Trapped in GazaJuly 18, 2019
How Galit’s three children got trapped in Gaza
“I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life, and my marriage was one of them, but the bottom line is that my babies are trapped in Gaza being raised as Muslims.” Galit Popok, currently waging a war of wills against her husband’s family to regain custody of her nine-year-old daughter and toddler twins, is in the middle of a bizarre nightmare that began ten years ago in the Galilee town of Upper Nazareth, continued with her escape from the Gaza district of Beit Lahiye, and came to a head during Operation Cast Lead.
Galit met Rami Kadera, an Arab from Gaza, ten years ago when he was employed as a waiter in a wedding hall. She was just sixteen — “I knew he was an Arab but all my friends were meeting Arabs”— and thought he had Israeli citizenship and would be allowed to live in Israel. When he eventually took her and their four children back to Gaza after being forced to leave Israel, where he had been working illegally, she thought it was for a short visit, never imagining she would be taken hostage by her own husband. Instead, she found herself trapped, stripped of her documents, and routinely beaten and tortured.
Two years ago, three weeks after the birth of twin girls, she ran for her life, taking three older children with her. She then began an Israeli court battle for divorce and custody rights for the remaining children, and lawyers affiliated with the Yad L’Achim organization, which has been assisting her since her return, finally saw a window of opportunity as Israel was about to reenter Gaza at the end of December. On January 8th, a week into the war, the Nazareth District Court issued a verdict that the children must be delivered to their mother immediately, but Rami was nowhere to be found. The next day, Friday, January 9th, Galit managed to make contact with him, but he denied that the children were with him — he said they were staying in a children’s shelter. Several hours later she called back, this time under instructions from Yad L’Achim to inform him that he, too, would be taken out of Gaza if he would deliver the children. “Get me out and I’ll deliver the kids,” he told Yad L’Achim’s Alex Artovsky, “and if you don’t get me out, you won’t ever hear from me or the children again.”
Negotiations for the children’s release went from the top army brass all the way to the Prime Minister’s office, with Cabinet Secretary Oded Yechezkel stating, “Within tweny-four hours, they’re out.”
“I was 100 percent sure the operation would succeed. The exact location, everything, was arranged,” Artovsky later reported. But something went wrong. Rami was a security risk, and the army personnel at the border didn’t authorize his departure. So Rami did an about-face with his Jewish daughters, Yasmin, nine, and Dalia and Salima, two and a half, taking the girls back with him to Beit Lahiye.
Five days later, he was killed by rocket fire.
Now, Abu Rami Kadera, Rami’s father, has taken charge of the girls and refuses to give them over to their mother, even as their father is no longer alive. Furthermore, he has begun his own legal proceedings — with the aid of an Israeli lawyer — to force the other children back to the Gaza Strip.
“I want all six back together with me,” he told Ynet. And, despite his anger at his daughter-in-law for running away from the family, he said all doors are still open for her. “She is welcome to come back home to us and mourn with us together. She lived here like a queen. Allah has given me blessings of wealth, and her life here was pampered and perfect. She is welcome with open arms to partake of our riches and become one of us.”
Galit told Mishpacha that the overtures are a trap, and that when she fled, her life and those of her children were in physical danger. Her escape might not have had the rescue drama of volunteer “commandos” running barricades, being shot at by PA strongmen. But Galit felt she was in a nowor- never situation and so, with three children — a six-year old girl and a three-year-old and one-year-old boy — on the way to a doctor’s checkup, she jumped into a cab which took her to the border crossing. She had previously enlisted the help of an Arab relative who was in touch with her mother in Nazareth. Her mother arranged to pay for the cab, and the relative made contact with the Israeli soldiers at the Erez checkpoint, explaining that an Israeli woman and three children would be passing through. When she arrived back in Israel, she was covered with bruises and weighed under a hundred pounds.
How does a mother decide which children to take and who to leave behind? “It wasn’t a choice. I had an opportunity and I took it. Had I taken them all, it would have been too suspicious. I would never have made it, and who knows what he would have done to me afterwards? For the last two years we remained in telephone contact, and he constantly threatened to burn down my house and take away the children.”
An Israeli court order doesn’t mean much to the Hamas authority in Gaza, and chances are small that the IDF will initiate a mission to rescue the children, even though it is known where they are being kept — camera crews had no problem converging on the grandfather’s house on Aslam Street in Beit Lahiye.
The army claims the lost rescue opportunity was the fault of the Red Cross. “We made every effort for the father and kids to come out,” said Peter Lerner of the IDF spokesman’s office. “As far as I know they never came to the Erez Crossing and were certainly never turned back. I believe they were afraid to leave their homes. The IDF offered to help facilitate their passage from their home to Erez and into Israel, but (Rami Kadera) did not want to leave without the Red Cross helping out. We asked the Red Cross to facilitate movement, but it refused, saying it had other priorities. Currently, it is an internal family affair. The children can leave Gaza immediately if they want, but the family does not want to send them to Israel. The IDF will not get involved in an internal family dispute, and the family does not want to bring the children out.”
