“I couldn’t sleep. I was wondering, is my dad hungry? Is he cold or afraid?”
The boy who said this is Farouk, the son of the prisoner Mohammed Mortaja. In addition to Farouk, Mohammed and his wife Fatima have two other sons and a one-year-old daughter. The following interview was conducted with Fatima, Farouk, and one of the other sons, Abd El-Rahman.
Q. Fatima, can you tell me about your husband, Mohammed Mortaja?
A. Mohammed is a 45-year-old architect who worked for TIKA, a Turkish foundation that supports Palestine. As a director, he had to travel sometimes to attend conferences affiliated with the foundation. On Feb. 2, 2017, he had to travel for a week to attend one of these conferences through the Erez Crossing, which connects with Israel, due to the closure of the Rafah Crossing, which connects Gaza with Egypt.
While passing the crossing, Israeli occupation forces arrested and accused Mohammed of supporting terrorism. Their accusation was based on the fact that, since the 2014 war on Gaza left huge losses and destruction, TIKA had received additional aid to support those who lost their homes. Israel had suspicions about this amount of aid, even though it was being used for legal purposes, and they accused Mohammed of supporting terrorism by using this aid for the manufacture of weapons and the construction of tunnels. After two months of interrogation, he was given a sentence of nine years.
Q. Was it difficult for you to take on the role of mother and father?
A. It wasn’t easy to play all the roles, especially handling financial affairs like paying water and electricity bills, giving the kids daily pocket money, and buying household needs. Moreover, when one of my kids breaks his or her hand or gets sick at midnight, I can’t find someone to take them to the hospital, so I have to do it myself. What’s harder for me is that I try to compensate them for their father’s tenderness so that my kids don’t feel deprived of his love.
Q. Do you have a fixed income?
A. The first six months after my husband’s arrest, I relied on his salary from the Turkish foundation, but unfortunately, it was cut because Mohammed wasn’t an employee there anymore. After that, I was getting the prisoner’s salary given to families by the Palestinian Authority.
At the beginning of 2018, political problems occurred between the national parties in Palestine, so I was completely deprived of this benefit. After a while, the prisoners’ salaries were returned, but this time I received half as much (900 shekels), which wasn’t enough because half of this goes to my husband in prison so that he can buy from the prison commissary or canteen, where the prices are very expensive. For example, if you want to buy very ordinary sneakers, you have to pay 500 shekels.
We live in real financial hardship, but thanks to God and my neighbors in the building who support me and spare me from paying the water and electricity bills, we are getting along.
Q. Have they allowed you to visit your husband in prison?
A. In Israeli jails, it’s known that before the arrested person is sentenced, the immediate family has the right to 10 visits for 45 minutes each. Unfortunately, we were barely allowed two visits, and were denied access to him after that.
In the first visit, my husband insisted that I bring our seven-year-old son, because Israelis allow children under the age of eight to touch and hug their father. So Farouk, my husband’s mother, and I registered our names on the visitor list. Painfully for me, my name was rejected. Depriving the prisoner of seeing his wife is an Israeli tactic to discourage the prisoners.
For the second visit, my name was rejected again. Only my husband’s mother and our nine-year-old son Abd El-Rahman visited him. Since we were denied the remaining eight visits, we had to send him clothes with whomever was going to visit a prisoner there. But even the clothes were rejected. Luckily, the prisoners there gladly shared their clothes with Mohammed.
Q. Farouk, can you tell me how you felt when you saw your father in the prison?
A. For me, it was both the harshest and the most tender scene of my life. The harshness started with the trip, which was very long and cold to reach Erez Crossing. What’s worse was the barbarism of the Israeli military during the inspection process. They made me wait for more than five hours without any reason, then searched me brutally and started interrogating me in a horrific way, as if I had committed a crime when visiting my dad.
But all the stress disappeared when I thought about how I would soon be able to hug my dad. When my grandma and I got to the prison, the jailer took us to the place where the prisoners meet their families. I remember that I ran like a lost kid who’s crying and trying to find his beloved ones. “Where is my dad?” I asked and looked at everyone’s faces in the room full of waiting prisoners, looking forward to seeing their families. My grandma told me to stay with her so she wouldn’t lose me.
We ended up seeing my dad behind a thick glass partition that separates prisoners from families. I looked at my dad and started crying. He pointed to the phone to pick it up and talk to him, but there was interference and noise on the phone so that we couldn’t hear each other. Actually, this is one of Israel’s malicious policies to harass the prisoners and demoralize them.
My father begged the jailer and told him that I was under eight years old so that he would let me in. After this hardship, I could feel my father’s warm embrace. I literally sobbed in my father’s lap and wished for time to freeze at that moment.
The situation affected the other prisoners emotionally, so they took turns cuddling me. Personally, I would’ve liked to stay longer in my father’s arms, but I didn’t blame them, as they were deprived of seeing and cuddling their own children. Before leaving, I said goodbye to my dad, hoping to see him again.
When I came back home, I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking of my dad all night. Is he afraid? Is he cold? Is he hungry? Honestly, my heart aches now. I miss my dad so much.
Q. What about you, Abd El- Rahman? What was the most difficult thing about your visit to your dad?
A. The hardest part of that 45-minute visit was when I desperately pleaded with the jailer to let me in so that I could touch and hug my dad, but I couldn’t change his mind. He had no mercy. What’s harder was when I had to stay strong despite the pain of seeing my father behind bars, so I didn’t let him down.
He was proud of me for getting good grades. He introduced me to his friends in prison, telling them that I was his obedient son and had memorized the entire Qur’an. He kept praising and encouraging me to keep up the good work, and that’s what I’d always wanted, for him to be able to hold his head high. I can’t wait to see him again and tell him that I’m not only an honor student but also creative in writing and reciting poetry.