Throngs Welcome Home Freed Israeli

By Noga Tarnopolsky

Published December 10, 2004, issue of December 10, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Meeting a man who, only three days earlier, was still, in his words, “dead,” stuck in a cement cellblock of Egyptian solitary confinement, is an experience for which few come prepared. To observe the human parade visiting Azzam Azzam, the released Israeli prisoner, last Tuesday at his home in the Galilee town of Mrar was to witness the unfolding of a rare spectacle, not seen since the arrival of prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky.

A group of schoolchildren accompanying the mayor of Kiryat Motzkin, a nearby town, stood by shyly, staring with big eyes at the man in the center of the patio as if he were the mythical emperor of an exotic land.

A delegation wearing suits and ties arrived, representing the Arab-Israeli Bank. The CEO, leading the group, bore a vast bouquet that concealed his face and much of his body. Setting the floral artifact aside, the group marched gravely up to Azzam Azzam and formally shook hands, carefully introducing themselves by name and rank. “Welcome be those freed from captivity,” one man intoned, in a biblical turn of phrase.

The minister of defense called, asking if he could come by tomorrow morning at 9:30. Army Radio called, asking for a special greeting for the soldiers. Labor Party lawmaker Ofir Pines-Paz wanted to know if it would be convenient if he came at 5. (The Azzam family is made up of Likud stalwarts.) Huge Israeli flags adorned the courtyard, and variations on Ariel Sharon’s last campaign themes could be heard all day long. “Only Sharon could do this,” the six Azzam brothers said. “All the prime ministers of Israel tried to talk with Mubarak, but only Sharon stood up to him like this. Only Sharon can do it!”

Late in the day a diverse group of casually dressed Arab and Jewish men filed in, some wearing skullcaps. The first in line, a man called Menashe, dispensed with all ritual: He raced past the five Azzam brothers shaking hands at the gates, disregarded the bitter, cardamom-scented coffee being poured at the entrance, and the piles of fruit and sweets, and walked up to Azzam directly, grabbing him in a long and vociferous embrace. When Menashe sat down, he was crying.

This was the technical team of Tifron, the company Azzam Azzam worked for when he was sequestered by Egyptian authorities November 6, 1996, and these were his buddies, those who always ridiculed the Egyptian accusation that Azzam illegally transmitted information (in invisible ink on ladies’ underwear) about Egyptian industrial installations.

Azzam, a sewing machine technician accused of spying on Israel — charges that he and the government of Israel have denied from day one and continue to dismiss — looked remarkably fit. He wore simple black pants, black shoes and a grey sweater. His hair was trim. There was no visible weakness to the man — no loose belly, no wavering gaze, no hesitation in his handshake.

After eight years in solitary confinement, allowed one visit a fortnight and having been permitted a mattress only in the last year, the man described in the Israeli press for eight years and one month as the epitome of commonness — a family man, a laborer — turned out to be a human definition of discipline.

He improvised a jump-rope in jail in order to keep fit. For months on end, he refused to touch Egyptian food, waiting for the tins brought to him by relatives or by Israeli consular officials. He refused to smoke. Nowadays he still refuses, even in the presence of TV cameras and the prime minister of Israel, to thank Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, or even to utter the man’s name.

“Do you have a few words of thanks for Mubarak?” a TV crewman screamed out. Azzam stared at him. “I thank God,” he said. Faced with almost total disempowerment, Azzam seemed to have come through the ordeal by uttering a long and loud “No.”

His Hebrew is fluid, quick and flawless. He revealed that he bribed the Egyptian guards into rigging a metal-coat-hanger-antenna onto their television, thus enabling his transistor to pick up the signal of Israel Radio. His Arabic, on the other hand, has turned a little Egyptian. His nieces tittered about the bizarre accent he has picked up.

On Tuesday, Mrar’s Regional Council head, Ziad Zagash, had more than one headache to deal with; in addition to the endless stream of guests — every single one of Israel’s 100,000 Druze came by to pay homage to the released Azzam, it appeared, and a good many more Mekorot — the national water carrier had cut off water to the entire town. Mrar, population 18,000, of which 58% are Druze, paid its water bill three days late, and Mekorot was not in a forgiving frame of mind.

Water or no water, the pilgrimage continued: army buddies; Druze sheikhs; a 13-year-old boy from Petach Tikva whose dad drove him all the way north for a photo with Azzam; Shahar, a retired cop from Tel Aviv, who had brought his new video camera.

Fandi Azzam, an older brother and the principal of the local high school, shook his head in disbelief at his brother’s “health and sanity.” Majid, a cousin, said that Azzam “is still in shock, of course.”

And Azzam himself, while continuing to kiss and shake hands, quietly but forcefully said: “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it’s true. I thought I’d die in there.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.