Exiled to Ireland with no return in sight


Palestinian militant Jihad Jaara arrived in Dublin on crutches 10 years ago for what he believed would be a short stay

TEN YEARS ago this week Jihad Jaara, a Palestinian Authority security officer turned commander of the Fatah-linked al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, arrived in Dublin for a period of exile he believed would be short-lived.

Jaara came to Ireland with a fellow al-Aqsa Brigades member Rami Kamel as part of a multilateral deal brokered to end the 39-day siege of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in early 2002. Jaara arrived hobbling on crutches due to a bullet wound to the leg.

The story of how they ended up here begins in March that year when Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, sending armoured vehicles and thousands of troops into West Bank towns, including Bethlehem. Jaara, Kamel and scores of other militants took shelter inside the historic church. Some were shot by Israeli snipers as the siege ground on.

Eventually, the stand-off was resolved under an agreement which included the EU accepting 13 of what Israel called its “most wanted of wanted men”. At the time it was described as a temporary measure.

“We thought we would be in Ireland only for a short time but 10 years on we’re still here and it feels nothing has changed,” says Jaara, now 41. He complains that under the terms of their stay here he and Kamel cannot work and cannot travel outside Ireland. Garda Special Branch “keep in regular contact”, as Jaara puts it. “I feel I am in a big prison,” he says. “Rami feels the same way. We are not happy.

“For me, I still live in Palestine: my body might be out of my country but my soul, my heart, my mind, are still in my homeland.”

When then taoiseach Brian Cowen referred to Jaara and Kamel’s case as an example of how Ireland could successfully resettle exonerated Guantanamo detainees in 2009, it raised eyebrows among those familiar with the pair’s often turbulent experience here. Jaara has given periodic interviews griping about the conditions and duration of his stay. In 2003 gardaí were called when he and Kamel forced their way into the Palestinian diplomatic representation’s office in Dublin demanding better accommodation. Some time later Jaara turned up in Spain, reportedly to visit another al-Aqsa Brigades figure exiled there, and was deported back to Ireland.

Media reports claiming the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad has attempted to assassinate Jaara here have surfaced occasionally, only to be described as baseless by Palestinian Authority and Israeli officials.

“It has been very difficult for me here,” says Jaara. “My son was born in Palestine the first day I arrived in Ireland and still I have not seen him in person. I just speak to him on the phone or on the computer. That is the price we pay for our freedom.”

Irish officials say the EU has raised with Israel the case of the men, and of others exiled elsewhere in Europe after the siege, but it appears there is little prospect of them returning home anytime soon.

Jaara’s case is further complicated by the fact US investigators allege he is implicated in the murder of Avi Boaz, a septuagenarian US-born émigré to Israel who was killed near Bethlehem in January 2002. A former Newsweek journalist who wrote a book about the Church of the Nativity siege alleges Jaara told him in an interview that he had been involved. Jaara has since denied this.

Jaara appears almost resigned to the fact that his time in Ireland may stretch well into the future. “I believe one day I will return to my country but I don’t believe it will be soon,” he says. “For the Israelis, it is always a case of it not being the right time.”

That said, Jaara acknowledges that the Israeli authorities still see him as a threat. “Because I am a commander in the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, they believe I will continue to fight for my country whether I am in Palestine or not.”

But, he notes, the situation in his homeland now is different to what it was in 2002. “We have been on ceasefire for a long time and we are giving a chance for our government to have their time to seek peace with Israel,” he says of the moribund peace process. “I always believe that we should fight for our freedom but, for me, fighting is not just shooting: we can fight in other ways like through writing or talking to the world about what is happening in Palestine.” He cites the Palestinian Authority’s UN statehood bid last year and the recent mass hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners. “These both show fighting is not just the gun. The hunger strikers were fighting using their own bodies.”

He says if the ragged peace process unravels completely his stance may change. “If the situation goes back to like what it was in 2000, we will not sit in our houses and watch our people dying. We will defend ourselves.”

He singles out Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamon Gilmore for praise in relation to Mr Gilmore’s strong statements on Israel’s illegal settlements at last week’s meeting of EU ministers.

“I respect Ireland and I appreciate everything the Irish government and Irish people do in their support for us,” he says.

Jaara keeps a close eye on what is happening back home and says he has been saddened by Palestinian infighting and tensions between Fatah and Hamas. “It makes me bleed inside that we are fighting each other for nothing when we don’t have our own nation, our own state.

“I don’t worry about Hamas, I don’t worry if they are in government. If I don’t support Hamas, it means I am not supporting my people, because my people voted to have them in government.” He recalls the Bethlehem siege as “like something out of a Hollywood movie” and says he has no regrets. “I would not change anything about what we did. It makes me proud as a Palestinian.”