Jaber is a Palestinian refugee, in the Gaza Strip and one of the most truly remarkable people I have ever encountered. I first got to know him in 2004 when I moved to Gaza. His story, in many ways, is a typical Palestinian one. His mother and father were refugees from Palestine, fleeing in the 1948 war. Jaber was educated in the refugee camps, after his graduation, he worked as a physics teacher of physics teacher in Cairo. He later became active in leftist political struggles in both Palestine and Egypt. His interest in politics led, during the first intifada, to choosing the path of violent resistance to the Israeli occupation. One particular incident he was involved in resulted in the death of an Israeli soldier – Jaber and members of his brigade were imprisoned. He ended up serving 15 years.
During his time in prison he endured horrific torture of the physical and psychological kind. Yet, it was during this time of incredible difficulty, of separation from his wife and two baby daughters Fidaa and Haneen, that he began to reconsider his life and the best possible way to achieve freedom for his people. While in prison, he worked as the prison librarian; also as an educated man he spoke both Hebrew and English and he became a go-between for passing information from the outside world to the other prisoners and also dealings with the prison guards. Jaber also recounted his prison experience and how it helped to shape his view about the world.
According to him, when he was seriously sick and needed urgent treatment in the prison hospital. He was taken presented to the doctor in handcuffs, behind his back. The nurse, attempting to examine him but unable because the handcuffs were a serious barrier, insisted the handcuffs be taken off. The Doctor refused. Speaking in Hebrew, which they did not know Jaber also spoke, they had a conversation where the doctor said “this man is a terrorist, he can not be uncuffed.” The nurse responded by saying “he may be a terrorist but he is also a human being and we must treat him firstly as a human being.” This was a very significant moments that re-shaped Jaber’s view of the concept of humanity and dignity. He understood that here was a nurse, speaking in Hebrew, the language of his oppressor, arguing for his humanity.
Like a thunderclap Jaber began to understand the transcendental nature of the human idea; he searched for answers and found them in the doctrine of universal rights of all women and men. When he left prison and rejoined his daughters in their teens he had already decided to dedicate his life to working for human rights. He has done this since 1997 as Deputy Director of Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.
If his story, so far, is more or less typically Palestinian why select Jaber? Here’s what I think marks him out:
- In prison he transformed himself, which is not such a typical response.
- He is now a sort of elder statesman on the issue of Palestinian prisoners and his example and leadership capacities are strong and he regularly appears on regional media like Al Jazeera.
- Indeed not only he, but his whole family, are involved in campaigning for the rights and well-being of prisoners. Ranking alongside Jaber for being truly remarkable is his mother who established a small group representing the mothers of prisoners in the Gaza Strip. She is known as the “mother of all the prisoners” for her tireless visits to other prisoners on the days when she was not allowed to see Jaber.
- During the last elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council Jaber ran as a non-party independent candidate. He was not elected, at a time of a Hamas landslide (particularly in Gaza). But his capacity to be involved in governance issues is significant, particularly in the issue of prisoner’s affairs if there is some change to the political stagnation in the Palestinian body politic. In the meantime through his work on democratic development in PCHR he influences governance by being a strong and independent civil society voice.
- Jaber is warm, friendly and full of love. Always with a delighted smile to see you, never a cross word and always a welcome to his office, home or family farm. Time is never an issue for him any more because he savours every moment. In any group setting his hearty laugh, combined with a thoughtful and gentle style will work wonders for the development of something magical.
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