“His imprisonment is a scandal, a shame for France,” said the lawyer of George Abdallad who has served 28 years in French jails
The hero Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, a pro-Palestinian Lebanese leftist who has spent 28 years in French prison, was supposed to be freed on Monday and expelled from France to Lebanon.
Georges joined the Popular Front for the Liberation ofPalestine in the 1960s, before joining the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Factions. He was jailed because he was a true human, a true revolutionary who dedicated his life fighting injustice. He had a great faith in the just cause of Palestine. He sacrificed 28 years of his prime for the sake of the Palestinian people’s justice and freedom. The Palestinian people are excitingly waiting for his release.
However, there is a kind of dissapoitment in the Palestnian and Lebanese streets regarding his release conditions. His release has been postposed and his deportation order has been canceled. A French Interior Minister Manuel Valls refused to sign an expulsion order, a necessary condition for Abdallah’s release. Georges’ supporters fear the postponement is a first step to renew his detention. “We are hopeful, but we don’t know what will happen,” George’s brother Robert Abdallah said. “This case is outside of the judicial realm and is now a political issue.”
He was arrested in 1984 on the basis that he was complicit in the killing of Charles Robert Ray, an American military attaché, and Yacov Barsimentov, an Israeli embassy advisor, in Paris in 1982. The United States and Israel pressured France over the years to prevent Abdallah’s release, under the pretext that he had never apologized or expressed regret for the murders. A former director of the French intelligence agency, Yves Bonnet, later said that Georges was the victim of “an illegal intelligence conspiracy.”
“His imprisonment is a scandal, a shame for France,” Georges’ lawyer Verges told French channel iTélé Thursday. “It is time for French justice to act, not like the whore of an American pimp, but like an independent justice.”
This photo was taken in Jerusalem in front of the French Consulte today. Palestinian people organized a sit-in and held Georges’ photos calling for his release. They aimed to express their anger at the delay of Geroges’ release and their disapproval of the fasciest French policies. Freedom for George Abdallah!
Palestinian detainee Jihad al-Obeidi will be freed on 20 January after 25 years in Israeli prisons. His family has already started decorating their house in Jerusalem with colorful lights and Palestinian flags to celebrate Jihad’s freedom. They are excited to welcome him home and fill his place, which has been empty for 25 years.
Jihad al-Obeidi was charged for affiliation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and accused of trying to kill Israeli soldiers. He was sentenced to 25 years of detention, despite never having attended a trial. He was absent from the court that sentenced him, after he was expelled for refusing to stand for its racist judges.
Jihad wrote to his family that the first place he will visit after his release will be the grave of his nephew, Milad Ayyash. Milad was a 17-year-old boy whose life was cut short in May 2011 as he fell prey to an Israeli criminal who still walks freely somewhere, having escaped from justice by virtue of being an Israeli settler. Milad was killed when the settler’s bullet pierced his chest as Palestinians from the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem commemorated the 64th anniversary of the Nakba.
The Nakba is the gloomiest period in Palestinian history, the year of mass killing, dispossession and systematic ethnic cleansing of three quarters of a million Palestinians from 513 Palestinian villages. The Zionist entity, what is called now Israel, was built on their ruins.
Killed by settler
Silwan residents were demonstrating outside an illegal settler home in the Beit Yonatan neighborhood of East Jerusalem – the site of yet another eviction by radical settlers attempting to Judaize that part of the city – when a window suddenly opened from the settler lair and shots rang out, leaving Milad to drown in his own blood. (See the photos of Milad’s funeral, taken by Mahmoud Illean.)
Tragically, Milad was born and killed during his uncle Jihad’s imprisonment. Milad never saw his uncle Jihad, as only first-degree relatives are allowed family visits – if they aren’t banned – according to the Israeli Prison Service’s inhumane rules. But Jihad was introduced to Milad through his photographs and his mother’s stories of him, which made Milad feel close to his uncle. Milad was attached to his uncle, as well as the Palestinian prisoners in general, as he is also the son of ex-detainee Saeed Ayyash, released in a 1985 prisoner exchange. Milad’s thoughts travelled to the day when his uncle Jihad would be free. He often shared his thoughts with his mother: “We will be Uncle Jihad’s first destination when he is released, right, Mum?”
