Our Palestinian detainees have been battling the Israel Prison Service (IPS) with their empty stomachs since 24 April, embarking on the longest-known mass hunger strike in the history of the Palestinian prisoners movement. Hunger is the only remaining weapon they can use against the IPS and its well-armed Israeli occupation soldiers.
They launched this hunger strike to call for an end to their detention with no charge or trial based on secret “evidence” submitted to a military court that is kept from the detainees and their lawyers — an unjust policy that Israel calls administrative detention. One hundred and twenty administrative detainees launched this mass hunger strike which grew to involve nearly three hundred prisoners, according to the rights group Addameer.
Our dignified prisoners are striking in protest of Israel’s violation of an agreement reached with the IPS after the 28-day mass hunger strike that ended on 14 May 2012. According to that deal, the use of administrative detention — the key issue behind the hunger strike – would be restricted and administrative detention orders would not be renewed without fresh evidence being brought before a military judge. However, Israel did not abide by the agreement and has continued its practice of arbitrary administrative detention.
Administrative detainee Ayman Tbeisheh from Dura village near Hebron in the occupied West Bank has exceeded one hundred days of refusing food in protest of his administration detention orders which have been continuously renewed since his last arrest in May 2013, according to al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper. Tbeisheh has spent a total of eleven years in Israeli jails, including nearly five years under administrative detention.
According to Addameer, Tbeisheh first began to refuse food on 22 May 2013, immediately after his four-month administrative detention order was confirmed in a military court. He suspended his strike after 105 days, when he thought he reached a deal with the IPS. But this was soon broken as his order was again renewed, despite his deteriorated health.
Ayman Tbeisheh told Palestinian lawyer Ibrahim Al-Araj, who managed to visit him during his previous hunger strike, “I will continue this open hunger strike until I put an end to the ghost of administrative detention that keeps chasing me.”
Soon after he regained some of his physical strength, he re-launched his hunger strike on 24 February 2014. Tbeisheh has since been placed in Assaf Harofe Medical Center where he lays shacked to a hospital bed that may become his deathbed at any moment.
Ayman’s condition is no different than the rest of administrative detainees whose hunger for freedom and dignity drove them to launch the mass hunger strike that has been continuing for 51 days. Eighty hunger strikers have been hospitalized as a result of their ongoing hunger strike, but they persevere in this battle for dignity.
Despite their weak bodies that are drained of energy, their hands and feet are shacked to their hospital beds. They are threatened with force-feeding on a daily basis, an inhumane and dangerous practice that Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is close to setting into law.
My father, who spent a total of fifteen years in Israeli jails, calls force-feeding “a death penalty.” He participated in the Nafha prison mass hunger strike in 1980 which lasted for 33 days. He was subjected to force-feeding and thankfully survived. But his comrades Rasem Halawa from Jabalia refugee camp and Ali al-Jaafary from Dheisheh camp were victims of this murderous practice that aimed to break their hunger strike, and were killed after being subjected to force-feeding.
The Israel Prison Service escalates its oppression of the hunger strikers as their health constantly deteriorates. They put them in windowless isolation cells, keep their hands and legs shackled for tens of hours, deny them family and lawyer visits, and they even deny them an access to salt, which is necessary for their survival.
The strikers are committed to “hunger until either victory or martyrdom,” the same asKhader Adnan, Hana al-Shalabi, Mahmoud Sarsak, Samer Issawi and other ex-detainees who freed themselves after heroic battles of hunger strike against the IPS.
Below is my translation of a letter our administrative detainees managed to smuggle on 8 June to call upon humanity and people of conscience for popular and international support of their battle for justice. The ex-detainee Allam Kaaby read it during a press conference in front of the sit-in tent erected in front of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza in solidarity with our Palestinian prisoners’ open-ended mass hunger strike:
Despite the chains and the prisons’ bars and walls, this is a will from those who are standing at the edge of death to the guards of our homeland, Palestine.
After leaving the isolation cells which are no longer able to tolerate our pains, illnesses and corroded bodies, from our hospital beds to which we are shackled by chains and guard dogs, from amidst the jailers who keep watching our heart monitors that may announce our death any moment, from the edge of death, we send our call which could be the last for some of us. It might be the time to announce our will before we embrace our people as dignified martyrs. Our call is our voice, our scream, our will. We are the administrative detainees who are heading towards immortality, towards embracing the sun of dignity which might mark at the same time, the end of the battle for dignity. We raise our voice, hoping that it will reach our revolutionary people.
First, we call upon you to intensify your support of the hunger strikers who are not yet martyred; the fighters who fight our fascist enemy with their bodies deserve from you a stand of loyalty that prevents the continuation of our bloodshed which will never stop until the achievement of our just demands.
Second, the pains of hunger damaged some of our organs but some organs must be still in tact. As death is waiting for us, we declare that nothing will stand in the way of our sacrifices, even death. Therefore, we donate our functioning organs to the fighters, poor and oppressed people who are in need. We are waiting a visit from the International Committee of The Red Cross to endorse these donations.
Third, we call on you to stay faithful to our blood and the blood of all martyrs who sacrificed their souls over the course of our Palestinian struggle. Faithfulness is not just through words, but through revolutionary practice that knows no hesitance nor weakness.
Fourth, hold on to our historical and legitimate rights and never give up an inch of Palestine, from the river to the sea. The right to return is the bridge to our historic rights. These rights cannot be restored without resistance, which is the only language that our enemy understands.
Fifth, don’t fail prisoners who remain alive after us, as those who sacrifice their freedom as a price for their people’s freedom deserve freedom rather than death.
To our dignified people in Palestine and diaspora, to the free people and freedom fighters worldwide, we will let our screams be heard despite the darkness of Israeli jails, which are graves for the living. To people of dead conscience worldwide, our Palestinian people will continue the struggle until victory. We bid farewell with smiling faces.
Reading their words which embrace pain and disappointment must make us all ashamed as we watch them die slowly. Changing our profile pictures to a picture that shows solidarity with their battle for dignity cannot do them much help. We have to move beyond superficial solidarity to serious actions that will bring meaningful change to them. Act before we count more martyrs among Palestinian heroes behind Israeli bars. Their death would be our shame.
“It doesn’t matter if he goes to Gaza,” said Zahra Sharawna, Ayman Sharawna’s mother. “To be freed is the most important thing.” I understand how these words could come from a mother who fears for her son’s life. She, driven by her motherly emotions, simply wants him to live, even if many Israeli apartheid checkpoints separate her from him. But I must question was that actually the victory that Ayman Sharawna’s hunger strike aimed to accomplish, to get out of prison alive regardless of release conditions? I don’t think so.
A Palestinian’s fight has never been about oneself. It has always been a collective resistance of different forms, for the sake of collective justice for all Palestinian people. Some national principles identify our struggle for freedom. Every Palestinian revolutionary should be armed with them. One is embracing our right to return as the most sacred and ultimate goal.
“One whose hands are in water isn’t like one whose hands are in fire.” This traditional saying always comes to mind when I encounter a complicated situation many people would find it easy to judge superficially. I am not in a position to imagine the kind of inhumane pressure to which Ayman Shrawna was subjected. However, being a daughter of a former prisoner who served 15 years, and having intensively read and heard many ex-detainees’ prison experiences, makes me better able to guess.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights condemned Israel’s expulsion of Sharawna to Gaza calling it a “forcible deportation” which is a violation of international law. As such Israel alone is responsible, and we must consider that Sharawna is not acting of his own will.
But still, I was shocked to hear that the man who remained steadfast for nearly eight months of hunger strike, who tolerated all the pain and pressure attached to it, succumbed to such blackmail, to be expelled to Gaza for at least ten years in exchange for his release. This wasn’t the victory of which I personally expected to hear. I reacted to the news with a shocked face and stony eyes, unable to shed a single tear.
Emotionally, I could celebrate and agree with Ayman that “both are my people, whether in Gaza or Hebron.” But I can’t help listening to my inner worries. I believe that our emotional reactions and stances will only serve the Israeli occupation’s long-term goals: turning the Gaza Strip into a ghetto isolated from Palestine, and expelling as many people as possible from the occupied territories in the West Bank and ‘48 Palestine. My fears that this will open the gate for Israel to intensify its systematic policy of ethnic cleansing against more Palestinian political prisoners left me unable to taste the victory in Ayman Sharawna’s release.
These worries flooded my mind, but Samer Issawi’s statement on deportation lessened my stress and cultivated hope instead. His opinion was just what I expected, wonderful and strong from a stubborn man of dignity and poise, who continues his hunger strike of nearly seven months and doesn’t give up his principles for the sake of his own physical relief. He is aware of the long-term aims behind the inhumane practices of the Israeli occupation. He believes that his detention, a violation itself, cannot be fixed with a further violation.
According to him, this hunger strike isn’t a personal battle; rather, it’s a collective one. He refuses to be released with the condition of deportation, even within our historic Palestine.
Fawwaz Shloudi, a Palestinian lawyer, managed to visit Samer Issawi after many attempts and asked him whether he will ever agree to be deported to Gaza in exchange for his freedom. Samer answered:
Regarding the Israeli occupation’s offer to deport me to Gaza, I affirm that Gaza is undeniably part of my homeland and its people are my people. However, I will visit Gaza whenever I want or feel like it, as it is within my homeland, Palestine, which I have the right to wander whenever I like, from the very north to the very south. I strongly refuse to be deported to Gaza as this practice will just bring back bitter flashbacks from the expulsion process to which our Palestinian people were subjected during 1948 and 1967.
We are fighting for the sake of the freedom of our land and the return of our refugees in Palestine and the diaspora, not to add more deportees to them. This systematic practice by Israel that aims to empty Palestine of Palestinians and bring strangers in their place is a crime. Therefore, I refuse being deported and I will only agree to be released to Jerusalem, as I know that the Israeli occupation aims to empty Jerusalem of its people and turn Arabs into a minority group of its population. The issue of deportation is no longer a personal decision, it is rather a national principle. If every detainee agrees to be deported outside Jerusalem under pressure, Jerusalem will eventually be emptied of its people.
I would prefer dying on my hospital bed to being deported from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is my soul and my life. If I was uprooted from there, my soul would be uprooted from my body. My life is meaningless away from Jerusalem. No land on earth will be able to embrace me other than Jerusalem. Therefore, my return will be only to Jerusalem and nowhere else. I advice all Palestinians to embrace their land and villages and never succumb to the Israeli occupation’s wishes. I don’t see this issue as a personal cause that is related to Samer Issawi. It is a national issue, a conviction and a principle that every Palestinian who loves his homeland’s sacred soil should hold. Finally, I reaffirm for the thousandth time that I continue my hunger strike until either freedom and return to Jerusalem or martyrdom! (original translation by author)
International law prohibits the expulsion and transfer of people in occupied territories, be it deportation to another country or forced relocation within the occupied territory. Security Council Resolution 607 “calls upon Israel to refrain from deporting any Palestinian civilians from the occupied territories” and “strongly requests Israel, the occupying Power, to abide by its obligation arising from the Convention.” But these words, as history proves to us, are merely words. We have experienced enough empty words and conventions and “international human rights laws” that do NOT apply to us, as if our humanity is in question.
If the United Nations and the all the world’s governments keep of taking this submissive stance on Israel’s crimes and watch, reacting only with silence, we should NOT normalize their violations even if it costs us our lives. People like Samer Issawi teach us how to stand firm and not compromise our rights. Thank you, Samer, for teaching us how meaningless life is without freedom and dignity.
Samer Al-Barq was promised release after his historical hunger striker three months ago but is still in custody
I wrote this entry when Samer Al-Barq was on his 110th day of hunger strike, in protest of the continuous renewal of his administrative detention order.
On his 117th day of hunger striker, the Israeli Prison Service IPS accepted to release him on condition he would be deported to Egypt which approved to welcome him on its lands. Samer Al-Barq agreed to the conditions of release because of the dire condition he reached hunger striking; especially as this strike started a week after he had ended a previous 30-day hunger strike on May 14.
However, three and a half months have since passed and he is still detained. The Israeli Prison Service is continuously procrastinating the process of deportation. Samer’s deteriorating health conditions have been critical for some time yet no concrete action has been taken by the Israeli Government to ensure his release and safety. Instead, on November 22, the IPS clearly deceived Samer and renewed his administrative detention order toan additional 3 months,although they promised him to be released after the historical hunger strike. This is a utterly absurd. No charge has been held against him. He is detained indefinitely based on secret information that neither Samer nor his lawyer can have an access to. He is not permitted to stand a trial and that leaves him with no legitimate tools to defend himself. This is simply inhumane.
