“If we had not resisted through mass hunger strikes, we would have remained like the slaves from the Middle Ages,” my father, Ismail, told me during a Skype call after I forced him to revisit his memories from the 33-day legendary Nafha prison hunger strike that he joined 37 years ago…
On May 27, Palestinians worldwide celebrated the end of the Freedom and Dignity hunger strike that approximately 1500 Palestinian political prisoners joined on April 17. After 40 days of hunger and streets mobilisations, the Israeli authorities were forced to listen to their demands.
This was not the first hunger strike– Palestinian political prisoners sought this means of resistance repeatedly since 1967 to call for an end for Israeli brutal practices against them. It may not be the last strike- the Israeli Prison Service has constantly violated treaties forged with Palestinian detainees as they openly violated other international conventions. However, the Freedom and Dignity hunger strike said it clear and loud, “we will never submit to their oppression. We will always resist even if the tool is hunger.”
Let’s keep in mind that Israeli cycle of violence against Palestinian political detainees as well as civilians had been non-stop since Israel’s existence. Therefore, the fight for justice continues. We should take it as a lesson from Palestinian hunger strikers to never give up.
Ever since the emergence of the Palestinian cause, art has been the visual expression of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. Most visual production of Palestinian artists has been strongly tied with the political conditions that Zionist settler-colonialism brought in, shaping every facet of the Palestinians’ daily life. Palestinian artists are not exempt from these conditions. Palestinian art has mostly – but not only – reflected the Palestinian people’s suffering and state of loss and exile that the traumatic events of the 1948 Nakba caused.
The well-known Palestinian artist and art historian Kamal Boullata raised some questions regarding Palestinian art that I will try to offer a humble answer for through my drawings.
“How does one create art under the threat of sudden death and the unpredictability of invasion and siege? More specifically, how do Palestinian artists articulate their awareness of space when their homeland’s physical space is being diminished daily by barriers and electronic walls and when their own homes could at any moment be occupied by soldiers or even blown out of existence? In what way can an artist engage with the homeland’s landscape when ancient orange and olive groves are being systematically destroyed? When the grief of bereaved families is reduced by the mass media to an abstraction transmitted at lightning speed to a TV screen, what language can a visual artist use to express such grief? (Boullata, 2004)”
This piece will be a personal reflection on my life journey through the lens of my art that was mainly inspired from experiences instilled in my memory from my life in the Gaza Strip, Palestine.
Palestinian art as a narrative instrument of resistance:
Figure 2: For the Sake of the Sun
Palestinian art, from the twentieth century up until now, has always been a visual reflection of the Palestinian struggle that aimed to depict the reality of the Palestinian people, their hopes and aspirations, their suffering, coupled with resistance. It is also a visual self-representation tool that aims to provide a counter narrative to the hegemonic Zionist misleading narrative of the Palestinian reality, to raise political awareness on the Palestinian issue and urge for mobilisation at an international level.
Speaking of narrative brings to mind the words of Edward Said, the late Palestinian exiled academic and writer, which reminds that, “no clear and simple narrative is adequate to the complexity of our experience” (After the Last Sky 1986: 6).
“To be sure, no single Palestinian can be said to feel what most other Palestinians feel: ours has been too various and scattered a fate for that sort of correspondence,” Said eloquently stated. “But there is no doubt that we do in fact form a community, if at heart a community built on suffering and exile” (After the Last Sky 1986: 5-6).
Certainly, Palestinian art has served as a narrative instrument that is used to challenge the hegemonic Zionist narrative which has been tirelessly trying to erase them. Zionism’s existence was fundamentally based on the negation of the very existence of the Palestinian people, a fact that is implicit in Israel’s fourth Prime Minister, Golda Meir’s infamous quotation that, “There was no such thing as Palestinians, they never existed” (Matar, 2011, p. 84).
Among many other forms of expression, art for many Palestinians was seen as a way to visually participate in writing their own narrative, to express their identity, to empower the Palestinians’ voices, and to move beyond the victim circle to become actors who actively, critically and creatively engage with their surrounding matters.
Over the course of the Palestinian struggle, the Palestinian people increasingly regarded every piece of art that came to reflect their living conditions in the Israeli grip as a means of resistance. Many Palestinian paintings displaying the ‘forbidden’ colors of the Palestinian flag have been confiscated, and many artists faced interrogation or even a prison sentence due their art that was perceived as ‘an act of incitement’. Let us not forget the late Palestinian influential exiled artists Ghassan Kanafani and Naji Al-Ali, whose art and literary production led to their murder.
Reflections on my artwork
Figure 3: Children of Refugee Camps: A violated Childhood
The majority of Palestinians have become politicised due to their complex and intense political reality that shapes every aspect of their lives. I am no exception. Art for me was an expressive tool in which I found empowerment to my voice. It served as my humble tactic to overcome the state of siege and occupation imposed on us, to escape the feeling of helplessness that can be easily felt in such suppressive and oppressive life conditions that the Palestinian people endure which I was born within. It was also a tool that I used to engage politically and socially with the harsh surrounding. While living in Gaza, my art was an attempt to connect not only on an internal level as a part of the Palestinian community, but also internationally through online social networks that I used as a bridge that connects the international community with the Palestinian people’s struggle for liberation, which should be addressed as a central global issue.
Since my birth in Jabalia Refugee Camp in the north of the Gaza Strip, the biggest and most densely populated refugee camp in Palestine, I have never known what life is like without occupation and siege, injustice and horror. Like the child depicted in Figure 3, growing up in Jabalia refugee camp was the window to understanding the Palestinian reality under occupation. Art has been the way I naturally sought since a very early age to describe what I felt was indescribable.
In the context of Palestine under which people endure unbearable living conditions, creativity is a necessary tool for survival and a way towards less depression and better physical and mental health.
Personally, observing the Palestinian children being born in a difficult reality that subjugates them to terror and trauma at very young age was the most painful. Thus, most of my drawings are of Palestinian children whose innocent facial expressions I find most telling. Check Figure 3, 4 , 5, 6 and 7 in the slideshow below:
An ongoing Nakba:
My generation, the third-generation refugees, was already blueprinted with the traumatic events of the Nakba, which for Palestinians, is not only a tragic historical event that resides in the past, only to be commemorated once a year with events that include art exhibits and national festivals among other things. “It was never one Nakba,” my grandmother used to say asserting that it was never a one-off event that happened in 1948. The Nakba is experienced instead as the uninterrupted process of Israeli settler-colonialism and domination that was given continuity by the 1967 occupation, and which every aspect of daily Palestinian life is affected by. Growing up hearing our grandmothers recount the life they had before, the dispossessed lands that most would never see again, has formed the collective memory of the Palestinian people. My grandmother described a peaceful life in green fields of citrus and olive trees, the tastes, the sounds, the smells that remained only in her memories in our village Beit-Jirja which was violently emptied of its inhabitants and razed to the ground in 1948 like hundreds of other villages.
As Boullata described, ‘Today, memory continues to be the connective tissue through which Palestinian identity is asserted and it is the fuel that replenishes the history of their cultural resistance’ (Boullata, 2009, p. 103). Palestinian art has been always perceived as a cultural form of political resistance which often addressed issues related to collective memory, memories of the Nakba, and the lived reality of injustices and oppression endured by Palestinians under the on-going occupation with an emphasis on the people’s resistance in the face of Israel’s brutality as coupled with hope, which in itself is resistance. Art has served as a basic mobilization tool that was gradually perceived, not only by the Palestinian public, but also by the Israeli forces “as emblematic of a collective national identity and crucibles of defiant resistance to occupation” (Boullata, 2004).
Several drawings of mine, such as those featured below, were an attempt to emphasize this hope through the continuity of the struggle from one generation to another. They were my response to several Zionist leaders who assumed that time will make the Palestinian refugees forget about their right to return. The drawings come to assert that they were absolutely wrong. The old will die and the young will keep on holding the key, embracing their legitimate right to return. The key is a symbol of the undying Palestinian hope that return is inevitable. The young generation is perceived as those who will carry the burden of the cause and continue the struggle that the previous generation started until freedom, justice, equality and return to the Palestinian people. Thus, Palestinian children became the symbol through which “We nurse hope” as Mahmoud Darwish said (Darwish, 2002).