The painful news of Milad’s murder broke Jihad’s heart. Filled with sorrow at his murder, Jihad decided to make Milad’s wish true and visit him first. He will visit his grave to show that Israel doesn’t kill our children, it immortalizes them, and that, sooner or later, Israel will be held accountable for all its crimes against humanity.
Solidarity hunger strike
Loai Odeh, a detainee freed in the Shalit deal and expelled from Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip, sparked my curiosity to learn about Jihad al-Obeidi. During the open mass hunger strike launched on Palestinian Prisoners’ Day in 2012, dozens of people, including detainees’ relatives and ex-detainees, went on hunger strike in solidarity inside a sit-in tent in a Gaza park.
Loai was one of the hunger strikers who took the sky as their ceiling and trees as their walls, with a surrounding tent to protect them from the sun. He decorated the tent behind his bed with pictures of detainees who he feels most attached to, including Jihad Obeidy.
That motivated me to Google his name. I found a touching video of his parents that shows the torment Palestinian detainees’ parents typically endure, especially for the sake of their 45-minute family visits. The video began with Jihad’s 75-year-old mother introducing herself, saying, “I am Um Jihad al-Obeidi. I was born in Lifta.”
Lifta is a village on the northern fringes of Jerusalem, one of hundreds of Palestinian villages seized by the newly-established Jewish state in 1948. But it is one of the few not to have been subsequently covered in the concrete and tarmac of Israeli towns and roads, or planted over with trees and shrubs to create forests, parks and picnic areas, or transformed into Israeli artists’ colonies. The ruins of Lifta were threatened many times with being bulldozed and turned into luxury housing units.
A sigh, and a moment of silence, followed that sentence, as if Umm Jihad meant to remind everyone that her village is originally Palestinian, and that for the injustice Palestinian people face, we continue to struggle and pay the price of freedom. For many Palestinians, Lifta is a symbol of the Nakba, of their longing for their land and bitterness at their continued refugee status, a physical memory of injustice and survival.
Since Jihad was arrested, his mother fell into depression, then became ill with cancer. She went through chemotherapy and four surgeries. However, her longing to see her son again served as her source of strength. Her fear of passing away before hugging her son again never left her mind. She was able to visit him only once every year because her critical health wouldn’t allow her to travel far.
“May God grant us health and patience to see you freed,” Jihad’s mother says in the video, while hugging her son’s picture and kissing it. “It’ll be the happiest moment when you are set free. God willing, I’ll live long enough to hug you, away from Israel’s bars and jailers’ inspecting eyes, and carry your kids.”
Jihad will be free in a matter of few days, but these days feel like years to his mother.
Jihad’s parents, like all detainees’ parents, suffered from the Israel Prison Service’s (IPS) ill treatment, especially during family visits. In Jihad’s twenty-five years of detention, the IPS transferred him between almost every Israeli jail, so that he never enjoyed a sense of stability. They never considered the distance between his jail and his family’s house. For years, Jihad’s parents traveled long distances to reach prisons, then suffered verbal and physical harassment, humiliation, strip searches and long hours of waiting.
Promises and bitterness
“Jihad keeps promising us that he will never let us do anything at home when he is released,” his father said with a slight smile. “He said he will cook and clean and serve us with all his strength, as he could feel how much we tolerate Israel’s torture to visit him. Sometimes in the winter, during family visit, Israeli soldiers used to make us stand and wait outside prison, as the sky snowed over us.”
Despite these family visits symbolizing a lifeline to prisoners and their families, the happiness of uniting and exchanging stories is mixed with bitterness. “Our tears start streaming down whenever we see him behind Israeli bars,” his father said with tearful eyes. “Our hearts ache to observe how he is growing old there.”