According to Samer Al-Barq’s father, the latest attack on Gaza has frozen the process of Samer’s deportation to Egypt. His documents and legal papers are still with the Egyptian side but Israel tries its best to make this process take the longest time possible. Samer has been in a terrible condition and is still subjected to medical neglect. He went on a week hunger strike in October in protest of deferment of his release, though his health condition puts him at acute risk if subjected to further strikes.
Samer Al-Barq’s father is calling on every human of conscience and human rights organizations, to support Samer with every means possible to put an end for his continuous suffering. He also urges the Palestinian Authority to intervene and put pressure on the IPS to release his son soon.
“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.”
The Palestinian football player Mahmoud Sarsak walks freely in Gaza’s streets and alleys, breathing victory among the steadfast people of the Gaza Strip. He acquired his strength to hunger for 96 days from Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Gandhi’s promise came true, and Mahmoud actually won the battle of empty stomachs. Read my account of visiting Mahmoud Sarsak after his release.
Mahmoud was released from the Ramla Hospital Prison on July 10 after he revealed Israel’s crimes against humanity and made it submit to his demands. But his happiness remained incomplete. His thoughts are still in a place he described as “a hospital for torture, not for treatment,” with his comrades he left there, especially Akram Rikhawi, Palestine’s longest hunger striker in history.
About 6:00 pm on Thursday, the 99th day of Akram Rikhawi’s hunger strike, I saw a tweet: “Help us in spreading the truth about Prisoner Akram Rikhawi who might die at any moment #PalHunger”. As I read it, I felt anger at the world’s silence. I called Mahmoud Sarsak to ask for Akram Rikkawi’s home address. He kindly answered, saying, “Come to Rafah and I’ll take you there.”
Excited, I called some friends to join me, quickly got ready, and hurried to Rafah. The one-hour drive to Rafah felt like it took ages. We arrived there around 8:30 to find Mahmoud waiting. “Is it too late already to visit Akram’s family?” I asked him. He shook his head and said, “Their part of Rafah camp is filled with Yibna refugees. They stay up very late, especially Akram’s family. I don’t think they ever sleep!”
Before Mahmoud’s release, the Israeli Prison Service sent him to Akram to pressure him to break his hunger strike. Mahmoud took it as an opportunity to meet Akram for one last time, and to carry messages he wanted to deliver to his family. Akram was very happy for Mahmoud, and had faith that his victory would follow Mahmoud’s sooner or later.
The camp was very dark. I could barely follow Mahmoud’s steps. As we walked through one of the alleys, I recognized our destination from the huge banner of Akram hanging on his house. I could feel his family’s indescribable strength and faith from the way they welcomed us in with hopeful eyes and big smiles. There wasn’t any light in the house, but the smiling faces of Akram’s children filled it with light. Shortly after we arrived, we received word that Friday would be the first day of Ramadan. For Akram’s family, the news held some bitterness, as according to his wife Najah, it is “the eighth Ramadan without Akram.”
We all sat on the rug close to a lantern, the only light in a sitting room filled with photos of Akram. As his wife Najah started speaking, I learned that Akram is the son of a martyr, the brother of another martyr, and has a brother detained in Nafha Prison: a typical Palestinian family’s sacrifices for the sake of freedom and dignity. His father died in the First Intifada, while his brother was killed in the 1990s during a ground invasion by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in Rafah. His detained brother, Shady, became disabled after he refused food for 22 days during the mass hunger strike in Israeli prisons which began this year on Prisoners’ Day, April 17.
Akram Rikhawi has chosen to shoulder the responsibility for hundreds of disabled and ill political prisoners who grieve daily behind Israel’s bars and suffer its medical neglect. He also decided to rebel against the racist treatment that he received at the hands of some Ramle doctors. That was the main reason for his hunger strike. “After more than 100 days on hunger strike, Akram is in a wheelchair and cannot move either his left hand or leg,” Najah said. “Hunger has perhaps overtaken his body, but can’t easily defeat his will.”
“Before he started refusing food,” she continued, “he wrote a few articles on the suffering of sick prisoners and the medical neglect they endure, describing Israeli Prison Service violations against Palestinian detainees. He hoped they would pay his critical health conditions more attention and care. Instead, they punished him for speaking out by placing him in solitary confinement.”
Akram’s family described the Ramla Hospital Prison as “a slaughterhouse, not a hospital, with jailers wearing doctors’ uniforms,” using Akram’s situation as their best evidence. “He was detained at Ramla from the first day of his detention,” Najah said. “Before his arrest, he suffered only slightly from asthma. His health started to deteriorate when he was given the wrong medication.” She explained how this caused him severe health complications. “He had only one health problem, but medical neglect in Ramle Hospital Prison caused him six, including high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic problems, and osteoporosis, sight problems, and queasiness.”
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-IL) previously reported that its doctors had found an “alarming deterioration of Akram’s asthma, which continues to be unstable,” adding that they believed he “has been given very high doses of steroids as treatment, which can cause severe long-term and irreversible damage.”
Najah managed to visit him twice. But since the ban on the family visits for the families of Gazan detainees in 2006, which followed the capture of Gilaad Shalit, they no longer can. “We can neither visit him, nor receive letters or phone calls from him. Our two main sources of information we rely on have been the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and released prisoners, who coincidentally met him after being sent to Ramla because of health problems they suffered.”
My admiration reached its utmost when I learned that Najah was actually the wife of Akram’s martyred brother. “I was a young widow of five children when my first husband Mo’taz was killed with cold blood by the IOF,” she said. “Akram was still single, and decided to take responsibility for his brother’s orphaned children and widow. So he married me. Allah blessed us with eight more children.”
Then a young woman interrupted our conversation. “I’m Yasmeen, my mother’s eldest daughter,” she said. “My father died when I was four years old. I can barely remember him. But I recall very clearly how tenderly my father Akram raised me. I never felt like an orphan around him. He always treated his children and his brother’s alike and loved us all the same.”
“He was always like a best friend to me,” Yasmine continued. “I was having my high school exams when he was arrested. During my final exams, he used to stay up with me to study. He never allowed me to prepare anything. He would bring food to my room. He used to wake me up for the Fajer prayer. Allah has made everything up to me when he guided Dad Akram to marry my mother.”
“I was the dearest to his heart, and he sometimes teased me, saying that I was the reason for his detention,” she said. “On June 7, he walked me to school in the morning before my exam. He spent the entire trip reminding me that I should have faith in Allah and not worry. Then he headed to Gaza City. On his way home in the afternoon, the IOF stopped the vehicle at the Abu Ghouli checkpoint between Gaza City and Rafah and demanded to see all the passenger’s IDs. After handing over his ID, Dad Akram was immediately arrested. In his first letters from prison, he wrote that his friends had warned him that the situation was worrying, and that he should remain in Gaza. He refused, saying he needed to check how I did in my exam.” Yasmeen said this with a slight smile on her face. After Akram’s detention, she could barely continue her examinations, and finished them with an overall score of 55.
Then a 17-year-old girl walked in, looking very upset. “This is Akram’s eldest daughter,” Yasmine said as the girl sat silently in the corner. “She’s repeating the same experience I had since Dad’s detention. This morning, the high school results were announced. She is sad that she got 75%, while she has been always one of the brightest students. It was difficult for her to concentrate on her studies while expecting that she might wake up any morning to mourn her father’s death.”
The family’s situation was heartbreaking. I listened carefully to their sad stories and struggled to hold my tears. I felt most moved when his wife pointed at her twin youngest sons and said, “A little while ago, they came to me asking what their father looked like. Was he tall or short, fat or slim? Their age equals the years Akram served in detention. They only know him from photos.”
I could feel the family’s anger and disappointment with popular and international solidarity. “What are the human rights organizations, Hamas, the PA waiting for before they move?” his daughter Yasmine asked severely. “Are they waiting for him to return to us in a coffin? Would they be happy for eight children to become fatherless, and five others to be orphaned for a second time? If Dad dies, we will never forgive anyone who could have done something, but chose to look away.”
Don’t choose to look away. Akram Rikhawi is in desperate need of your urgent actions to save his life. It is late, but it is not over. You can still do something, anything, to contribute to his survival.
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.
Its 10 pm, time for the power-cut in our region of Gaza city. Guess what? This time I didn’t sigh. I laughed thinking of one of my friends who mastered guessing if I have power at home or not, just from hearing my voice’s tune when he calls on the phone. He always teases me by saying, “Is your body connected to an electrical wire? You turn off whenever power cuts off!” Usually, I would just escape from the darkness to sleep. This night, I’ve decided not to allow my frustration to take over and immediately make use of the charge left in my laptop.
I put my headphones in my ears to listen to Sameeh Shuqair’s song “Think of Others,”trying to cover the horrible noise of generators that already took over the region. Think of Others is originally a poem written by my favorite Palestinian poet and my teacher of life and humanity, Mahmoud Darwish. “You’re such a dreamer.” Many of my friends describe me this way but I am not sure whether it is a good or bad thing. What I know is that Mahmoud Darwish is one of the people who had a deep impact on my life as his words always took me to my fantasy world that I always dreamed to live in, a pure world that is full of love, peace and people of conscience .
While listening to the beautiful lyrics of Think Of Others, my thoughts were for our political prisoners in the Israeli jails. I translated its lyrics not only for you to share with me the joy of the song, but also to demand you to listen to our detainee’s appeals to think of them.
As you fix your breakfast, think of others. Don’t forget to feed the pigeons.
As you fight in your wars, think of others. Don’t forget those who desperately demand peace.
As you pay your water bill, think of others who drink the clouds’ rain.
As you return home, your home, think of others. Don’t forget those who live in tents.
As you sleep and count planets, think of others. There are people without any shelter to sleep.
As you express yourself using all metaphorical expressions, think of others who lost their rights to speak.
As you think of others who are distant, think of yourself and say “I wish I was a candle to fade away the darkness.
The mass hunger strike that was launched by more than two thousand of our political prisoners ended on May 14. Ending the policies of detention without charge or trial, and solitary confinement was on the top list of the strikers’ demands. I was lucky enough to witness that emotional scene of people’s reaction to that victorious news of its end in the sit-in tent in Gaza city. I can recall clearly their happiness that was mixed with tears of pride and joy.
Sweets started being distributed all over, even taxi drivers dropped by to get their share. The songs of victory didn’t stop playing in the background while people were waving Palestine’s flags, chanting, and dancing, celebrating our detainees’ success in forcing the IPS to endorse an agreement that was supposed to be enforced. It was one of the best moments I lived in my life.
Despite that, I learned a very important lesson for life: I shouldn’t get too excited over anything before I see it happening in front my eyes, especially when it comes to promises or agreement that Israel endorses as Israel is the last to stick to any.
Hearing that the isolated detainees will be moved from solitary confinement cells to normal jails fills me with joy. My happiness reached its peak as I heard that Hassan Salameh, who spent 13 years of his detention in a solitary confinement where he ended up having intimate relation with cracks on the walls or the insects, has been moved to Nafha Prison and has eagerly registered at Al-Aqsa University in the Gaza Strip to study history.
But later I got frustrated when I heard of the story of the Gazan engineer Dirar Abu Sisi, the only one left in isolation. After seeking details of Dirar’s case, I became sickened with Israel. Dirar was kidnapped from a train on 18 February 2011 in Ukraine, his wife’s country where he was seeking citizenship. Dirar was handcuffed, blindfolded and placed in a coffin after his kidnapping and once he opened his eyes, he found himself jailed in Israel.
He has been never engaged in resistance or in any political party. Israel has nothing against him but fear of his geniality. Israel has accused him of “conspiring” with Hamas, however even his professors in Ukraine — were he studied — have refutedIsrael’s claims that he studies weapons systems with them.
However, I feel that Israel is trying its best to fabricate any accusation against him. They are very concerned with devastating his mentality. His family has said that Israel fears him because he managed to modify the turbines in Gaza’s sole power plant, so they can run on a cheaper form of diesel that comes from Egypt, rather than on fuel imported from Israel.
He was just “the brain of the power system” who managed to light up Gaza when he repaired the sole power plant in Gaza, which produces 25% of its total electricity needs, after getting destroyed by the Israeli occupation forces during the so called Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. Due to that, cowardly Israel fears Dirar Abu Sisi despite his detention and continues to practice its inhumane policies of solitary confinement against him, which exemplifies an open violation of the latest agreement reached with Egypt regarding our prisoners.
Amnesty International says that Israel has renewed at least 30 administrative detention orders and has issued at least three new ones since the deal was signed. Due to these continuing violations, the battle of empty stomachs continues, led by Mahmoud Sarsak, a 25-year-old Palestinian national footballer who’s playing now the hardest match of his life, the match of defending his life’s dignity.
