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Love that transcends prison walls: Palestinian women tell stories of defiance

In Palestine, relationships thrive despite years-long separations and physical barriers
"Thirty eight Eids passed without Abdel Karim," Jinan Samara said after reuniting with her fiance, Abdel Karim, 18 years later (MEE/Shatha Hammad)
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Nablus, Palestine

Abdel Karim Makhdar and Jinan Samara sit side by side on a swing and gaze out at a picturesque view of the West Bank hills. They are together at last after spending 18 years apart.

In the village of Ammuriyah, just south of the city of Nablus in the northern West Bank, the couple had endless stories to tell, sharing details they made sure not to forget until this day came, when they could finally speak face to face. 

Jinan Samara
Jinan waiting outside an Israeli prison in Ammuriyah for her husband's release (social media)

Abdel Karim sighed deeply, closed his eyes and opened his hands.

"Freedom,” he said. 

As for Jinan, she repeated the same sentence over and over again: "What passed was a bad dream. Today we are living the truth, we are living in reality."

On 28 September, 44-year-old Jinan stood at a checkpoint near the city of Jenin, carrying a bouquet of flowers, and waited for her fiance’s release from an Israeli prison. When Abdel Karim, 48, emerged, their bitter wait to get married ended. They embraced one another, locked fingers, and he promised her they would never be separated again. 

A few days later, Jinan was finally able to wear the wedding dress she had kept in her closet for so long, and the couple moved into their new home in Ammuriyeh. 

Jinan told Middle East Eye that in 2013, she began completing the house that Abdel Karim started building before he was detained. She said she had painted the whole house white to give her future husband an inner sense of peace, away from the dark and constricted place he had been confined to. 

She would send him a photograph every month of the progress she had made on the house.

“I would disagree with her on some things; I couldn’t understand her choice of the colour white because I only saw dark colours in prison," Abdel Karim said.

"When I was freed, I was stunned by the beauty of the house."

'38 Eids passed'

The relationship between Jinan and Abdel Karim began in 1999, when they were both students at al-Quds Open University in the Palestinian city of Salfit. They announced their engagement on 17 June 2002, in the midst of the Second Intifada. At that point, Abdel Karim had been wanted by the Israeli army for 20 months before he was finally detained.

“I informed Jinan from the outset that I was a target - I may be martyred, or I may become disabled by army fire, or I may be arrested for a long period of time,” Abdel Karim told MEE. “Her response was that she would remain by my side in all these cases - she committed to her promise until this day.” 

Abdel Karim grew up in Kuwait before he and his family moved back to their country after the 1991 Gulf War. He was arrested shortly after he arrived and was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released 10 months later as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords. 

'The visits were like Eid. I would go with so much love and emotional longing. I would leave my heart with him every time I left'

- Jinan Samara

On 28 September 2002, Abdel Karim went to Nablus to buy a gift for Jinan and planned to visit her afterwards. The Israeli army arrested him at a checkpoint they had erected on the road to her village.

“I told Jinan a few days prior to my arrest that I was pessimistic about September,” he recounted jokingly.

Jinan said that while they were expecting his arrest, she still considered it unlikely and focused on the positive options. “When I heard the news of his arrest, I was very shocked and I couldn’t eat or leave the bed for days.” 

Eleven months after Abdel Karim's arrest, the Israeli military court officially sentenced him. He communicated with his then-fiancee and told her she had the option of either ending the engagement, or to wait.

“Jinan’s decision to wait for me did not come from pity - it came from her loyalty to her homeland, and her desire to be part of this battle. Jinan’s decision was a major morale boost for me.” 

She managed to obtain an Israeli army issued permit to visit her fiance 20 months after his arrest.

“I did not miss any opportunity I got to visit him. The visits were like Eid. I would go with so much love and emotional longing. I would leave my heart with him every time I left,” Jinan said.

“I pulled myself together.

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“I had to stay strong for myself and for Abdel Karim's sake, but his absence was difficult and painful. I always wished for him to be by my side. I needed him to share taking decisions with me."

“Thirty eight Eids passed without Abdel Karim [...] My family, and his as well, supported me greatly throughout and tried to make up for his absence,” said Jinan, adding that his mother’s death in 2010 was a particularly difficult situation. 

In admiration of Abdel Karim's mother, Jinan declared she would name her first baby girl Farida.

“In honour of her and the love and tenderness that she gave me throughout Abdel Karim's absence,” she said. 

Defying the prison bars

Jinan and Abdel Karim's case is not a rare one. It is a reality that will continue as long as there are thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. 

A similar relationship began three years ago between 34-year-old Sumoud Saadat from the city of Ramallah and the Palestinian prisoner Assem al-Kaabi, 42, from the Balata refugee camp in Nablus.

Her father, Ahmad Saadat, secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is also incarcerated and serving a 30-year sentence in an Israeli prison.

Sumoud's relationship with Assem began in 2017 during contact between them through her work with Addameer, the Ramallah-based Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association. 

“I was impressed during my communication with Assem by his cheerful spirit, his appetite for life and his open mind after all these long years in prison,” Sumoud told MEE. 

Palestinian woman awaits her fiance's release from Israeli prison
Sumoud Saadat and Assem al-Kaabi have been together for three years. They have decided to wait until his release to get married (MEE/Shatha Hammad)

“He attracted me with his ability to give, and his ability to love, despite the difficult reality in prison, which tries to drain these qualities out of people,” she added, explaining that despite the barriers, it was an obvious decision for her.

“All I thought about was that Assem deserves to be loved and to be stood by for the next few years he has left in prison.”

Seven months later, Assem and Sumoud got engaged, but had to celebrate in separate parties. 

Assem held a small gathering inside al-Naqab prison with fellow prisoners who distributed sweets and congratulated him. “He experienced the joy with the means available to him,” said Sumoud, whose name means resilience. “The prison administration forbids the prisoners from celebrating and singing.” 

Her engagement to a prisoner goes beyond the personal, it is also a message to the world about the humanitarian case of political prisoners.

'We are the ones who determine how we live while waiting for our loved ones'

- Sumoud Saadat

“Our message by doing this was that we try to seize our joy despite the restrictions and imprisonment imposed on us by the [Israeli] occupation, depriving us of seeing our loved ones.” 

Since her father’s arrest in 2006, Sumoud has only been permitted to see him once, in 2015. She was fearful that the Israeli authorities would prevent her from visiting her fiance as well. 

After her initial application for a permit was rejected, Sumoud had to petition the Supreme Court. At the end of 2019, following a long and tiring process, she was able to visit both her father and fiance. 

"Waiting is difficult and beautiful at the same time. We are the ones who determine how we live while waiting for our loved ones,” said Sumoud.

Unlike Jinan, Sumoud prefers to wait to prepare for her wedding.

"Assem and I were forbidden from experiencing together the details of searching for a dress, choosing the wedding hall, and writing invitations,” she said. “We will do these things together when he is liberated.”