Alexandra Halabi holds a picture of her sons, who are imprisoned in Israel.
By Jenny Baboun
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — “Since 2004, the whole family did not gather, not even once. Someone is always missing,” recounted Alexandra Halabi, a Christian mother of four sons imprisoned by Israeli forces.
When Alexandra’s eldest son Raed was detained in July 2004, she did not know it was only the beginning of a struggle that would scatter her family.
Alexandra told Ma’an that Raed, 28, was given a two-year suspended sentence and released in 2005, but toward the end of his probation he was handed to Israel by a collaborator and ordered to serve two years plus two months in jail.
He had two jobs, working for the Global Movement for Children and in a hotel, and had no time for political activism, she added.
Nael, 25, was detained four months after Raed and has spent four-and-a-half years in prison. He was studying sociology at Birzeit University but was detained again in April 2011.
He is due to be released on June 5 but an Israeli officer has already threatened Alexandra that he will be detained again, she says. He went on hunger strike in solidarity with Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi, and was twice punished with solitary confinement and denied family visits. He also joined the mass prisoner hunger strike which ended on May 14 following a deal with Israeli authorities.
Nasser, 22, was studying hotel management at Bethlehem University before he was detained in 2009 and spent two years in prison.
Nasser was detained again in March and a week later Rami, 26, was imprisoned. He was studying accounting at Al-Quds Open University. Alexandra says she is most worried about Rami because it’s his first experience in an Israeli prison.
They are all accused of involvement in Kutab Tulabi, an activist group in Birzeit University affiliated to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
She said her sons’ continued imprisonment contradicts recent claims by Israel’s ambassador in the US, Michael Oren, that it ensures “complete equality of all its citizens irrespective of religion.”
“He’s a liar,” Alexandra said.
She says Israeli prison guards and soldiers discriminate against Christians, but inside prison Muslim and Christian detainees are like brothers “They are true friends.”
Nael shared a cell with three Hamas members, and when they left the cell to pray they would insist he joined them and pretended to pray. They were concerned that prison guards might attack Nael if he was left alone, Alexandra explained.
Chris Bandak, a Christian prisoner who was released in October 2011 in Hamas’ prisoner swap deal with Israel, also said Israeli jailers targeted Christian detainees.
Prison guards treat Christian detainees “with more cruelty as they consider us to be against the Christian habits which they think have nothing to do with the homeland,” he told Ma’an.
“All prisoners used to celebrate all holidays with me, I felt everyone to be so engaged in making the feast better in jail,” Bandak added.
Alexandra said the soldiers who search her before visiting her sons in prison or in court were more aggressive with her than with veiled women. “The Palestinian cause is for all the Palestinian people, whether Muslims or Christians,” she stressed.
Other women visiting relatives in prison were often surprised when they saw Alexandra and her daughter wearing crosses and said it was unusual to find Christians in jail. She tells them “Religion is for God and the country is for everyone. If I’m Christian, don’t I have a homeland?”
These days, Nael and Nasser are held in Ashkelon prison while Raed and Rami are held in Ofer detention center, and Alexandra says she is more relaxed since her sons have a brother with them.
She must obtain a different permit to visit each one, and it’s hardest to get permission to see Nael, she says. “(Israel’s) excuse was always that there’s no family relationship.”
She said she felt one of the Israeli soldiers who arrested Nael was ashamed to be detaining a Christian and asked “Why are you carrying the Palestinian cause on your shoulders?”
Alexandra added “The officer told me ‘You are from Jerusalem not the West Bank’ but I responded that I have a Palestinian ID and he said he knew.”
All Alexandra’s sons have Israeli ID cards, but she has a Palestinian ID. Her permits state that she is visiting non-Palestinians, and this makes it harder for Alexandra to get permission to visit her sons.
Alexandra’s nephew Khaled Halabi is also in prison in Israel. She said an Israeli officer told Khaled’s father in court “we want to teach Christians a lesson by the sentence of your son.” Khaled was sentenced to 28 years.
“What (the world’s Christians) should know is that Jesus Christ made the first sacrifice, on the cross. He was tortured and crucified. Therefore, we as Christians should put Christ in front of our eyes, how he suffered for the homeland, for religion and for everything, we also have a country, religion and entity (to suffer for).”