By Rana Abdulla
My husband met Umm Qais last year in Jenin. She is a 56 year old Palestinian mother of five sons. Her son, Qais Odwan, was not only extra-judicially executed by Israel, he was also slanderously accused of a range of crimes he did not commit. Without arrest, without a trial, without a verdict, he was adjudged guilty. Of the evidence? We were told that there was more than enough evidence to prove his guilt, but that the evidence is deemed secret. You see, we were told, the only people who are trustworthy enough to view this evidence are members of the Israeli intelligence agencies. The Israeli state will not trust its own citizens or its own press with this information, and would certainly never allow the investigators from Palestine to learn anything about the facts behind these events. Instead, all inquiries were met with threats, and critics were silenced. The media were given no choice but to report the official, mostly fabricated, so-called “secret evidence” or to remain silent.
I am always deeply moved when I meet a mother who has lost a son. As my husband told me of this mother’s story, my thoughts were such that I could not help but write down immediately what I had heard. At times, so overcome with emotion, I was forced to pause to compose myself while I, a mother of four myself, became immersed in the experience of another mother, whose family had been visited by such a terrible injustice. But I was not just distressed. As I wrote Umm Qais’ story about her son, my adrenalin was flowing. Even more than distress, the injustice visited upon Umm Qais and her family, filled me with determination and a strong sense of righteous indignation gave me strength. I felt myself transformed and equipped with the tools to fight this, and other similar injustices in the world. Qais’s story was not a happy one, but it was one to which I was determined to bring hope. Umm Qais story moved from the bleakest and most miserable, to one full of optimism for those with faith. Her son may have unjustly lost his life, yet if it teaches us anything it is that we can have compassion for the unfortunate, and remain vigilant and aware of the injustices around us.
Having made us aware of her painful, but all too familiar story, Um Qais can take comfort in our solidarity with her, and be secure in the knowledge that her experience will only strengthen our resolve to oppose this oppressive renegade yoke, known as the Israeli government. Men like Qais Odwan will always live in our memories and their heavy sacrifice will only spur us on to greater resistance.
The Real Qais Odwan
On 5 April 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield, Israel announced it had killed Qais Odwan, a 25-year-old engineering graduate student. The Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) informed the world that Odwan engineered the Netanya suicide bombing on Passover eve that killed 26 Israelis in late March 2002, and that he had been one of the “most wanted” members of the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad. Due to the mainstream media’s complicity in the suppression of the true history of the expropriation of Palestinian land in the cause of the Zionist political movement, too many people in Canada, Europe, and the United States are unaware of the enormity of the crimes committed by the government of Israel. The media reports are almost entirely dictated by the false information provided by the IOF, and it is not only to the eternal shame of the various international media that they fail utterly to criticise Israel’s breaches of international law, but they also fail to report Israel’s disgraceful human rights record. Although the general media is negligent in its duty to report the truth, the voice of Umm Qais will not be silenced, as I am fully committed to relating Umm Qais tale to all who care for justice, and the pillars of the rule of law and the right to a fair trial.
Odwan was described as a simple, kind, disciplined and diligent young engineer. He was a leader, and a popular figure. His mother affirmed that her son “never carried a gun in his life and never killed an insect”. His brother Nassar, five years younger and a civil engineering student at the time of his brother’s killing, said he was once shown a newspaper by a friend, and he and the friend discussed what was written in the paper about Odwan. Nassar then asked his brother: “Why are you listed as ‘the most wanted’ by Israel?” Odwan told his brother: “What’s being said about me is not true. How is it possible that I can be responsible for all this terrorism? I am motivating my people, I stand for justice and revealing the truth. I lead 13,000 students at Al-Najah University and I am a critical thinker, so I suppose in their world that automatically makes me a terrorist.”
As Umm Qais spoke, she cradled a trophy her son had won for his design of a prototype of the Al-Najah’s university building. Odwan was artistic and creative, and he designed and painted the model for the building, which was of a blue, white and gold colour. She looked at Odwan watercolor hanging on the wall. It was a depiction of an old Palestinian stone house with its windows and iron bars, engraved and leading to a gate. His teacher described him as a committed student academically and politically. “I cannot imagine that he’s a terrorist, Odwan spent his time either at school or with his grandfather in the mosque.”
Odwan was imprisoned for 40 days when he was still in high school. He was accused of throwing stones at soldiers, and was jailed for being a Hamas member. Shin Bet insisted that he was jailed for 8 days. In truth, he endured 40 days that made him like a sponge, able to bear torture, which taught him patience and endurance. Despite all the difficulties, Odwan was a distinguished student. He graduated from high school and his family borrowed money to pay for his engineering studies. He was a charismatic leader, a problem-solver for the students, and he was loved by everyone. He advocated for students who could not afford expenses and lowered their fees. He set up an Internet site for a student organization which advocated for poor students throughout Palestine, and became known as the “poor students’ lawyer.” He gathered money from rich families to give it to the poor and searched for affordable accommodation on their behalf, and did everything he could to help other students, even writing pleas to their universities to help them. He established a donation center for used books for poor students. His mother said, “If he had lived, he would have been a great leader in this country. He was a gifted, selflessness Palestinian hero who would have made history. This is exactly why Israel was afraid of him.”
However, history and politics interfered in the life of Odwan. In July 2000, the Camp David meetings were held, and broke down quickly amidst mutual recriminations. Odwan led a protest movement at the university, where students chanted “Camp David is through concessions.”
On September 29, 2000, Ariel Sharon, the future Prime Minister of Israel, visited Al-Aqsa Mosque, sparking Palestinian anger. In a protest demonstration at the university two days later, crowds of students chanted, “Sharon should know that we are all time bombs.” Odwan led the students in a march that went from the campus to the Israeli checkpoint.
