Back to Gaza, after decades of prison and exile

Ahmed al-Sammak

The Electronic Intifada  /  June 27, 2023

Jaber Ammar had to learn about loss at an early age.

When he was only 4, his father Ali was killed in 1948.

Ali had been involved in resistance activities and was killed by Zionist forces invading his native village of Beit Daras.

To survive the Nakba – the ethnic cleansing before, during and after Israel’s foundation – the Ammar family fled their home for Gaza.

Within a few months of their arrival in Gaza, disaster struck the family again. Jaber’s brother – named Ali just like their father – died from an illness.

Under pressure from her own family, Jaber’s mother married her cousin. Jaber was brought up by his grandparents.

“I was an orphan without any siblings or my mother,” Jaber said.

In 1955, Jaber’s grandfather died. To support his grandmother, Jaber began selling ice cream and corn on the streets.

Things briefly improved when Jaber finished school and was awarded a scholarship to study business at Cairo University.

While in Egypt, Jaber signed up to the Palestine Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Jaber came back to Gaza in 1966. He would then play an active role in the resistance when Israel invaded Gaza during the June 1967 War.

He was arrested by Israel’s forces following that war and detained for about a month before being released.


Like countless other Palestinians, Jaber felt outrage when Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque was set on fire in August 1969. A Christian Zionist from Australia carried out the attack, though at the time it was widely suspected that the Israeli state was behind it.

Following the blaze, resistance fighters undertook a series of operations against the Israeli occupation.

Jaber was arrested during that period. He was detained and frequently tortured over a three-month period before being charged with leading terrorist groups and planning attacks against Israel.

When his case went to Israel’s court system, he received a death sentence. The sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment.

He was held in Gaza Central Prison, known to locals as Al-Saraya, a jail originally set up by Britain, which ruled Palestine between the 1920s and the 1940s.

Jaber went on to take part in a number of hunger strikes, aimed at improving the prisoners’ conditions.

In 1983, the International Committee of the Red Cross brokered a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and the PLO.

Six Israeli soldiers were released under the deal in return for the liberation of approximately 4,700 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners.


“I didn’t know anything about the deal,” Jaber said. He was taken by surprise when Israeli soldiers brought him in a military vehicle to Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv.

Jaber and a number of other long-term prisoners were given a stark choice: Leave Palestine permanently or go back to jail.

All of the prisoners in question decided that exile was better than prison. They were brought to Algeria and then Tunisia, where the PLO had its headquarters at the time.

After moving to Tunisia, Jaber told his comrades that he wished to get married. Some of them knew a Palestinian living in Egypt named Amira.

Jaber traveled to meet her in Egypt and Amira soon became his wife.

The couple were only married a few months when – in 1984 – Jaber was arrested by Egyptian intelligence and charged with smuggling weapons from Egypt to Gaza. The Egyptians detained him for about four months without trial.

“The torture [in Egypt] was even more severe than what I had endured during the 14 years in Israeli prisons,” he said.

Once he was released, Jaber and Amira went to Tunisia.

Over the next few years, the PLO sent its fighters to various Arab countries. Jaber chose Sudan, where he worked in agriculture and obtained university degrees in Islamic studies.

He grew disillusioned with the approach taken by the PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Jaber strongly objected when Arafat signed the Oslo accords with Israel.

“When Oslo was concluded, the armed resistance stopped and it was forbidden to fight Israel,” he said. “The Palestinian leadership relinquished historic Palestine. That is why I objected to what Arafat did.”

‘Stepping into heaven’

From Sudan, he followed events in Palestine closely. Following the series of major Israeli offensives against Gaza proved stressful.

“I used to check on my relatives and friends in Gaza,” he said. “I would cry so much when I heard of deaths and injuries.”

The eruption of an internal conflict in Sudan earlier this year uprooted his family.

In total, Jaber has seven daughters – five of whom had been living in Sudan – and a son.

Three of his daughters promptly left Sudan for three different destinations: Jordan, Lebanon and Gaza. Two of his other daughters had already been in Gaza for many years, while his son lives in Qatar.

When the conflict broke out, Jaber thought he would have to remain in Khartoum with his wife Amira and two of their daughters.

Then, diplomats working with the Palestinian Authority offered to arrange their evacuation.

He could either go to the city of Port Sudan, the embassy informed him, or Gaza. He immediately opted for Gaza and the embassy coordinated his trip with the Egyptian authorities.

The trip involved long bus journeys that lasted a number of days.

“I was scared to death that the Egyptians would send me back to Sudan,” Jaber, now 79, said. “When they took my passport to stamp it, I burst into tears. I was afraid they would stop me from getting into Gaza.”

Eventually, though, he was able to see Gaza once more – following almost 54 years of imprisonment and exile.

The welcome he received on his return was so emotional that “it was like stepping into heaven,” he said.

“It was overwhelming and it’s impossible to put how I felt into words.”

There have been many changes since he was last in Palestine. “Gaza is completely different to the old Gaza I knew,” he said.

Jaber has spent much time reacquainting with old comrades.

Among them are Atallah Fayid, who was sentenced to life imprisonment at the same time as Jaber in 1969. Both men were held in the same cell for five years.

“He hasn’t changed a bit,” Fayid said.

Despite all that he has endured, Jaber does not express any regrets.

“If I was given the choice, I would follow the same path again,” he said. “Palestine is precious. It demands sacrifices.”

Ahmed al-Sammak is a journalist based in Gaza