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'Every time they arrest Salah, he gets stronger': Elsa Lefort on her husband, Palestinian lawyer Salah Hamouri

French-Palestinian activist Salah Hamouri [Palestinalibre.org‏/Twitter]
French-Palestinian activist Salah Hamouri [Palestinalibre.org‏/Twitter]

Elsa Lefort met her husband, Salah Hamouri, on 18 December 2011, the day he came out of prison under the Gilad Shalit detainee exchange. As part of his supporting committee back in France, Elsa was there four months later when Salah came to Paris to attend a conference. The couple later married, and in 2014 she moved to Jerusalem to be with him.

Earlier this month Salah, a lawyer, was arrested during a dawn raid at his home in Kufr Aqab, north of Jerusalem, and detained in Ofer detention centre near Ramallah. It is the latest in a string of arrests which Elsa has navigated since meeting her husband 11 years ago. Yet, despite the Israeli authorities' attempts to silence him, Salah is only becoming more resilient.

"Every time they arrest him, he gets stronger," Elsa says. "In Israeli prisons, among Palestinian political prisoners there is huge solidarity among the detainees. They are trying to instil collective punishment; they are trying to destroy him. He is just an activist fighting for the liberation of his land, but he is also a husband, a father, a friend, a son. Every time they arrest him it is harder for him and also his family and he knows this is hard for all of us, but his fight for the liberation of his land is stronger than the harassment."

A Palestinian French human rights defender, Hamouri was first arrested during the second Intifada, along with several other young people who were politically active at Bethlehem University where he was then studying. When Salah was released in the prisoner exchange, he swapped his sociology degree and pursued law, instead, eventually passing the bar exam and becoming a lawyer for the NGO, Addameer, which supports political prisoners.

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Even when he is out of jail, Israeli authorities have made Salah's life difficult, prohibiting him from crossing checkpoints, which means he cannot meet his clients in court or visit his family. Last year, an investigation by Front Line Defenders found that Pegasus software had been installed onto Salah's phone for the purpose of extracting information about his work, prisoner files and French activists and politicians who support him. The goal, Elsa says, is to force him to leave Palestine.

"Everything they are doing is to force him to leave Palestine. They are using him as an example to show how deep they can go if you plan to fight against the occupation."

"They should know that he will never leave. He will stay in Palestine. It is psychological warfare, saying we are going to arrest you because we want you to leave. But Salah will not leave by himself. It is his right to live in Jerusalem. He is fighting for the right to live in Jerusalem with me and our kids. So, of course, he will never decide to leave."

In 2016 Elsa went back to France to visit family, but when she tried to return to Jerusalem, she was deported and banned from entering for 10 years. She was married, pregnant and facing the prospect of years apart from her husband.

At first Salah visited his wife and family every three months, until he was arrested again and placed in administrative detention. Not even Elsa's letters were passed on to him. Then came Covid, travel restrictions and the space between visits stretched out endlessly. In the last two years, Elsa has seen Salah for just 20 days in total.

Salah Hamouri behind Israei bars - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Salah Hamouri behind Israei bars – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Life is difficult for the kids, says Elsa, but in their case, it is not because of family issues but because of political ones. Their son is six years old now, and is starting to understand words like occupation but, at the same time, just wants to spend time with his father and be like another normal family. Their daughter is 11 months old and has only seen her father for 10 days.

Elsa and Salah's case echoes that of Ramy Shaath, the Palestinian-Egyptian political prisoner who recently arrived in France after being released from an Egyptian prison following a campaign by his wife Celine Lebruth-Shaath. But unlike Ramy's case, where French President Emmanuel Macron used Twitter and made public statements to pressure Egypt's President Sisi to release him, the French President has not gone public with Salah's case, so it's hard to guage what action they are really taking.

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Last week Elsa had a meeting with French diplomats who told her that France is asking Israel to release Salah and for Israel to grant Elsa the right to join him and live in Jerusalem. Last week the Israeli president was in France and Macron's office told Elsa they did raise Salah's case, but that they cannot tell her anything about what happened.

"Racist treatment is also a factor," she adds. "I can imagine that if he was not a Salah but a Pierre or something else, maybe the treatment would be different."

As the only French-Palestinian in jail in Israel, Salah is well-known among activists in France where pro-Palestinian organisations have run several campaigns for him. He has been invited to speak at festivals and conferences about political prisoners. However, despite enjoying a high profile in certain circles the mainstream media don't talk about his case.

Whilst she waits for his release, Elsa has given her life to fighting not only for her husband but for all Palestinian prisoners and to raising awareness of the daily harassment they endure. "There are hundreds of Salahs and hundreds of families suffering from occupation," she says. "One day, I don't know when, justice will come so we need to be patient and strong. I'm optimistic. In history every occupation stops one day. So we have to be optimistic."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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