Forced into exile, Salah Hammouri longs to return to his homeland. A month after Israel deported the Palestinian human rights lawyer from his prison cell to France, Hammouri says his “uprooting” is part of Israel’s punitive policies against Palestinians.
Hamouri has joined thousands of other Palestinians who have been deported for their activism against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Rights groups say the deportations and detentions are against international law, and Amnesty International France called it “part of the crime of apartheid”.
Before his deportation, Hammouri had spent more than eight years in Israeli prisons. His first arrest occurred when he was barely 16 years old during the Second Intifada in 2001.
His latest stint in prison began in March when he was detained without charge. It followed the revocation of his residency in Jerusalem, the city where he was born and raised, and culminated in his deportation on December 18 to France, where he is a citizen.
A month later, Hammouri told Al Jazeera that having his residency revoked was hard to take both on a psychological and physical level.
“It felt like someone was ripping your heart out,” he said from Paris, adding that he had been threatened with losing his residency for many years.
Hammouri was targeted for his activism and what Israel says is his membership to the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) political party, His case has highlighted the fragile position of Palestinian Jerusalemites, who have rescindable residency rights and do not hold Israeli citizenship.
In 2005, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for an alleged PFLP plot to assassinate a right-wing rabbi, which Hammouri denied. After spending six years and nine months behind bars, he was eventually freed in a 2011 prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel. It saw more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who Hamas captured in the Gaza Strip in 2006.
Hammouri, whose mother is French, said Israel had wanted to deport him for 15 years instead of sentencing him to prison.
“I refused and made the difficult choice of going to prison instead,” he said.
Discriminatory residency rights
According to international law, deportation by an occupying power constitutes a breach of the Geneva Conventions and is considered one of the most serious war crimes.
But Israeli threats of deportation for Palestinian prisoners is standard practice. In 2013, for example, the Israeli government tried to force hunger striker Samer el-Issawi to accept being deported to a UN member state in return for him ending his strike.
According to the Israeli rights group B’tselem, such deportations are a direct continuation of Israel’s general policy in occupied East Jerusalem since 1967, whose goal is to create a demographic and geographic reality under which Israel’s sovereignty in the city cannot be challenged.
“This policy blatantly discriminates between Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Israeli citizens,” the rights group said. “Israeli citizens can leave the country for as long as they like and always have the right to return.”
Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government, discussions about withdrawing residencies and stripping away citizenship from Palestinians living in Jerusalem and Israel have been floated, specifically for prisoners who have carried out attacks against Jewish Israelis.
Palestinians who have residency in Jerusalem cannot vote in Israeli elections and live under the threat of losing their status. Israel does that in three ways: First, Palestinians from Jerusalem who live outside the city for seven years or obtain residency or citizenship in another country can have their residencies revoked. A second way is if Palestinians cannot “prove” their centre of life is in Jerusalem. Lastly, Palestinian Jerusalemites can lose their residency if they are accused of breaching “allegiance” to Israel, which is illegal under international law.
On the other hand, Israeli settlers living in Jewish-only settlements in occupied East Jerusalem enjoy full citizenship rights and are not subjected to these rules.
According to Human Rights Watch, Israel has revoked the residency status of at least 14,701 Palestinians in East Jerusalem from 1967 to 2020. But if the dependent children of those who had their residencies revoked are counted, the number is much higher – at 86,000.
“It is clear that working in the field of human rights in Palestine is an accusation against you since you are exposing the crimes of the occupation,” said Hammouri, who lost his residency in October 2021. “But all of this will not deter me from continuing my work.”
The lawyer worked with the prisoner rights group Addameer, which Israel has banned as part of its crackdown on Palestinian civil society groups. In 2014, he married Frenchwoman Elsa Lefort, but just two years later, they were forced into what Hammouri said was a long-distance relationship after Israel banned his wife from the country.
After his latest arrest, Hammouri was held for nine months under indefinite administrative detention, meaning that no charges were brought against him and no trial was held. He was interrogated at al-Maskobiya interrogation centre near Jerusalem’s Old City before spending time in Ofer and Haderim prisons. When his detention was up for renewal in December, Israel opted to deport him to France, and then-interior minister Ayelet Shaked declared “justice was served” and referred to Hammouri as a “terrorist”.
At the time, the French foreign ministry condemned the deportation. In a statement, the ministry said it has “taken full action, including at the highest level of the state, to ensure that Mr Salah Hammouri’s rights are respected, that he benefits from all legal remedies and that he can lead a normal life in Jerusalem, where he was born, resides and wishes to live”.
But Hammouri criticised France and said he received no help from the French government.
“I haven’t received a single telephone call from French authorities or any official support from them about my case,” he said. “The French government has a responsibility to me as a citizen and did not do its duty to defend me and fight my deportation. Instead, the government intentionally looked away and allowed the Israeli occupation to deport me.”
‘Son of Jerusalem’
The lawyer was one of six Palestinian human rights activists whose phones were hacked using Israeli Pegasus spyware in 2021, which he described as part of longstanding harassment undertaken by Israel.
“Even after violating my privacy, Israel still couldn’t charge me with anything,” he said. “Spying on my phone only speaks to their moral bankruptcy, and these tactics are used against those who speak up against the occupation and defend our rights as Palestinians.”
Referring to himself as a “son of Jerusalem”, the lawyer described his emotional connection to the city and reminisced about the school he went to as a boy.
“My memories include every intricate detail about the city,” he said. “The alleys and neighbourhoods in the Old City, ka’ak [sesame bread], the tours around the city … and the history and ongoing story of Jerusalem’s struggle against Israeli occupation.”
Hammouri criticised the international community’s lack of response to the ongoing Israeli occupation, saying its silence and treatment of Israel as above the law will only embolden the state into continuing what he said are violations of international law and crimes against humanity.
“The year 2022 was disastrous for Palestinians in terms of the high number of martyrs killed by Israel, the arrest of human rights defenders, and the targeting and killing of journalists such as Shireen Abu Akleh,” he said.
“This is why we as a people must come together as a united force and heal our inner divisions and conflicts,” he added.
There have been more arrests, raids and Palestinians killed in the first weeks of this year, and Hammouri predicted that the situation will get worse under Netanyahu and his new government.
Hammouri said he will use every legal tool at his disposal to pressure France into returning him to his country.
“I’m still processing my deportation,” he said. “But I’ve promised myself to make my return to Jerusalem my life’s work.”