Sarsak has been on hunger strike for 84 days. He was captured at Erez checkpoint when Israel stepped in his way toward achieving a dream he was always longing for: participating in a national team contest in the West Bank, in Balata Camp. This was on 22 July 2009. Since that date, he has been held without trial and without charges and was banned from family visis just like all other detainees whose families are in Gaza.
Even after the release of the Israeli prisoner who was held in Gaza, last October, and the deal that Israel signed after the last mass hunger strike, nothing new has happened regarding coordinating family visitation for the families of detainees from Gaza. Mahmoud Sarsak is in grave condition according to an independent doctor from Phyisicians for Human Rights – Israel who examined him. However, the sporting world and the international community in general are barely paying attention.
I appeal to you to deeply, ponder the words of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem and think of others! Whatever insignificant support you can contribute at easing the life of Dirar Abu Sisi and rescuing the life of Mahmoud Sarsak will help. And remember, their victory won’t be only theirs, but a triumph for humanity!
The sit-in tent for Palestinian political prisoners has been moved from the International Committee for the Red Cross to a central park near the statue of the Unknown Soldier in the middle of Gaza City. It is one of the few green places and thus one of the most lively places in Gaza, where people escape from their dark houses and seek fun and relief, or to simply waste their times observing others. However, the sit-in tent is now used differently, to send messages of solidarity with our Political prisoners who have been on a mass hunger strike since April 17, and to show anger with the Arab and international community and all human rights organizations, which keep calling for human rights, democracy and justice, but when it comes to our prisoners, they do nothing but watch them dying and remaining helpless.
The solidarity is taking many forms, such as lighting candles, making marches, creatively performing plays, songs, poetry and Dabka, joining a symbolic hunger strike. In Gaza’s sit-in tent, 50 men and 45 women have joined a symbolic hunger strike in solidarity with the detainees since May 2, including prisoner’s wives, parents, sisters and former prisoners. Those people have been protesting day and night. The tent is their shelter as long as the revolution of hunger is going inside Israeli prisons. Having been in the solidarity tent daily, even more than in my house, I’ve witnessed most of the cases among hunger strikers whose health conditions got deteriorating. Several cases were sent to hospital for low or high blood pressure and so many people fainted or emotionally collapsed. Ambulances and doctors never leave the tents anymore as if they have full time job at the tent.
While observing the hunger strikers getting paler as more days pass, I can’t help but think of our heroes, our prisoners behind Israel’s bars and compare. The strikers here have access to water and salt and they also have a small dish of yogurt and soup per day. But our prisoners have nothing but water and salt, ‘in case it’s not confiscated by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS).’ Strikers here can rest or sleep whenever they feel like it, but our prisoners keep being transferred between sections and prisons by the IPS attempting to exhaust them. Loai Odeh, a former prisoner who is also now on a hunger strike in solidarity, emphasizes that the IPS mercilessly prevents the strikers from resting, with these words he wrote recalling his experience of hunger strike during the campaign of disobedience. “Soldiers burst into strikers’ rooms aggressively as if they were confronting armed fighters on a battleground, not hunger strikers with feeble bodies that can barely stand. Knowing that strikers are intolerant of noise, soldiers break into their rooms with loud screams and initiate a hand search in a way that one feels that he’s being beaten rather than searched.”
While making the daily tour to show support and admiration to the hunger strikers in the tent, I was surprised to see Abu Hosny Al-Srafity wearing the strikers’ t-shirt that distinguishes them from others, and which beautifully designed with the Palestinian flag with “we’ll live dignified” written on it. Abu Hosny is a 66-year old detainee’s father whom I met since I started going to the weekly protest in the ICRC for political prisoners. Whenever we meet, we greet each other and have a short and informal conversation, but never had a real one that would make me feel like knowing him intimately. Finally, I had this conversation with him after I said “You, too?” out of surprise reacting to seeing that t-shirt.
“Absolutely!” He powerfully confirmed. “We took this step because we consider ourselves as partners in this battle of dignity but our hunger strike remains symbolic at the end of the day. It equals nothing of our detainees’ enormous suffering under the Israeli oppressive regime. They aren’t only hungry for food, they are hungry for dignity, justice, and freedom.”
He refused to let his age be a barrier in front of standing with his son Ali who was detained for 10 years and still has six to go. Doctors keep pressuring him to break his hunger strike but he refuses saying that “my life isn’t any more precious than that of my son.”
Our conversation was still in the beginning. What came next was heartbreaking. I was amazed at his high spirit and his determination but this profound chat we had clarified to me where he got that strength from.
“Ali is the only son left.” He said. “Left?” I interrupted. Then he moved his below to take a photo he kept below and started explaining. “I had three sons. My oldest son Hosny and my youngest Mohammed were killed and the one in the middle is behind Israel’s bars.” I felt raged and asked how. “In 2004, I was sitting with my wife chatting alone about the terrifying sounds of warplanes that occupied Gaza’s sky. We knew an attack was coming. Then a loud expulsion was heard and shook the land below us. We were in indescribable panic. My wife prayed, “May Allah stand with the mothers of the targeted people.” Then she answered the phone that informed her about the assassination of her oldest son, having no idea she was praying for herself.”
It was very hard to keep control of my emotions after hearing that tragedy. I continued looking directly at his eyes that were full of sorrow and listened silently. “Wait. The next story is even more shocking.” He said. “I was on my way home from a family visit with my wife and my seven-year-old son Mohammed in 1994. We were close to the eastern line, near Naheloz settlement. While standing in the street and waving for cars to take us back home, we suddenly glanced an Israeli car and a jeep driving too fast toward us. We got confused and scared. They intentionally smashed my son under their wheels, hit my wife and badly injured her and kept driving fast toward the settlement. It was horrible. It all happened so quickly that I couldn’t rescue my son who froze out of fear in front of that heartless driver who killed him and didn’t bother to even look back.”
Abu Hosny stopped talking to see my reaction but I was too shocked to utter any word after hearing that horrible incidents. His voice narrating the stories of the murder of his two sons kept replaying in my ears, and my tears kept flowing and the features of shock didn’t leave my face. He saw me in that condition and softly tapped on my hand and said, “Don’t be sad, my daughter. As long as we’re living on these holy lands of Palestine, we’ll never get fed up giving any sacrifice. These unjust and unsecure lives we’re leading are the source of our inner strength and determination. If that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t see me now hunger striking in solidarity with my son, the living martyr, with hope to celebrate his freedom soon.”
Let’s pray to all detainees’ families to celebrate the victory of their detained sons in their battle of empty stomachs against the armed merciless jailers and pray that this victory will result in allowing them to visit their sons after over 6 years of family visits’ ban. Let’s support our prayers with taking serious actions.
Loai Odeh (in foreground) at a solidarity tent where supporters of Palestinian prisoners are on symbolic hunger strike.
Loai Odeh is a former political prisoner who was released from Israeli prison in theprisoner swap deal last year and forcibly transferred from Jerusalem to Gaza; before his release, Loai took part in the 22-day mass hunger strike launched at the end of September 2011 to protest cruel conditions and an escalating series of punitive measures against Palestinian prisoners.
Loai has published on Facebook very expressive, moving and informative diaries chronicling the experience of a hunger striker (see my translation of the first eight installements of Loai’s hunger strike diaries, pubilshed on 24 April). His last status update was on the 15th day of the hunger strike, just before he went on open hunger strike along with fifty other people on the 16th day of the mass hunger strike. They have taken the sit-in tent in Gaza as their shelter, which they say they will not leave unless our prisoners stop suffering. They couldn’t stand watching our prisoners going through slow death without doing anything in solidarity, so they have gone on a symbolic hunger strike that aims to draw attention locally and internationally to the prisoners’ just cause.
I took the initiative to translate the rest of Loai’s diaries from Arabic, hoping to inspire everyone who reads it, just like they inspired me.
On April 25, Loai wrote:
Today is the ninth day of heroism. Our strikers have already endured a long time of suffering and loss of weight. The provocative practices of the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) keep escalating. The searches get more intensive and violent. But we should keep in mind that “search” policy according to Israel’s oppressive administration involves different processes.
During ordinary days, the purpose of searches is to find the contraband that our prisoners managed to smuggle in to ease their difficult lives. However, during a hunger strike, the only purpose of a search is to tire our strikers physically and psychologically. Soldiers burst into strikers’ rooms aggressively as if they were confronting armed fighters on a battleground, not hunger strikers with feeble bodies that can barely stand. Knowing that strikers are intolerant of noise, soldiers break into their rooms with loud screams and initiate a hand search in a way that one feels that he’s being beaten rather than searched. Whoever refuses to undergo these “searches” gets beaten up and is plunged directly into solitary confinement. The prisoners are then left in a yard outside with no place to sit for hours while their rooms are turned into a complete mess. The contents of the rooms are heaped into a single pile, indiscriminate of who they belong to, disheartening the prisoners when they return and discover the pile that they are faced with sorting through and straightening out. Moreover, they tear off their mattresses’ cover sheets that take strikers a long time to put back or replace. Even during ordinary days these searches are tiring, so imagine how they are during hunger strikes. Jailers subject prisoners to these searches several times a day, leaving them for hours under the burning sun or in the cold night air while conducting the searches.
However, our heroes’ determination and their solid commitment help them to neglect the guards’ provocative and humiliating practices as they realize that challenging is a needed weapon to go on and win over the IPS’s oppression. Solidarity movements have to use all the means available to help them have fewer days of suffering.
On April 26, Loai wrote:
Today marks the tenth day of the hunger strike. Despite the multitude of searches and the pains of hunger, our heroes manage to maintain their smiles. They are stronger as they are armed with souls that can never be submissive, even during hunger. Their sense of humor stemming from their pain becomes their sweetest memories during imprisonment. Abstaining from food for a long time doesn’t mean that they stop thinking about it. Instead, strikers start thinking about which meals they like or dislike. Actually the meals that they don’t like come to their minds even more intensely than the meals they prefer as they regret not appreciating the blessings and satisfaction of those meals when they ate them in the past.
In fact, it does often happen that after hunger strikes, many strikers start eating foods that they have never liked. The talk about these unfavorable meals which suddenly become desirable creates a humorous atmosphere among them during their strikes. One of them acts as if he is the one whose responsibility is to cook for everyone. They start imagining the smell and taste of their favorite meals while making funny comments that uplift their spirits and make them stronger.
It’s important to know that these thoughts of food arouse their hunger and thus cause their stomachs significant pain, and the laughter gives them headaches. However, they do their best to keep smiling regardless of the heavy price they are paying, believing in the importance of keeping their spirits at ease. They are stronger than all of us because they have high spirits, armed with conviction that the smiles of Palestine’s children are worth their sacrifice.
On April 27, Loai wrote:
Today is the eleventh day of the battle, the hunger strike for the sake of dignity and freedom. Fear of an organ failure increases as the physical sores worsen. All strikers start to suffer from toothaches and backaches that worsen due to the lack of proper medical care.
During ordinary days, their demands to have dentist appointments take months to be granted. Even when one finally gets an appointment, he has his tooth pulled or receives a temporary and incorrect treatment. And then there is the waiting room, which is extremely hot in summer and freezing in winter, where a prisoner is left for hours to wait in before he is allowed in to see the dentist. The waiting room conditions make these rooms seem like rooms for torture, not for waiting, and thinking of these rooms makes prisoners avoid demanding medical appointments, except for the utmost necessity.
Tooth and back conditions intensively deteriorate during the hunger strike. Pain gets unbearable, causing them sleepless nights. Despite that strikers tend to sleep, to rest, to stretch their bodies. Their backaches are caused and exacerbated by their thin mattresses placed on iron beds, which aren’t flat, preventing them from sleeping or resting properly.
These pains make them more determined to accomplish their goals as they believe that their victory will improve the medical care they get. “Stop medical neglect” is on the top of slogans that our prisoners are demanding of the IPS with their empty stomachs. It’s the duty of everyone whose conscience is awakened to support our prisoners so that they can achieve a victory that guarantees their simplest humanitarian rights.
On April 28, Loai wrote:
Today is the twelfth day of the hunger strike. After twelve days of hunger, our prisoners are increasingly eager to hear news regarding their strike that may contribute at ending their suffering. Usually, not all prisoners join the strike all at once. However, as more days of hunger strike pass, strikers’ number increases.
I assume that most of you wonder why all prisoners don’t join the hunger strike with their comrades. For this question to be answered, we should keep in mind that the success of the hunger strike depends on three main factors.
The first factor is the internal preparation, including the process of selecting leaders and their framework — the strategy for negotiating with the IPS, and preparing the needed publications to prepare youth for the battle by making them aware of the side-effects and the psychological circumstances that they may go through during the hunger strike.
