Sometimes, love isn’t enough
By Sami Abu Salem
Pablo Neruda once wrote: “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.” And so it was, that 21-year-old Rami Qedra, a Muslim Palestinian MAN from Beit Lahia, a town north of Gaza, fell in love with Galit Popok, a 17-year-old Jewish Israeli girl from upper Nazareth, where he worked as a blacksmith.
The young lovers came from worlds apart. They not only came from different religious and social backgrounds, but also belonged to two nations at war, hers occupying his.
However, none of that disrupted the laws of attraction. Galit officially converted to Islam and the two lovers were married on Dec. 15, 1999. They settled in Gaza and had six children over seven years, four girls and two boys.
But unlike fairytales, where the lovers ‘live happily ever after,’ reality insisted on dealing the couple a wild card that turned the Qedra family’s life upside down.
In September 2006, while Rami was at work, Galit went back to Israel, taking with her, three of her six children.
Accompanying Galit were five-year-old Tamam, four-year-old Mahmoud and Daniel, who was a year and a half old. Galit left three daughters behind, including an infant with special needs, the 40-day-old Dalia and her twin Sulaima, as well as her eldest, six-year-old Yasmine.
In Israel, the children received new Jewish names and documents. Tamam became Tami, Mahmoud’s new name became Maor and Daniel retained his name. All three were raised in Israel as Israeli Jews, while their three sisters were raised in Gaza as Palestinian Muslims.
In 2009, Rami was killed in an Israeli drone strike. Both the Qedras and Galit have since been engaged in a legal battle over the custody of the children. Galit demands that her three daughters join her as Israeli Jewish citizens in Israel, while Rami’s parents insist that the three in Israel be returned to Gaza.
The Qedra Family’s Narrative
From their house in Gaza, Rami’s 62-year-old father, Mahmoud Qedra, or Abu Rami as he prefers to be called, and his 55-year-old wife Tamam, seem much older than their actual years, burdened by the death of their son and the loss of three of their six grandchildren.
Abu Rami shuts his eyes for a long second before opening them again to the sky above. His last 10 years have been of those constant struggle and grief.
With a big sigh, he proceeds to tell Newsweek Middle East how his son and Galit officially tied the knot at the Sharia Court in Nazareth before settling in Gaza.
“Galit lived in Beit Lahia like a princess,” he recalls, explaining that she was provided with everything she needed and that she enjoyed stability and love. Galit was a “nice woman,” according to Abu Rami, adding that her mother’s influence over her was what destroyed everything.
“Her mother was against the marriage because my son was an Arab. But her father supported the marriage,” says Abu Rami.
He recalls an incident nearly a year before Galit returned to Israel with three of her children. Her mother, Ira, invited Rami and his wife to visit her in Nazareth in 2005, but as soon as they arrived, they discovered it was a set-up.
According to Abu Rami, Israeli intelligence personnel stormed the couple’s accommodation in Nazareth and gave Rami two choices: Either stay with the children in Israel and work for them as a collaborator in exchange for privileges; or return to Gaza alone without his wife and children. If he were to refuse, he “would pay a high price,” they threatened him, says Abu Rami. The threat was mentioned in a letter written by Rami and addressed to several human rights organizations, shortly before he died.
When Rami discovered that his mother-in-law worked for the Israeli security, with sources saying she worked for the Mossad, he took his wife and children and fled Nazareth. The family illegally entered Gaza through a fence, as it was too dangerous to cross any of the Israeli military checkpoints. At that time they had four children, says Abu Rami.
“When Ira realized that Rami and her daughter had escaped, she called Rami and threatened him saying, ‘you will regret this,’” he adds.
The grieving father says his son refused to turn against his people and work as an Israeli collaborator, preferring to live in Gaza over enjoying a better life in Israel.
Tamam explains that the night before Galit left, young Daniel had a fever.
“I asked her to take Daniel to the doctor while I would take care of the twins. Galit carried Daniel, and Mahmoud followed her,” says Tamam, adding that’s all what she saw.
Abu Rami said Galit used his mobile to make a phone call. Then she also asked for some money, which he says he gave her.
Rami’s brother, Murad, 31, says the family received a phone call from a friend at Beit Hanoun (Erez) Israeli checkpoint informing them that Galit and her three kids were leaving Gaza.
“I took a taxi and rushed to the checkpoint; unfortunately I was late by a couple of minutes,” says Murad.
The Children’s Narrative
Yasmine, the eldest daughter, now 15, remembers the day her mother left Gaza. Speaking to Newsweek Middle East, she says she came back from school that day with her sister Tamam and they were met by their mother at the door of the house carrying Daniel with Mahmoud by her side.
“I was six years old… my mother took us upstairs and changed our clothes, then she gave me a coin and asked me to stay with the babies,” says Yasmine. “She took Tamam and left,” adding that she has never seen them again.