From an early age, drawing was not only a tool of expression, but also a way to convey a political message, to call for mobilisation in support of the Palestinian struggle. The power of art lays in the fact that is a universal language to communicate the unspeakable that many people in safety zones cannot fully understand. With the availability of online platforms, it became possible to reach beyond borders and checkpoints to a wider audience.
I was only nine years old when my parents noticed my drawing skills that were limited to black warplanes, pillars of smoke in the sky and crying eyes. This coincided with the eruption of the second intifada in September 2000 when I used to accompany my mother and aunt to the martyrs’ funeral tents to offer our condolences. I used to hate the green colour, as it was associated in my memory with martyrs’ funeral tents, which were disturbingly visible in Jabalia refugee camp’s landscape. The first poem I ever learned to memorize by heart was one by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish entitled, “And He Returned …In A Coffin”. As a nine-year old girl, I stood in front of everyone sitting along the benches in the marquee, looked into the people’s tearful eyes, and in a powerful but shaking voice, I recited,
They speak in our homeland
they say in sorrow
about my comrade who passed
and returned in a coffin
Do you remember his name?
Don’t mention his name!
Let him rest in our hearts.
Let’s not let the word get lost
in the air like ash.
It was moments like these, during the tumult of the second intifada that fundamentally shaped my consciousness about the land and my place in it. Since childhood, the scenes of war, the faces of martyrs, the injured and detained people, the cries and weeping of the martyrs’ relatives over the loss of their beloved, have been chasing me day and night. These scenes pushed me to seek art as a way to express my emotions, to reconcile with my wounds, to reflect on my memories and experiences that many Palestinians share.
Humanising Prisoners’ issue through art
Chains Shall Break
Moreover, being a daughter of an ex-detainee means I have grown a unique attachment to the plight of the Palestinian political prisoners, not only from a political perspective but also from a personal one. My father spent a total of fifteen years in Israeli jails, a part of his original seven life sentences. The stories of resilience, suffering and oppression that I grew up hearing from him about his stolen youth in Israeli jails have made me develop a particular passion to advocate for justice for Palestinian political prisoners who endure inhumane living conditions under the Israel Prison Service which denies them their most basic rights.
However, in spite of its importance, the issue of Palestinian political prisoners and their families who suffer immensely from the pain of longing and separation and are often denied their right to family visits is not given the deserved attention in the political arena. They are not only marginalized, but also dehumanized as whenever they are mentioned in the media discourse, they are mentioned as merely statistics or numbers. Through the drawings below, I attempted to humanize the prisoners’ plight and draw attention to their daily resistance in the face of the oppressive Israeli jailers that treat them as if they are not humans. I tried to depict their determination to break their chains, their resisting spirit in Israeli jails. I also tried to express their families’ pain as they are imprisoned in time, waiting for a day when their re-union without barriers in between will be possible again.
The Pain of Waiting: Imprisoned in Time
This drawing above was an attempt to show how waiting for a reunion between the prisoners and their families is in itself a torment. My mother experienced seeing my father being violently captured in front of her eyes from the middle of their house three times when the first intifada erupted in December 1987. She was a newly married bride expecting her first child, my eldest brother Majed, when he was re-arrested and forced to serve an administrative detention order, an arbitrary procedure that Israel uses against the Palestinian people to imprison people without charge or trial, usually based on secret information that neither the detainee nor his lawyer have access to. The experience was repeated when my elder sister Majd was born, and lastly soon after my birth. My mother has always described the torturous experience of waiting for my father’s release, how she spent days and nights staring at the clock, waiting impatiently to hear some news from him while her right to family visits was denied.
The imprisonment experience repeats itself hundreds of thousands of times across Palestine, regardless of gender or age. I have many family members, friends and neighbours who experienced unbearable conditions that range from physical torture to psychological torture to even sexual torture. Palestinian political prisoners have always resisted the brutality of the Israel Prison Service. They have no weapon but hunger to protest their inhumane living conditions and call for their right to proper medical care, the right to family visits and other basic rights under international law while imprisoned. “Hunger strike until either martyrdom or freedom” is a motto that many prisoners adopted. The drawing below aimed to illustrate the spirit of this motto.
Hunger Until Either Martyrdom or Freedom
Memories of War
The turning point of my life was at the age of seventeen, after witnessing the 22-day massacre that the Israeli occupation forces committed against our people in Gaza in 2008-09. During that dismal period when we remained in darkness amidst the continuous bombing, destruction and mass killing of Palestinians in Gaza, I had a terrible sense of being isolated from the rest of the world. The trauma of seeing such levels of brutality was intense. No one was certain if they would live for another day or not.
One of the most memorable moments is that when one night, I was sitting in darkness, surrounded by my mother and siblings in one small room of our house under one blanket. No voice could be heard, just heartbeats and heavy, shaky breaths. The beating and breathing grew louder after every new explosion we felt crashing around, shaking our home and lighting up the sky. Then suddenly, the door of our house opened violently and somebody shouted, “Leave home now!” It was my dad rushing in to evacuate our house because of a bomb threat to a neighbour. I remember that my siblings and I grasped Mum and started running outside unconsciously, barefoot. For three days we stayed in a nearby house, powerless as we sat, waiting to be either killed, or wounded, or forced to watch our home destroyed.
This merciless and inhumane attack killed at least 1417 men, women and children. I wasn’t among them but what if I had been? Would I be buried like any one of them in a grave, nothing left of me but a blurry picture stuck on the wall and the memory of another teenage girl slain too young? Would I have been for the world just a number, a dead person? I refused to dwell on that thought. Many drawings of mine, such as those below, were inspired from memories attached to this traumatic event whose memories always floated back whenever an attack was repeated. Most importantly, resorting to art was a necessary means that helped me preserve my sanity and overcome harsh traumatic events that I experienced throughout my life in the suffocating blockade of the Gaza Strip.
While living under conditions of ghettoization, occupation and military assault, a continuation of the Zionist domination of the Palestinian land that was dispossessed in 1948 for the ‘Jewish state’ to be founded, Palestinian artists continue to be driven to express themselves in paint, photography, and other visual media, with having the Palestinian struggle for liberation as the central theme for their artwork. Art has offered Palestinians a platform to engage with the politicaly complex reality and express the suppressed voice of the Palestinian people in visual forms that can communicate universally. It was also a way to humanise the people’s suffering that is usually dehumanised in mainstream media and reduced to a dry coverage of abstractions that present them as numbers and statistics. Palestinian art, therefore, has been perceived as a form of political resistance, a mobilization tool, a way to assert the Palestinians’ embrace of our legitimate political and human rights, such as the right to return, the right to self-determination, and the right to live in dignity and freedom.
The PA’s deputy minister of foreign affairs Taysir Jaradat said that embassy staff found Zayed lying in the garden covered in blood, the Ma’an News Agency reported.
Ahmed, another brother of Zayed, told Ma’an that the killers “threw him out of the embassy’s balcony, killing him.”
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas reportedly ordered an investigation into Zayed’s death. Issa Qaraqe, the PA’s prisoners affairs chief, accused the Israeli spy agency Mossad of killing Zayed.
Zayed escaped from Israeli detention 25 years ago and had lived in Bulgaria for more than two decades. In December, Israel demanded he be extradited, so he sought shelter at the embassy.
“Omar’s blood will not be wasted in vain,” his brother Hamza said, adding that those responsible for Zayed’s assassination “must pay the price.”
But the family insists that Israel is not the only one to blame.
Zayed was being “threatened by some individuals at the embassy – especially the ambassador – who demanded him to leave the embassy,” his brother Ahmed told Ma’an. Ahmed also accused security guards present at the embassy of “collaborating” with his brother’s assassination.
Zayed’s brother Hamza told Al-Hadaf that Palestinian Authority ambassador Ahmad al-Madbouh said to Zayed that they would kill him by poisoning his food and that a plane would be waiting to return him to Israel.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine accused the Mossad of murdering Zayed but also blamed “the Bulgarian government and security forces who pursued Comrade Nayef Zayed for arrest and imprisonment for over three months.”