The second factor is the external political situation. The political situation must be suitable to start the strike as it’s not logical to start it while a war, during a major international event (the World Cup, for example), or any overshadowing political event which might prevent the politicians or supporters from paying full attention to the strike.
The third factor is the popular support and the foreign pressure needed to sustain the strike. Without this factor, Israel won’t feel pressured to meet our prisoners’ demands. The 1992 hunger strike was recognized as the most successful strike in the history of the Palestinian prisoners’ cause. The reason it was so successful was that all three factors were aligned, especially the popular uprising to support detainees.
Not all prisons join the strike because the first factor – good preparation – is so important. Poor relations with the prison leadership or coordination between prisons prevents them from adequate preparation. The IPS concentrates on adding more obstacles that negatively affect and weaken the ability to prepare, chiefly by transferring the leaders of the prisoners movement between prisons to prevent them from meeting and coordinating a strike.
It’s good that the unprepared prisons don’t join the strike as their participation may cause confusion during the strike and limit its success or cause it to fail. During a strike, strikers are deeply influenced by all news. News about the rising number of strikers raises their spirits and creates pressure on the IPS. Conversely, news about the breaking of the hunger strike at a prison or even at a section depresses them. This can be destructive and pose a great threat to the success of the strike.
On April 29, Loai wrote:
Today is the thirteenth day of the battle. Our heroes start thinking about the achievements that they will realize when they win. They are also preoccupied with the demands they are hoping will be met from this hunger strike.
Allowing family visits is on the top of the list of their demands. Thousands of prisoners from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been banned from visiting for years for security reasons. Prisoners’ families in the Gaza Strip haven’t been allowed to see their relatives in Israel’s prisons since 2006; a source of major and persistent distress on our prisoners’ souls. Staying in touch with families is one of the most important needs for prisoners as their worries and thoughts about their families never cease.
The worry about losing a member of the family is the heaviest. Losing a member of the family while imprisoned – especially a parent – is their greatest fear. The ban on family visits ensures that the detainees’ worries about losing their beloved ones is enduring.
Moreover, the ban on family visitation separates the prisoners from the outside world and creates a barrier between them and their relatives. For those who are banned from family visits, receiving good news regarding their mothers, wives and especially their children is their biggest dream as they spend these years fantasizing about their kids growing up, and seeing them in reality becomes the most precious thing they could ever have.
Thinking about the possibility that this dream may come true after the strike strengthens the strikers’ determination and makes all the pains of their imprisonment and hunger strike bearable. This – seeing their children – is the greatest victory they hope for. The family visit is one of our prisoners’ basic rights and banning it is a horrible violation of all international agreements. It is our duty to support them in their quest to have this right restored.
Win and we have the honor of supporting you. We have faith in you ability and your just cause as your victory is the triumph of humanity.
On April 30, Loai wrote:
Today is the fourteenth day of the battle of empty stomachs. The IPS begins to take the strikers seriously and begins to meet intently with the leaders of the prisoners movement. They now realize that the strike won’t be easily broken and that they have to be more flexible, unlike how they behaved in the first days of the strike. Our leaders begin to firmly demand solutions to complicated issues and the IPS accepts many of the minor demands, hoping to end the strike. However, the strike’s leaders have determined that they won’t relent or show any flexibility unless the IPS meets as many of the demands they are hoping to achieve as possible.
Prisoners’ demands usually revolve around two or three main issues which constitute the heart of the strike. The other demands are of less importance. All these demands are ordered according to significance by the strike’s leaders in committees by the strike’s leaders in cooperation with all detainees. The preparation committees set meetings a day before the strike begins and every prisoner gives his suggestions regarding the demands. In the end, all these suggestions are collected and compiled. These demands are given to the IPS by the leaders to study when they are informed about the launch of the hunger strike. The leaders are forthright with the IPS about their demands, and they are insistent that they are the keys to ending the hunger strike.
Negotiations between the IPS and the strike’s leaders revolve around the demands. As the strike grows longer, the negotiating becomes increasingly serious as the pressure on the IPS increases.
By today – the fourteenth day of the strike – the need to send detainees to external hospitals increases and the number of strikers who suffer from serious medical problems increases and the severity of their conditions worsens. Their continual medical examinations become a burden to the IPS. Additionally, political and security pressure increases due to local and international solidarity with the prisoners’ just cause.
The withdrawal of the enemy’s administration from its initial, inhumane attitude gives our heroes the motivation to continue on their march toward victory. We have complete trust in the strike’s leaders that they will take the best offers once they are available and end the strike with a satisfactory victory that will make all of us proud.
On May 1, Loai wrote:
Today is the fifteenth day in the battle of empty stomachs. One of the most important demands that our prisoners are aiming to achieve from this strike is ending the solitary confinement policy.
The solitary confinement policy is regarded as one of the most horrible crimes and one of the most difficult punishment procedures that are committed against our brave detainees by the IPS. The segregation cell in which a prisoner lives on his own is very narrow and has a bathroom inside and is isolated from the rest of the prison’s rooms. The isolated detainee is allowed to leave the cell to a small yard for only one hour a day — foura. The jailer selects the time of this break according to his mood; it can be in the midnight or very early in the morning while the prisoner is sleeping and that indirectly aims to deprive the prisoner from having the one-hour break during these days.
Getting out to that small yard which is besieged by giant walls and is empty of people doesn’t happen before the prisoners’ hands and feet are shackled. This is another procedure to cut down their desire to leave the cell and to reach their goal to destroy the prisoner’s mind and devastate his mental, psychological and physical health as fast as possible. The prisoner’s isolation for long time means one has to eat alone, think alone, become happy or sad alone, talk to no one but himself, see nothing but walls, hear nothing but the chains’ sounds and the jailers’ loud voices — all that and even more causes that aim to be quickly achieved. Imagine how bad the situation of those prisoners who are put in isolation is when they are subjected to all that. No one can get out of this cell the same without having any damage, especially those who spent long time in isolation. One should enjoy a strong determination and an ability to do activities which contributes to maintaining his psychological and physical health to pass this difficult isolation with as little damage as possible.
We shouldn’t watch our heroes go through all of Israel’s inhumane policies and face a slow death without doing any action and here are our prisoners having the most difficult battle to get their comrades out of solitary confinement. It’s not only the political prisoners’ task to defend the isolated detainees’ rights. We share this responsibility as we can’t leave them as prey for those criminal jailers
People celebrate Loai Odeh’s freedom in October 18 and welcome him in Gaza
Loai Odeh is a former prisoner and my best friend, whom I am very proud to have met after his release. He joined the campaign of disobedience, the 22-day mass hunger strike, launched at the end of September 2011 to protest cruel conditions and an escalating series of punitive measures against Palestinian prisoners, until the swap deal by Israel and Hamas on 18 October. He was released after ten years of imprisonment and expelled from Jerusalem to Gaza, where we met at a festival. Since his release, his main concern has been the fellow prisoners he left behind. 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 hunger striker’s diary recalling his experience. This surprised me, as he has seldom posted since opening his account. His diaries are touching and vivid, giving a clear vision of the great challenge and determination that our prisoners enjoy amidst hunger and the fascist repression of the Israeli Prison Service.
The following is my translation of Loai’s day-by-day diaries from the first to eighth days:
On April 17, Loai wrote:
Today is the first day of the battle to defend our dignity. The battle’s leaders are our homeland’s heroes who are resisting with their empty stomachs for the sake of our dignity.
The first day of a hunger strike is the hardest. Abstaining from food or drinks has a great impact on strikers during the first three days. But what distinguishes the first day is the measures that the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) takes against our prisoners, attempting to repress them. The jailers confiscate all their possessions, but are generous enough to leave them only the clothes they’re wearing. Moreover, they remove everything the cells contain in a very provocative way, damaging a lot of valuable items our prisoners have collected throughout their precious years in jail to ease the pain of their daily lives. On top of that, IPS conducts misinformation campaigns between rooms and prisons, so that no one knows whether he will be separated from his circle of friends and the environment to which he has adapted.
The journey of steadfastness and determination begins when the strikers manage to control themselves and overcome their desires and physical needs, armed with their desperate desire for freedom and victory which will bring them dignified lives.
We are all with you, as you’re our conscience.
On April 18, Loai wrote:
Today is the second day of the journey of respect and pride. Today is one of the hardest days of hunger strike as the body still isn’t used to not receiving its necessities from food and drinks, especially coffee. This causes lasting headaches. The pain of hunger is also at its peak.
The biggest challenge is for the smokers among our prisoners. For them, quitting cigarettes is more difficult than abstaining from food. It makes them lose their temper. But this condition simply vanishes once their will reminds them of their goal of defeating the jailers. Therefore, during these days, there is no place for irritation despite the constant harassments our prisoners endure at the jailers’ hands. Our prisoners prefer to not waste their energy responding to the provocations of IPS. Before the strike starts, all prisoners agree that strikers shouldn’t respond to any of the harassments and provocations they face, and that they shouldn’t exert any effort, to spare their energy for the days ahead. This battle is different from other clashes that happen on normal days between jailers and detainees. When there is no hunger strike, it’s not allowed to any detainee to accept insults, and if one is humiliated by a jailer and doesn’t reclaim his rights immediately, he faces punishment by the national committee inside the prisons.
The strong will that our friends behind bars enjoy turns all their sufferings into fuel that lights their flame of victory. Their faith in the just cause they have fought for makes them solid rocks that shatter the fascism of IPS.
On April 19th, Loai wrote:
The battle of the empty stomachs still continues. It’s the third day of the strike. The hardest stage ends here as the body starts using the muscles’ reserves of food to produce energy. It stops sending signs and pains of hunger. Here, strikers feel that things are getting better, not realizing that they have begun losing around 1 kg of weight per day. Actually, by now, it has become harder for them to move.
According to law, strikers have the right to stop standing for the daily counting procedure starting from the third day, as standing causes them dizziness, and sometimes unconsciousness. Though Israel’s oppressive administration, compelled by law, exempts them from standing for counting, they overstrain our prisoners with endless searches and announcements, which are very exhausting.
Despite everything, our heroes become more steadfast from these attempts to enslave them. The more inhumane treatment they endure, the more strength and resistance they have.
As the living martyrs are the leading defenders for our dignity, we will always remain loyal to their just cause.
On April 20, Loai wrote:
Today is the fourth day of challenge and championship. Today, silence begins to spread all over. By now, the striker tends to be silent and stops talking. All the voices around him seem loud. He becomes unable to join discussions. As days pass, his ability to hear voices shrinks, expect for these which lift the spirit up and strengthen 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.
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 circulate 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. 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 aims, as they feel that their responsibilities have broadened to include children, the future generation, which have spiritually joined their battle.
We have faith in your ability to win and we are with you until victory!
Loai Odeh and his childhood friend Bilal Odeh whom he saddly left behind. This photo was taken in prison.
On April 21, Loai wrote:
Today is the fifth of the days of challenge. The battle of steadfastness goes on. What makes it more powerful is the strength of their leaders, which has a strong impact on the strikers’ spirit. The news which informs the strikers that their heroic leaders have joined the hunger strike fills them with unspeakable and incomparable energy. Ahmad Saadat has bravely joined their battle, despite his critical medical condition after participating in the previous, exhausting mass hunger strike, which lasted for 24 days. Receiving such news supports strikers morally, strengthening their determination even more.
We will unite soon as you win the battle.
On April 22, Loai wrote:
Today is the sixth day of the battle of championship, the hunger strike for the sake of dignity and freedom. Today, the strikers’ stomachs start to get used to hunger. Strikers make sure they lick some salt several times during the day to avoid the putrefaction of their stomachs. This annoys the tyrannical Israeli Prison Administration to the extent that they sometimes confiscate even the salt prisoners keep to survive their battle. However, our prisoners hide small quantities of salt in the cracks of walls or under their mattresses.
But IPS is very generous with the fascist practices they rain on our heroes. They pump water into their mattresses and walls so they salt melts. How can they accept our heroes finishing their strike without any permanent damage? Most of our prisoners who joined long hunger strikes have sustained ulcers and gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining) as a result.
But our prisoners have smart ways of hiding salt, small radios, and everything that helps them to survive and persist. Even if IPS stripped them of everything they own, it will never manage to break their will. Their indestructible spirit will lead them to victory, as they are starving for the sake of dignity.
Your steadfastness brings us honor!
On April 23, Loai wrote:
Today is the seventh day of the mass hunger strike, the battle of challenge. Strikers’ bodies get more accustomed to hunger than the first days of striking. However, joint pains start and a feeling of coldness pervades their bodies and increases as more days of hunger pass. Their stomachs adjust to the lack of food and stop producing the juice needed for digestion as there is no food to be digested in the first place. This avoids the negative side effects for this juice on their stomachs and helps the feeling of hunger to stop.