Jihad’s parents’ painful story is about to have a happy ending with his release. But thousands of prisoners are still behind Israeli bars, and they and their families continue to suffer. Thinking of other detainees and their families, who share the same pain, Jihad’s mother said, “My son has served most of his sentence, but many others are serving lifetimes. I call on everyone to remember these prisoners and keep following their just cause. Support them so they regain their freedom soon and return to their families.”
My message to Jihad al-Obeidi: this post is dedicated to you, to congratulate you in advance for your physical freedom. Israel has only succeeded in imprisoning your body, but never your mind, nor your determination and everlasting hope for complete freedom.
I’ve always looked at you, and all your comrades who sacrifice their most precious years for the sake of our freedom and dignity, as heroes. You’re the most dignified and the most courageous. Be certain that your people in Gaza are as excited for your freedom as your people in Jerusalem. Israel’s apartheid walls and checkpoints will never manage to make us apart. I know your happiness will be incomplete, as more than four thousands of your comrades remain inside Israeli jails. But we will raise our voices higher and continue to fight until all jails are emptied.
Ayman Shrawna has suspended his 178-day hunger strike for ten days, as he has been promised by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) that it would review his case and release him by the beginning of next year. He is allowing himself to have only fluids, but has threatened to continue his strike if the IPS fails to fulfill its promises. This leaves Samer Issawi alone in this battle of empty stomachs, continuing his historic hunger strike that has lasted for 183 days.
While surfing on Facebook this week, I saw a video my best friend Loai Odeh had shared of the attack on Samer Issawi in an Israeli court. It made me feel sick and angry, but not shocked.
“Your humanity and determination is always stronger than their brutality and savagery,” Loai wrote to his friend Samer, whom he grew up with in Jerusalem, and with whom he shared a cell in Israeli jails and was released in the prisoner exchange deal last year. Loai had first thought that Samer was luckier than him to be able return to Jerusalem. By contrast, Loai was expelled to the Gaza Strip from his hometown, where every corner guards his and Samer’s precious childhood memories.
“I know how stubborn he is,” Loai told me when Samer was kidnapped by Israeli forces on 7 July and declared an open hunger strike to protest his re-arrest. “He will not break this hunger strike until he is set free, even if it costs him his life.”
Loai spoke beautifully to me about Samer many times, which made me feel spiritually close to him. “Samer is stronger than all these hardships.” Loai keeps repeating these words over and over again as he counts the days of Samer’s mounting hunger strike.
I remember when Loai called me last Sunday, December 16, saying that it was Samer’s birthday. “He is celebrating his birthday in hunger, in a cold dark cell,” he said after a few seconds of silence that interrupted our call.
“Keep being free,” Loai wrote as a birthday greeting to Samer. “Keep your head held high over their barbed wires and racist walls. You shall be among us, my comrade.”
Despite the grave conditions Samer suffered on his birthday and still suffers, he and all the Palestinian people still have something to celebrate: his indestructible will. He is armed with a determination that makes physical necessities like food meaningless. This steadfastness is more harmful to the Israeli military than any weapon. It drove them to attack him and his family, and to destroy sit-in tents erected in solidarity with him in Jerusalem, especially in his home village, Issawiyeh. We are all proud of Samer, who reminds us that our cause is just.
As I read Facebook status updatesby Shireen, Samer Issawi’s sister, her simple but powerful words moved me so much that I burst into tears. She vividly narrated how Samer and her family were attacked three days ago in the Israeli court, which she described as “racist.”
“Seven Israeli occupation soldiers savagely attacked Samer, ignoring his critical health condition and the fact that he was shackled to his wheelchair,” she wrote.