The Marxist group said the PA was responsible “for failing to protect Comrade Nayef Zayed from assassination,” even as “the highest officials of the Palestinian Authority met with the highest officials of the Bulgarian state in Ramallah, with no apparent demands made for our pursued comrade.”
It was reported in the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz that Zayed perhaps “fell from a high floor.” The Israeli foreign ministry said that “although Israel had asked for his extradition, it learned of his death in the media and is currently studying the information.”
Zayed had been given a life sentence by an Israeli military court for his alleged involvement in the killing of an Israeli settler, for which he was arrested in 1986.
Zayed launched a hunger strike in 1990. While being treated in a Bethlehem hospital, he escaped Israeli custody and fled the country.
Zayed reached Bulgaria in 1994, after moving around the Middle East in secret. His wife Rania and their three children are Bulgarian citizens.
On 15 December, the Israeli embassy in Bulgaria officially requested his extradition. He was given 72 hours to turn himself in, but Zayed refused.
Embassies enjoy protection under the 1961 Vienna convention, and Bulgaria recognized Palestine as a state in 1988.
History of kidnapping and assassination
Israel has long targeted Palestinians all over the world. The scholar, resistance activist and novelist Ghassan Kanafani was assassinated by an Israeli car bomb in Lebanon in 1972.
Dirar Abu Sisi, the deputy engineer of the only power plant in the Gaza Strip, was kidnapped by the Mossad while on an overnight train from Kharkiv to Kiev in February 2011.
He was handcuffed and tortured, forced into a coffin and deported by a plane to Israel where he is now held captive.
Palestinians in Gaza City have launched a solidarity hunger strike in a sit-in protest outside the Red Cross. (Ahmad Abu Hussein)
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.
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.
A smuggled letter from Israeli jails written by the administrative detainees who are on hunger strike.
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.
When I heard that the Palestinian Authority agreed to resume negotiations with the Israeli occupation, I fell into a depression. Here we go again, I thought.
It is a repeat of the what followed the 1993 Oslo accords, time after time.
Yet again, the Israelis are represented by Tzipi Livni, who as a member of the government played a key role during Israel’s 2008–2009 invasion of Gaza.
And opposite her, once again, is Saeb Erekat as Palestinian “chief negotiator.”
How could the blood of the 1,400 victims killed during that massacre be forgotten so quickly? How could Erekat share the same table with her, as he did at a Ramadan iftar at the house of US Secretary of State John Kerry, exchanging smiles in the name of “diplomacy” and “realism”?
The first 26 were freed on 13 August, 11 to the West Bank and 15 to Gaza.
Confidence? Progress? The same buzzwords were used about the Oslo accords two decades ago. Has no lesson been learned?
As Addameernotes, “over 23,000 Palestinians have been released since 1993 as ‘goodwill measures’ during various negotiations and peace talks. However, in that same period, at least 86,000 Palestinians have been arrested, including children, women, disabled persons and university students.”
Currently Israel holds more than 5,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Such “confidence-building measures” are a sham!
In fact, what Israel has been doing all along is accelerating its settlement-building measures. Since 1993, the number of settlers in the occupied West Bank has continued to grow, as Palestinians, impoverished and squeezed, continue to be displaced by Israeli home demolitions and land confiscation.
Since its creation, the Palestinian Authority has served as Israel’s first line of defense against any Palestinian resistance to this colonization.
Because of inaction, and global acceptance of decades-long brutality and land theft – as long as Israel is committing it – the number of illegal Israeli settlers is now more than 600,000.
Of course, just days before the next round of talks were supposed to start, Israel has announced plans to add 1,200 more settler homes.
How could we return to negotiations based on this same framework with the same US mediators?
Saeb Erekat, of all people, knows – and this was exposed by the leaked Palestine Papersin 2011 – that when he offered Israel almost all the settlements, and the right of return of our refugees, it wasn’t enough. Israel still demanded more.
“What is in that paper gives them the biggest Yerushalaim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarised state … what more can I give?” Erekat told an American official in 2010.
Although he supposedly “resigned” after these revelations, Erekat and all the other discredited people, who should never be representing Palestinians in the first place, are back for more.
Remember that the Palestinian Authority had vowed not to return to negotations until Israel agreed to freeze settlements. They couldn’t even keep that promise. How could they be trusted to protect any Palestinian rights?
The meaning of peace
As much as peace is a dream for the Palestinian people, I sometimes wish I could wipe out the word “peace” from the dictionary.
We do hope to see a just peace, but with those who really want peace, not with such a brutal occupier whose talk of peace while playing the victim serves as an obscene cover for unrelenting crimes against our people.
Prisoners give us hope
The unyielding stance of many former prisoners and the families of detainees towards such compromises has always revived my hope.
Their opposition was not softened by the news of the prisoner release, and they are the ones who know best what it is like to be imprisoned or have a loved one in prison.
They were some of the first people who organized rallies in Gaza protesting the resumption of negotiations describing them as nothing more than “concessions.”
I was delighted to see their anger directed at the Palestinian Authority, which some of them accused of betrayal.
Detainees and released prisoners have an unmovable willingness to remain patient, to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to bring justice to our people, without a flicker of hesitation.
At the same time they affirm that the liberty of any prisoner is a victory that neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority can spoil.
We must not let the use of our detainees as a political tool dampen the joy that their families and communities feel at seeing them return home.
Israel cannot steal people’s joy
At midnight, on 14 August, the Palestinian people were due to witness the first prisoners come home.
The Israelis deliberately released the prisoners very late, likely to prevent as many people as possible from gathering to celebrate their freedom.
However, thousands of people in Gaza and the West Bank welcomed them home from Israel’s “graves for the living,” with Palestinian flags, fireworks, songs and chants of freedom.
And we know that all of these releases come with no guarantees: whenever Israel decides to take their liberty back, they will be re-arrested.
“At least 12 prisoners who were re-arrested after their release in the October 2011 prisoner exchange are currently facing the possibility of serving the remainder of their previous sentences,” Addameer notes.
But nothing will stop us rejoicing for every mother who fought to live long enough to hold her son in her arms once again, or for children having to live as orphans with only their father’s image in their minds or hanging on the walls, finally seeing their dad in person.
And all Palestinians waiting for justice, or waiting to come home, will be inspired by the patience of the families who overcame decades of absence and suffering as they crossed endless Israeli apartheid checkpoints and endured racist and humiliating treatment to see their beloved for 45 minutes at a time through a glass screen.
Just one prisoner released from Israel’s narrow and dirty cells, unfit for humans, is a victory.
No applause for the PA
But there’ll be never be applause for the Palestinian Authority, which, while giving up our basic rights, trades with Palestinians’ emotions towards their loved ones in Israeli prisons in order to give legitimacy to endless rounds of futile negotiations.
While forgetting its own crimes against us, including the countless ones for which no one has ever been held accountable, Israel always tries to highlight a few cases to paint Palestinians as monsters.
Over the decades, some 750,000 Palestinians have been in Israel’s prisons. They are the ones who willingly took on their shoulders the struggle to bringing back freedom, dignity and a just peace for their oppressed people.
For that they were willing to sacrifice the most precious of things: their freedom. We demand the release of all Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails and call for an immediate end to the abominable treatment of Palestinian detainees. Resistance to a brutal military occupation is not a crime, but a duty.
Our people’s sacrifices and ongoing suffering under this merciless occupation will not go in vain.
A drawing recently done by the Palestinian artist Doc Jazz
“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.
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.
Reading “With My Own Eyes” by the Israeli lawyer Felicia Langer brought painful scenes to my mind, but my faith in humanity grew deeper. While the Zionists might proclaim “woe to the vanquished,” there were Jewish people in Palestine, such as Langer, who, more profoundly, recognized it was “woe to the victor.” Langer was one who fought bravely against the unjust Israeli system throughout her 23-year career. She defended my father Ismael Abusalama in Israeli courts. He has always spoken about her with admiration and respect for her humanity and firmness.
