Amid the backdrop of a usual family gathering in the late '80s, where the laughter of my parents, uncles, grandparents, siblings, and cousins mingled with stories and teasing, my mind wandered off from the stories to match the kids to their parents. Yasser stood out, like an enigmatic figure, shrouded with mystery—always present, always favored, and always sad. Yasser had no father.
Exploiting a burst of laughter following one of my grandfather's quips, I leaned forward to my mother, curiosity getting the better of me. I whispered in her ear, "Who's Yasser's father?" Silence.
And as I asked the question, a bit of a lull took place, and the question came out as the shout of an oblivious 8-year-old child, piercing the air and disrupting the jovial atmosphere. The room fell into an uneasy silence, and the weight of the disapproving glares bore down upon me. At that moment, I realized I had stumbled upon a deeply sensitive subject.
Yasser was 16 years old. His father, Oun Alareer, was tortured to death in an Israeli prison before Yasser was born.
With that haunting revelation comes Oun's story, one that is etched into the fabric of our collective memory to serve as a stark reminder of the enduring human spirit—unyielding in the face of adversity—and of the profound impact that one life, one absence, could have.
Since the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip in 1967, about 237 Palestinian detainees have reportedly been murdered with torture, medical negligence, or execution during arrest or an attempt to escape prison.
Four Palestinian prisoners passed away in Israeli jails while on hunger strike, the last of whom is Khader Adnan, who died in administrative Israeli detention on May 2, 2023. Administrative detention is when Israel detains Palestinians indefinitely without trial or charge, usually for renewable six-month periods. Adnan is the first person—that we know of—to die from a hunger strike in Israeli detention since 1992. Months after his death, Israel still holds Adnan prisoner.
It was a cold February night in Gaza. Rafik, Oun's younger brother, had just put out the fire and gone to bed. The night was calm. The noises of the night creatures were some of the only things he could hear. The room was stuffy. Five siblings were crammed under their heavy blankets. The parents were in the next room. And Oun, who had been married only a few months, was in the adjacent room.
Rafik could not determine whether the hushed voices were due to the wind going through the holes in their walls. But his wonder did not last.
In seconds, the home's small yard was filled mostly with tall men with guns, the roofs occupied by snipers. They were Israeli soldiers.
According to Rafik, they separated the women, held them in a room, locked the door, and asked the men to stand against the walls, hands up. The women's weeping could still be heard despite the soldiers' aggressive shushes.
"Where's Oun?" came the question, coldly.
Two soldiers pulled him aside and handcuffed him. Oun's father shouted, "Where are you taking him?"
"Don't worry. Five minutes, and he will be back," replied the short soldier.
17 Days of Torture
But Oun never came back. This would be one of millions of Israeli promises that are not only broken, but turned into trauma and pain.
And just as they had less than a month earlier, Israeli troops came at night. This time, the household was silent in anticipation of any news about their son in Israeli prison.
This time, they could hear the troops tread heavily on the ground.
Oun had passed away.
The order of the Israeli military commander was that only the father, another family member, and the headman of the area (the mukhtar) could perform the burial rituals and lay Oun to rest. And it had to happen at night.
According to the headman's testimony, there was a massive gap in the back of Oun's skull, and his body showed a Y-shaped autopsy incision. The body told us that Oun's body parts may have been harvested. But what was certain was that Oun had been beaten to death.
Oun, as was later confirmed by his friends, refused to confess. He was tortured to death for this. His friends also later reported having their nails pulled out and their private parts electrocuted.
It is reported that Israeli authorities are still holding the bodies of 13 Palestinians who were murdered in Israeli prisons. Israel insists Palestinians serve the remainder of their sentences, even if they are dead.
This vengeful practice deprives the bereaved families and relatives of bidding their loved ones proper goodbyes.
There is a 99.74 percent conviction rate at Israeli military courts of Palestinian detainees. Meanwhile, Israelis who attack or kill Palestinians almost never face justice.
A freedom fighter
Oun Alareer was a freedom fighter. Born in Gaza in 1948, he witnessed the dispossession of his people, the lands lost, the refugees, the impoverishment of the natives, and then the occupation of Gaza in 1956 and again in 1967.
Oun was a member of a small, modestly armed group of fighters located east of Gaza City, namely in the Shujayia Neighborhood. The group carried out several successful anti-Israeli occupation attacks.
Some observers say that in the '60s and '70s, Gaza belonged to Israel during the day, and to the freedom fighters during the night. It belonged to a handful of dreamers in their early twenties until Israel hunted them down. Some were assassinated or executed during arrest, and some spent decades in prison.
Israel outgunned them, determined to eradicate any Palestinian resistance.
And it was at night that heavily armed Israeli occupation forces broke into my grandfather's house and arrested my newly-wed uncle Oun.
As a young man, Oun was often described as a very calm and thoughtful chap who was always there to help.
"He had brought two large tires to use as a weight to lift. He spent a lot of his time at the beach playing sports. He was tall and muscular. He loved basketball and football," his brother Rafik said.
"We never knew he was part of the resistance group in Gaza. He was very secretive. I often feared him like I feared my father, although he was only 15 years my senior. He was a leader by nature. And Israel wanted to get rid of such people," Rafik continued.
In 1991, Yasser, then 20, applied for an Israeli permit (laissez-passer) to travel to Hungary for education.
"In my mind, I had to leave Gaza. My life was full of trauma. I was living in the shadow of a father I never knew. And Israel was killing Palestinian youths like me for nothing," Yasser says.
But his family, especially his grandparents, wanted him to stay. He is all they have of Oun. And the final word was for them.
"I was my father's age. Our courses were almost identical. I found a job. I got married. And my wife became pregnant. It was like a déjà vu. Then the inevitable happened: I received a summons from the Israeli intelligence for interrogation. To me—and to everyone—we feared that mine and my father's tracks were identical."
The days leading to the date of the interrogation were intense. Fear and frustration intertwined, and its grip tightened as Yasser was allowed into the interrogation room.
It turned out the Israeli occupation authorities feared Yasser did not travel to Hungary because he was planning to avenge his father's death.
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"Yasser, we know you are married. We know your wife is pregnant. If you ever think of wanting to become 'a hero' like your father, you will never see your child," barked the Israeli officer.
There was silence. Yasser could not talk back or defend himself.
And in a display of extreme cruelty, the officer's callous words echoed through the air, reverberating with the weight of a thousand fatherless nights. With a smirk, he brazenly boasted to the grief-stricken son, "I killed your father."
The room fell into an abyss of silence. Time stood still, shattered by the impact of those haunting syllables.
"It was like they killed my father twice."
For years and years, Yasser's world was made up of the walls of the cell where his father died. And although he learned to outgrow his pain and turn the stigma into an outlet the hard way, he is still very young at heart, yearning for a hug from his father that will never come.
"I want justice for my father. Is that much to ask?" Yasser insists.
Three youngsters in Yasser's extended family were named after his father. Oun is a name that always reverberates in our households in the hope of making up even a tiny bit of the pain his loss brought us. We will keep his memory always.