His family saw this brutality against Samer, and tried to protect him and prevent soldiers from beating him, but were dragged outside the court. Shireen wrote that the judge of the court was also there, watching idly. Instead of trying to do anything to end this brutality against a sick, shackled prisoner lingering at the edge of death, he ran out of the court. This judge and the IPS should be held accountable for their crimes against humanity.
Yesterday morning, I heard Samer’s mother speaking to Palestine Today TV live by telephone. She described how she saw her dying son being beaten. “All he did was try to shake hands with me,” she said. “This might have been the last chance for us to see, touch, or say goodbye to each other.” Her shaking, sorrowful tone still echoes in my ears.
She also described how Israeli soldiers raided their house in Jerusalem the same day, broke into Shireen’s room, and kidnapped her. Shireen has done nothing but try to give a voice to her brother. She has worked very hard organizing solidarity hunger strikes and protests. She has spoken to human rights organizations and international media, calling on people around the world to support her brother. But she is a threat to Israel because she is a strong voice of truth.
One of Shireen’s status updates reflected how she felt during the day she spent in an Israeli cell. “When they pushed me into that narrow, horribly dirty and cold isolation cell, I felt more spiritually united with my brother Samer,” she said. “I can’t put into words how proud I felt that my brother Samer can endure these hardships. He is a legend, as he remains resolved to continue his hunger strike despite all the difficult and painful circumstances he has endured.”
This cold weather makes the hunger strike a lot more difficult. The colder it gets, the more food the hunger striker needs. All our Palestinian political detainees suffer as the IPS refuses to supply them with winter clothes, sheets, and shoes, in attempt to break their will. Israel will never succeed. No matter how and to what extent the IPS oppresses our heroes, they will remain strong and defiant.
In Gaza, we have set up a tent to express solidarity with Samer Issawi, Ayman Shawana and all Palestinian political prisoners. Groups of people from different generations keep coming back and forth to the tent expressing their solidarity in different ways. Yesterday, I attended a poetry reading organized by the Islamic University of Gaza, featuring the Egyptian poet Hesham El-Jakh. I could see a group of students holding Samer Issawi’s posters while waving the Palestinian flags. Observing how our heroes inside Israeli jails unite the Palestinian people everywhere makes me proud and happy.
Don’t hesitate to do anything you can in support of Palestinian hunger strikers. Your silence gives the IPS impunity to continue its cruelty against our detainees, violating international humanitarian law. Your silence can lead to the killing of our heroes. Act now to end our hunger strikers’ suffering. We want our hero Samer Issawi to stay alive.
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!”
The long hours of waiting inside the bus without moving gave me a backache, but I couldn’t complain with many elderly and sick people surrounding me. An old woman sat to my right. I could read many stories of struggle and suffering in her wrinkles, her traditional Palestinian dress, and her tight eyes. She wore a brace around her neck. I could hear her muttering prayers.
Due to Israel’s apartheid checkpoints, it took us a day to reach Jericho, which is roughly one hour from Allenby Bridge. I waited eagerly, imagining myself walking around the old city of Jerusalem before heading to Gaza. We wasted over four hours waiting for the Israeli soldiers to let us pass through their checkpoints. Being from Gaza made my crossing procedures even more complicated. I spent the whole trip to Jericho counting minutes and hours. The more time we wasted, the less likely it became for me to tour Jerusalem. The time limit that Israel imposed by closing Erez at 7:00 pm made me stressful.
At sunset, I finished all the crossing and security procedures. I hurried to the exit to find my taxi driver sweating, standing by his parked car next to the door waiting for us. He rushed me inside the car, saying that he had to drive me to the District Coordination Offices (DCO) right away to get a permit to leave before it was too late. People from Gaza get permits to cross through Erez back to Gaza there, and people from West Bank get permits to enter Jerusalem and other “Israeli” territory.
On the way to Jordan, I tried my hardest to stop in Jerusalem and visit the Odeh family, whose son Loai was deported to Gaza after his release in the Shalit swap deal. Loai and I became close friends as soon as we met. Before I left Gaza, I promised him that I would do my best to visit his family and give them a hug on his behalf. I couldn’t on my way to Jordan. But I was persistent to make it happen when I returned.
