It was 5:00 pm when I decided to escape my home for a place the power-cut hadn’t reached on June 18. Badia, the restaurant closest to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is always my first option. Whenever I need to leave the sit-in tent to work on my laptop, I get there after walking less than five minutes. I was drowning in stress from my final exams. I had to double my efforts studying, as I had spent more of the last semester worrying about hunger-striking Palestinian political prisoners than my classes.
Even with stress from being unprepared for any exam, it was difficult to concentrate. My thoughts were filled with the revolution of empty stomachs inside the Israeli jails. June 18 marked the 90th day of the hunger strike Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak had launched against his unjustified three-year detention under Israel’s Unlawful Combatants Law. His hunger for freedom had pushed his life to the edge of death.
I lost track of time while alternating between news Web sites and literary ones for my class. Dad called me, reminding me to return home early. Just before I closed my laptop, I refreshed my Twitter page to see a Tweet saying, “Israel to Release Mahmoud Sarsak on July 10.” I quickly collected my things and ran toward the ICRC, so excited I even forgot to pay my bill.
Even the smell of the air seemed different when I stepped outside. Freedom filled the atmosphere. The chants I heard from the ICRC at Badia’s entrance made me run. The first person I recognized at the sit-in tent was the heroine Hana’ Shalabi, the ex-detainee who hunger-struck for 43 days to win her freedom, under the condition of expulsion to the Gaza Strip for three years. I ran to her and she hugged me happily, saying, “Congratulations on Mahmoud’s freedom!” Everyone was raising victory signs and singing for freedom. Then a man with a huge tray of sweets arrived and started distributing them.
I arrived home very late to find Dad waiting in the dark garden, looking upset. I didn’t want anyone to spoil my happiness, so I walked toward him chanting happily, “We defeated the jailers!” I was sure he hadn’t heard about Mahmoud, as our power was still cut. “Mahmoud will be free on July 10,” I said while looking at Dad, whose face turned into a smile. “People are still celebrating at the ICRC. Hana’ Shalabi was even there.” I was smart enough to find a way to negate his anger.
People in Gaza waited eagerly for July 10, a day that will be commemorated in the history of Palestine. All Palestinian television and radio channels reported this magnificent event. Thousands of people welcomed Mahmoud by the Erez crossing, the same place he was arrested around three years ago. As the ambulance arrived at the Gaza Strip side of Erez, Mahmoud appeared in its window, holding a football with one hand and waving with the other to the crowd of people excitedly waiting to see him.
Despite hating long drives, last Friday, I was crazy enough to tolerate a one-hour trip to visit Mahmoud’s house in Rafah, knowing he might not even be home. A group of foreign activists joined me in my adventure. “And what if he isn’t there?” my friend Fidaa, a Palestinian-American human rights activist, asked. “We’ll wait for him to come back!” I answered immediately.
We arrived at Star Square, near where the star Mahmoud lives. Thanks to posters and graffiti spread all over the walls of the Rafah refugee camp’s alleys, it was easy to find his house. “The groom just left for Gaza City,” his neighbors told us, but we were still excited to be at the house where “the groom” grew up and to meet his parents, who raised him to be a revolutionary.
Mahmoud’s parents were very friendly and welcoming. His house was small and simple, yet full of warmth and joy. It was crowded with neighbors, relatives, and strangers who, like us, had travelled the Gaza Strip to meet Mahmoud. Many of us had no relation to him, but following his struggle since the early days of his hunger strike made us feel connected to him. Mahmoud Sarsak, a Palestinian hero, has become a symbol of our resistance.
“Words can’t describe the happiness I felt when Mahmoud regained his freedom after his unjust detention,” his mother told me. “It felt like my son had escaped the grave! But Mahmoud wasn’t afraid of his. He chose a battle that would lead him to either freedom or martyrdom.”
We asked her how she had gotten news about him during his detention. “Of course, three years passed without a single visit, the same suffering that all Gazan detainees’ families have shared since 2006,” she replied. “So we relied on the ICRC for updates on his situation.”
“We were denied any news for an entire year,” she continued. “After that, we were thankfully able to receive letters from Mahmoud through the ICRC for a short period of time, but I can’t read. Whenever we received a letter, his brother Emad would lock himself in a room and cry for hours. After pulling himself together, he would come out and tell me not to worry, as Mahmoud was doing fine and still playing soccer.”
“During Mahmoud’s strike, I was physically and psychologically exhausted. My sons had to take me to the hospital several times. But I felt like I had returned to life once I heard that Israel had agreed to free him in exchange for an end to his hunger strike. I pray for all detainees’ mothers to experience such relief and celebrate the freedom of their sons.”
The house grew increasingly crowded with visitors. So we left to give others the opportunity to talk with Mahmoud’s wonderful mother.
