Tamar Pelleg-Sryck 1926-2024

Imad Sabi

I first met the Israeli lawyer Tamar Pelleg-Sryck in Megiddo Military Prison, where I was sent after receiving an administrative detention order in December 1995. It was soon after the Oslo agreements, when the newly installed Palestinian Authority was starting to take control of the larger Palestinian cities. As part of setting the ground for the new realities, Israel was placing those opposed to Oslo in detention without charge, branding them ‘enemies of peace’. As the numbers of administrative detainees surged, Tamar took on some of their cases, including mine.

I cannot exactly recall the details of our first meeting. In my hazy memory, it was a brief encounter on a cold, grey day, with the usual exchanges that take place at such meetings: news about my family, initial thoughts about appealing the detention order, questions about prison conditions.

The visits got longer as time passed. Tamar brought me books: Nadine Gordimer, Hanna Lévy-Hass, Paul Auster, Jacobo Timerman, William Trevor, William Styron. My strongest memory of the prison now is not the barbed wire, the spread of tents, the headcounts or other degrading routines, but reading The Confessions of Nat Turner, chasing the light from the guard towers to devour a few more pages.

When some of the books and magazines that Tamar brought for me disappeared before I received them, she had a furious showdown with the authorities, extracting a commitment that every scrap of paper would reach me. Young soldiers, acting as unlikely censors, were tasked with checking the books when Tamar was with me in the visiting room, to decree which were safe for me to read. They often judged a book by its cover, which was funny to see, but Tamar’s agreement with their superiors meant they could no longer treat any of the books disrespectfully, even the ones they considered dangerous.

Tamar was a teacher and organiser long before she became a lawyer at the age of 61. She never stopped fighting, and rejoiced in every victory, however small (like getting me those books), without ever losing sight of the bigger picture. After a series of unsuccessful appeals to the military courts, she finally got me released, after twenty months of detention, with an appeal to the Supreme Court. She showed me the draft of an article that Serge Schmemann, the Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times, had written about me. ‘It will appear on the front page,’ she said. When the article was instead spiked, she was undismayed. She encouraged me to write myself. In August 1997, as I was waiting in Ramleh Prison to be released to exile in the Netherlands, it was Tamar who brought me a suitcase and a Palestinian passport.

Tamar and I met a few times after I was free, with our families: in Rotterdam (where her daughter lived) and The Hague (where I lived), in Paris and London. We spoke regularly on the phone and corresponded by email, though eventually lost contact.

In one of our prison conversations, Tamar said of a woman she knew: ‘She wrinkles beautifully.’ It was true of Tamar herself, too. She died on 11 March, at the age of 97. To mourn and remember her is also to recognise the other Israelis who continue to fight against the occupation and its injustices, and to maintain the hope, even as the genocide in Gaza continues, that one day the occupation will be over.