However, the fascist Zionist guards keep practicing their outrageous actions attempting to tempt the strikers. Inhumanely, they bring the cooking equipment in front of strikers’ cells and start frying and grilling food such as eggplants that arouses their empty stomachs to produce the digestive fluids. As a result, the hunger pangs begin anew, and having nothing for that juice to digest causes sores which accompanies strikers for many years after the hunger strike.
These fascist procedures, which we haven’t heard of even during Nazism, makes our heroes more determined to defeat the IPS with their empty stomachs.
With this battle of empty stomachs, you bring us honor. We trust in your ability to win.
Loai Odeh and his mother reunite in Gaza after his release.
On April 24, Loai wrote:
Today is the eighth day of the battle. In the eighth day of the hunger strike, the strikers’ movements start to decrease notably as the joint pain and the dizziness which result from moving prevents them from doing so. These consequences leave them stretched on their mattresses motionless, dreaming about the day the hunger strike ends with victory.
During these difficult times, our prisoners try their best to stop thinking about their families but all attempts fail. Instead, their families constantly dominate their thoughts, especially their mothers. Mothers become their central concern as strikers realize that their mothers bear more pain than they themselves do. Despite the fact that our heroes think of their mothers more than themselves, they keep looking forward to a breaking dawn when their strike will end with a satisfactory victory that befits them, a victory that makes them proud. All respect for the mother that gave birth to and raised these heroes. Palestinian mothers are the source and root of revolution that never complain giving.
It’s our duty to tenderly embrace our prisoners’ mothers with all possible care till we celebrate the victory and the freedom of their sons.
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!”
I just returned from a wedding, a wedding that I waited for fervently since I met its groom in October, 2011. Oh October, how many nice memories you brought me and how many amazing people you introduced to me. Allam Ka’by, today’s groom, was one of them and has become a close friend. Feeling blessed to meet this person, I want to briefly express my thankfulness for the day that resulted in us meeting. October 18, the day of the first stage of Gilaad Shalit’s swap deal, was a remarkable memory in Palestinian history. It marked victory. This day is printed in my mind like no other day. How could I forget the day that brought freedom to 447 Palestinian’s, of which Allam was one?
In the 20 years I’ve lived in Gaza, I never witnessed a day as happy as this. Festivals were held in every corner. It felt like not only people were celebrating. The sky, the trees, the buildings, everything was celebrating freedom. It was a day of unity, a day of compassion. Happiness was shared all around Gaza. Even those families who weren’t lucky enough to see their relatives in prison that day were so happy; excited to meet the released prisoners to hear news of their relatives. They joined the celebration with a high spirit and greater hope that soon freedom would also be coming to their beloved ones, who are still locked behind the Israeli bars. “My son wasn’t released, but at least this swap deal brought me news about him from his fellows that calmed the fire burning inside me during all nine years I haven’t been allowed to visit him,” said Om Ibrahim Baroud, a mother of a prisoner who’s serving his 26th year in jail.
My first meeting with Allam Ka’by
Allam Ka’by spent aound 15 years in total in Israeli jails, but sadly, the day of his freedom was celebrated away from his family. He is originally from Balata Camp in Nablus, but Israel forced him to separate from where he was raised up, where his family lives and his new wife, Manar, used to live. He didn’t have his own family to receive him but we, residents of Gaza, welcomed him to the bosom of our homes with so much love and admiration that he considers himself as living at home. Since he was set free, the Hamas government has taken care of Allam and his comrades who were deported to Gaza, and they have granted them with good accommodations.
Allam first lived in a hotel overlooking the beautiful beach of Gaza, where we first met. In fact, it was the second, but I like to consider it as the first as the real first time didn’t give any of us a good impression about the other.
By the end of a festival held for the released prisoners, my friend, an American activist living in Gaza, asked me to help him with translation of an interview he had organized with one of them, who was actually Allam. He was in a hurry and Joe wasn’t fully prepared to start the interview as quickly as Allam wished. I kept asking Allam if he could please wait for five minutes. But 5 minutes in reality took maybe 15 minutes that Allam could no longer wait and he left us disappointed. It was almost a fight that turned out to be a sweet memory to laugh at when Allam and I remember it. So the second meeting, which was a coincidence, fixed the wrong impression caused by lack of preparation. It was our first meeting because it was when I first had the honor to get to know him closely.
He recognized me as he met me and then gently started apologizing for the clash we had when we met first. I remember very well how we peacefully sat in the hotel’s lobby and I felt magic about him that made me feel as if I knew him for ages. He had the art of attracting people’s ears to listen to him without any boredom. I lost the track of time while hearing his heroic and inspiring stories from his experience of imprisonment.
Allam started with cherishing his childhood memories in every corner of Balata Camp, which were shorter than any child around the world should enjoy. Israel deprived him from fully living it innocently. At the age of 15, the first Intifada, called the intifada of stones, his childhood’s innocence was brutally killed. The Israeli Occupation arrested him for being a stone thrower. His harmless stone that could cause armed Israeli soldiers no harm resulted in him being jailed for almost 5 years. They ignored that his detention was a crime against him and is a scandalous crime Israel still commits against children, violating International Law and all humanitarian agreements.
Allam’s experience as a child detainee and then as an administrative one
However, Allam looks back at his raped childhood positively, giving the gratitude for the educated, courageous and dignified man he is now, “they don’t know that they actually created a man of me so early by detaining me at such a young age.” His dark cell witnessed the torment and the humiliation he endured, but it also witnessed his unbreakable strength as he challenged the Israeli jailers’ inhumanity and brutality. He summed up his early struggle as a teenage in a sentence: “my early imprisonment taught me how I should let myself live in a prison but never let the prison live inside me.”
When he was 15, he wasn’t really aware of the situation and he used to question a lot about the occupation and all the crimes endured by Palestinians. Inside prison, everything became clear to him and he realized the significance and the meaning of resistance. He realized how his sacrifice of his years of prime was even worthless in relative to his precious land and his dear people. After his illegal and inhumane detention, he was set free at the age of 20 with a great passion toward his homeland and his people.
Then, he spent two years free on his occupied land before he served more than a year of administrative detention in 1997 with no charge or trial, but under secret evidence that can’t be shared by the detainee or his lawyer, to learn more about the cruelty of the Israeli heartless jailers. Upon his release, he joined the PFLP party as a means of resistance.
Allam met the love of his life amidst struggle
With no previous intention, he fell in love for the first time with a beautiful girl from his camp Manar, and unintentionally made another person involved in his rugged life of struggle. Because the most precious things we own, even our souls, are valueless in comparison to our freedom and dignity, in Palestine, the sacrifice has ended up meaningless and tasteless. All our lives represent a medley of sacrifices that started to feel like a routine we are bound to live with.
The second intifada started, the intifada of Al-Aqsa. Allam got engaged to the love of his life but that didn’t make his life any easier. Between his love for Manar and his love for the land, he got torn. But he couldn’t stand idly by.
In 2003, Allam and his childhood friend Ameer were trapped in a building in one of Nalus streets by intensive forces of Israeli armed soldiers. They were attacked and in the same time a call for them to succumb and hand over their weapons was spread all around the city through loudspeakers. They chose confrontion and death with dignity rather than surrender making one of the most heroic and epic battles in the history of struggle in occupied Nablus. Their confrontation lasted for 9 hours, proclaiming that “surrender isn’t one of morals, but the sacrifice of souls for the sake of dignity and freedom is.”
Their limited repertory ran out and they got badly injured but never raised the white banner. Before the IOF raided the building, Allam wrote on the wall with his blood “stick to the path of resistance!”
I can’t express how emotional he made me feel after hearing this story right from his mouth. I was looking at him with all admiration feeling thankful for that God was merciful enough to make him survive even though that wasn’t his plan. I felt so grateful that I could see him in a good health and what was more, “FREE”. I knew he would become someone close to me, someone to trust. I wasn’t wrong.
“And what happened with your fiancée?” I interrupted trying to add a cheerful topic. “Who would have ever believed that I’d be free after being sentenced to 9 life sentences?” He said while laughing sarcastically with glittering eyes and continued, “after I got arrested, I never thought of a possibility that I’d ever be free. Thinking that holding one captive is better than two, I decided to set her free. I divorced her.”
Allam and Manar have reunited in Valentine’s Day
Then my face turned sad. I expected that Manar gave up and married another but I was surprised that he was still smiling with hope. “She refused to marry any other person and convicted herself to be either with me, or single forever. We have discussed our reunion since my release!”
Since his release, they have fought the barriers that Israel built in their way to meet at one point. They won over it. She arrived from Balata Camp to Gaza last Saturday and made the Valentine’s Day be the day that witnesses their deep and passionate love that no occupation nor apartheid could kill. Absence diminishes small loves but increases great ones. In their case, over ten years of absence has made their love greater. I can’t tell you how beautiful they were in the wedding, like two love birds. I could tell from their eyes that they were like living a dream. They didn’t pay attention to the crowd of people who came from every part of the Gaza strip to witness their successful love story that has overcome all obstacles. Be happy Allam and Manar forever and bring revolutionary children just like you and keep teaching the world about Palestine, the land of love and struggle.
|A beautiful halo around Gaza’s full moon|
In a nice restaurant overlooking Gaza’s beach, beneath a full moon with a beautiful halo surrounding it, I sat with my new friends who recently were released from Israeli prisons. Their freedom was restricted by Israel’s inhumane rules, including indefinite deportation from the West Bank, away from their families and friends. However, they all shared one thought: “The problem is not here. Both the West Bank and Gaza are our homeland. The problem is that our freedom will not be complete until our land and people are totally free.”
I listened carefully to their prison stories and memories of their families in other parts of Palestine. One of the most interesting things for me to hear was the warm, strong, and caring friendships they remembered from inside the painful cells. These unbreakable friendships were their only distractions from the wounds that used to hurt them deeply inside.
|Palestinians in Bethlehem are protesting in solidarity with Chris who is deported to Gaza|
One of my new friends is Chris Al-Bandak, the only Christian of the released detainees, who was freed in the first stage of the swap deal. After I was introduced to him, I congratulated him on regaining his freedom. He faked a smile and replied, “Only one half of me is free, but the other half is still there, locked up behind Israeli bars.”
I didn’t know much about Chris, except for his religion, but many things about him made me want to get to know him more closely. I was quite certain that this impressive 32-year-old man had many interesting stories to tell and learn from.
Chris said that he was one of the people besieged by the Israeli Occupation Forces at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. That alone made me impatient to hear the rest of his story. “The siege lasted for 40 days. It became more unbearable as time passed, with the food and first aid equipments dwindling. The injured people were under the threat of death, and the others’ lives were endangered as well as the IOF’s pressure increased.”
As Chris spoke, his eyes evoked anger and sorrow as they wandered to his right. He sounded like he was replaying a tape of his most difficult memories. Then he suddenly began stuttering as he said, “My best friend, Hafith Sharay’a, was one of the injured people.” I reminded him that he didn’t have to speak about it if it made him feel bad.
He pulled himself together and kept telling his story. “On the 28th day of the siege, we were on the top floor of the Church of the Nativity, responsible for the lives of the people downstairs and guarding the church, when he was shot in the right side of his stomach. With every drop of blood he lost, my soul burned inside. I couldn’t watch him die and do nothing.”
Impatiently, I interrupted, asking, “Was he killed?” He shook his head and continued. “His injury left me only two choices: let him bleed to death, or send him to the Israeli Army for treatment, while I was certain that he would afterwards receive at least a life sentence.”
Each option was worse than the other. Chris thought that if Hafith died, he would never see him again. If he was treated and then imprisoned, he might meet him, even though the chance was very small.
Hafith and Chris were like soul mates. They didn’t share many things in common. Hafith is older and a Muslim, while Chris is a Christian. However, they prioritized their deep passion for Palestine above everything else. This overcame all their differences, and they share a strong friendship that will last forever.
So Chris chose to put his emotions aside and rescue Hafith from death by delivering him to the Israeli army. “On the 29th day, I somehow managed to sneak out of the church and escape. But ten months later, I was kidnapped by the Israeli entity’s army.”
Chris described in detail the horrible story of his capture. He had gone to visit some of his relatives. Within 20 minutes of his arrival, the Israeli army arrived in great numbers and surrounded the house. He faked a name for himself and answered the police’s questions in a very sarcastic way. He told all his relatives to say his name was Fady if asked, which they did. He refused to admit that he was Chris. After several hours of investigation, pressure, and threats of bombing the house and arresting his mother and brother, one of the children was shedding tears out of fear. Seeing this, a policeman used the child’s innocence and tricked him. After the policeman said that the soldiers would leave if he said the real name of Chris, the child admitted it.
