FORBIDDEN ZONE: A young correspondent (Ahmad Elabbar ) meets my oldest Palestinian friend and comrade (Musa Abu Hashhash)

Hi Professor,

I’m writing to you from the UK. I arrived a couple of days ago. After spending the last two months in Hebron, coming back to the UK is like being locked up in a mental cage. The bonds I formed in two months with some people in that city are stronger than most friendships I’ve made over the years. Not only with the Palestinians, but with the members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) I worked with as well. We lived in a small apartment in Tel Rumeida right next to the settlement, and we saw and worked with each other easily 14 hours a day. The ISM is as good as the people in it. Because every three months approximately, the entire movement changes. Almost all the members are gone and are replaced by new people who have to make this mechanism, which is ISM, work. Some members may have been there for alternative tourism, some to get an adrenaline rush. All of this is most likely true, but the people I met, and are at the present working in the movement in Palestine are incredibly committed, and equally important: they’re informed about the theory behind the practice they are involved in. The debates in the apartment cover every single aspect of the conflict. It’s often referred to as a “radical movement” in order to make dismissing it easier, but the opinions in the discussions are mostly well within the mainstream. The down side to getting used to this environment is that when you’re back in the UK, it feels like you’re in a bubble, people from the general public don’t want to listen, at least not for the time required to go beyond the standard: “Oh, it’s terrible!” They listen for five minutes, then they want to talk about something more entertaining. I can’t really blame them, but the alternative to talking to them about this is to talk to people who already know about the conflict and are committed to it, which isn’t where the advocacy should be directed towards.
In Hebron, I met up with your friend Musa, who became sort of a mentor to me over there. We spoke a lot about his days in prison, about how you two met and many other stories. Maybe because of his age he forgets things all the time. When I told him on my last day in Hebron that I was leaving he insisted we meet early the next day in the morning before my bus heads out. Surprise! he forgot to come. His friend told me jokingly that Musa sometimes forgets himself in the old city when he goes on his rounds. 

I didn’t get to meet his family unfortunately. Our times kept on clashing. I did meet his grandson, Kareem, very briefly. I wanted to take a photo of him, but Musa had just woken him up to go to school and the poor kid was in tears because he wanted to sleep some more, so I told Musa I’d take a photo of him some other time but we didn’t see each other again. Musa is so fond of him, he speaks to him in the same way he’d speak to an adult. He’d take his advice on how and where to park the car, and when the plan fails he reasons with him to try a different approach.

The only time I got to have a really long conversation with him was when he invited me over for a sleepover. I came with a friend and he made us dinner himself. He’s a brilliant cook by the way. He made Maqlooba, the dish that looks like a sandcastle with the meat on top of the rice, and a layer of eggplant between them. He apologized, he said that if he had the help of his wife’s cookery skills the dish would have been much better. He was being modest, it was delicious.

We spoke a lot about the problems between the different factions, movements and individuals in Hebron. He’s very, very bitter towards a large section of the Palestinian street, in Palestine generally, but in Hebron and the old city especially. He spoke about people using their close proximity to H2  to make demands and ask for favors. He pointed out to me some specific individuals who were using the resistance as a means to achieve public status and fame. How the majority of them have political and or economic ambitions, and the existence of the occupation is very convenient for them: “They don’t want the occupation to end.”
I wasn’t surprised by this at all, I guess it happens under any system of oppression. But the painful thing is to know some of these people personally and to have to work with them nonetheless in order to get anything done on the ground. I think so much of where Musa’s fatigue comes from, is him having to see and work with these people every single day.

He told me about his time in prison in Al Naqab. He said that even though the prison conditions of those days were much worse then they are now, he would be much more scared to go to prison today. In those days he said, you felt that you were going to prison for a cause, and the political parties and the workshops that developed inside the prison system reflected that sense of purity and commitment. It would be an insult, he said, for negotiators to try bargaining the Palestinian cause, by using the prisoners of those days as negotiating chips. “We wouldn’t want to be used in an exchange of any sort, we wouldn’t be relieved to get out of prison if that was the price. Today, the leadership finds it very convenient that the families of the prisoners are demanding that they be used in negotiations with the Israeli side. Because the leadership knows it can get nothing of significance from Israel, and so it uses these prisoner release deals as a means to pacify the population and to showcase some tangible achievement, even though Israel will arrest just as many if not more as it has released within a couple of days and the cycle starts again.”

I’ve paraphrased what he said about the prisoner exchange as best I can remember. He spoke about this particular issue quite a bit, and I agree with what he said. I think even the families of the prisoners know that there’s something rotten at the core of what the leadership is doing, but maybe their viewing of the helplessness of the Palestinian side, just makes them glad to get their imprisoned children back home before the whole thing collapses and they get nothing.

All the best,
Ahmad Elabbar