Widad Younis keeps her son Maher’s bedroom room ready for his return – although it has sat empty for 31 years now.
Arrested in 1983 for killing Israeli soldier Avraham Bromberg two years earlier, Maher has not seen his family home near the Galilee city of Umm el-Fahem, a centre for Israel’s Palestinian citizens, since being hauled off to prison during a night raid by Israeli security forces.
Maher Younis was supposed to be released 20 years ago during the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), but like many Palestinians arrested before the first peace talks began, he still languishes in Israeli detention.
He was slated to be part of the 104 prisoners released by Israel as a US-brokered goodwill gesture ahead of a new round of peace talks. An Israeli citizen, Younis was not part of the first installment of 26 prisoners released this week – only a handful of West Bankers and Gazans were freed as negotiations get underway in Jerusalem. No Palestinian citizens of Israel or residents of Jerusalem have been approved by Israel’s cabinet to be freed.
As talks start Wednesday in Jerusalem – already on shaky ground since Israel’s announcement of renewed settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories – the Israeli government appears to prefer releasing a small number of selected prisoners to halting settlements. Israeli ambiguity on whether they are willing to release prisoners with Israeli citizenship has especially angered advocates for the jailed Palestinians.
Now, with his first parole hearing set for September, the Younis family says they would prefer Maher is released through the Israeli legal process and afforded the same administrative rights as Israeli Jews. Facing a life sentence until last year when an appeal reduced his incarceration to 40 years, Maher’s family has used every channel open to them to get him released.
“We live in an identity crisis: We are Palestinian and we have our brothers in the West Bank and Gaza, but we are citizens here and live under the Jewish state,” says Nader Younis, Maher’s older brother, as he sits in his mother’s living room. “It’s been 31 years in jail for Maher; it’s enough.”
We live in an identity crisis: We are Palestinian and we have our brothers in the West Bank and Gaza, but we are citizens here and live under the Jewish state.
The owner of a petrol station and cafe in the village of Ara, of which he’s a resident, Nader also owns a business in Ramallah and regularly travels across the Green Line to the West Bank. He says that during a meeting last week with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential compound in Ramallah, the PA committed to having his younger brother released. However, with the Israeli cabinet having the final say on which prisoners to release, it is questionable how much the PA can actually do.
The walls of the comfortable, traditional Palestinian living room feature a mix of nationalist art and family photos. Hanging prominently in the centre of the room, above a tin plaque of the al-Aqsa Mosque that Maher made in prison, rests a prison photo of Maher in his 40s. He’s now 54. Dressed in a tracksuit with a light moustache, he awkwardly looks over the room in his absence.
“It’s not fair that I should only get my son back when he’s old,” says Widad, now 78 years old. Dressed conservatively and speaking somberly as she sits on a couch while her nephew Wissam translates, she acknowledges it was a mistake for her son and his cousin Karim, also in prison, to kill an Israeli soldier as he was hitchhiking in northern Israel. But she blames Israeli and PLO leaders for creating the political context for violence and issuing the orders for the attack, respectively.
“It’s a mistake, but not [my son’s] mistake. He was pushed by the leaders – Arafat and the Jewish leaders. That put us in this dark alley,” contends Widad, describing her son and the remaining pre-Oslo prisoners as pawns. She notes that those negotiating once ordered attacks themselves, and are now free.
Civil rights struggles
The family maintains that Maher and Karim were not politically affiliated at the time, saying that only Sami Younis, an older cousin who ordered the killing and was released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011, was a PLO member. Still, they say that everything was very secretive and no one in the family knew anything of Maher’s involvement in the killing until Israeli forces stormed the house in 1983, beating the then 23-year-old Maher and his sister before arresting him.
Describing the environment in which Maher grew up, Wissam, a lecturer in political science at Haifa University, depicts an era in which Israel’s Palestinian citizens felt they lacked civil rights. “[They] were completely terrified by the Israeli institution and were indeed on one hand marginalised and felt the contact with Jews,” he explains.
Still, according to Nader, Maher only joined Fatah, the dominant faction of the PLO, when he was in prison. This inequality between Palestinian and Jewish Israelis accentuated during Maher’s treatment while incarcerated.
Like many other Palestinian prisoners, Maher has been denied the right to get married and have conjugal visits to start a family while in jail, privileges afforded even to Yigal Amir, the Jewish assassin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Visiting Maher in prison has strained Widad, who has gone to visit her son almost every two weeks since his detention, although she says she has had to travel to 22 prisons because he is always being moved. “It has been physically very difficult for me, [especially] travelling to Nafa [Prison] in the south Negev desert,” she explains. He is now being held in Bilboa prison, north of the Israeli city of Natanya.
Wandering through the Younis family home, Maher’s absence is ever-present. His family, like thousands of others, are still waiting for that void to be filled.