Chris was persistent, and didn’t admit his identity until they were about to bomb the house in front of his eyes. After his confession, he was asked where he had been sleeping at night. He replied, “You bombed my house, so where did you expect me to go? I spent my nights in the cemetery.” The interrogator was very shocked at his reply and asked him, “Weren’t you afraid among all dead bodies in their graves?” He answered, with an angry, challenging look in the Israeli soldiers’ eyes, “One shouldn’t fear the dead. They are dead. But we should be afraid of the living people whose conscience is dead!”
Then they blindfolded him, pushed him inside one of their Gibbs vehicles, and headed to an interrogation center, where he was psychologically and physically tortured for 43 days.
Chris constantly thought of his friend Hafith, and hoped that his imprisonment would allow him to meet his best friend again. This happened in a very narrow cell in Ramla Prison, as he waited to find out which prison he would be jailed in. The detainees were having <em>foura</em>, an hour-long break that detainees take daily outside their jails in a hall, and a very small window, closed with a revealing cover, separated him from the hall. Suddenly he glimpsed his friend Hafith and found himself screaming his name loudly to get his attention. “Our reunion was so emotional, especially behind a fenced barrier,” he said with a broken smile.
Their happiness didn’t last long, as they had to separate once the <em>foura</em> was done. Chris was transferred to Ashqelon Prison, then to Nafha. “I didn’t see Haifith for over a year, but during that time, I never stopped hoping that God would be kind enough to bring us together again.”
Chris was in Nafha when his friend was transferred there, finally uniting them. Then they went through a series of separations keeping them apart for a total of four years. “A prison offers no sense of stability.” Chris said. “When we were imprisoned, we didn’t stop our struggle, but we started another stage of resistance of a different kind, determination and persistence mixed with hope.”
During the period before Chris was released, he shared a prison cell with Hafith. “Other detainees received the news of their freedom with screams of joy and happiness, but I received it with tears. I didn’t even feel one percent happy, as I realized that only I was included in the swap deal. Even now, I feel like my body is outside but my heart is still inside the prison with Hafith and all the other detainees,” Chris said with sadness on his face.
“I am very grateful for having Hafith as a big brother. But I am broken inside because he didn’t get his freedom back. I am sure that he’s such a steadfast man that nothing can depress his spirit,” he said, attempting to console himself.
Their friendship amazed me. It can’t be described in words. I pray that Haifith, along with all the Palestinian political prisoners, will be freed soon. I hope Hafith maintains his strength which used to inspire and strengthen Chris. Chris said that Hafith made him believe in his principle that “the prison’s door must unlock someday. It’s only an obstacle, and is bound to fade away at some point.” I hope it will be unlocked soon to let all prisoners breathe the sweet fragrance of freedom again.
Press here to read this article in French. Thank you Nour Halimi and Claude
The Palestinian political prisoners suffered 22 days of hunger as they decided to fight with their empty stomachs the oppression and the injustice of the Israeli Occupation. They eventually decide to no longer go on with their battle against the violation of their rights as the Israeli Prison Service promised to meet their list of demands which had on the top “ending the solitary confinement policy”. However, that wasn’t but another cruel trick for them to break the hunger strike.
As usual, they’ve never stuck to something they said and their hypocrisy has been one of their traits which characterize them the most. Israel keeps on breaking all the International treaties including Geneva Convention which guaranteed the right of Palestinian prisoners to be treated as War prisoners, and instead, they describe them as “terrorists”.
A friend of mine who had the sit-in tent as a shelter during the hunger strike of our prisoners and who himself joined the hunger strike in solidarity texted me that Ahmad Saadat, the PFLP secretary-general, is bound to serve one more full year of pain in isolation. They have ignored the worrying health condition of Saadat as a result of the carelessness of medical care along with his solitary confinement which started since March 16, 2009. Saadat was not allowed any visitations and even denied his right to write or receive letters from his family during his solitary confinement.
Saadat was sent to court ignoring his lawyer, who never received a notice regarding this court session. The Ad-Dameer, one of the human rights organizations, stated that by sentencing Saadat to solitary confinement for an additional year, the court violated promises by the Israeli Prison Administration to receive treatment that is guaranteed by the International law. No justification for this criminal and illegal decision has been provided.
My internal conflict and my worries reached its peak as I remembered when I was sitting with Loai Odeh, one of the released prisoners in Shalit’s swap deal and who participated in the hunger strike, and said that “the mental health of the prisoners who are in isolation should be expected to be in jeopardy after two or three years of isolation and that was the first motif for us to take that step; hunger striking till solitary confinement is no more.”
“It would be difficult for a prisoner in a normal jail to pass through his imprisonment without suffering psychological problems or at least depression, so imagine how difficult it would be for a prisoner in the solitary confinement for long time.” Loai continued. No wonder that is true; the mankind is a sociable creature, and if one is totally isolated from the outer world in a very narrow cell in which light could barely sneak, psychological and mental problems are hardly avoidable.
The brutality of the Israeli entity can never be imagined by someone who has never experienced their inhumane behavior. As Ahmad Saadat’s case occupied my thoughts, I remembered what my father told me about the psychological methods of torment which he endured during his imprisonment and which Israel continue to exercise daily over all the Palestinian prisoners inside the Israeli jails which never follow any of human virtues or the International Humanitarian Law. The more I think about this, the more I fear about Ahmad Saadat’s mental and physical health.
Trying to be positive, I recalled when my father told me “Ahmad Saadat is one of the toughest men I’ve ever know in my life.” It’s true, but that doesn’t mean that Israel should continue breaking its obligations to end its solitary confinement policies, and to implement the demands of the detainees after they conducted a hunger-strike for 22 days. It’s time to take action to fight injustice and to guarantee human rights for all people.
Mohammad Barash is a disabled political prisoner inside Nafha Prison; one of 85 prisoners who are either physically or mentally disabled. On the 17th of February, 2003, he was arrested after he was badly injured, and despite his disability, which resulted from his injuries, he was given three life sentences plus 35 years. He is still continuing his struggle with pride inside a cell paying a double price; his precious years of prime and the consequences of zionist entity’s crimes.
‘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 till the darkness filled me.
Don’t tell her that I waited for several years to have a surgery to plant a cornea. But the Israeli Prison Service kept on procrastinating and procrastinating providing my eyes all reasons to leave me.
Don’t tell my mother that the shrapnel of bullets and the bombs which managed to hit me is still settling in my body, and that my left leg had been mutilated and replaced by 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’s emotions got stripped of the most basic elements of human life as he is sentenced to see only ashes and iron, lightless life and hopelessness.
Tell her that I am alive and safe. Tell her that I can see, walk, run, play, jump, write and read. Don’t tell her that I am shouldering my pains on my walking stick, and I can picture every martyr as a moon souring in the sky and calling me with the power of lightning, thunder and clouds.
Don’t tell her that I suffer from sleepless nights, and that I live under the mercy of the pain killers till it drugs my body. Don’t tell her that I keep twiddling my stuff till I barge into the iron beds or another prisoner sleeping close to me, to wake him up 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 a piece of lead entered my eye in that bloody day in the camp streets. They aggressively shot me until my leg was cut off, and my eye was gone. And before I fainted I saw a little kid running toward me waving the Palestinian flag while screaming: a martyr, a martyr.
Tell her that my dream is not enough. My nostalgia for her is too much and her soul never leaves me. I still have from her my language, my purity, my symbols stuck on the wall, all of which heal my pain every time the light disappears around me.
Tell her that I always embrace her holy prayers, to survive from the dark cloud that surrounds me after my body has tortured me. I might get back to her or I might not, but I left the answer to this question open, although I’ve chosen spiritually to be close to her heart, as if I chose my future, of which I have officially no control.
Don’t tell her that Israel, a country in the 21st century, has turned the prisons into places where diseases are planted and bodies are ruined slowly; and slowly, it turned to be fields of trial for living people whose death is inevitable sooner or later.
Don’t tell her that I have become knowledgeable of all names of horrible illnesses and strange medications, along with all types of pain killers, while I’m witnessing my friend Zakariyya diving into a coma, with an ending unknown to me.
Don’t tell my mother about the sick prisoners whose diseases launched an insane war against their bodies: Ahmad Abu Errab, Khaled Ashawish, Ahmad El-Najjar, Mansour Mowqeda, Akram Mansour, Ahmad Samara, Wafaa El-Bis, Reema Daraghma, Tareq Asi, Mo’tasim Radad, Riyad Al-Amour, Yasir Nazzal, Ashraf Abu-Thare’, Jihad Abu-Haniyy. The merciless Israeli prisons slaughter them; illness and carelessness of a country that enjoys slow death sentences and funerals for others.
Tell her that I am still 30 doors away from you and I get closer every time a bird flies and a fire flames up my eye, and barbed wires wound me, carrying me to your arms and to your prayers.’
This was Mohammad’s letter to his mother which unveils the inhumane nature of Israel which claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East while violating the most fundamental human values. I meant to share with you those powerful words he wrote in Arabic to help you picture the torturous conditions that the prisoners endure inside the Israeli cells, especially the disabled.
The core of their shameful crimes which offend any sense of propriety in any heart with any shred of conscience, were done under the banner of maintaining security. However, in this case where those disabled prisoners can hardly threaten their holy safety, how would they justify this?
|crowds ofthousands have greeted 210 former prisoners on Tuesday, 18th of October|
The first stage of the prisoner swap deal has already taken place. As agreed on, 477 Palestinian detainees were set free before an Israeli soldier held in Gaza was delivered by the resistance to the Red Cross to enjoy the full range of freedom.
In Gaza, crowds of thousands have greeted 210 former prisoners — 131 of whom are from Gaza, and another 179 who were deported to Gaza according to Israel’s inhumane stipulations. The release of a total of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners should be completed within two months.
As prisoners have returned to their families, celebrations of freedom have been heard all cross the Gaza Strip, bringing a sense of hope for freedom. However, the road to freedom will remain incomplete even with one Palestinian still suffering inside the Israeli occupation prisons. So what if approximately 6,000 political prisoners are still locked up, including 164 children, in violation of international law?
The deported prisoners
The most painful part of this swap deal is the deported prisoners. They have long waited to be free again to return to their families, but Israel has instead deported them to other places where they have to wait even longer before they can wrap their arms around their loved ones again. The freedom of these deported former prisoners is not true freedom.
My parents recently went to a celebration held in the neighborhood for some released detainees. I was sitting alone when suddenly my phone rang. It was my mother. I could hardly hear her because of celebrations that were going around her. “You should come and see how people are dancing with joy and singing for freedom,” she said. I got so excited that I could no longer stay home and I decided to join them immediately and see for myself the joyous atmosphere there.
I didn’t know the exact address of the festival but I didn’t worry about it as I was certain that the resonance of the songs of freedom would guide my steps. The lights along with the Palestinian flags of all sizes were everywhere, decorating the dark blue sky. The walls were dressed with photos of our heroes who sacrificed precious years for the cause of freedom.
People came from different areas of the Gaza Strip to share with the released detainees the happiness of their freedom. The festival included folk dancing performances, songs of liberation and poetry dedicated to those who were free and to those who are still suffering behind Israeli bars.
|Loai is holding his mother, Rawda, after his release in Gaza City.|
A long-awaited reunion
Near the end of the festival, which lasted for several hours, my father called over me and mom to introduce us to his friends. A woman wearing a beautiful Palestinian traditional dress decorated with threads in the colors of the Palestinian flag — white, red, black and green — was standing beside a blond man.
“Rawda, Yacoub, here is my daughter, Shahd,” my father introduced us. Then the man, Yacoub, stepped forward, kissed my forehead and hugged me and left me surprised and still wondering who he was.
Then Dad continued with a big smile on his face: “This is my friend from Jerusalem who was detained with me in Nafha prison for 15 years, and we were freed together in Ahmad Jibril’s exchange deal. And this is his brother’s wife, Rawda, who was imprisoned for five years as well in the 1970s.”
I then realized that they were here a day ago to see Loai, Rawda’s son, who was freed in the swap deal but deported to Gaza. She was hoping that she would hug her son, Loai, as soon as he was released. She had been waiting for ten years, daydreaming about that day.
Her son was sentenced to 28 years of imprisonment but thanks to the prisoner swap, he only spent ten years behind Israeli bars. However, it was very disappointing for her to find out that he would be deported to Gaza and that he would not return back home.
