GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – After months of torture and interrogation in a Hamas prison, Palestinian activist Rami Aman says he was offered an unconventional proposition: divorce your wife and you are free to leave.
Aman had recently signed a marriage contract with the daughter of a Hamas official, and the ruling Islamic militant group apparently wanted to dispel any hints that it was supporting Aman’s outreach to Israeli peace activists. He says he eventually gave in under the pressure. Now he says the love of his life was driven out of Gaza against his will and he may never see her again.
“I realized that I had been sent there to make time until I broke my relationship,” Aman said in an interview on the roof of his home in Gaza.
It was the latest humiliation in a saga that began with what he believed to be an innocent online meeting with Israeli peace activists. Instead, the episode landed him in a notorious jail cell known as the “bus,” and ultimately destroyed his marriage. His experience shows the strong constraints on freedom of expression in Hamas-ruled territory and the militant group’s hostility to any discussion of coexistence with Israel.
“The deplorable treatment of Rami Aman by the Hamas authorities reflects their systematic practice of punishing those whose speech threatens their orthodoxy,” said Omar Shakir, Israel-Palestine director of Human Rights Watch.
Aman didn’t think he was doing anything subversive when he joined that fateful call from Zoom last April. Amid the widespread closures at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Aman wanted to discuss the “double lockdown” in Gaza, which endured 14 years of a tight Israeli-Egyptian blockade against Hamas.
“I wanted people to know more about life under Israeli occupation and siege, deprived of the rights enjoyed by the rest of the world,” said Aman, a 39-year-old freelance writer.
For more than two hours, Aman and his group of peace activists, the Gaza Youth Committee, spoke about coexistence with dozens of Israelis.
As news of the meeting leaked, social media filled with angry comments calling him a traitor. Some have urged Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, to act.
Aman said that on April 9, he and seven members of his group were summoned to Homeland Security, the agency that deals with dissidents and those accused of spying for Israel.
He said he was blindfolded and quickly sent onto “the bus,” a room lined with rows of kindergarten chairs and a pair of toilets at the end. There, he said, inmates are forced to sit on the tiny chairs for days or weeks at a time, with a few breaks.
“They didn’t present any evidence against me,” Aman said. He said he would sit in the chair from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m., except when taken for questioning or praying. He was only allowed to remove his blindfold when he went to the bathroom. His captors called him by his prison number, 6299.
The questions were about the Zoom meeting and who could have been the cause. Aman has been charged with collaborating with Israel – a crime punishable by death.
The Gaza Youth Committee has held dozens of talks with Israelis, Americans and Europeans under an initiative called Skype With Your Enemy. In 2019, he hosted an event with cyclists from Gaza and Israel riding parallel on opposite sides of the barbed wire perimeter fence.
He said that at 1 a.m., “bus drivers” were allowed to sleep blindfolded next to chairs. They snuggled up in their jackets and stretched out on the cold floor before being awakened a few hours later for the Muslim dawn prayer. In a 2018 report, Human Rights Watch documented similar accounts.
The interrogation was over after a week, but Aman said he spent 18 agonizing days on the bus before being transferred to a small cell.
Then the interrogation took a strange new turn.
Just two months earlier, Aman had signed a marriage contract with the daughter of an exiled Hamas official based in Egypt. The couple did not have time to celebrate their wedding with an official ceremony due to a coronavirus lockdown, but they were considered married under Islamic law.
Aman said she met her in 2018 after she split from her first husband. He said she believed in the message of peace and had joined her team in several discussions with the Israelis. He asked not to publish his name, fearing it would hurt him.
Any suggestion that a member of Hamas was friendly to Israel is deeply embarrassing to the group. In an unrelated and much more serious matter, Mosab Yousef, son of one of the co-founders of Hamas, spied for Israel from 1997 to 2007. Now living in the United States, he is a staunch critic of Hamas and the subject of ‘a 2014 documentary.
Aman said his new wife was arrested with him but they were quickly separated.
“She doesn’t want you,” an officer told her. “Better you two get divorced.
For two months, he said, he resisted the pressure to break up. On June 28, she finally visited, telling him that she had been released on bail.
“She was not the woman I knew,” he said. “She was full of weakness and fear.” The officers were seated in the room.
He asked her if she wanted to end the relationship and she said yes. “I know she didn’t say it from her heart and it was clear she was under a lot of pressure,” Aman said. He refused to grant her a divorce.
In July, he was transferred to Hamas central prison, although he has not yet been convicted of any crime. There was no further interrogation or torture.
On August 12, an Islamic judge came for a visit and asked if he felt pressured into a divorce. Aman said yes to him and felt encouraged because Islamic law does not allow divorce to be imposed on someone. But then the imam turned against him.
“How are you forced? Do you see me carrying a gun? he says he was told.
He said he eventually gave in and signed the divorce papers after being promised he would be released the next day.
Yet he remained in captivity for another two months. On October 25, Egypt opened its border with Gaza to allow a Hamas delegation to visit Cairo.
The next day, a Hamas court sentenced Aman and two members of his team on the vague charge of “weakening the revolutionary spirit.” They were sentenced to one year in prison, but had their sentences suspended and were released.
It was only then that Aman learned that his wife had been taken with the Hamas delegation to Egypt and handed over to relatives who lived there.
The Associated Press contacted the woman, who confirmed she had been forced into a divorce and wanted her husband to return.
The owner of the Gaza apartment where the woman lived confirmed that she collected her things, accompanied by a Hamas official, after her release on bail. She was then taken to a women’s shelter until she moved to Egypt. The Hamas official, a well-known public figure, did not respond to calls for comment.
Aman spends his days talking to his lawyer, human rights groups and texting Hamas officials. Homeland Security still has his laptop, desktop and phone, along with several other devices belonging to family members.
He also learned that he was now prohibited from leaving Gaza. In December, after receiving an invitation to speak at New York University, he said Hamas officers prevented him from entering Israel to apply for a visa at the US consulate.
Eyad Bozum, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, confirmed the travel ban but said the issue was “in the process of being resolved”, without giving further details.
For now, Aman has put aside his political activism. “Now I have my personal fight: to return to my wife.”