Meanwhile, Yad L’Achim chairman Rabbi Sholom Dov Lifshitz said his group is currently putting together a team of religious and non-profit organizations to rescue the children from Hamas-ruled Gaza.
“It is important that we remain focused on the issue at hand,” he told Mishpacha, “especially with such an emotional issue. This is not a political issue, and we are working hard to ensure that it remains nonpolitical. This is a humanitarian and a religious issue, and we have to pressure the family in Gaza to do the right thing. There are three Jewish children that belong in Israel with their mother.”
Rabbi Lifshitz said his organization is working with several international organizations and personalities to exert pressure on the family to release the children, including the International Red Cross, Doctors without Borders and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The toddler twins both suffer from physical disabilities.
The IDF might call the case an “internal family dispute,” but the army does have a precedent for action when a court order is issued. Last year, a force of twenty-six soldiers and five police officers converged on the Arab town of Kfar Ullah outside Hebron to rescue two Jewish girls who had been kidnapped by their Arab father in a custody battle.
The Jewish mother had escaped the PA-controlled town several months before and was living in Ashdod. Her estranged Arab husband kidnapped the girls, ages four and one, during a visit, and threatened the mother that “if you want to see your daughters again, you have one choice — come back.”
Attorney Sigal Paizakov, legal counsel for Yad L’Achim, got a court order for the children to be returned to their mother, even if it involved police intervention. The police deferred, however, stating that as the children were being held in the PAcontrolled territories, it was not a police issue, but an IDF one. The IDF claimed that they had no authority to enter the territory, that because this was an internal family issue, it was necessary to wait for international humanitarian agreements, which could take months.
Shas MK Yaakov Cohen, an address for complex family and social issues, quickly activated his own network, contacting IDF Hebron regional commanders Yehudah Fuchs and Avshalom Feld, who quietly put together a military rescue team. Sensing the pressure closing in on him, the father made his escape, but not before hiding the girls — who had been separated since the kidnapping — in the homes of his two Arab wives. The four-year-old was found freezing on the roof of one house, and the one-year-old was finally located in the second house, pushed into a closet with blankets and pillows piled on top of her.
Galit Popok is not the first — and won’t be the last — woman to find herself trapped in an Arab village, hostage in a violent marriage. According to estimates of rescue organizations such as Lev L’Achim and Yad L’Achim, more than 3,500 Jewish women in Israel are married to Arabs and live in Arab towns and villages. Thousands of others are in common-law marriages or dating Arab men. Some of these women have married and live relatively quiet lives, having made their peace with a ritual conversion to Islam and integrated into their Arab communities. But many scenarios are complicated by drug addiction, immorality, and physical and emotional abuse.
The most tragic victims are the thousands of children, sons and daughters of Jewish mothers and Jewish according to halachah, but not according to Islamic religious law which upholds patrilineal religious status, thereby rendering these children Muslim. If a woman chooses to divorce, children from age three are automatically given back to the father. And the Israeli government policy is to accommodate Islamic family law in Arab communities.
Aside from the halachic prohibition of intermarriage and the inevitable abuse — there isn’t a Jewish woman who winds up in an Arab village and escapes abuse — there is an entire generation of children lost to their Jewish heritage. Galit Popok’s nine-year-old daughter already told her mother how proud she is of her father, who died a shahid. She knows nothing about Judaism and identifies with her father’s family.
“Even if women like Galit eventually get custody of their children, these children hate their mothers,” said Maya, who works with the rescue and rehabilitation of Jewish women trapped in dangerous relationships with Arab men. Maya knows. She’s one of them.
That’s why Maya’s story is so unusual. The daughter of a Jewish mother and Arab father, Maya, twenty-seven, is a statistical anomaly, as she is the rare one out of thousands who chose a life of Torah over life in the village. Most children of these mixed marriages go to Arab schools, speak Arabic, and celebrate Muslim holidays. But because in the back of their minds they know they are different, they harbor even more hate and resentment than those from pure Arab families. They want to prove they are Arabs despite their Jewish mothers. According to a report by Arab sociologist Dr. Abadi Nasser, youths from mixed families are more likely to be involved in violent incidents against the IDF. Her own Arab background notwithstanding, today Maya is a kosher Jewess, married to a Torah scholar, and mother of three.
Maya’s mother, a daughter of traditional Moroccan immigrants, was just fourteen when she was already living on the streets. Her first husband was an Israeli Arab and substance abuser from an important underworld family. She gave birth to a son, who is now thirty-two. Eventually she ran away, taking her son with her, but, excommunicated by her parents and cut off from her family, she fell into another mixed relationship, this time with Maya’s father. Her mother’s third husband was a kadi, a religious man of an extreme Islamic sect. They had a daughter together.