She did everything she could to tightly hug her son again and for that she traveled with her husband and his brother by bus from Jerusalem to Eilat and then to Egypt and then to Gaza through Rafah crossing. It’s so ironic to know that she had to suffer two days of travelling to enter Gaza when it would take her less than two hours if Israel allowed her to enter though Erez checkpoint.
Shortly after meeting Loai’s mother and uncle, I met him. “Congratulations for your freedom. I’m very glad you’re finally released,” I said, my face expressing happiness and admiration.
After short chat, I discovered that Loai has completed his bachelor degree in sociology. Since the beginning of his imprisonment, he applied for the Israeli Prison Administration to study at Hebrew University. While he must have finished his degree in four years, it took him around 10 years to eventually have it as many times his application to continue his study was rejected for no reason.
After I told him that I am studying English at Al-Azhar University, he replied so enthusiastically, “I’m going to further my studies at Al-Azhar University and you will have to help me and give me so much support as I am new here.” I kept nodding my head, admiring his unbelievable determination and his civility, and replied: “Of course! Any time!”
We soon had to separate, as it was getting late and everyone needed to go back home and rest after long hours of dancing and chanting. On the way back home, my father was expressing how happy he was to meet his friend, Loai’s uncle, again after more than 24 years of separation, as he is denied access to Jerusalem by Israel.
“Can you imagine that his baldness is because of the torment he endured by the Israeli army?” he asked me with an angry voice.
He added, “The Israeli soldiers used to use a thin stick and knock on the top of his head in sensitive places continuously and slowly for long hours as a way of torturing psychologically and physically at the same time. However, this is maybe the least torturing method. Israeli soldiers are very creative at bringing new methods of torment…”
My father left me speechless and thinking of how much our prisoners have endured in Israel’s cruel jails. It’s true that those former prisoners, including Loai, are now out of Israeli prisons, but still their freedom is conditional and incomplete, as they were forced to accept their fate to live in exile far away from their land and families. It makes me sad to think that this beautiful family is now going to be scattered between their home in Jerusalem and Gaza, where their son is forced to live from now on.
|My drawing for the Palestinian women, especially those who are still waiting for their relatives in Israeli prisons|
The prisoners’ families make sure not to miss any day of the weekly protests, so the number of the people inside the Red Cross building is more than usual on Mondays. Therefore, one should expect to see lots of tears and hear lots of tragedies, especially after the names of the soon-to-be released prisoners were declared.
As I entered the Red Cross on Monday last week, an old woman was sitting in a corner, hardly noticeable. She was putting her hand on her cheeks, closing her eyes and saying nothing. The wrinkles on her face, with expressions of sorrow and burdens and the broken glass frame of the picture she was holding, directed my steps toward her.
I tried to talk to her but I didn’t get an immediate answer. She responded only after I started talking very loudly while holding her hands. I realized that she can barely hear anything and her vision is very weak.
“Who’s this man in the picture?” I asked loudly.
“This is my son Fares, my darling. He’s not going to be released. I am very sick and about to die. I even spent last night in hospital. Why wasn’t he included to fill my last days of my life which passed for 20 long years without him? I want to enjoy hugging my son before I die,” she said with tears falling so intensively and bitterly.
Calming her was a very difficult task, but one can imagine how deeply her wounds were felt. I was looking around asking who accompanied that lady to the tent, as I found it impossible to imagine that a blind woman came by herself. However, what I thought was impossible, was actually a fact.
A dreamer who never gives up
After questioning people in the Red Cross about her, I met a young woman who seemed to know her. She told me that the old woman, Umm Fares, lives alone in Beach Camp. Her husband passed away years ago and she has nobody to take care of her. It was very hard for me to believe that this very old woman, who can barely walk, see or hear, lives alone. I was very angry and questioned aloud how an old sick woman could be left alone with no one to look after her. But the young woman calmed me down after she declared that Umm Fares was a reason for her to keep coming to the weekly protests. She even arranged a group of girls to help her and show solidarity with her. They have taken turns during the week to visit her as much as they could. Hearing that, I couldn’t help but smiling with relief to know that there are still some caring people, and without her asking me to join her group, I stated that I am already a part of them.
The young woman told me that she once was sitting with Umm Fares in her very simple and narrow house, chatting, attempting to make her feel that she was not alone or forgotten. Suddenly Umm Fares asked her to bring a piece of paper and a pen to write down what she heard her say.
“Dear Fares, when you are free, I’m going to pick for you the most beautiful bride in Palestine. I’m going to build a big house for you to live in with your kids. Stay steadfast my darling and God willing your freedom will be soon,” she said while her weak hands dried the tears that fell on her cheeks. The poor woman didn’t realize that she was only a dreamer, but a dreamer who never gives up.
No one has left a profound impact on me as much as this woman, Umm Fares. I pray that she gets the chance to see her son before she dies and I promise her that she will never be alone. There are many people who will never forget her or her precious tears over her son’s ongoing imprisonment.
Press this link to read it in French (Thank you Claude)
“I waited long enough for him to come back to me; 19 years of forced separation between us. I’ve always fantasized about our unborn child, as the imprisonment of my husband after less than one year of our marriage prevented me from ever having one,” she said after I asked her whether she feels better.
“They broke into our house in October of 1993 and kidnapped him very late at night from inside our home in an excessively violent way,” she continued while tears struggled to fall from her eyes. She looked in a different direction and fell in silence trying to hide that feminine character inside her.
I learned that her husband Salama Mesleh was sentenced for 99 years inside the Israeli prisons. I was amazed at her ability to stay strong and optimistic for a day that would come when she would be united with her husband in a warm house full of love and harmony and bring up their first child.
My sympathy got even deeper for her as I learned that she had been very close to delivering a child. She was 2 months pregnant when the Israeli army attacked her house and turned everything upside down and kidnapped her husband. Her experience was too much to tolerate. The Israeli army didn’t only take her husband away but also killed the fetus growing inside her. If she didn’t go through all these horrific circumstances, maybe this fetus would have turned out to be an 18-year-old man by now who would take care of her while she bravely fights her harsh destiny.
Determined to share pain
My affection for her has been increasing as I knew more of her stories. She is on a hunger strike for the sixth day trying to share with her husband and other Palestinian detainees their battle of empty stomachs. She has refused to break her fast despite all the attempts which people made to persuade her to, especially after she fainted. However, she insisted on going on demonstrating. “Salama, my husband, suffers from more than merely hunger,” she said. “Let me at least feel like I’m living some of his pains even though I know that I’m not even close!”
I suddenly realized that I ran out of time and it was the time to go back to my lecture at university. I had to go there only for the attendance check and be in the class only in body but I knew that my mind would stay with the prisoners and their families. I couldn’t wait till the lecture ended to return to the Red Cross.
I thought that I would go back and see the usual sight of people sitting in the tent chatting while songs for freedom for our detainees are playing. But that wasn’t the case. There was an emergency taking place; people were running inside the Red Cross. An ambulance’s siren was very loud and its red lights were flashing all over the place. My heart skipped a beat as I realized I had missed something during the hour I was at university. My fear of the unknown overcame me.
I was trying to pass through the crowd to discover that the same woman, Najiyya, lost consciousness again. She couldn’t bear the psychological conflict she had inside her — not knowing whether her husband was going to be released or not.
At first, she heard that her spouse was included; and then discovered that he was not. She was swinging between facts and illusions to realize later the fact that her husband will stay jailed inside the dark cells. I learned that she was walking around while talking to herself unconsciously and she suddenly stopped and looked at a big banner that includes the picture of her husband, and then fell down.
I know no matter how strong and how much of a fighter she is, she is a human at the end of the day. The fact that her husband is not going to be free was very hard for her to accept, especially since she was lingering with the hope which the swap deal had brought her.
When I arrived at the tent on 12 October, the wife of the prisoner Nafez Herz, who was sentenced to life-long imprisonment and has been jailed for 26 years, shook hands with me and said very excitedly that she had heard that her husband would be freed. Then she said, “But you can’t imagine how much my heart aches for those families whose prisoner will not be released in this exchange deal. All prisoners’ families have become like one big family. We meet weekly, if not daily in the Red Cross, we share our torments, and we understand each other’s suffering.” I grabbed her hands and pressed them while saying, “We will never forget them, and God willing, they will gain their freedom soon.”
While I was writing this article among the crowd of people at the Red Cross building, I suddenly heard people chanting and clapping and could see a woman jumping with joy. While on the phone, she said loudly, “My husband is going to be free!” Her husband is Abu Thaer Ghneem, who received a life sentence and spent 22 years in prison. As I watched people celebrating and singing for the freedom of the Palestinian detainees, I met his only son, Thaer. He was hugging his mother tight while giving prayers to God showing their thankfulness. I touched his shoulder, attempting to get his attention. “Congratulations! How do you feel?” I asked him. “I was only one day old when my father was arrested, and now I am 22-years-old. I’ve always known that I had a father in prison, but never had him around. Now my father is finally going to be set free and fill his place, which has been empty over the course of 22 years of my life.”
His answer was very touching and left me shocked and admiring. While he was talking to me, I sensed how he couldn’t find words to describe his happiness at his father’s freedom.
The celebration continues for an hour. Then I return to my former confusion, feeling drowned in a stream of thoughts. The families of the 1,027 detainees will celebrate the freedom of their relatives, but what about the fate of the rest of the prisoners?
Don’t forget the hunger strike
I have heard lots of information since last night concerning the names of the soon-to-be-released prisoners, but it was hard to find two sources sharing the same news, especially about Ahmad Saadat and Marwan Barghouti and whether they are involved in the exchange deal. I’ve always felt spiritually connected to them, especially Saadat, as he is my father’s friend. I can’t handle thinking that he may not be involved in this exchange deal. He has had enough merciless torment inside Israeli solitary confinement for over two and a half years.
Let’s not forget those who are still inside the Israeli occupation’s prisons and who have been on hunger strike, as this hunger strike wasn’t held for an exchange deal, but for the Israeli Prison Service to meet the prisoners’ demands. The people who joined the hunger strike in Gaza City has included those with loved ones in prison. We have to speak out loudly and tell the world that Israel must address our living martyrs’ demands. We will never stop singing for the freedom of Palestinian detainees until the Israeli prisons are emptied.
I haven’t been getting enough sleep lately. Last night I was exhausted in body and mind, but tried to keep my eyes open to follow updates on the Palestinian prisoners’ conditions. My heart and mind were with them completely, in every corner of the horrible Israeli prisons where our heroes continue to display persistence and steadfastness.
Deciding to rebel against the cruel conditions they could no longer endure, hundreds of prisoners started a hunger strike on 27 September. Approximately 6,000 detainees inside Israeli prisons are forgotten about and treated as if they are less than animals.
Israel, which claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East, seems to forget that prisoners are humans and have rights. The Palestinian prisoners are on hunger strike in the hope that Israel will grant their simple demands. But while they are calling in loud voices for their rights, Israel is reacting negatively, using every method it has to force the prisoners to give up. Prisoners are being sent to isolation cells in increasing numbers, family visits and lawyers are being denied, families threatened, and identity cards, belongings and clothing confiscated. This is all in addition to the constant torment they already have to endure.
Israel is violating international law and nobody is stopping it. Oh, pardon me for forgetting that Israel is beyond any law! Approximately 285 Palestinian children are currently imprisoned, and the world is still silent. Nobody will dare challenge Israel.
I am very emotionally attached to the prisoners’ issue, especially their hunger strike, not only because I am Palestinian but also because I am the daughter of a released prisoner. I was brought up hearing my father’s sad stories, full of suffering and despair, which remain stuck in his memory and will never leave him.
My father’s experience of hunger striking
My father’s eyes would have never seen the sun if Ahmad Jibril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command (PFLP-GC) didn’t manage to make a deal exchanging three Israeli prisoners he held captive in 1985, in return for the release of 1,250 Palestinian political prisoners. My family was watching the news concerning the current prisoners’ hunger strike when Dad started telling us about his imprisonment, which lasted for 15 years.
“I witnessed and participated in the longest hunger strike in the history of Palestinian prisoners in 1982, which lasted for 33 consecutive days,” he said. “Three prisoners died and tens of cases were sent to hospital, including about 27 for dehydration, but what else could we do to pressure them to provide us with the smallest things?”
Thinking deeply about my father’s words, and trying to imagine the awful conditions of the Palestinians inside the merciless Israeli jails, broke my heart. All the unbearable treatment prisoners endure is totally unfair and against humanity.
Before I wrote this article, I took part in a Gaza City demonstration in solidarity with these prisoners, whose health is getting worse every day, but who will bravely continue. I was lucky to not have early lectures at university, so I could be there at 9:00 am protesting against the situation facing our prisoners. I had some conversations with other women protesting there, too. Most of them were either released prisoners or had sons, brothers, or husbands in prison and on hunger strike.
