‘Don’t tell my mother that I am blind’: Muhammad Brash grasps for light in the darkness of Israeli jail
Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by the Palestinian resistance from his tank and held for five years, is known worldwide as a “victim” of the “terrorist” Palestinians.
But seeing how little the world knows of our Palestinian political prisoners infuriates me. There is not only one. Nearly five thousand Palestinians are behind Israeli bars, which are more like “a grave for the living.” as my dad ad, who spent 15 years in Israel’s prisons, frequently describes his detention.
Last night, while following the latest news on political prisoners, I saw a headline reading, “The medical situation of the detainee Muhammad Brash is deteriorating.” I’m certain few have read that name before.
Muhammad Brash, like every Palestinian hero locked up in Israel’s jails, has his own story, a human and heroic story that would touch any heart. I didn’t know him before I coincidentally – and tearfully – read his letter, “Don’t tell my mother that I have become blind.”
I want to introduce you 32-year-old Muhammad Brash to you in depth. But I’ll let his own poetic words first tell you who he is. Here is my translation of his letter:
Don’t tell my mother that I can no longer see. She can see me, but I can’t see. I fake my smiles when she shows me the photographs of my siblings, friends, and neighbors, as she doesn’t know that I have become blind after illness spread in my eyes until the darkness filled me.
Don’t tell her that I waited several years to have a cornea transplant surgery. But the Israeli Prison Service kept procrastinating and procrastinating, giving my eyes every reason to leave me.
Don’t tell her that the last thing I remember from the sweet days when I could see was a small child, running toward me, waving the Palestinian flag, and yelling, ‘A martyr, a martyr.’
Don’t tell my mother that the shrapnel of the bombs which managed to hit me is still settling in my body, and that my left leg was mutilated and replaced with a plastic one. Don’t tell her that the other leg rotted and dried of blood and life.
Don’t tell my mother that the prisoner survives a lifeless existence and is treated as subhuman. He is sentenced to see only ashes and iron, darkness and hopelessness.
Tell her I am alive and safe. Tell her I can see, walk, run, play, jump, write, and read. Don’t tell her I shoulder my pains on a walking stick, and can see every martyr as a moon, soaring in the sky and calling me with the power of lightning, thunder, and clouds.
Don’t tell her I suffer from sleepless nights, and that I live under the mercy of painkillers until they drug my body. Don’t tell her that I keep losing my things, and I barge into the iron beds or another prisoner sleeping close to me, to wake him to help me reach the bathroom. Don’t tell her that wakefulness always hurts me and sleep never visits me.
Don’t tell her that Israel, a country in the 21st century, has turned its prisons into places where diseases are planted and bodies slowly ruined.
Don’t tell her that I have learned the names of horrible illnesses and strange medications, along with all types of painkillers, while watching my friend Zakariyya fall into a coma, with an ending unknown to me.
Don’t tell my mother about the sick prisoners whose diseases launched fierce wars against their bodies: Ahmad Abu Errab, Khaled Ashawish, Ahmad al-Najjar, Mansour Mowqeda, Akram Mansour, Ahmad Samara, Wafaa al-Bis, Reema Daraghma, Tareq Asi, Mutasim Radad, Riyad al-Amour, Yasir Nazzal, Ashraf Abu-Thare, Jihad Abu-Haniyye. The merciless Israeli prisons slaughter them; there is an illness and a carelessness in a country that enjoys slow death sentences and funerals for others.
Tell her that I never stop dreaming of being wrapped in her tender arms. My nostalgia for her is great, and her soul never leaves me. Tell her that I have kept her gifts: my Arab tongue, my purity, my symbols stuck on the wall, all of which soothe my pain every time the light disappears around me.
Tell her that I always embrace her holy prayers, to survive the dark cloud that surrounds me after the pain has spread in my body and tortured me. I might return to her or I might not, but I leave the answer to this question open, although I’ve chosen to be spiritually close to her heart. Tell her I am sorry I have no control over my future.
Tell her I am not too far from her, and I get closer every time a bird flies and a fire burns in my eye, and barbed wires wound me, carrying me to her arms.
Learning about Muhammad
This letter began my spiritual relationship with Muhammad Brash’s persona. He became a new source of inspiration in my life and deepened my faith in the cause of the Palestinian political prisoners.
Muhammad somehow managed to smuggle his moving letter from Eshel prison during the campaign of disobedience, the 22-day mass hunger strike launched at the end of September 2011. He shared his own experience of medical neglect, attempting to shed some light on the Israel Prison Service’s inhumane practices against him and his comrades. Quality medical care always tops the list of our detainees’ demands whenever they start a mass hunger strike.
Eager to know Muhammad Brash in depth, I searched every possible source for more information on him. I wished I could visit his family and listen to their story first-hand. Sadly Israel’s apartheid made it impossible for someone from Gaza to meet another from West Bank, even though it’s only a couple of hours away.