At age three, Maya was placed in foster care, with a non-religious Israeli family in Holon. “They never let me forget who I was,” she says. “They didn’t know that I was just as Jewish as they were. Not a day passed that they wouldn’t remind me that my mom’s a drug addict and my dad’s an Arab.
“During those years I hated my mom. She was responsible for my messed-up life. I tell this to all the girls I counsel. Leave that Arab. Your kids will hate you; they will never forgive you for giving them that awful dual identity. They will accept their father, but they will always hate you for mixing them up. Whenever the kids would tease me about my Arab father, it made me furious with my mother. I hated her for not learning her lesson the first time with my brother. I didn’t want anything to do with her.
“But, somehow, I longed for my father. I felt he would give me an identity. So at age thirteen, I asked the social worker for a meeting with my father. We met several times and there, I felt I finally found a family that was mine. With them, I was no longer a mongrel in the gutter.” Maya moved into her father’s home in Anata, a village outside Jerusalem.
At first Maya was treated like royalty, and within a few months she was fluent in Arabic. The relatives asked if she wanted to convert. “I saw how women in the village were treated, how they were stripped of their dignity, but all that didn’t faze me because I was still treated differently. I was still a guest. I was allowed to sit with the uncles when the women were forced into the back room. My cousin, the son of my dad’s brother, was really nice to me. He always spoke to me in Hebrew. I really liked him and decided to marry him. I was then fourteen.
“Dad agreed, and we made the chafla and everything was great. In the beginning I had special status, but then I became a married woman and had to be like everyone else. No more going out at night. No more sitting with the uncles. Now I had to go to the back room and make the men coffee like all the other women.
“At first it was fun preparing for my husband. I wanted to make him happy. But then, if the coffee wasn’t perfect or the food lacked a certain spice, he would raise his hand to me. I saw that my half-sisters from my father’s other wives were beaten by their husbands but I never thought it would happen to me. At first I thought, Maybe I deserve it, maybe I wasn’t acting properly, so I forgave him. But when the beatings continued, I went to complain to my father.
“Now I was in for another shock. Dad said, ‘Now you’re his property. What do you want from me? I can’t tell him to stop, I can just tell him to continue — maybe you deserved it?’ When my husband heard that I complained to my father, I was put under twenty-four-hour surveillance. I could no longer go anywhere alone. By this time I was expecting. One evening I went out to visit a relative and came back alone after dark, one of the more serious crimes a woman in the village can commit. He was furious, and threw me down a flight of stairs. I lost the baby. He had to take me to the hospital, where all the relatives had me under guard.”
In the hospital Maya spoke Hebrew to the doctors, but looked like a traditional Muslim wife who would not know the language. The Jewish women in the beds next to her began to whisper. Who was this woman, an Arab or a Jewess? “I began to ask myself the same question. I understood that no matter where I was, on the other side they would always talk about me. But I would have to decide who I am for myself. At least I knew the Jews would never beat me up.
“At this point I knew I had to leave, but as a ‘subversive,’ I had round-the-clock surveillance. Every day another relative would be on duty to guard me, and there I found my break. One uncle was pretty nice to me, always speaking to me in Hebrew and talking about the relationship between the Jews and Arabs in Israel. So I hinted to him about wanting to escape. One day he said to me, ‘I’ll tell everyone I took you for a drive and you jumped out of the car.’ He took me to the edge of the village, pushed twenty shekels into my hand, and sped off.
“I was still in my Arab garb. I had no idea where to go, but I knew I had to get as far away as I could from the village, so I stopped a cab and told him to take me as far away as he could for twenty shekels. He started talking to me: ‘What’s with the clothing, when you talk like an Israeli?’ So I told him my story. Well, this driver was an angel that fell from Heaven. He said, ‘Oh, I know your mother. Never saw such a messed-up woman. A few days ago I took her to her apartment in Ramot. I’ll take you there if you want.’ “To see my mother again after all these years? I thought she’d throw her arms around me and cry, ‘Maya, my long lost daughter!’ or something like that. When I knocked on the door, there was no gushy reception, but she agreed to let me stay, under one condition. I could only come home in the middle of the night. The house was filthy, full of empty beer bottles and cigarette butts, and Mom would have these wild parties till all hours of the night. So I figured I’d just find a place in the park, since I was there half the night anyway. “I found a cave structure, where I lived for a year. I found a mattress and some discarded blankets, and used the park’s public facilities. In the morning I’d pilfer some rolls that the Angel Bakery truck dropped off in front of the grocery. I got to know some of the neighborhood teenagers and they really helped me out, although their parents told them not to associate with me. But after hearing my story, they really respected me. They would sneak me into their homes for a shower when their parents were out, and bring me leftovers. I owe my life to these friends. They admired my strength, and that I didn’t fall into drugs or worse. They told their parents, ‘You have no idea what a gibborah this girl is.’ “I knew then that I would never fall. I would sleep in the gutter and steal food, but I would never fall into the pit of drugs or immorality. I knew I was a good girl. I thanked G-d, whoever He was, that I didn’t fall and knew I wouldn’t fall.”