One of them was a mother of six children, who grew up as if they were fatherless — her husband is spending his 26th year inside a damned Israeli prison. “I was one month pregnant with my youngest girl, who is 25 years old now, when my husband was arrested,” she said. “My oldest girl was only seven years old. All my kids do have a father but they became adults without their father around, like orphans.”
She kept describing to me how hard it was to be alone without her husband taking care of six children, and how much she suffered and endured to make her husband, sentenced to lifelong imprisonment, proud of his children when he hopefully someday gets his freedom back. “I was very young, only 24 years old, when he went to prison. I stayed in this state of a married woman who has to live without a husband for 26 years for my six children. Thankfully, I now have 25 grandchildren,” she said proudly.
Miracles needed to contact prisoners
Then she burst out crying, and said that she was worried because she heard that the Israeli army attacked Ashkelon prison where her husband is held the day before. They violently attempted to force the impossible — to make the hunger strike end.
I couldn’t hide my tears anymore, despite trying so hard not to let them fall. I didn’t know what to do to calm her down. The woman told me that she and all other prisoners’ families have been denied visitation rights since Hamas won the 2006 election. They hear nothing from their imprisoned family members, except rarely, when some miracle happens; like when someone from the West Bank visits relatives who are imprisoned with her husband. Then, her husband can ask the visitor to convey a message to her that he is doing well.
I couldn’t say anything but for prayers that God provide her with patience and that her husband gets his freedom back soon.
My father has always said that prisoners are the living martyrs. I think they really deserve this honor for all the injustice and suffering they endure. This open hunger strike of the Palestinian prisoners will continue until Israel addresses their demands. International solidarity is needed now more than ever. Everyone needs to wake up and do something. We shouldn’t let the cruel conditions of the Palestinian detainees last forever.
I am a third-generation refugee, born and raised in one of Palestine’s largest refugee camps, Jabalia, originally from Beit-Jerja village, my grandparents’ evergreen home which they had to flee under Israeli fire in 1948.
I was born a survivor- my mother’s labor occurred during a curfew that Israeli military forces imposed on Jabalia Refugee Camp from which first intifada erupted a few years earlier. While fearing for her life and her yet-to-be-born child, she walked through Jabalia refugee camp’s alleys, leaning on my grandmother who held a white piece of cloth in one hand and a lantern in the other, hoping for mercy from the Israeli soldiers who were indoctrinated to shoot ever moving being. Our family home then was one-kilometre away from the UNRWA clinic in Jabalia. There was no ambulances, no phones, and the whole neighbourhood was under blackout. “While pointing their guns at us, unscrupulous Israeli soldiers obstructed our way,” my mum recalled, “They harassed and interrogated us even though I could hardly stand.”
My mum’s memories of the day of my birth cannot easily be forgotten. My father couldn’t be around around her as an ordinary husband. The thirteen years of suffering that my father spent in Israeli jails were not enough for those terrorists. My dad had been sentenced to seven lifetimes plus ten years, but thankfully, he was released in the 1985 prisoner exchange after serving ‘only’ thirteen.
My father was born 4 years after Nakba to dispossessed parents in Jabalia Camp where refugee families survived on nothing but the dream to return. He was 15 when the Gaza Strip alongside the remainder of Palestine fell under the Israeli military occupation in 1967, and when he spent his first 2 months in jail as a child prisoner. At the age of 19, he was sentenced to seven lifetimes plus ten years. Each life sentence for a Palestinian equals 99-year-prison-term. Had he not been released in the 1985 prisoner exchange, he could have spent a total of 703 years in Israeli jails – my mother, my siblings and I would have been a dream buried alongside him in jail – a horrifying thought that haunts hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody.
In fact, my dad was never free. He was restricted in his movements and always anticipated his house being vandalised to rearrest him. They deprived him of the basic right of a husband, sharing with his wife some of the most difficult and intimate moments of pregnancy. She brought me into this life, where safety, freedom, and justice are denied. Assisted by my grandmother, she returned home as soon as she recovered so my father could hold me. They defiantly celebrated my advent, but in Palestine no smile could ever last.
”In the middle of the night, a month after your birth, a huge force of armed Israeli soldiers suddenly broke into our home, damaging everything before them,” my Mum recalled. “They attacked your father, bound him with chains, and dragged him to the prison, beating him the whole way.” The happiness of the new baby – me – didn’t continue for the whole family. My mum could breastfeed me until then; her grief ended her lactation.
My dad was held for six months under administrative detention, without any charge or trial, an arbitrary procedure that Israel has used against tens of thousands of Palestinians since 1967. Prior to this time, my father served this term two times during my mum’s pregnancy with my elder two siblings Majed and Majd. Although one can hardly find a positive side to their traumatic experiences, they used to amaze me by the jokes they made around my mum not needing to go on birth control, because my dad’s detention acted as such.
The day my father got his freedom back, six months later, my mum was awaiting him as if she knew he was coming. He couldn’t believe how big I was after seven months: he couldn’t stop hugging and kissing me for even one second. That time was the last time my father was taken away from him family, but my parents never stopped worrying over the future of their children whose safety they couldn’t guarantee under the Israeli colonial occupation.
Writing about my childhood experience brings a lot of tears, especially that this story is common across Palestine. Every Palestinian child is convicted to a life of uncertainty and oppression without having to commit a crime. Being a Palestinian is our only offense.
Two years after my birth, the Intifada of stones ended marked with celebration of victory and illusions of autonomy which the Palestinian National Authorities brought after signing the Oslo peace process with Israel in 1993. But this happiness or illusion, yet again, didn’t last. Another Intifada began in 2000, declaring the death of Oslo which acted as a cover for further Israeli dominance over Palestinian lands and lives. In 2000, I was 9 years old stuck with children of Palestine in a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence.
In Palestine, no smile can last as long as Israel carries on acting with impunity. However, In Palestine, no one seems to give up dreaming of a brighter future for Palestine, in a just peace that will guarantee us with freedom, justice, dignity and return
On 21 May 1985, my father Ismael regained his freedom, after being in the dark of Israeli prisons for 13 years.
“I was sentenced for seven lifetimes plus 10 years and I thought that Nafha Prison would be my grave. Luckily I didn’t stay that long there, and I was set free to marry your mother and to bring you to this life,” my father playfully said while my mind struggled to understand his underestimation of such an experience that is inconceivable to most. His reference point was, however, different. It is only “not that long” if compared to the original sentence to which he was bound if the deal to exchange Palestinian and Israeli prisoners didn’t proceed.
I can’t recall my Dad ever showing any regret or sorrow for the precious years of his youth that were stolen from him. He turned his prison experience into a song of life. He believes that it is the reason behind his solid principles, his strong character, his intimate friendships, and his emancipatory perception of life.
I’ve always been proud to be his daughter, and I’ll always be. He is a revolutionary to whom revolutionary thinking is an organic part of his upbringing as a Palestinian refugee. My father was born to a dispossessed family from Beit Jerja, 4 years after Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, an event we call Nakba (Catastrophe). He was born in Jabalia refugee camp where minimal means of survival did not exist, and Israeli oppression defined their daily lives with a defiant form of resistance.
“The Triumphant Power of Revolution”
As a 19 year-old detainee, this organic revolutionary thinking was voiced to his anti-Zionist Israeli lawyer Felicia Langerwho fought against the Israeli unjust judicial system throughout her 23-year career before returning to her country of origin Germany. In her book With My Own Eyes(1975), Langer recorded her encounter with my father on 6 April 1972 in Kafer Yonah, an Israeli interrogation center. Thanks to her, I have access to my dad’s earliest quote:
“I saw how children were being brutally shot dead in the camp’s streets by the Israeli border guards. I witnessed the murder of a little girl who was just leaving her school when an Israeli soldier from the border guards shot her dead. They raid the camp with their thick batons beating up everybody. They break into houses inhabited by women without knocking on the doors. They mix the flour with oil during their aggressive inspections deliberately and without any necessity.”
The systematic oppression which Palestinians live under Israeli occupation while in their unsafe homes and neighborhood chased my father to prison. “After his arrest in Jabalia Camp on January 1, 1972,” Langer states, “they dragged him to the Gaza police center while beating him with batons all the way. They showered him with extremely cold water in winter. Meanwhile, soldiers continued to attack him with batons everywhere to the extent that he lost his sense of hearing. Langer quotes my dad’s experience of this method of torture:
“This continued for 10 days… Then they threatened that unless I talked I would be banished to Amman, where I would be killed.”
Like all other Palestinians, my father was automatically trailed at an Israeli military court, where judges and prosecutors are Israeli soldiers in uniform, and the Palestinians are always guilty for challenging the authority of the military occupation regime. According to an Israeli human-rights group B’tselem, Israeli military courts “are firmly entrenched on the Israeli side of the power imbalance, and serve as one of the central systems maintaining its control over the Palestinian people.” In other words, they are an integral part of the Israeli apartheid structures.
Besides his Palestinian identity which would have automatically proved him guilty, his
socialist values further complicated matters. “Especially bitter is the fate of anyone suspected of holding communist values,” Langer observed. On 30 November 1972, the persecutor called the court to take part in the “serious war against terror,” in a plea upon the court to impose the harshest punishment against my father and his comrades who were charged for belonging to the Marxist-leaning Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. According to Langer, the persecutor claimed to be gentle in “not asking for death sentences.” Before announcing the multiple life sentences, the judge allowed my father and his comrades to say last words, but warned, “I don’t want to hear political speeches.” His comrade said there is no point since they did not recognise Israeli jurisdiction. Riot erupted as a result, and the defendants weren’t allowed to speak. But in the middle of all that, my father shouted his belief in “the triumphant power of the revolution.”
Despite his sentence that promised death in jail, my father believed an end to his living nightmare would come with the triumphant power of revolution!
Prisoners’ Exchange of 21 May 1985
The story of the exchange deal all started when Ahmad Jibril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command (PFLP-GC) captured three Israeli soldiers (Yosef Grof, Nissim Salem, Hezi Shai) in revenge for thousands of Palestinian prisoners kidnapped by Israel without any apparent reason. After a long process of negotiations, both sides struck a deal that Israel would release 1,250 prisoners in return for the three Israelis that Jibril held captive. My father was included in the deal, and fortunately, he was set free at the age of 33. Among the released prisoners were the Japanese freedom fighter Kozo Okamoto who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas who was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in 1983.
My father told me the story of 1985 prisoners exchange with tears struggling to fall. “I cannot forget the moment when the leader of the prison started calling off the names to be released,” he said while staring at a painting hung in his room that my father drew during his imprisonment of flowers blooming with the names of his family among barbed wires.
Among the prisoners was Omar al-Qassim, a leading member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Al-Qassim was asked to read the list of the names loudly. He was initially excited, hoping his freedom would be restored. Every time he said a name, a scream of happiness convulsed the walls of prison. Suddenly, his facial expression started to change, with reluctance to speak after he noticed that his name wasn’t included. My father thinks that this was a form of psychological torture by the Israeli prison manager. But Al-Qassim left him no chance for fun, and withdrew himself with dignity. Sadly, he died in an Israeli cell after 22 years of captive resistance, pride and glory.
My father described this emotionally-charged moment as bittersweet. The happiness of freed prisoners was incomplete for leaving the other prisoners in that dirty place where the sun never shines. “We were like a big family sharing everything together. We collectively handled the same pain and united to fight for one cause,” my father told me. “Although I am free now, my soul will always be with my comrades who remain in there.”
History repeats itself. On 18 October 2011, we experienced a similar historical event with a swap deal involving the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was arrested by the resistance in Gaza while he was on top of his war machine (an Israeli tank). Just like what happened with Shalit, the capture of three Israelis caused uproar in the Israeli public opinion and international media at that time, but the thousands of Palestinian prisoners behind Israeli bars were not noticed, except by the resistance groups that have always pressured Israel to meet some demands regarding the Palestinian prisoners.
The international media reaction to such events also invite anger in their emphasis on the arrested Israeli soldiers by the “terrorist” Palestinians. Thousands of Palestinian political prisoners are left behind in Israeli jails with basic rights to medical care, family and lawyer visits and fair trial are denied, and the rest of Palestinian populations endure other forms of imprisonment under Israeli structures of siege and occupation. But mainstream media chooses to look away.
My father has always said that “prisoners are the living martyrs.” He also described Israeli jails as “graves for the living.” Let’s unite and use all the means available to help thousands of Palestinian political prisoner have fewer years of suffering, especially at times the Coronavirus poses an additional danger to their lives. We share this collective responsibility. Their freedom will be a triumph for humanity.