But I couldn’t give up on meeting Mahmoud himself so easily. We had already travelled from the northernpost point to the southern tip of the Gaza Strip looking for him! So I called his brother Emad, whom I had met frequently in the sit-in tent. When he picked up the phone, I told him I had just visited his family with a group of friends, and that we were very happy to meet his parents. He appreciated our visit, and suggested we meet them in a Gaza restaurant. Excited, we accepted his offer.
We arrived at the restaurant by sunset. My heartbeats grew faster as the time for our meeting drew closer. I could see Emad waiting for us by the entrance. He welcomed our group inside and introduced us to Mahmoud, who nicely asked us to join his table. I felt very nervous sitting directly across from him, but proud that I could look him in the eye while speaking to him. He wore two gold medals and a scarf combining the Palestinian flag and keffiyeh.
“Thanks to Allah for your release,” I said. “How does it feel to be free again?”
“My happiness is incomplete, as the revolution of empty stomachs is still going,” he answered. “My thoughts are with my comrades Akram Rikhawi, Samer Al-Barq, and Hassan Al-Safadi, who are suffering critical conditions in the Ramla Hospital Prison. I was released from there, and know perfectly the medical neglect detainees suffer there. The Israeli Prison Service doesn’t transfer us there for treatment, but for torture.”
His humbleness added a lot to his charm. He kept repeating that he wouldn’t have achieved his victory without the popular and international solidarity he received. “It’s not my victory, it’s yours. I gained my strength and poise from you.” It was obvious that he had lost a lot of weight, but he was still healthy. Joe Catron, an American activist who has met many freed prisoners, said later that he had never seen a recent hunger striker in such good shape.
Mahmoud’s smile didn’t leave his lips the whole time. He paid us all his attention. When I asked him if Gaza seemed different after three years, he laughed and said, “It looks so different to me. Gaza is a very beautiful city despite its small size. I love its beach, its pure air, and its kind people. I missed everything about Gaza. I just missed being home.”
Fidaa asked Mahmoud if he expected to be arrested three years ago when he went to the Erez crossing. “Not at all!” he said. “I was thrilled to achieve a dream to play football in a national team contest in the West Bank, in the Balata refugee camp. When they ordered me to a security meeting, I wasn’t afraid. I expected they would ask me to collaborate with them. I was confident and prepared myself to reject them. I was shocked when they aggressively shackled me.”
I interrupted, asking, “Why do you think they arrested you if you have never participated in resistance?”
“Resistance isn’t only about armed struggle,” he said. “Resistance can be through pen, brush, voice, and sport. We are all freedom fighters, but each of us has his or her own weapon.” His eloquent, passionate answer impressed us even more than we already were.
“Sport is a form of non-violent resistance,” he continued. “Being a representative of Palestine’s national football team makes me a threat to Israel. I’ve always been passionate about building Palestine’s presence in the sports world. I represented Palestine in several football matches locally and internationally, and had the honor of waving its flag wherever I played.”
The more he spoke, the more I admired him, especially when finally I asked him what had changed in his character after his imprisonment. “My faith in our just cause has become deeper and stronger,” he replied. “My determination to unveil the Zionists’ inhumane and fascist practices, and their violations of our basic human rights, has become my reason to live.”
The time grew late, and we had to end our amazing conversation. Mahmoud Sarsak is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. I will remember every word he said as long as I live. According to him, we all contributed to his victory. Let’s unite to achieve more victories for Akram Rikhawi, Hassan Al-Safadi, and Sammer Al-Barq. Make them reasons for your life, and fight injustice any way you can.
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!”
Several thousands of Palestinians joined the marches on Prisoners’ Day in Gaza. (Joe Catron)
Last Monday, I couldn’t wait for my class to end at 10:00am. My dad doesn’t know how to send a text message, but somehow, while inside the lecture, I received one from him, urging me to come to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As soon as students were allowed to leave, I was the first one out the door. I walked as quickly as I could from school to the ICRC. I stopped a taxi, even though it was a ten-minute walk. I wanted to be there in time so I would not miss any of the weekly protest for Palestinian political prisoners. I expected that it would be a unique protest, especially since the following day was Prisoners’ Day. I was right.
It wasn’t the usual protest that I always see. The street was closed. No cars could pass. The hall inside the ICRC, as well as the sit-in tent in front of it, were filled with people. Artistic touches of anger, steadfastness, and hope were added.
As I arrived, I found Dad chatting cheerfully with a man I had never seen in the ICRC before. His story was worth hearing. His name is Zuhdy al-Adawi. My father and Zuhdy were both released in the 1985 swap deal after spending 15 years in Israeli jails. Dad was released to Gaza but Zuhdy, unfortunately, was deported to Syria. Since then, Dad had never met his friend. However, Zuhdy managed to return for the first time to his birth place about two weeks ago. “After 27 years of separation, we’re meeting here again,” Dad said happily with his arm on Zuhdy’s shoulder.