My father’s story of arrest recorded by Felicia Langer
In her book, she wrote that she met my father on April 6, 1972 in Kafaryouna, an Israeli interrogation center. “Ismael Abusalama, a 19-year-old man who lives in Jabalia Refugee Camp, is a refugee originally from Beit-Jerja.” She mentioned Dad’s cousin who was killed by the Israeli occupation forces after the Six-Day War in 1967. Langer quoted my father’s words, “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 every human. They break into the houses inhabited by women without knocking at their doors. They mix the flour with oil during their aggressive inspections deliberately and without any necessity.”
On page 352, she recorded a painful story of my father’s that she witnessed. While reading it, my heart ached to imagine my father in such brutal conditions. She wrote, “After his arrest in Jabalia Camp on January 1, 1972, 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 while soldiers continued to attack him with batons everywhere, and punched him very violently to the extent that he lost his sense of hearing. This continued for 10 days.” She quoted my father saying, “They threatened me with being expelled to Amman and assassinating me there if I didn’t say what they wanted to hear.”
I have no doubt that she tried hard to expose the reality and prove my father and other detainees innocent, but Israel’s unjust judicial system was stronger than her. Her dedicated investigations and defense of the truth didn’t stop Israel from sentencing my father to seven life sentences and 35 years! I appreciate her book, which exposes the injustices of the Israeli occupation and the rotten justice system in Israel. She has always repeated that the aggressor can never win. And I have faith that Israel will never win and Palestine shall be free.
Surprisingly, I only learned this story from her book and haven’t heard it from Dad. When I read that story about him losing his sense of hearing, I asked him about it and he confirmed and continued, “but I was never sent to hospital.”
“Detainees suffer intensively from medical neglect,” he said. “Small health problems can become critical with constant negligence. I thankfully survived, but many others didn’t and were left with permanent disabilities or health problems that led in some cases to their death.”
He stopped for a moment and continued, “Actually, such cases, maybe death isn’t the appropriate word. Murder sounds better.”
Medical neglect is one of the major brutal policies the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) practices intentionally against Palestinian political prisoners which Langer aimed to highlight in her book.
“IPS deliberately aims to harm Palestinian detainees’ physical and mental health in any possible way,” my father repeatedly says and many released prisoners have agreed. Because of this, access to proper medical care has been always on the top of detainees’ demands whenever they go on mass hunger strikes.
Akram Rickawi’s 102-day hunger strike in protest of medical neglect
Akram Rikhawi, whose 102-day hunger strike ended July 22, 2012 , 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. Since his first day of detention in 2004, he was held in Ramleh prison hospital, described by him and many prisoners as “a slaughterhouse, not a hospital, with jailers wearing doctors’ uniforms.”
Akram ended his hunger strike in exchange for an agreement by Israel for his early release. As part of the agreement, Akram was supposed to be released on January 25, 2013. But it’s been more than a week since that date passed, yet we have heard nothing regarding his release. This is more evidence that Israel never keeps any promises or agreements.
Ramleh stands as a nightmare for many detainees because of the inhumane procedures for them to receive a medical check, such as the long hours of waiting, being shackled from hands to feet, being aggressively treated during transfer from jail to hospital, and being treated as inferior by the racist doctors there. Many former detainees I interviewed repeatedly described this procedure as “torment.” One said, “Only when pain becomes intolerable will many prisoners call the IPS to allow them a visit to Ramleh Hospital Prison. They fear the humiliation and torture once their call is met after a long wait.”
On January 22nd, I came home from my last exam of the semester very happy and relieved that I could finally sleep without worrying about loads of studies. I put myself in bed and decided to check my Facebook before I closed my eyes. I saw a video shared by my friend Loai Odeh that turned my happiness into sadness and my relief into distress. My desire to sleep escaped me.
A photo of Ashraf Abu Dhra’ during his funeral (Musab Shawer)
The video’s Arabic title read, “The last words the martyr Ashraf Abu Dhra’ uttered before he fell in a coma.” I had no idea who Ashraf was then. A young man in weak physical shape lay on a hospital bed in the video. While struggling to make his voice as loud and clear as possible, he said, “When I got sick, they only prescribed me paradicamol and released me. When I went to the hospital the medics discovered that I have a severe inflammation. Thank God. My faith eases everything.”
A recently released prisoner fell victim to the IPS’s policy of medical neglect
Then I Googled his name and the ambiguity behind the pronouns he used became no longer ambiguous and learned that Ashraf, a 29-year-old from Hebron, was released recently after a detention of six and a half years in Ramleh prison hospital. Only then did I realize that the pronoun “they” refers to the IPS.
Ashraf was released on November 15, 2012. He spent only ten days outside Ramleh prison hospital at home, surrounded by his beloved family. But those ten days were an extension of the pain he suffered during his imprisonment. Then he fell in a coma until his death on January 21, 2013, which could have been avoided if he had access to better medical care. Israel must be held responsible for the murder of Ashraf.
Ashraf had a long history of medical problems that predate his arrest; he suffered from muscular dystrophy and as a result became wheelchair bound in 2008 during his imprisonment. During his detention he contracted several illnesses including lung failure, immunodeficiency and a brain virus that eventually lead to his death.
Due to the frequent denial of medical treatment by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS), Ashraf suffered a slow and painful death that was exasperated by neglect and the prison service’s refusal to provide court-ordered treatment. In 2008, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel (PHR-I) submitted a request to the Israeli district court for Ashraf to receive physical therapy. Although the court granted Ashraf this request, the ruling was ignored by the Ramleh prison hospital, who refused treatment claiming that it was unnecessary. Ashraf was held in captivity despite his failing health for the entirety of his sentence, rarely seeing an independent doctor.
Ashraf’s lack of proper medical treatment in his six and a half years violates several international human rights laws, specifically article 56, 91 and 92 of the Fourth Geneva Convention that obliges the occupying authority to provide “adequate treatment” for each detainee and medical care “not inferior than the care provided to the general population.”
Serious actions must be taken before Samer Issawi become the next victim
Learning about the murder of Ashraf Abu Dhra’ made my worry over Samer Issawi double. Samer’s health is rapidly deteriorating due to his historic and heroic refusal of food which has continued 194 days in protest of his re-arrest for no charge or trial. His hunger is gradually taking over his body, but as he said earlier, “my determination will never weaken.”
He started his battle with a promise that he would only retreat from it as a martyr. Samer has tasted the bitterness of imprisonment for 12 years before. But once he was re-arrested in July 2012, with no charge or trial, he decided to rebel to send a message to his captors that they couldn’t decide his destiny. He doesn’t do this from love for death. He loves life, but in the form he has always longed to have, a life of freedom and dignity.
Serious actions are needed as Samer stands at the edge of death. He suffers from severe pain all over his body, especially in his abdomen and kidney. He has double vision, dizziness, and fractures in his rib cage from a brutal attack by Israeli soldiers while he was handcuffed to his wheelchair at a court hearing. This injury has caused severe and persistent pains that leave him sleepless day and night.
We shouldn’t sit idly and watch Samer slowly die. We don’t want to count more Palestinian detainee as martyrs. If Samer dies, it will be a glory for him, but a shame for us. Our silence allows Israel to cross all red lines. Save Samer from being the next victim of medical neglect after Ashraf Abu Dhra’. Act now to rescue the lives of Samer and all hunger strikers.
Palestinian people demonstrating in Jerusalem in front of the French Consulate the delay of Georges Abdallah’s release. (Amjad Abu Asab)
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.”
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!
Jihad’s father, holding Jihad’s picture, celebrates his son’s upcoming release from Israeli prison. (Amjad Abu Asab)
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
A scaned photo of Loai and his comrades taken in prison. Loai is on the very left. Jihad al-Obeidi is the send from the right.
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.
A photo of Um Jihad al-Obeidi, taken from her balcony that overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem (Amjad Abu Asab)
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.
A mural in solidarity with Palestinian hunger strikers has been painted opposite a protest tent at the International Committee of the Red Cross offices in Gaza.
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.
“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.
A photo posted on the Facebook page of Shireen, Samer Issawi’s sister.
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.
Samer Al-Barq’s father protesting at the Egyptian embassy in Ramallah yesterday, appealing them to receive Samer in Egypt
“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.
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.”