With tears rapidly developing in her large brown eyes and threatening to interrupt our conversation, Yasmine took a deep breath before adding: “When I later realized I will never see mom again, I became distressed and cried non stop.”
The tears are also shed for the siblings whom she says she misses terribly.
“I miss naughty Mahmoud and my cute Daniel and my friend Tamam… I hope all of us can sit together again, chatting, eating, playing […] Every time I talk to my brothers I miss them more and more,” she adds.
Yasmine refuses to go to Israel or to live among “the killers” of her father. She has repeatedly asked her mother to come back to Gaza, but Galit refuses.
She still wonders how her mother could leave her two newly born daughters. But, despite everything that Galit has done, Yasmine cannot hate her. “I really love her. I feel I need my mom to stay beside me just like other girls.”
Why Galit Left
In an attempt to get her side of the story, Newsweek Middle East contacted Galit Popok. Though she answered some of our questions, she later refused to be quoted, asking us “not to publish a single word from her comments.”
But according to previous Israeli media reports, Galit said she was tired of Gaza and that her children should not suffer there. In an interview with Israel’s daily Maariv on March 30, 2010, Galit mentioned that her husband had beaten her and she felt like a foreigner in Gaza.
Galit also told the Israeli daily that it was difficult to live in Gaza because it was like a closed prison with power cuts and bombings.
Gaza has suffered power shortages since 2006, when Israeli jets destroyed the sole power plant. Israel’s siege of Gaza has been ongoing since 2006.
“The brothers may kill their sisters”
The Qedra family believes Rami’s three children in Israel “will become killers once they join the Israeli occupation forces.”
Those innocent children “are being brainwashed and they will join the Israeli occupation forces and may kill their sisters,” Murad bitterly says.
Israelis are mandated to serve in the military once they turn 18 for two to three years “with some exceptions,” says Sami Ajrami, an Israeli affairs expert.
“When the three Palestinian children (Tamam, Mahmoud and Daniel) are raised as Jews, they will automatically join the mandatory service,” Ajami tells Newsweek Middle East.
Yasmine has asked her mother, during their rare conversations, not to allow Mahmoud and Daniel to join the army as they may bombard their own house in Gaza.
Galit, according to Yasmine, always assures her that her brothers “will not join the Israeli air force but rather the marines,” adding that her sons know where the house in Gaza is.
The whole narrative seems so surreal, like pages ripped from the novella Returning to Haifa, by the internationally renowned Palestinian author and journalist Ghassan Kanafani.
The story is about a Palestinian family who loses one son, Khaldoun, while fleeing from Haifa, only to discover that Khaldoun was adopted by an Israeli couple and raised as Dov, who later becomes an Israeli military officer. Dov’s brother, Khalid, from his Palestinian family, was raised as a Palestinian who later becomes a fida’i (underground resistance), fighting the Israeli occupation.
“Maybe your first battle will be with a fida’i named Khalid. Khalid is my son. I beg you to notice that I did not say he’s your brother. As you said, man is a cause. Last week Khalid joined the fedayeen. Do you know why we named him Khalid and not Khaldoun? Because we always thought we’d find you, even if it took twenty years,” reads a passage from Kanafani’s novel.
Kanafani was killed at the age of 36 in a car bomb in Beirut in 1972. One Israeli reporter later quoted a Mossad agent confessing that the intelligence apparatus carried out the assassination.
Murad believes that the way the children are being brought up by Galit and her mother is slowly wiping their memories and attachment to Palestine, to their relatives in Gaza and to their contact with their sisters.
Prior to the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014, better known as Operation Protective Edge, Galit prevented Yasmine from communicating with any of her brothers. However, this all changed following the operation, according to Yasmine. She explains that her mother called her and during that call, Yasmine said that she wanted to see her brothers before she dies.
“She asked me to send my pictures first, after that we exchanged pictures,” she adds.
The divided family members keep in touch but “not enough” as Galit procrastinates before allowing the children to talk to each other.
Yasmine now plans to learn Hebrew to keep in touch with her brothers because her mother refuses to let them learn Arabic.
But what makes things worse, is that the sisters in Gaza will one day have families of their own, while their brothers and sister in Israel will have their own families and things will become more complicated.
An Unjust Legal Battle
Soon after Galit moved to Israel, a legal dispute erupted at a Nazareth courthouse. Galit demanded custody of the remaining children, while the Qedra family demanded the other three children be returned to Gaza.
Abu Rami believes that the Israeli judicial system is totally linked to the country’s intelligence apparatus and the military. The court sent notices several times to Rami, but every time he tried to pass through the Erez checkpoint to enter Israel from Gaza, the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus denied him entry.
It was because of the continued “enforced” absence from the hearings that Rami was unable to defend himself, consequently losing the case, says Abu Rami.
The grandfather showed several documents, which demonstrate how Rami was called by the Nazareth Court to attend hearings, and that he tried to be there, but he could not because the Israelis prevented him from entering.