In May 2000, a few months before his graduation, three men wearing Palestinian clothes came out of a car in front of Odwan’s house. They were actually Israeli agents who drew guns and aimed them at Odwan, who was standing in the window. He immediately realized why they had come, so he hid under the table. He couldn’t reach them, but the men returned quickly to their car and took off. After that, Odwan realized that his life was in danger. He told his colleagues that he did not want to kill Jews, but only wanted to end the occupation, to liberate the Aqsa Mosque and Palestinian territories. He was known for his shy smile and humility. He once said, “I know I can’t get married because I am targeted and I will marry in paradise.”
Not long after, the IOF targeted Odwan. Their reasons for singling him out were based on false information provided by an Israeli Security Forces informant. In the early morning of 5 April 2002, in the West Bank city of Tubas, an elderly man, the father of the informant, who did not agree with his son’s activities, was milking his sheep in the olive grove he owned, when he heard the sound of a drone in the sky. The man looked up the hill and saw several members of the Israeli Special Forces appearing from behind trees and in cars with Palestinian license plates, heading to a small stone house where his son lived. The man shouted a warning to his son, “Army! Army!” He urged his son to go and warn the men hiding. The old man wanted his son to perform an act of redemption, to awake his conscience and to get Odwan and his friends out the house across the slope. To the father’s disappointment, his son ran away.
Inside the house was 25-year-old Odwan, known for his charisma and his prominence as a peaceful activist. The Israeli’s surrounded the house with tanks, helicopters, and troops, before asking the men inside to surrender. The Israeli forces then sent a Palestinian neighbor into the house under a white flag to see if there were any survivors inside the house after the attack. In fact, Odwan and three of his colleagues were inside. They were asked to surrender, but they refused. An Israeli bulldozer then destroyed the front of the house and the shooting continued. One of the five men, Abu Hamza Said from Tulkarem, had time to write “God Is Great” on the wall in his own blood. Odwan was the last to die, killed by a bullet shot from close range. The men were all dead by dawn.
The family bundled the entire contents of their home into plastic sacks and their furniture on the back of a donkey cart. The destruction of the home Odwan’s family lived in was nothing short of an act of terror. The family was left homeless and the neighbors were warned not to give them shelter. They could hear the bulldozers at work but were terrified to step out into the night with so many bullets flying. Umm Qais’ children lived on the rubble of their home in order to defend their property, with their possessions in bundles around them, to defend the land they had kept. After Odwan’s assassination, his family were subjected to numerous tortures, the deliberate destruction of their home, arbitrary investigations, and fabrications of the truth.
None of this implies that the Palestinian leaders were guiltless. They closed the investigation into Odwan’s killing in fear of Israel’s threats, and missed the opportunity to discover the truth about his killing, as the evidence was buried. One police officer initiated an investigation into Odwan assassination, but he was also killed.
The IOF claims that extra-judicially (targeted assassinations), executed Palestinians are warranted by the Israeli security services, and have been and are being carried out, because the individuals pose a serious threat to the security of the State of Israel. In addition, the IOF utilizes a host of rhetorical terms, such as self-defence, military response, Palestinian terrorists, militants, in order to claim these extra-judicial executions are essential preventative responses, in order to ensure the continuing security of Israel.
‘Iceberg of Ignorance’
Israel exercises collective punishment and extra-judicial execution—or, more plainly, murder. Of all the nations in the world, it would seem that Israel, whose people had been the victims of some of the worst crime in human history, would be the very last to commit crimes against humanity, and yet the government of Israel has made a policy of murder and ethnic cleansing and decided to force a whole nation out of their own homeland. Why would a people who have suffered severe and unconscionable injustices, perpetrate a similar injustice on defenceless Palestinians, who for the past 66 years have endured nothing but extreme oppression and cultural and political disenfranchisement. Palestinians are alienated from their culture, their teaching, their rights, and their entire way of life at the hands of Israel.
I have hope because the government of Israel is not the people of Israel, or the Jewish people. As Ilan Pappe put it: “Most Israelis have no idea of what they did to the Palestinians in 1948, and they don’t think that what was done was wrong, but that’s only the tip of an iceberg of ignorance!” The majority of Israelis only hear about aggression when a killing comes to the attention of the media. The day after Odwan was killed, a Shin Bet spokesperson responded to a question about how serious a threat Odwan was. The answer was that there are three attributes which define a dangerous person: ‘the ability to make explosives, a creative mind, and leadership abilities.’ This is the mindset that condemned Odwan, and marked him as a dangerous man, supposedly behind those “imaginative” terrorist attacks. Further, since he had no wife and lived a priest’s life, he had nothing to lose and so he was judged to be a potential murderer. By such twisted logic are states that sanction murder proposing to coexist.
Writing these stories evoke so many memories. Such reminiscences carry me back to my family’s history and the tragic assassination of my uncle Mahmoud Hamshari by Israel. These memories take me back to my early years, as a 10 years old child when I began to realize what happened to Palestine in 1948, and how it was stolen from my people. I will never stop admiring Umm Qais for her patience and fortitude.
As he left, my husband Rafe gave a triumphant wave to Umm Qais. The only thing on his mind was the one incontrovertible fact: Israel continues to occupy, oppress and exploit millions of Palestinians. And not only does the government of Israel put injustice over justice, but they write a new script, and hide behind the crocked mask of a civilised democracy. There can be no question, they are anything but civilised, nor can they be deemed democratic, since they govern the lives of all Palestinians who do not elect them.
– Rana Abdulla is a Palestinian Canadian writer and activist, originally from the Palestinian village of Balaa near Tulkarem. She is an advocate for refugee rights, and her work has been highlighted by Canadian media. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.