Saved On Yom Kippur
A social worker found Maya and brought her to a hostel for homeless teenagers. It was the morning before Yom Kippur, a day that was to change Maya’s life. She knew nothing about Jewish holidays. The foster family in Holon was antireligious and even the High Holidays were not observed.“Late that morning I rolled out of bed to the blaring noise of some tape. I yelled at the guy listening to that noise to turn down the racket. He said, ‘Don’t worry; by 4:00 everything will be quiet. By the way, aren’t you preparing something for yourself to eat before the fast?’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. I knew nothing about Yom Kippur. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘This is Rav Amnon Yitzchak. Listen to what he’s saying. It will speak to your heart.’ “So I listened, and began to cry. He spoke of emunah, of how Hashem runs the world, feeds the world, and sustains everything from man to bugs. Suddenly I saw clearly how Hashem was with me and cared for me during my entire life’s ordeal He sustained me in the cave. He gave me strength to leave the village. It didn’t matter that Mom was a junkie and Dad was an Arab. Hashem was at my side all along. This so penetrated me that I did teshuvah on the spot.
“ ‘Okay,’ I asked him, ‘now what do I do?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you have to fast today, and you have to get a skirt.’ He went to a clothing gemach and brought me two skirts and two blouses. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘take these meanwhile. I have no idea what else you should do. I’m new at this myself. Maybe read some Tehillim or something. At four we eat, and then we start to fast and go to shul.’ ‘Shul? What’s shul?’ ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘I’ll take you to the women’s section. I have a charedi cousin who will explain everything to you.’ ”
Maya found herself on the road to teshuvah, and the cousin from Yom Kippur arranged an appointment for her with Jerusalem kabbalist Rav David Batzri.
“He asked me if I prayed, and I told him I don’t know how. So this great Rav took out his own siddur, the one with the frayed edges that he used daily, and showed me — here is where we bow, here is where we stand, here is where we face Jerusalem … Then he marked all the places and gave me his siddur. He said, ‘You are a pure Bat Yisrael, kosher by all accounts.’ He said I need not divorce and I need not undergo a back-up conversion. Teshuvah, he said, will wipe the slate clean.
“Hashem sent me the uncle, the cab driver, the cave, the friends — always just enough to sustain me. I realized if Hashem guarded me when I was a sinner, how much more will He protect now that I’m on the right path?”
Today, Maya goes on missions for Yad L’Achim. “Who else can go into an Arab village and organize meetings with these women? Besides, I have my many family connections. They know I’ve returned to being a Jewess and they’re okay with me. When I speak to them they say, ‘We love you, we miss you, come back and visit,’ but I know there’s no going back there. Still, the contacts help me now.
“I even once enlisted the help of my mother’s third husband, the kadi. I told him that a guy in his village has a Jewish girl and he’s beating her. Now, you are allowed to beat her once she’s your wife, but until then you’re not allowed to mess with her. So the kadi, who has a strong sense of his religious morality, forced him to let the girl go.”
Why do so many Jewish girls throw their lives into these Arab charmers?
“Arabs are everywhere,” explains Maya. “A woman can be vulnerable. She craves compliments and validation, especially if she is insecure and comes from a difficult family situation. They know it and take advantage. So she is on the street and he draws her attention. At first she might ignore him, but she’s still flattered. The next time she sees him he starts to talk to her, and eventually, she agrees to go out with him. She might be ashamed that he is an Arab, but then she gets swept away by all his compliments — ‘You are my heart, my eyes, my life; I’ll be here whenever you need me …’ She feels, I’m everything to him. If she rejects him, he acts devastated; he cries, says he can’t function, that he’ll kill himself, so she has mercy; oh, he cares about me so much, I’ll go back to him. It always starts this way.
“Then there is the total loss of her identity, of her dignity. He convinces her to marry him, but his family also pressures him to marry an Arab woman and bring him proper Arab children. By now she’s trapped. Today the Jewish girls have a bad name by the Arabs. The Arabs say they are cheap, they have no dignity, they’re willing to sell out their heritage. So he’ll marry her but also make sure to have a proper Arab wife. By this time the expensive presents are finished. So what does it cost him, a little pita and hummus every day? Then the poor girl thinks that giving him a child will cement the relationship. Really it only entraps her more, because even if she decides to leave, the child is legally his property.”
With reporting by Andrew Friedman (Mishpacha Magazine)