I endured a stream of silence and frustration. Then my telephone rang. It was our travel coordinator from Gaza.
“Listen carefully,” he said in a very serious tone. “The DCO closes at 4:00 pm, and now it’s 5:30 pm. You won’t be able to go home tonight. You’ll have to stay at a hotel, or at a relative’s or friend’s house in Jericho. Keep in mind that you’re only allowed to move within Jericho. No one but you will pay its price for anything outside its limits.”
I said nothing in response and acted as if I was taking his words seriously, but smiled, because only then did I sense how lucky I was. I hung up, turned to the driver excitedly, and said, “I won’t go home tonight. I’m supposed to stay in Jericho, but I’m not going to fear anyone. This night will come once in a lifetime, and I’m not going to spend it restricting my footsteps and worrying about Israel’s racist rules or anyone’s orders.”
He smiled and said, “I’m dropping you in Jericho.” I screamed, refusing to accept what he said, but he interrupted me, raised his voice, and continued, “This is what ‘they’ will assume, but not what will happen! I’ll pick you up from Jerusalem tomorrow morning to go to the DCO.” I made sure he meant it before I got too excited, then I burst into screams and tears of happiness. We drove toward Jerusalem while singing one of my favorite Fairouz songs, about Jerusalem: “For you, the city of prayers, I pray.”
The driver warned me of the dangers I might face if I entered Jerusalem. We knew there were risks, but we decided to take them . The checkpoint between Jerusalem and Jericho was the problem. No car can enter Jerusalem without going through it. If we passed it without being stopped by Israeli soldiers, then we were safe.
We put sunglasses on and began chatting and laughing as if everything was normal. We passed without the soldiers noticing anything “wrong”. When the checkpoints disappeared from sight, we shouted, “We made it!” The first person I called was Loai. “I’m now heading to Jerusalem, to meet your family!” I screamed with happiness. “Let the driver drop you at the Jerusalem Hotel, where my brother Obay is waiting for you,” Loai said laughing.
I couldn’t be more grateful to a person than the driver, who put himself at risk to make my dream come true. He dropped me near the hotel, made sure that I was safe, and left me to enjoy the rest of my time in Jerusalem, before the next morning when my adventure would end.
I had never met Obay, but I felt like I already knew him. We talked briefly once when Loai was in Egypt. He introduced us on Skype. Loai had told how special their relationship was, especially after they were reunited in prison. They shared a cell together for over two years before Obay, who was detained in 2002 as a child at the age of 17, was released in 2006. They met again in Egypt last January. I could see many similarities Obay shared with Loai – appearance, behavior, way of thinking and even their expressions – that made me feel closer to him.
The first thing we did was take a walking tour inside the old city of Jerusalem. I can’t describe how good it felt to be there. I took a short noon tour there last June, but the city is even more magnificent at night. I could hear history, authenticity, and solidity narrated by every stone, every wall, every street, everything. But at the same time, I recalled how Loai once described his city: “Jerusalem is a sad town.” It’s true. I could touch the anger, the sorrow, and the challenge everywhere while wandering its ancient alleys.
The people who remained in Jerusalem suffer the most from Israeli occupation and apartheid. While wandering around, we saw many people sitting outside their homes chatting. I passed by a group of girls in a courtyard. They were very welcoming and loving when they learned I came from Gaza. I asked them about the occupation, with which they interact daily. “We will never leave our homes even if it costs us our lives,” one of them replied. “Israel offered to buy these old, small houses with unbelievable amounts of money, but we never gave them up and never will. Our resistance is to stay here, despite all the mocking, humiliation, and violations of our rights.”
I was thrilled by her answer. A young girl among them grabbed me to introduce me to her family. I was shocked to see how narrow her house was. They had only one room, where nine people, including her parents, live.
