The Gilad Shalit deal: A Palestinian daughter’s long wait for her father’s return


In December 1998, former American President Bill Clinton was visiting the Gaza Strip with his then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Together with late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Eriekat they listened to the story of a Palestinian girl called Nihad Zakout, whose father had been incarcerated in an Israeli jail for nine years.

The meeting ended with a tearful Clinton handing his handkerchief to the crying girl, patting her on the shoulder, and promising to do his best to release her father within a month at most — a scene that irked the Israelis a great deal.

The girl returned to her home at the Jabalia Refugee Camp and prepared to welcome her father back in the Eid ul-Fitr feast, since the meeting with Clinton had taken place at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan.

However, that Eid ul-Fitr came and her father never showed up. Several other Eid ul-Fitr passed and Zakout only saw her father behind bars at the Nafha Prison in the Middle of the Negev Desert, 100 kilometers away from Gaza.

However, last week Zakout, now 24 years old and mother of two girls, learned she would finally see her father Mohamed, now 48 years old, being released from prison.

Mohamed Zakout was a construction worker in Tel Aviv in the 1980s and was wracked with conflict about earning a living and taking part in the building of the country that killed and dispossessed his people.

That conflict saw him leave his work place on March 21, 1989 with a knife and stab in the neck the first Israeli his eyes fell on. The victim turned out to be the head of the Environment Association in Tel Aviv.

He then stabbed another Israeli, who also died, before stabbing a third in the back of his head and his spinal cord. He was arrested by the police.

At the time, Nihad Zakout was two years old. When she heard that President Clinton was visiting Gaza, she wrote a letter to the Association of Palestinian Detainees expressing her desire to meet the American president.

“They told me he is the president of the world’s biggest country and that he can put pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu to release my father,” she wrote in her letter.

Three years after the meeting with the president, Palestinian director Saud Mehanna made a 10-minute film on Nihad Zakout and called it “A message to Clinton.” The film, whose cost reached $10,000, depicted the disappointment of a young girl waiting for a promise to be fulfilled.

Mehanna, 53, then translated the movie into English and sent a copy to the White House in the hope that Clinton might remember the promise he made before his term was over.

The movie, which took five months to make, was shot in Zakout’s house in the Gabalia Refugee Camp and featured the girl and her mother Maysara.

I myself wrote about Nihad Zakout three times; these stories being among the reasons that prompted Mehanna to make the movie, and after the Shalit deal I decided to write about her for the fourth time ─ hopefully for the last time as the daughter of a Palestinian detainee.

After a lot of search, I finally managed to get her phone number. She didn’t remember me when I called her.

“What would you tell Clinton if you meet him now?” I asked her.

“I bear no grudge against him. In fact, now I forgive him. If I see him, I will just tell him that what the president of the biggest country in the world could not do, the Palestinians who have no country at all did,” she said.

She added that the whole neighborhood in the refugee camp has been decorated in anticipation of her father’s return.

“We have waited for so long. My mother has been patient for 22 years and never asked for a divorce so she could remarry. This is a record in loyalty and perseverance,” she told Al Arabiya.

“Where are the Guinness World Records?” she said, laughing.

The family was particularly upset for the past 10 years because Israeli jail authorities prevent Palestinians who are 16 years old from visiting any of the detainees, said Nihad’s mother.

“Because Nihad is the youngest, she has not seen her father for eight years and I personally have not seen him since he was arrested,” she told Al Arabiya.

“Life has been very harsh for me, a mother of five, without a husband. However, I managed to bring them up and Nihad and the four boys all got an education.”

Nihad studied at al-Quds Open University in Gaza and her husband works at the Ministry of Agriculture while her four brothers are working.

She added that although her husband is affiliated with Fatah, he will stay in the refugee camp in Gaza.

During my phone call, I could hear voices of neighbors and friends congratulating the family on Mahmoud’s imminent return. Maysara told them she is going to slaughter two cows when she welcomes her husband at the Rafah crossing on Tuesday.

(This article was translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid.)