A message from Muhammad’s brother
After a long search, I found a Facebook page called The Detainees Muhammad and Ramzy Brash. Only then I realized that Ramzy Brash was Muhammad’s brother, who shares his prison cell and is also sentenced to life-long detention. I left a post on their page saying how moved I was by Muhammad’s letter. Shortly after that, I received a message from his 22-year-old brother, Hamza Brash, saying he was ready to tell me all about Muhammad.
Muhammad’s family is originally from Abu Shosha village, which was ethnically cleansed in 1948. His grandparents fled to al-Amari refugee camp in Ramallah, where they still live.
Brother killed by Israeli soldiers, Muhammad wounded by a bomb
At the start of the second Intifada – which began in September 2000 – Israeli occupation forces invaded al-Amari, massacred people, and demolished their houses. An armed soldier shot Muhammad’s 15-year-old brother Subri, cutting his life short while he was throwing a stone. This moved Muhammad to join the resistance and defend his people’s dignity and sense of security.
At the same time, Muhammad worked as a policeman. In 2001, he had a night shift, guarding a Palestinian police station 50 meters from an Israeli checkpoint. As he entered his car to return home, it exploded. Later he learned there had been a bomb inside it. There was suspicion over who had done it, but his brother responded, “We have only one enemy: Israel! The rest of the story will prove to you that their denial of the responsibility for this crime is a lie.”
“Muhammad was found quite far from the explosion,” Hamza told me during a phone call. “People thought they had found a martyr. But thankfully the bomb didn’t kill him. It only left him blind with one leg.”
Muhammad was carried to a governmental hospital. But even while he was half dead, he was attacked again. “A masked man entered his room and stuck his fingers in Muhammad’s eyes, already blinded from the bomb,” Hamza said angrily. “After that, he was sent to a private hospital and was never left alone without guards.”
Arrested in 2003
“But how did he end up in prison?” I asked. “On 17 February 2003, the Israeli army besieged Al-Amarai preparing for a detention campaign,” Hamza replied. “We never expected that Muhammad would be the target. After his disability, how could he threaten Israel’s security?”
“A huge force of Israeli soldiers raided our house,” he said. “They found Mahmoud leaning against a wall, trying to stand. They attacked him and started shackling and blindfolding him, as if he could see or run away. The soldiers started harassing him because of his disability.” Hamza told me that he heard the head soldier telling Muhammad, “We wanted you dead, but when we heard that you were alive, we thought you should be our guest.”
Mohammed didn’t fear them. Hamza heard Muhammad telling the head soldier, “I’m sorry for you, you coward!” The head soldier laughed at him wondering “How come?” Then Muhammad answered him with pride and slight smile, “If you weren’t a coward, you wouldn’t come besiege the whole camp with thousands of soldiers to arrest a disabled man like me!”
At first, the Israeli court sentenced Muhammad to seven lifetimes. But then it was reduced to three life sentences plus 35 years in light of his health condition. “As if this merciless court made a difference! ” Hamza said angrily. “A life sentence was enough to make Israel’s prison his grave.”
Muhammad has served ten years of his sentence, and no one knows if he will ever be released. Ever since his arrest, he has suffered from medical neglect every day. It’s this that left Muhammad in two forms of darkness: His blind eyes that see no colors but black, and his dark cell where he dies every day and may spend the last day of his life.
More than 50 prisoners are either physically or mentally disabled. And as Dad said, recalling his imprisonment, “Being detained by the merciless jailers of the Israel Prison Service is enough to threaten your psychological health.”
Most of Israel’s shameful crimes, which offend any sense of propriety in any heart with any shred of conscience, were committed in the name of security. But how can they justify them in Muhammad’s case where he can hardly endanger their safety?
Read Mohammed Brash’s letter to his mother in Italian. The translation is done by the wonderful Italian activist Angela Bernardini
Khader Adnan took the heavy weight of 320 prisoner held in administrative detention, without any charge, on his shoulders. He hunger struck for a record 66 days to protest this unjust policy. His battle of an empty stomach wasn’t only a reminder to free souls around the world that we are real people who deserve freed and dignified lives, but also a message to those who share his suffering and injustice that they have a weapon stronger than the jailers’ arms: determination. Hana’ Shalabi followed his steps and starved herself for 44 days. After defeating Israel’s inhumane policies, Khader and Hana’ have become symbols of defiance and sources of inspiration and strength for our political prisoners to continue resisting injustice.
The mother of the detainees Bilal and Azzam Diab holding Bilal’s picture who is on hunger strike for 55 days
More heroes have arisen behind bars to break all chains with their empty stomachs. Bilal Diab, a 27-year-old man from Jenin, is one of them. He was detained for 80 months in 2003. After completing his sentence, before his first year out of prison, he was re-arrested aggressively after midnight, causing panic among neighbors. Then he received an administrative detention order for six months on 25 August 2011, based on “secret information” available to neither Bilal nor his lawyer, leaving him no other lawful means to defend himself. According to his detention order, he was supposed to be released on 25 February. But it was renewed, leading Bilal to rebel and defend himself by launching an open hunger strike. Azzam Diab, Bilal’s brother who was sentenced for a life time, is on the 23rd day of his hunger strike in solidarity with his brother Bilal. It just hard to imagine how their mother manages to remain strong while two of her sons are inside Israel’s prisons and both are dying to live.
