Samya is 21 years old, and her life is already so screwed up I can’t tell you her real name. Four years ago, she married a man who was wanted by the Israel Defense Forces. The fact that he was wanted didn’t faze her; her brother was also wanted. She’s like a lot of Palestinian women: Her dating pool was, and is, wanted men, men who’ve been in prison, men who are in prison. In the last 15 years, so many Palestinian men — educated, uneducated, rich, poor, smart, stupid, criminal, merely-suspect — have been to prison that almost any conversation with a Palestinian man or his wife includes a mention of his prison term: I was in prison for two years, or seven, or 10. Some men never find out why they were imprisoned. Under Israeli law, a person can be detained without any charge for six months, and his detention can be extended, ad infinitum.
There is no published list of how many Palestinian men are wanted, or why they’re wanted, and if I call the IDF to find out why Samya’s husband is wanted, I could make more trouble for her, or for myself. So I don’t know what he’s done, or what he’s suspected of doing; he may be wanted for good reason. And Samya knew he was wanted when she married him, so made her decision with eyes open. On the other hand, she was 17. Her family loved and respected the man she chose, and so did she, so she married him. I’ll call him Hasan.
The first time Samya tried to marry Hasan, the IDF showed up at the house while he was showering before the wedding. This was during the Oslo peace accords, and the Palestinian territories were divided into three regions: Area A (total Palestinian control; no Israeli soldiers allowed), Area B (Palestinians control civil matters; Israel controls security) and Area C (total Israeli control). Hasan’s house was in Area C.
From the bathroom, he heard kids shouting “Soldiers! Soldiers!,” so he jumped from the second floor and escaped down the hill and through the trees. The family were shaken but not surprised; they’d anticipated that the IDF might break up the wedding, so they’d also rented — as a backup — a place in Area A to have the ceremony. After Hasan fled, Samya and everyone else went there, praying that he hadn’t been caught and/or killed, and that he’d show up and get married. He did.
Samya’s mother-in-law told this story. Samya is not a talker. She’s a big girl — I kept picturing her in a University of Connecticut basketball uniform — but she kept her head down and seemed embarrassed by questions. Also, maybe she’d be more forthcoming if she weren’t now entirely dependent on the goodwill of her husband’s family. She let her mother-in-law do most of the talking. The two of them sat in a small room with a translator and me, while kids ranging from 17 years old to 7 months flowed in and out and climbed all over them.
According to Samya’s mother-in-law — with occasional comment from Samya — this is what Samya and Hasan’s life was like before the current Intifada: After they were married, they lived in a series of rented apartments in Area A and had a year and a half of relative calm. He’d go to work at 7 in the morning — he worked for the Palestinian security forces — come home to have lunch with Samya, then go back to work, and come home again around 5. In September of 2000, they were thrilled to find out that Samya was pregnant.
The Intifada started three weeks later. Over the next several months, the neat lines separating areas A, B and C began to disintegrate; the IDF was going all over. Hasan, trying to protect civilians finding themselves in increasingly complicated and dangerous situations, began staying at work all the time. He’d come home only once a week, then once a month. He missed the birth of their first child, a daughter.
After the baby came, Samya moved from their apartment to her mother-in-law’s house. She saw Hasan for brief periods once every five or six weeks. Less than a year later, he disappeared. That’s when Samya knew he had left his job and joined the intifada. Samya was pregnant with their second child, a son.
Watching the news on television a few weeks later, Samya and the rest of the family heard that Hasan had been killed. They couldn’t get to the hospital to see his body because of continued fighting, so they called. The hospital was in chaos, and the person they talked to said, look, we have a lot of bodies here, some with no faces anymore. The family didn’t hear from him. They opened the house for several days of formal mourning.
Samya found out that Hasan wasn’t dead from the IDF a few months later, when they started showing up in the middle of the night asking where he was. That happened every night for a week. The family said they didn’t know where he was. Finally, the army came back at 10:30 one morning and said they were going to destroy the house. At first they were going to demolish Samya’s mother-in-law’s house, which at that point was home to six adults and 30 children, including Samya and her kids. Next door to it was the much smaller house that Hasan had built for himself and Samya, although they’d never been able to live there. The family persuaded the IDF to destroy that one instead. That was four months ago. Samya still hasn’t heard from Hasan.
I asked Samya what she imagined as a kid her life would be like when she was 21. She said she always imagined she’d continue her education. That might not have been possible even if she hadn’t married Hasan; many Palestinian universities have been closed for months at a time in the last two and a half years. So here she is. She has two kids, no job, and hasn’t seen her husband in more than a year. She’s lost hope that she’ll ever see him alive again, and her kids call their uncles “Baba” (father). Her son has never laid eyes on his father. No one in the house she lives in has an income. Aid organizations — including the Palestinian Authority — have refused to help her. The electric company came by a few days ago saying it’s going to cut off service. The house is freezing, and it could be destroyed anytime. She’ll be 22 in July.
POSTSCRIPT: Two weeks after I wrote this story, Samya’s husband and her brother were killed by the IDF. They’d sneaked in to visit Samya and the rest of the family and were shot as they tried to escape from her mother-in-law’s house, which had been surrounded. The house was then demolished. According to the IDF, Hasan was involved in the planning of several attempted suicide attacks. The IDF said its soldiers fired only after being fired upon. Neighbors said the IDF shot first.
The deaths of Hasan and Samya’s brother may have an effect on the peace process. They were killed on the same day the Palestinian Legislative Council was voting on whether to accept the new Palestinian prime minister’s Cabinet. This decision was basically a confidence (or no-confidence) vote on the “road map” peace process the U.S. is backing. Many Palestinians are interpreting these two killings, as well as two others in Gaza on the same day, as evidence that the Israeli government is not serious about working with the new prime minister or supporting the peace process. Demolishing a house and targeting and killing Palestinians — even wanted men — on the day of the PLC vote seemed to many Palestinians like deliberate sabotage. One man I talked to said, “Why couldn’t [the IDF] wait a few hours? Just a few hours, till after the vote?” A few hours after the vote, a suicide bomber killed three people in a bar in Tel Aviv.