PS: My Italian friend Angela Bernardini translated my latest article about Aisha Islieh to Italian! Grateful for her, I decided to share her translation on my blog for my Italian audience!
“I detenuti passano la loro detenzione in attesa delle visite delle loro famiglie” papà ha detto una volta, ricordando che i servizi carcerari israeliani IPS lo punirono negandogli le visite dei familiari durante i suoi 15 anni di reclusione. “Nonostante tutta la sofferenza e l’umiliazione legate alle loro procedure, le visite dei familiari sono importanti per i prigionieri, come l’aria che respiriamo”.
“The detainees spend their imprisonment waiting for their families’ visits,” Dad once said, recalling the Israeli Prison Service IPS punishing him by denying him family visits during his 15 years of imprisonment. “Despite all the suffering and humiliation attached to their procedures, family visits are as important to prisoners as the air they breathe.”
Following the capture of Gilad Shalid in June 2006, Israel collectively punished Palestinian political prisoners from Gaza by banning family visits, one of their basic rights and a lifeline between detainees and their families. “Under international humanitarian law, Israeli authorities have an obligation to allow the detainees to receive family visits,” said Juan Pedro Schaerer, the head of the ICRC delegation in Israel and the occupied territories.
Our detainees’ determination proved stronger than the jailers’ guns. In exchange for ending the one-month mass hunger strike in May, they made Israel comply with the international humanitarian law and reinstate family visits to Gaza Strip detainees after almost six years without them.
On July 16, 48 family members were finally allowed to see to their relatives in Israeli jails for the first time since Shalit’s capture, through barriers for 45 minutes. However, Israel imposed its own conditions on the visits. Only wives and parents were allowed to visit. Detainees’ young children weren’t, “for security reasons.” Fathers must imagine their children growing up without them, or wait for the miracles of their smuggled pictures.
Last Monday, August 6, the fourth group of detainees’ families gathered in front of the ICRC to visit their relatives in Nafha prison. The day before a visit, the ICRC usually announces the names of approved relatives.
Among those who received permits were the parents of detainee Yahya Islaih, who was captured on August 24, 2008 and sentenced to 12 years. His 75-year-old mother and 80-year-old father arrived very early at the ICRC, dressed very traditionally and beautifully. Yahya has not met his parents since his arrest. I used to see Yahya’s mother Aisha in the sit-in tents for political prisoners. She barely missed any protest, despite her advanced age. Last Monday was supposed to be her first reunion with her son in four years. But destiny stood between them.
Aisha breathed prayers of thankfulness that she had been blessed with another opportunity to talk to her son, and see him through a barrier after five years of separation. While sitting in the bus, wishing that time would move faster, she felt the gasp of death and leaned on a neighboring woman’s shoulder.
Later that morning, as I was getting ready to leave for the weekly protest for political prisoners, I read the terrible news. I found it difficult to believe that this had really happened. I thought that we only hear such stories on dramas. But it did happen. When she was so close to meeting her son again, she passed away. Death separated them, just as Israel had for so long.
I left home with tears in my eyes. When I arrived at the protest, people were very quiet. Everyone was in shock. I could read the sorrow in every eye. The elderly mothers of detainees cried while hugging the banners of their sons. Each seemed to wonder, “Will we share Aisha’s fate?”
Amidst silence and sorrow, the 75-year-old mother of detainee Ibrahim Baroud who has been detained for 27 years stood and began shouting. “Enough tears. Tears won’t bring her back to life! Just pray for her soul to rest in peace.” Om Ibrahim Baroud was in the first group issued permits to visit their sons on July 16. That was her first visit to her son, after 16 years banned “for security reasons.” “How would an elderly mother like me threaten their security?” she always complained. “They are simply heartless and merciless, and enjoy breaking mothers’ hearts over their sons.”
After the protest, I went to say hello to her. “Are you joining us for the funeral, Shahd?” she asked, every wrinkle in her face revealing her sadness. “Yes, grandmother,” I answered, even though I hadn’t known of the plan. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go or not. Honestly, I fear funerals.
But when I said yes, she caught my hand so I could help her to the bus, and pushed me forward as if she sensed my hesitance. “When I saw her last Monday, she congratulated me for having visited my son, and sighed while hoping that her turn to see hers again would come soon,” Om Mahmoud said.
When we arrived at the funeral, we learned that Aisha hadn’t been buried yet. She was in a narrow room with two doors. It was crowded with women. They entered one by one from a door, kissed her, prayed for her, and then left through another door. I glanced at the scene, then pushed myself away, trying to postpone my turn. I recalled meeting my dear friend Vittorio Arrigoni for the last time as a dead body.
I stood next to a woman who happened to be Aisha’s niece. “Yahya wrote her a letter once, asked her to remain steadfast and know that she would see him again,” she said with tears streaming down her cheeks. “He asked her to wear her traditional Palestinian dress when she comes to visit him again. And she did. After she learned that she would visit him, she was very happy. She ironed her new dress, which she had kept for Yahya’s wedding after his release.” She burst out crying and continued, “But she neither visited him, nor would she ever attend his wedding.”
Finally my turn came. I entered, one foot pushing me forward, the other backward. I saw her body and kissed her forehead. I still can’t believe I did. Traumatized, I returned home in the afternoon and slept. I couldn’t stand thinking of her, nor her son, who would never see his mother, alive or dead again. I felt like I wanted to sleep forever, but I woke up after twelve hours.
Please pray for Aisha’s soul to rest in peace, and for her son to remain strong behind Israel’s bars. Her story is more clear and bitter evidence of the suffering our detainee’s families endure because of Israel’s violations of their basic rights and their families’.
Mohammed Brash when he became blind with one leg in 2001
Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by the Palestinian resistance from his tank and held for five years, is known worldwide as a “victim” of the “terrorist” Palestinians.
But seeing how little the world knows of our Palestinian political prisoners infuriates me. There is not only one. Nearly five thousand Palestinians are behind Israeli bars, which are more like “a grave for the living.” as my dad ad, who spent 15 years in Israel’s prisons, frequently describes his detention.
Last night, while following the latest news on political prisoners, I saw a headline reading, “The medical situation of the detainee Muhammad Brash is deteriorating.” I’m certain few have read that name before.
Muhammad Brash, like every Palestinian hero locked up in Israel’s jails, has his own story, a human and heroic story that would touch any heart. I didn’t know him before I coincidentally – and tearfully – read his letter, “Don’t tell my mother that I have become blind.”
I want to introduce you 32-year-old Muhammad Brash to you in depth. But I’ll let his own poetic words first tell you who he is. Here is my translation of his letter:
Don’t tell my mother that I can no longer see. She can see me, but I can’t see. I fake my smiles when she shows me the photographs of my siblings, friends, and neighbors, as she doesn’t know that I have become blind after illness spread in my eyes until the darkness filled me.
Don’t tell her that I waited several years to have a cornea transplant surgery. But the Israeli Prison Service kept procrastinating and procrastinating, giving my eyes every reason to leave me.
Don’t tell her that the last thing I remember from the sweet days when I could see was a small child, running toward me, waving the Palestinian flag, and yelling, ‘A martyr, a martyr.’
Don’t tell my mother that the shrapnel of the bombs which managed to hit me is still settling in my body, and that my left leg was mutilated and replaced with a plastic one. Don’t tell her that the other leg rotted and dried of blood and life.
Don’t tell my mother that the prisoner survives a lifeless existence and is treated as subhuman. He is sentenced to see only ashes and iron, darkness and hopelessness.
Tell her I am alive and safe. Tell her I can see, walk, run, play, jump, write, and read. Don’t tell her I shoulder my pains on a walking stick, and can see every martyr as a moon, soaring in the sky and calling me with the power of lightning, thunder, and clouds.
Don’t tell her I suffer from sleepless nights, and that I live under the mercy of painkillers until they drug my body. Don’t tell her that I keep losing my things, and I barge into the iron beds or another prisoner sleeping close to me, to wake him to help me reach the bathroom. Don’t tell her that wakefulness always hurts me and sleep never visits me.
Don’t tell her that Israel, a country in the 21st century, has turned its prisons into places where diseases are planted and bodies slowly ruined.