I could see people crowded around stands on paintings across the street. Dad grabbed my drawing book, which I had carried there to show my friends a new picture, and opened it while saying, “Shahd is an artist, too.” Zuhdy smiled at me and pointed at the exhibition saying humbly, “Awesome! Then you should look at those paintings and tell me what you think.”
“Are you the artist?” I asked excitedly. Zuhdy pulled me close to the stands and answered proudly, “All these paintings are my work from my detention in Ashqelon Prison. It was important for me to exhibit them in Gaza so your generation and the coming generations keep learning about the Palestinian prisoners’ issue through art.” My eyes were captured by his talent and creativity. Every painting told a story full of suffering and challenge. They summed up the Palestinian struggle and the pains and the injustices that Palestinian people suffer, especially the humiliating conditions our political prisoners endure.
“Expressing myself with colors was banned inside prison,” Zuhdy said angrily. “I used to cut pillowcases and use them as my canvas. I managed to smuggle some pastel and wax colors. I used to paint under fear. How could I paint while jailers surrounded me? But with my persistence and my friends’ collaboration, I managed to make these and smuggle them out of jail.”
Zuhdy’s expressive, creative paintings left me speechless. He made me feel happy, happy that the heartless jailers failed to imprison his mind or imagination. He lived in prison, but his heart and mind were free. To see more of his drawings, see Joe Catron’s album here or watch this video.
“Be sure that our prisoners resist in many different ways,” Zuhdy said. “Many writers, intellectuals, and painters arose in prison, from the unspeakable love for Palestine, and from the daily suffering, oppression, and injustice. We have full confidence that can defeat the jailers’ inhumanity. We have a just cause for which we sacrifice and in which we believe, and we are ready to use any possible means to call for our freedom and justice.” With these strong words, he ended his inspiring conversation with me. It will be stamped in my mind for as long as I live to keep on my path, using pencils, words, and every other way to make my people’s voice heard. People like Zuhdy make my pride at being Palestinian grow every day.
That night, we returned to the ICRC to join hundreds of people who gathered to celebrate “the flame of freedom”. Who could be more worth than Hana al-Shalabi to light this flame? She was there with her beautiful, elderly mother, who had joined her daughter on hunger strike despite her age. My heart leaped when I saw them. Excitedly, we surrounded the flame and watched the champion of empty stomachs, Hana al-Shalabi, light it to mark Prisoners’ Day with a symbol of loyalty to those who are still locked behind Israeli bars and a promise that they will be never forgotten, and that we will always call for their freedom. I hope one day, we will light up this flame when Palestine is free and Israeli prisons have been emptied.
On April 17th, many popular events were held throughout Palestine. Prisoners’ Day was different this year. It had a sweet taste as the day Israel released Khader Adnan, another hero of empty stomachs who hunger struck for a record 66 days to protest being held in administrative detention without charge. His freedom put bright smiles of hope on the angry faces of prisoners’ families.
In Gaza, Palestine’s flags colored its blue sky. I left home early, eager to join the events. Marches came from every street of Gaza. All ages and genders, and many disabled people, joined the protest. It was a remarkable scene of unity and compassion between Palestinians in Gaza. Even schoolchildren participated, with their tender voices chanting, “Rise our moon, rise and light the whole universe. We weren’t born to live in humiliation, but to live in freedom.” Marches came from all directions to unite in front of the ICRC. I felt a revolution inside me when I saw thousands of people uniting their voice: “Free, free Palestine.”
Among the protesters, ten-year-old Haitham Al-Zariey, holding a picture and chanting loudly, attracted my attention. “Who is the person in the picture?” I asked him. “This is my uncle Hussien,” he said with a smile of pride. “He has been detained for eleven years. I was born when he was in jail. A few years ago, I learned that I have an uncle held captive by Israel. I have never met him.” When I asked him what he wished he could tell his uncle, he answered, “I wish I could tell him that I am here chanting for his freedom, and the freedom of all other Palestinians in Israel’s prisons. I hope I can witness his freedom soon. I wish Israel at least allow us to visit him.”
I was thrilled by the little boy’s awareness of the prisoners’ issue. Haitham is a small example of the rising revolutionary generation who will go on demanding justice and freedom for all Palestinians. On Prisoners’ Day, we renew our promise to never forget those who sacrificed precious years for the sake of our freedom and dignity. Someday all chains must break. Freedom for all Palestinian political prisoners.
Unlike Monday, Tuesday was a happy day. On Monday, I woke up with eyes full of tears after I fell asleep to a tragic story, a story that was not heard widely, but happened in Gaza. Three kids lit up a candle to escape the darkness that filled their house in Al-Bureej Refugee Camp in the central Gaza Strip and slept. As the candle burned out, the candle of their lives was extinguished, too.