“Dignity and freedom are more precious than food.” This is the belief that arms our Palestinian political prisoners and strengthens their determination against Israeli jailers.
The revolution of hunger strikes inside Israeli jails continues. Palestinian icon Khader Adnan’s hunger strike against administrative detention lasted for 66 days and ended with victory. This awakened our heroes’ pride to continue what Khader Adnan started and put an end to indefinite internment without charge or trial.
Waves of individual hunger strikers have joined the battle since then, including Hana Shalabi, Thaer Halahlah, Bilal Diab, and Mahmoud Sarsak. The victories these former administrative detainees won freed them from Israel’s hands and inspired more to carry on the fight.
Currently, four other administrative detainees are on hunger strike: Hassan Safadi, Samer Al-Barq, Ayman Sharawna, and Samer Al-Eisawy. Each has his own story of bitterness and poise.
The other evening, I went with a group of friends and relatives to the beach to escape the power cuts at our houses. I planned to enjoy the sunset and breathe fresh air while chatting about my sister’s wedding in a month. Instead, I found myself saying how ashamed I felt for getting preoccupied with studies during my exams and not blogging about the hunger strikers. That started an endless, emotional conversation about them. It was very late when we realized that we had been so absorbed by the conversation that we missed the sunset.
“Why haven’t Samer Al-Barq and Hassan Safadi reached any victories yet, even after their hunger strikes broke records?” we wondered.
Who should we blame for the critical condition they face? Should we blame Palestinian leaders, for whom the issue seems unimportant? Or those politicians who trade with Palestinians’ lives? Or divided factions who care for their own gains more than the public interest? Or the popular movement inside Palestine that is not doing enough? Or the deteriorating economic situation that chokes people in Palestine and pushes them to burn themselves like Ehab Abu Nada? Or the international community and human rights organizations who stay silent while watching these crimes against humanity in Palestine, either in Israel’s jails, in the Gaza Strip’s open-air prison, or in the occupied West Bank?
I feel confused. I can excuse my oppressed people, for their priorities have reversed. They also face slow death under Israel’s stifling apartheid regime. All they care about is surviving each day. They don’t dare to have future plans because they don’t want to be wishful in a place unsettled politically, economically, and socially.
But what about free people around the world? Our hunger strikers are freedom fighters, struggling for justice, for humanity. Why turn your backs on them?
When I returned home from the beach, I phoned Samer’s family in Jayyous, a small village near Qalqilya. My hands shook when I spoke to his father. I thought he would appreciate a call from Gaza. He did, but in my heart, I felt useless and ashamed that my call came late, as he is expecting to hear the news of his son’s death any moment. I knew, though, that my words would be useless. I tried to pull myself together and not to cry as I told him, “I pray you strength, and that you will hug your son alive and victorious soon, inshAllah,” but I wasn’t strong enough to control my shaking voice.
Every minute, if not second, can make a difference in Samer’s life now. He began a hunger strike two days before the mass strike started on Prisoners’ Day, April 17, to protest his administrative detention. An end to administrative detention was one of the mass hunger strike’s demands. In exchange for its end, an agreement was reached on May 14 between the Israeli Prison Service and the higher committee of the hunger strike, with Egyptian mediation, to meet our detainees’ demands.
Addameer reported, “The agreement included a provision that would limit the use of administrative detention to exceptional circumstances and that those held under administrative detention at the time of the agreement would not have their orders renewed.”
Accordingly, Samer ended his strike. But a week after the 28-day mass hunger strike ended, he discovered that his administrative detention order had been renewed. That pushed him to resume his hunger strike to protest this violation of the agreement. His renewed hunger strike has lasted 110 days.
“Since Samer started his hunger strike, we have been banned from seeing him,” his father told me on the phone. “To pressure him to end his hunger strike, the IPS denied his right to family visitations. We have heard nothing from him since then, only from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).”
I asked his father if I could speak to Samer’s mother. “His mother barely speaks at the moment,” he replied. “She is traumatized and depressed by what her son is enduring. She weeps over Samer all day. She stops only when she falls asleep. She was hospitalized a few times. Pray her strength!”
I stayed silent for seconds, unable to say anything. I couldn’t imagine how painful it is for a mother to witness her son’s slow death. But he resumed angrily, “It drives me mad to see my son detained until now for no reason.”
“Nothing at all was found against him?” I interrupted.
“Not at all, except him being a religious man with a beard who lived in Pakistan, earned his master’s degree in science analysis, and taught science in its universities,” he continued. “He married there to a Pakistani woman, but barely lived a year in peace with her for unknown and mysterious reasons.”
“He was kidnapped from Pakistan by Jordanian intelligence and detained in Jordan for about five years without charges. Then Jordanian intelligence delivered him to Israel in July 2011, to hold him indefinitely, again without charges. Since then, his administrative detention order has been renewed seven times. The last was on August 22, after over three months of his hunger strike. His rapidly deteriorating medical condition didn’t stop the merciless IPS from extending his detention.”
Samer’s time in detention was very tough. He spent three years of isolation in Jordanian jails. When he was arrested by Israel, he endured even more brutality, especially during his hunger strike. Trying to pressure him to end his strike, the IPS transferred him to Ramla Hospital Prison, or the “slaughterhouse,” as many ex-detainees describe it when recalling the medical neglect, humiliation and discrimination they endured there.
Akram Rikhawi, who suffers several medical problems, and who went on a 102-day hunger strike against the medical neglect he and his disabled and ill comrades endured inside Israeli jails, described the Ramla Hospital Prison as “a slaughterhouse, not a hospital, with jailers wearing doctors’ uniforms.”
The IPS pressured Samer and his comrade Hassan Safadi to end their hunger strike using various methods. They were put in a narrow isolation cell, with barely any space for their shared wheelchair, and shackled them to their hospital beds, even though they could barely move. Even worse, they were physically attacked by jailers whenever they protested against their terrible conditions in Ramla. On August 13, Hassan’s head was slammed against the iron door of his cell twice, causing him to fall to the ground, unconscious. Prison guards then dragged him through the hall, past all the other prisoners.
Samer’s father told me, “A delegation from the ICRC and Physicians for Human Rights – Israel visited us recently and said that Samer’s death is imminent, unless a miracle happens to rescue him. He has lost more than 20 kilograms so far.”
To convince Samer to end his hunger strike, Israel agreed to deport him, but not within the Palestinian territories, because he poses ‘a threat’ to Israeli security. Remember that the deportation of Palestinians, within or outside the Palestinian territories, is a war crime under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. But while Israel searched to see if any country will receive him, he is welcome nowhere! No country wants him because he is a “global threat.”
Yesterday, Samer’s father protested at the Egyptian embassy in Ramallah to ask it to receive Samer in Egypt.
At the end of the call, I asked his father to tell me what he wished to tell the world. He replied, passionately and quickly, “His hearing is on Sunday, September 9, and no one knows if the court will decide in Samer’s favor or against him. Besides, I don’t even think that Samer can wait for days. He’s motionless on his hospital bed suffering gravely,” he said.
“Every minute matters in his life now. I want them to know that my son isn’t on hunger strike in search of death. He is simply desperate for a real life with freedom, dignity, and justice. I urge them to take action, or if he dies, the responsibility for his death will be on our shoulders.”
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.