An official document issued on July 24, 2008 by the Palestinian Civil Affairs General Authority, which is in charge of coordinating with the Israelis, notes that Rami had applied for permission to attend the court’s hearing but that the Israeli side refused the court’s demand.
Another document dated July 3, 2008 from the court in Nazareth shows that the defendant “Rami Qedra” did not attend the hearing because he had no “security coordination.”
Newsweek Middle East contacted the relevant Israeli official side, Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), in charge of movements at checkpoints in the occupied Palestinian territories asking why Rami was banned from accessing the checkpoint to reach the court. Newsweek Middle East has received no answer to date.
In addition, the grandfather has knocked on the doors of human rights organizations and Arab members of the Israeli Parliament, Knesset, to help him get the children back, without avail.
Knesset members told Abu Rami that he will lose the case because it has a political dimension.
The Killing of Rami
During the first months of court hearings, Israel’s intelligence personnel used to call Rami to “threaten or seduce” him says Abu Rami.
The Israelis had asked Rami to work for them as a spy in exchange for allowing him to cross Erez checkpoint and unite the family, a demand which Rami strongly refused.
Rami had shared the Israeli threats in a letter with human rights organizations. He said he received a phone call from someone claiming to be a member of the Israeli intelligence threatening to kill him and rape his daughter if he did not stop demanding his children’s return.
Newsweek Middle East sent a letter to the Israeli Interior Ministry regarding the Qedra family’s allegations of being threatened by a security apparatus, but received no answer.
Following a series of threats by Israeli security as well as from his mother-in-law, Rami was killed in an Israeli airstrike during the 2008 Israeli aggression on Gaza, better known as Operation Cast Lead.
The 23-day aggression was launched on Dec. 27, 2008, killing at least 1,400 Palestinians, of whom 82 percent were civilians. At least 5,300 others were wounded, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
“He was standing at the door of a house when an Israeli drone hit him with a small rocket, instantly killing him on the afternoon of Jan. 13, 2009” says Abu Rami.
Approximately five hours after his death, his father says Israeli intelligence called him and said that Rami was killed because he refused to come to Israel.
Newsweek Middle East has asked the Israeli army why Rami was targeted by a drone during Operation Cast Lead, but the army has yet to respond.
The Religious Battle
According to Jewish faith, if the mother is Jewish it means her children are considered Jews, Ajrami says.
The Israeli daily Israel Hayom published on April 11, 2014 a story saying that the three sisters in Gaza, are registered by the Israeli Interior Ministry as Israeli citizens and their names are in the annex of Galit’s identity card.
The Israeli media stressed that Galit never converted, claiming she remained Jewish throughout her marriage.
According to Maariv, when her husband was killed, Galit observed a seven day period of mourning and never left her house. Ajrami says this ritual is a pure Jewish one.
But a document issued by the Islamic Spiritual Court in Nazareth says otherwise. According to the document, Galit “willingly converted to Islam.” The document dated Dec. 13, 1999, two days prior to her marriage, stipulates that Galit’s father, Gregory Popok, was with her when she converted.
Even the marriage contract between Rami and Galit had both their religious affiliations listed in as Muslim.
However, when Galit contacts her daughters in Gaza, she tells them that they “are from Jewish origins and should come to Israel.”
Yasmine rejects the idea. “I will never go to Israel and live among the killers of my father […] No way.” She further fears that if she went to Nazareth to meet her brothers and sister, the Israelis wouldn’t allow her to return to Gaza.
She also stresses that her grandparents and cousins who took care of her and her sisters following her mother’s departure are her family and that she “will never leave them.”
Yasmine says her mother told her she “will never return to Gaza as she is afraid of Hamas.”
Abu Rami says Galit “is the victim of her mother. I managed to convince her to return to Gaza but because our phone calls were hacked, the Israelis prevented her from returning.”
The Qedra family says they have the means to take care of Galit and her children. “Galit will have a big piece of land with a house and a car […] I have saved a lot of money for the kids and her,” explains the grandfather, whose sole wish is to see his grandchildren.
He adds that he does not care about his daughter-in-law’s faith. “If she claimed she is Jewish, then it is up to her. We do not intervene in her religion,” clarifies Abu Rami.
“My heart is tearing apart over my three grandchildren. I wish I [could] hug them one more time before I die, especially Tamam,” says the grandmother, whose grandchild was named after her.
“I cannot stop thinking about them,” she added while wiping her tears with a wrinkled scarf that she tightly held in her fist trying to control her sobs.
Galit is not the only Israeli Jewish girl to have married a Palestinian man. Newsweek Middle East is aware of a couple of other cases in Gaza City and northern Gaza where mixed-marriage families live. Though they don’t wish to be quoted, they insist their marriages are successful, and that they are living a stable life with their sons and daughters, who have grown up and have their own families.