local programming contests, winning several awards.
“We had friends over to play computer games that were designed by Majd,” recalled Amjad, who shared a room with his brother. “Our friends came to him for help and he fixed their computers for free.”
According to his mother, Maha, Majd was kind and loving, adored by his friends and admired by his teachers. She insists her son had no links to any Palestinian factions.
“We believed factions divided the Palestinian people, and we wanted to remain just Palestinians,” Maha told Al Jazeera.
For his college graduation project, Majd designed a robot that would help ill people with household chores, but owing to a lack of materials, he never actually built it.
Among his charges, Majd was accused of importing banned devices that he allegedly needed for hacking activities, including a frequency reader and a satellite dish. But Jawad says this does not make sense: “If he knew how to smuggle missing electronics, he would have completed his graduation project.”
In addition to computers, Majd had another passion. Ever since he was 16, he dreamed of presenting Palestinian talent to the world, and sought to establish a club for this purpose.
“Every time he listened to a beautiful Palestinian voice or heard someone play music, he would tear up,” Jawad said. “He regretted the many talents that were locked up in Gaza. He believed the world had to see and hear what Palestinians had to present.”
In 2011, at the age of 17, Majd created a Facebook page called the Palestinian Talents Club, which became a virtual gathering place for aspiring young performers. A year later, he secured a sponsorship from a group of local writers and artists, and he began visiting schools to scout out hidden talents. Over the past few years, Majd’s club has cultivated a host of talents, including painters, poets and musicians.
In 2013, Mohammed Assaf, a Palestinian singer from Gaza, won the second season of Arab Idol. Inspired, Majd assembled a group of young musicians and singers under the band name al-Takht al-Sharki, and pitched their performance to the television show Arabs Got Talent.
The pitch was accepted, but the band’s audition date coincided with the 2014 Gaza war.
“The band rehearsed during the war,” Amjad recalled. “On ceasefires, they gathered and rehearsed for their upcoming audition.”
The band ultimately made it to auditions in Beirut, where they won a golden ticket and the awe of a wide audience. They ultimately made it to the contest’s semi-finals, and the band’s first audition on YouTube has been viewed more than 16 million times.
Shortly thereafter, Majd applied through an organising committee in Ramallah to obtain a licence for a local version of the show, under the name Palestine’s Got Talent. He was granted the licence and was en route to Ramallah to meet with the organising committee when he was stopped at Erez.
The licence has since expired, and by the end of March, the event’s page on Twitter had stopped posting promos.
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Maha believes that Israel targeted her son because he sought to break prevailing stereotypes.
“Israel didn’t like that he reintroduced Palestinians as artists and humans who had talents,” she said. “He threatened to shatter the stereotypical picture they maintained through media about Palestinians being violent people.”
After Majd’s arrest, the Palestinian Talents Club effectively ceased operating. Asked whether he planned to revive it, Amjad replied: “Majd was the backbone of the club. It will never be the same without him.”
Majd’s family, including his three younger brothers and two younger sisters, have not been able to see or communicate with him since his arrest. Asked whether she missed him, Majd’s six-year-old sister, Lina, struggled to hold back tears.
“He loved his little sisters,” Maha said. “Even when he got home late, he woke them up to hug them and say goodnight.”