I kept walking. I could see Hebrew graffiti on the walls and Israeli flags. It’s not only a sad city, but also an angry one. I could sense its anger shaking the floor beneath me, as if it was saying, “My tongue is Arab and my identity is Palestinian.”
In the old city of Jerusalem, it is easy to tell where Palestinians and settlers live, even without Israeli flags flying on roofs or Hebrew written on the walls. The Palestinian homes are very old and narrow. They’re not permitted to be renovated. Electrical wires are uncovered and tied to the ceiling. Israel tries every way to pressure Palestinians to leave their houses with the neglect of the civil services and the increase of taxes. On the other hand, the settlers’ homes appeared to be in good shape and enjoyed good electricity and other public services. Settlers are allowed to extend and refurbish their houses.
I followed Obay wherever he went. We climbed snaky stairs until we reached a roof, where an Israeli soldier suddenly came outside to ask why we were there. Obay answered calmly, “Just to see the city from the top.”
I didn’t know exactly where I was, and the soldier, who was monitoring screens connected with cameras spread all over the city, made me nervous. Then Obay pointed. I turned to where his finger stopped to discover that the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque were right in front of me. I opened my eyes wide and sighed. The exceptional beauty of the golden dome glittered and lit up the dark sky.
No matter how long I meditate on this magnificent view, my eyes will stay thirsty. But we had to leave. Obay had a nice plan to make use of my only night there. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that our next destination was Jaffa. It was always a dream, but one in the back of my mind, which I thought would be impossible to reach. We headed there in the car. Being in Jaffa increased my longing to return to Beit-Jerja, my original village, where my grandparents were ethnically cleansed in 1948. The refugees’ return is a right, not just a dream, and it will be fulfilled someday.
The first thing we did in Jaffa was have dinner in a restaurant that overlooking the beach. We were starving after an hour driving and over two hours wandering around Jerusalem. In Gaza, the last thing I would order is fish, as even it is imported. The Israeli Navy occupies our sea and prevents fishermen from going farther than three nautical miles, cutting down Gaza’s wealth of fish. In Jaffa, I didn’t hesitate for even a second to try the fish of our Mediterranean sea, and I didn’t regret it! I can’t tell you how succulent it tasted.
Immediately after we finished eating, I ran toward the seashore in my bare feet to wet them and feel the warm waves. I kept walking, paying no attention to time or distance, while breathing Jaffa’s pure air and collecting beautiful seashells to keep as souvenirs. It felt so harmonic and spiritual. I never stopped thinking about my people in Gaza, who were very near, but could never reach this side of the Palestinian beach.
I wished I could watch the sunrise there, but we had to go back to Jerusalem a little earlier, as Loai’s father was worried about us. I couldn’t complain about anything. I received more than I expected. I repeatedly described how happy I was this way: “I am afraid I will die from too much happiness.” I hoped for at least an hour in Jerusalem, and unexpectedly, I had a whole night in both Jerusalem and Jaffa. Alhamdullah, God was very generous to me.
It meant a lot to be at Loai’s house. His pictures hung everywhere, even in the garden. I caught only two hours of sleep before I had to leave the house to get a permit from the DCO. Before I said goodbye to Loai’s family, I took pictures of every corner of the house to show Loai the place where he was raised, since he had almost forgotten its appearance after ten years of detention. I also picked two branches from a beautiful tree in their garden. He was very happy to receive these photos and branches.
All these adventures felt like a dream, one so happy that I never wanted to wake up. But my return to Gaza was obligatory. I spent seven hours in the DCO, waiting for the Israeli soldiers to issue my permit to return to Gaza through Erez. As I arrived in a Gaza blackout, I was welcomed by a very loud bomb that exploded near Beit Hanoun. I was scared at first, but then I burst out laughing and shouted, “Welcome back to Gaza!”
|crowds of thousands have greeted 310 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 310 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 bald 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.