Don’t tell her that I have learned the names of horrible illnesses and strange medications, along with all types of painkillers, while watching my friend Zakariyya fall into a coma, with an ending unknown to me.
Don’t tell my mother about the sick prisoners whose diseases launched fierce wars against their bodies: Ahmad Abu Errab, Khaled Ashawish, Ahmad al-Najjar, Mansour Mowqeda, Akram Mansour, Ahmad Samara, Wafaa al-Bis, Reema Daraghma, Tareq Asi, Mutasim Radad, Riyad al-Amour, Yasir Nazzal, Ashraf Abu-Thare, Jihad Abu-Haniyye. The merciless Israeli prisons slaughter them; there is an illness and a carelessness in a country that enjoys slow death sentences and funerals for others.
Tell her that I never stop dreaming of being wrapped in her tender arms. My nostalgia for her is great, and her soul never leaves me. Tell her that I have kept her gifts: my Arab tongue, my purity, my symbols stuck on the wall, all of which soothe my pain every time the light disappears around me.
Tell her that I always embrace her holy prayers, to survive the dark cloud that surrounds me after the pain has spread in my body and tortured me. I might return to her or I might not, but I leave the answer to this question open, although I’ve chosen to be spiritually close to her heart. Tell her I am sorry I have no control over my future.
Tell her I am not too far from her, and I get closer every time a bird flies and a fire burns in my eye, and barbed wires wound me, carrying me to her arms.
Learning about Muhammad
This letter began my spiritual relationship with Muhammad Brash’s persona. He became a new source of inspiration in my life and deepened my faith in the cause of the Palestinian political prisoners.
Muhammad somehow managed to smuggle his moving letter from Eshel prison during the campaign of disobedience, the 22-day mass hunger strike launched at the end of September 2011. He shared his own experience of medical neglect, attempting to shed some light on the Israel Prison Service’s inhumane practices against him and his comrades. Quality medical care always tops the list of our detainees’ demands whenever they start a mass hunger strike.
Eager to know Muhammad Brash in depth, I searched every possible source for more information on him. I wished I could visit his family and listen to their story first-hand. Sadly Israel’s apartheid made it impossible for someone from Gaza to meet another from West Bank, even though it’s only a couple of hours away.
A message from Muhammad’s brother
A photo of Muhammad Brash (right), and his brother Ramzy in jail
After a long search, I found a Facebook page called The Detainees Muhammad and Ramzy Brash. Only then I realized that Ramzy Brash was Muhammad’s brother, who shares his prison cell and is also sentenced to life-long detention. I left a post on their page saying how moved I was by Muhammad’s letter. Shortly after that, I received a message from his 22-year-old brother, Hamza Brash, saying he was ready to tell me all about Muhammad.
Muhammad’s family is originally from Abu Shosha village, which was ethnically cleansed in 1948. His grandparents fled to al-Amari refugee camp in Ramallah, where they still live.
Brother killed by Israeli soldiers, Muhammad wounded by a bomb
At the start of the second Intifada – which began in September 2000 – Israeli occupation forces invaded al-Amari, massacred people, and demolished their houses. An armed soldier shot Muhammad’s 15-year-old brother Subri, cutting his life short while he was throwing a stone. This moved Muhammad to join the resistance and defend his people’s dignity and sense of security.
At the same time, Muhammad worked as a policeman. In 2001, he had a night shift, guarding a Palestinian police station 50 meters from an Israeli checkpoint. As he entered his car to return home, it exploded. Later he learned there had been a bomb inside it. There was suspicion over who had done it, but his brother responded, “We have only one enemy: Israel! The rest of the story will prove to you that their denial of the responsibility for this crime is a lie.”
“Muhammad was found quite far from the explosion,” Hamza told me during a phone call. “People thought they had found a martyr. But thankfully the bomb didn’t kill him. It only left him blind with one leg.”
Muhammad was carried to a governmental hospital. But even while he was half dead, he was attacked again. “A masked man entered his room and stuck his fingers in Muhammad’s eyes, already blinded from the bomb,” Hamza said angrily. “After that, he was sent to a private hospital and was never left alone without guards.”
Arrested in 2003
“But how did he end up in prison?” I asked. “On 17 February 2003, the Israeli army besieged Al-Amarai preparing for a detention campaign,” Hamza replied. “We never expected that Muhammad would be the target. After his disability, how could he threaten Israel’s security?”
“A huge force of Israeli soldiers raided our house,” he said. “They found Mahmoud leaning against a wall, trying to stand. They attacked him and started shackling and blindfolding him, as if he could see or run away. The soldiers started harassing him because of his disability.” Hamza told me that he heard the head soldier telling Muhammad, “We wanted you dead, but when we heard that you were alive, we thought you should be our guest.”
Mohammed didn’t fear them. Hamza heard Muhammad telling the head soldier, “I’m sorry for you, you coward!” The head soldier laughed at him wondering “How come?” Then Muhammad answered him with pride and slight smile, “If you weren’t a coward, you wouldn’t come besiege the whole camp with thousands of soldiers to arrest a disabled man like me!”
At first, the Israeli court sentenced Muhammad to seven lifetimes. But then it was reduced to three life sentences plus 35 years in light of his health condition. “As if this merciless court made a difference! ” Hamza said angrily. “A life sentence was enough to make Israel’s prison his grave.”
Muhammad has served ten years of his sentence, and no one knows if he will ever be released. Ever since his arrest, he has suffered from medical neglect every day. It’s this that left Muhammad in two forms of darkness: His blind eyes that see no colors but black, and his dark cell where he dies every day and may spend the last day of his life.
More than 50 prisoners are either physically or mentally disabled. And as Dad said, recalling his imprisonment, “Being detained by the merciless jailers of the Israel Prison Service is enough to threaten your psychological health.”
Most of Israel’s shameful crimes, which offend any sense of propriety in any heart with any shred of conscience, were committed in the name of security. But how can they justify them in Muhammad’s case where he can hardly endanger their safety?
Read Mohammed Brash’s letter to his mother in Italian. The translation is done by the wonderful Italian activist Angela Bernardini
Akram Rikhawi’s family and I at their house in Rafah during the power-cut (by Magne Hagesæter)
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.”
One of Akram’s youngest twin who were born a little before his arrest and knew their Dad from photos.
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.
Hana’ Shalabi in the sit-in tent for Mahmoud Sarsak
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.
Mahmoud Sarsak’s mother and I at their house in Rafah (Magne Hagesæter)
“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.
That’s when we finally made it and met with Mahmoud Sarsak at a restaurant in Gaza City.
“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.
“Samer will get engaged!” My friend Loai said with a big laugh. “Oh my God! Really? When?” I burst out with an endless list of questions and exclamations in my head.
Samer Abu Seir is an ex-detainee who was released in Shalit’s prisoner exchange and deported from Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip. Getting married should not be surprising for a single man at the age of 46. However, Samer is one of the few released prisoners who was cautiously considering getting married especially after he spent more time in the Israel jails than he spent outside. I remember when I first met him and asked him how long he had been detained and he answered me sarcastically, “Nothing! It was only a matter of 24 years passed like a blink of an eye.”
He always thought that he needed time to keep up with the updates of the outside world that occurred without him noticing. He always felt that he needed to be accustomed to seeing the blue sky, the green trees, the crowded buildings, walking on Gaza’s beach and feeling its breeze smoothly hitting his cheeks, instead of being under that dark-gray ugly ceiling, in a narrow jail, and between the same four surrounding walls where neither sunshine nor air could sneak in.
“What was the reason behind this sudden decision?” I asked. “His 83-year-old mother is in a grave situation,” Loai replied. “He rushed this just to make her happy, so if she dies, she can rest in peace.”
Samer has grown up fatherless. He lost his father when he was a little child when he was away in Jordan. His widow mother had raised him along with his other two brothers and two sisters by herself. He thinks the whole world of her. She is a symbol of motherhood who had raised her children on the noble values of love, dignity, and sacrifice for Palestine. She believed that there is always a price for everything you fight for, and she has instilled these beliefs in her children. Samer and his family have paid the price in many ways. The simplest example of pain that he has always endured was that his family never gathered for a meal. There was always at least a member missing.