Thaer Halahla, 34 years old, from H’rsan, near Hebron, is another hunger striker who joined Bilal on the same day, February 29, to protest the renewal of an administrative detention order against him. Thaer was re-arrested after two weeks of his marriage. He had previously been held under administrative detention four times. His imprisonment forced him to leave his pregnant wife and baby girl behind. His 22-month-old daughter was born while he was in prison and since birth, she has never had a chance to meet her father. At the beginning of January 2012, his administrative detention order was extended a third consecutive time for an additional six months. Desperate to be free, re-unite with his family, and hug his daughter for the first time, he has hunger struck 55 days so far.
Addameer reported that on 21 March, Bilal and Thaer were transferred to Ramleh prison medical center after their health began to deteriorate. Both are currently being held in isolated cells, suffer from medical neglect under difficult conditions. Thaer’s lawyer stated that he saw him vomiting blood from his nose and mouth and that he suffers a difficulty in speaking. As for Bilal, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel) noted that “after losing consciousness a number of times, Mr. Diab was hospitalized twice at Assaf Harofeh Hospital, but was subsequently returned to [Ramleh prison medical center].”
Eight other prisoners have reached dangerous stages of their hunger strikes, including Haddan Safadi (49 days), Omar Abu Shalal (47 days), Jaafar Azzedine (32 days), and Ahmad Saqer, the longest-held administrative detainee (36 days). Resistance against the administrative detention policy inside prisons has also taken other forms. Mohammed Suleiman, a thalassemia patient, is refusing medical treatment to protest his administrative detention that has been renewed three times. He also refuses to take blood tests.
Three other administrative detainees have also been moved to Ramleh prison medical center: Hassan Safadi, Omar Abu Shalal and Jaafar Azzedine, on their 45th, 43rd, and 28th days of hunger strike respectively. Ahmad Saqer, the longest-held current administrative detainee, is on the 32nd day of his hunger strike.
On Prisoners’ Day, 17 April, Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons launched a mass hunger strike after a wave of individual hunger strikes over the past few months. This collective hunger strike follows the 22-day campaign of disobedienceand mass hunger strike, launched at the end of September 2011 to protest cruel conditions and an escalating series of punitive measures against Palestinian prisoners such as solitary confinement, a ban of family and lawyers’ visits, and confiscations of prisoners’ possessions. The Israeli Prison Service promised to meet prisoners’ demands within three months if they ended their hunger strike. Six months have passed without any change. So prisoners have re-launched their hunger strike to demand their most basic rights.
Loai Odeh, a former prisoner and my best friend, whom I am very proud to have met after his release, joined that campaign of disobedience until the swap deal by Israel and Hamas on 18 October. Then he was released, and deported from Jerusalem to Gaza after ten years of imprisonment. Since his release, prisoners he left behind have been his main concern. He always attends events in solidarity with them. He has been my main resource every time I had a question or needed to enrich my knowledge about prisoners’ conditions.
While following his updates on Facebook, I noticed that he had written new statuses taking the form of a striker’s diaries while recalling his experience. This surprised me, as it has seldom happened since he opened his account. The diary of the fourth day was the most touching and important for everyone to read that I want to share them with my readers as a strong call for action.
“Today is the fourth day of challenge and championship,” Loai wrote. “Today, silence begins to spread all over. By now, the striker tends to be silent and stop talking. All the voices around him seem loud. He becomes unable to join their discussions. As days pass, his ability to hear voices shrinks, expect for these which lift the spirit up and strengthens souls and hearts. These voices are mainly the ones that bring news about popular support for their battle. This news becomes the source of energy, the strongest motivation for them to remain steadfast.”
Regarding Israeli Prison Service response, he stated, “Our enemy is fully aware of that. Israel spells their fascist generosity against our heroes. They set up speakers and raise the volume to its loudest, constantly playing Hebrew music and news that will depress their spirits. They also distribute special news about them, like claims about the declining number of hunger strikers and names of those who have broken their fasts. They also do their best to give hunger strikers the impression that life outside is moving on normally and no one there cares about them.”
“However, all these inhumane attempts fail once a prisoner returns from a visit with his lawyer to tell them about popular events held locally and internationally to support them and their just cause, ” he said. “So don’t ever underestimate any activity you do, as they have small, smuggled radios with which they follow the news. Even children’s protests increase their inner determination to achieve their goals, as they feel that their responsibilities have broadened to include children, the future generation, who have spiritually joined their battle.”
He ended by saying, “We have faith in your ability to win and we are with you until victory!”