Samer had always suffered the ban of family visits for long periods, especially during his detention in solitary confinement for 3 years and a half. These times were the most difficult that Samer lived inside prison as he constantly kept thinking about his mother and fantasizing how her wrinkles beautifully spread in her beautiful loving and peaceful face. The family visits were his only connection with the outside world. Once a family visit ended, he eagerly waited for the next one.
Moreover, Samer had always led unsettled life in prison as he was moved around to every one of Israel’s prisons. Samer’s constant thinking of his mother made it more painful for him to tolerate such inhumane practices of the Israeli Prison Service (IPS). Samer’s mother never let that or any of the humiliating actions she received from strip searches and insults hold her away from having 45-minute meeting with her son through a barrier between them.
Even after Samer was released, she didn’t stop suffering. She handled the pain of Samer’s 24 years of imprisonment without complaining, and then she kept suffering the pain of him being forcibly deported away from her. This is another violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits deporting people within or outside the occupied territories.
While thinking about Samer’s motive to get married, I recalled his cute old mother who arrived to Gaza almost a week after the prisoners’ exchange, challenging her age and deteriorating health condition. Last November, I joined my family to a celebration of freedom where almost no one was taking seats, all people were happily performing Dabka, the folk dancing of Palestine, and waving Palestinian flags as revolutionary songs were playing loudly in the background.
Samer’s mother dancing celebrating her son’s freedom
There, my eyes fixed on an elderly woman wearing the Palestinian traditional dress. She could barely walk or stand but her happiness gathered all the strength inside her to dance slowly and erratically. My eyes were following her with joy and wondering who she was. I asked Dad about her. “She is Samer’s mother. Wherever you see her, she is dancing. When she gets out of the car, she dances. when someone visits her at home to congratulate her with her son’s freedom, she dances. Look how happy she is!” Dad answered smilingly. “She reminds me of your grandmother who was just like that when I was set free. All the Gaza Strip would hear of my freedom because of her. She’d be dancing and singing songs of freedom wherever she went.”
Samer was enthusiastically going to officially get engaged today’s evening and let his mother declare his engagement from Jerusalem through Skype. But destiny stood against his intentions of making his mother happy. Sadly, this morning he woke up on hearing the news of his mother’s death and what was to supposed to be a wedding turned out to be a funeral.
I am thankful that at least she lived long enough to celebrate her son’s freedom. This reminds me of another story I wrote last December of a mother of two former prisoners who have been deported from Hebron to Gaza, and who died a week after she arrived to Gaza and wrapped her two sons between her arms once again. Please say a prayer for Samer and his family.
My amazing parents met after Dad’s release, fell in love, and got married. I’m proud I’m their daughter. ( Nathalie Beser)
Twenty-seven years ago, my father’s eyes saw the sun after being in the dark of Israeli prison for 13 years. On 20 May 1985, my father regained his freedom.
“I was sentenced for seven lifetimes plus 10 years and I thought that this prison, Nafha, would be my grave. Thank God 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 told me, smiling. He considered the 13 years of misery as not that long. Yes, it’s not that long if compared with the life sentence to which he was bound if the deal to exchange Palestinian and Israeli prisoners didn’t happen.
I can’t recall that Dad ever showing any regret or sorrow for how the precious years of his youth were stolen from him. His prison experience is instead his song of life. He believes that it is his treasure, the reason behind his rich culture and beliefs, his strong character, his intimate friendships, and the reason why he values life. I’ve always been proud that I am my Dad’s daughter, and I’ll always be. He is a mix of experience and knowledge.
The story of the exchange deal all started when Ahmad Jibril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine 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. Among the prisoners released 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.
History repeats itself
History repeats itself. On 18 October last year, 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 for by the resistance fighters that have always forced Israel to meet some demands regarding the Palestinian prisoners.
When I deeply think about these events and the way the international media reacts, I get angry at how unjust this world is. Why did the world make a big deal of Shalit and the three soldiers when they were attested by the “terrorist” Palestinians while thousands of Palestinian political prisoners are left behind in Israeli jails enduring all forms of violations and torture and the world chooses to look away?
My father told the story with tears struggling to fall. He was staring at a picture stuck on the wall of his room; a painting that my father drew during his imprisonment of flowers blooming among barbed wires. “I cannot forget the moment when the leader of the prison started calling off the names to be released,” he said.
Among the prisoners was Omar al-Qassim, a leading member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Al-Qassim was asked to read the list of the names loudly. He was so excited at the beginning hoping that his freedom would be restored. Every time he said a name, a scream of happiness convulsed the walls of prison. Suddenly, his face’s features started to change. He became reluctant to speak because he noticed that his name wasn’t among the names. This was another incident of psychological torture that the prison’s manager committed against him. But he left him no chance to make fun of him. He withdrew himself silently and went to his prison to continue with his resistance. Sadly, he died in a horrible narrow cell after 22 years of resistance, pride and glory.
The tears of happiness and sadness mixed together. The freed prisoners were happy to regain their freedom but they were upset at leaving the other prisoners in that dirty place where the sun never shines. “We were like a big family sharing everything together. We all handled the same issues that we were united to fight for,” my father said. “Although I am free now, my soul will always be with my friends who are still suffering in there.”
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 4,653 Palestinian political prisoner have fewer years of suffering. We share this responsibility as we can’t leave them as prey for those criminal jailers. Their freedom will be a triumph for humanity.
Note: Read this in Italian here. Many thanks for Emanuele Qalitry for translating it!
An old photo of the photo besieged insid the Church of Nativity in 2002
On May 10, 39 Palestinians from Bethlehem completed eleven years of deportation from their precious homes. On the very same day, eleven years ago, they were expelled from the Church of Nativity after a siege by the Israeli Occupation Forces that lasted for 39 days: 26 men went to Gaza, 13 to Europe. Since that tragedy, which marked another form of ethnic cleansing, this day has been called ”Deported Palestinian’s Day”.
Since the last swap deal in October, hundreds of Palestinians have joined this category, as 203 ex-detainees were convicted to indefinite deportation. Moreover, ex-detainee Hana’ Shalabi was recently deported from Jenin to Gaza after hunger striking for 45 days to protest having been re-detained after midnight by a huge, aggressive force of Israeli soldiers, and held under administrative detention on February 16. Israel has intensively deported people from the West Bank to either the Gaza Strip or countries such as Turkey, Syria and Qatar. Israel offered administrative detainees Bilal Diab, Thaer Halahla, and Jafar Ez Al-Din Qadan, all on hunger strike for over two months, deportation to Gaza, but they refused this horrible offer and bravely insisted on continuing their battle of empty stomachs against Israel’s injustices and violations.
Mr. Fahmi Kanan and other Palestinians including deported ones from the church of Nativity marching on Deported Prisoner’s Day calling for ending their exile.
On May 10, hundreds of people from all generations marched to the sit-in tent for Palestinian political prisoners in Gaza to share the continued suffering of the deported Palestinians. The experience of exile, with all its pain, repeats itself hundreds of times in Palestine at the hands of Israel, as it openly violates the same Geneva Convention it ratified in 1951.
One of the people I am very proud to have met through the weekly protest for Palestinian detainees is a deportee from the Church of Nativity, Fahmi Kanan. Fahmi has been a good friend of mine, despite our difference in age: He is 43 years old, while I am only 20. He makes sure to attend every Gaza activity organized in solidarity with the Palestinian detainees and their families.
I remember very well Mr. Fahmi’s touching words when I first met him and asked him about the reason for his dedication to the detainees’ cause. “I have never lived a settled life,” he said. “First, I was born in a land under occupation. Secondly, I lived the hard life of detention inside Israel’s prisons five times, each under administrative detention. I was only a 17-year-old teenager when I was first detained. Thirdly, when I’m not detained, wherever I walk within the Palestinian territories, I’m ‘wanted’ and chased by the Israeli Occupation. Fourthly, I was one of the people besieged inside the Church of Nativity in 2002, then deported to Gaza. Our sufferings take different forms, but all of them result from one thing – Israel.”
Afterward, I learned that Mr. Fahmi is the spokesman for the people deported from the Church of Nativity. Having a shared passion for a just cause, Mr. Fahmi and I get along well. He always brings his kids with him to the protest for detainees. I’ve gotten to know him as a person, not merely as a political activist. I believe that children are reflections of their parents. In Mr. Fahmi’s case, his children are outstanding reflections. I always tell him, “If I ever have a child, I’d like to raise her or him the same way you did.” I see a bright future for Palestine through his kids who are, despite their young ages, very well-educated about Palestinian issues.
On the second day of Eid al-Adha last year, I saw him with all his kids in the weekly protest for detainees outside the International Committee of the Red Cross. When I asked him how his family in Bethlehem was doing, he replied, “I was on the phone with Dad this morning, greeting him for Eid. He is getting older. He fears that his death will be soon as he suffers from some health problems. My heart aches when he tells me that he wishes he could see his grandchildren before he dies.” I asked his 11-year-old son Nasr whether he was enjoying his Eid or not. He replied with a sad look on his face, “I feel like it is the same as any other day. All our relatives are in Bethlehem, and Eid without family is tasteless.” His words touched me very deeply.
Two of Mr. Fahmi’s cute kids, Nasr and Israa, and I in a park in southern Gaza during Al-Adha Eid last November.
When I shared with Mr. Fahmi what his son told me, he answered, “My kids were raised without their grandparents or relatives around. The times I was questioned about them are countless, especially during our traditional and religious feasts. But thankfully, they are smart enough to understand that this is one of the prices that Palestinian people pay for being merely Palestinian. And they are proud!”
Yesterday, Mr. Fahmi made a moving speech that showed the humanitarian aspect of a deported Palestinian’s suffering. “The hardest times in a deported person’s life are the times of need,” he said. “Today, we should remember Abdullah Dahoud, one of the 39 deported from the Church of Nativity. Sadly, he could not be among us today. He died of sorrow over his mother and sister, who passed away without him seeing them for one last time. When he was once asked about his fondest wish, he said, ‘I wish I could read a verse of Qura’n next to my mother’s grave.’”
Palestinians consider the United Nations a partner of the Israeli Occupation because of its silence. Security Council Resolution 607 “[c]alls upon Israel to refrain from deporting any Palestinian civilians from the occupied territories” and “[s]trongly requests Israel, the occupying Power, to abide by its obligation arising from the Convention.” But when it comes to reality, the UN chooses to take no action against Israel’s violations. We, the Palestinian people, don’t want resolutions, we want actions! We want real justice, not just words tossed into the air!
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 is on the very left during a family visit (Loai Odeh)
Loai Odeh, a former prisoner and my best friend, whom I am very proud to have met after his release, joined that campaign of disobedience until the swap deal by Israel and Hamas on 18 October. Then he was released, and deported from Jerusalem to Gaza after ten years of imprisonment. Since his release, prisoners he left behind have been his main concern. He always attends events in solidarity with them. He has been my main resource every time I had a question or needed to enrich my knowledge about prisoners’ conditions.
While following his updates on Facebook, I noticed that he had written new statuses taking the form of a striker’s diaries while recalling his experience. This surprised me, as it has seldom happened since he opened his account. The diary of the fourth day was the most touching and important for everyone to read that I want to share them with my readers as a strong call for action.
“Today is the fourth day of challenge and championship,” Loai wrote. “Today, silence begins to spread all over. By now, the striker tends to be silent and stop talking. All the voices around him seem loud. He becomes unable to join their discussions. As days pass, his ability to hear voices shrinks, expect for these which lift the spirit up and strengthens souls and hearts. These voices are mainly the ones that bring news about popular support for their battle. This news becomes the source of energy, the strongest motivation for them to remain steadfast.”
Regarding Israeli Prison Service response, he stated, “Our enemy is fully aware of that. Israel spells their fascist generosity against our heroes. They set up speakers and raise the volume to its loudest, constantly playing Hebrew music and news that will depress their spirits. They also distribute special news about them, like claims about the declining number of hunger strikers and names of those who have broken their fasts. They also do their best to give hunger strikers the impression that life outside is moving on normally and no one there cares about them.”
“However, all these inhumane attempts fail once a prisoner returns from a visit with his lawyer to tell them about popular events held locally and internationally to support them and their just cause, ” he said. “So don’t ever underestimate any activity you do, as they have small, smuggled radios with which they follow the news. Even children’s protests increase their inner determination to achieve their goals, as they feel that their responsibilities have broadened to include children, the future generation, who have spiritually joined their battle.”
He ended by saying, “We have faith in your ability to win and we are with you until victory!”
Several thousands of Palestinians joined the marches on Prisoners’ Day in Gaza. (Joe Catron)
Last Monday, I couldn’t wait for my class to end at 10:00am. My dad doesn’t know how to send a text message, but somehow, while inside the lecture, I received one from him, urging me to come to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As soon as students were allowed to leave, I was the first one out the door. I walked as quickly as I could from school to the ICRC. I stopped a taxi, even though it was a ten-minute walk. I wanted to be there in time so I would not miss any of the weekly protest for Palestinian political prisoners. I expected that it would be a unique protest, especially since the following day was Prisoners’ Day. I was right.
It wasn’t the usual protest that I always see. The street was closed. No cars could pass. The hall inside the ICRC, as well as the sit-in tent in front of it, were filled with people. Artistic touches of anger, steadfastness, and hope were added.
As I arrived, I found Dad chatting cheerfully with a man I had never seen in the ICRC before. His story was worth hearing. His name is Zuhdy al-Adawi. My father and Zuhdy were both released in the 1985 swap deal after spending 15 years in Israeli jails. Dad was released to Gaza but Zuhdy, unfortunately, was deported to Syria. Since then, Dad had never met his friend. However, Zuhdy managed to return for the first time to his birth place about two weeks ago. “After 27 years of separation, we’re meeting here again,” Dad said happily with his arm on Zuhdy’s shoulder.
I could see people crowded around stands on paintings across the street. Dad grabbed my drawing book, which I had carried there to show my friends a new picture, and opened it while saying, “Shahd is an artist, too.” Zuhdy smiled at me and pointed at the exhibition saying humbly, “Awesome! Then you should look at those paintings and tell me what you think.”
“Are you the artist?” I asked excitedly. Zuhdy pulled me close to the stands and answered proudly, “All these paintings are my work from my detention in Ashqelon Prison. It was important for me to exhibit them in Gaza so your generation and the coming generations keep learning about the Palestinian prisoners’ issue through art.” My eyes were captured by his talent and creativity. Every painting told a story full of suffering and challenge. They summed up the Palestinian struggle and the pains and the injustices that Palestinian people suffer, especially the humiliating conditions our political prisoners endure.
“Expressing myself with colors was banned inside prison,” Zuhdy said angrily. “I used to cut pillowcases and use them as my canvas. I managed to smuggle some pastel and wax colors. I used to paint under fear. How could I paint while jailers surrounded me? But with my persistence and my friends’ collaboration, I managed to make these and smuggle them out of jail.”
Zuhdy Al-Adawi’s exhibition in front of the ICRC (Joe Catron)
Zuhdy’s expressive, creative paintings left me speechless. He made me feel happy, happy that the heartless jailers failed to imprison his mind or imagination. He lived in prison, but his heart and mind were free. To see more of his drawings, see Joe Catron’s album here or watch this video.
“Be sure that our prisoners resist in many different ways,” Zuhdy said. “Many writers, intellectuals, and painters arose in prison, from the unspeakable love for Palestine, and from the daily suffering, oppression, and injustice. We have full confidence that can defeat the jailers’ inhumanity. We have a just cause for which we sacrifice and in which we believe, and we are ready to use any possible means to call for our freedom and justice.” With these strong words, he ended his inspiring conversation with me. It will be stamped in my mind for as long as I live to keep on my path, using pencils, words, and every other way to make my people’s voice heard. People like Zuhdy make my pride at being Palestinian grow every day.
That night, we returned to the ICRC to join hundreds of people who gathered to celebrate “the flame of freedom”. Who could be more worth than Hana al-Shalabi to light this flame? She was there with her beautiful, elderly mother, who had joined her daughter on hunger strike despite her age. My heart leaped when I saw them. Excitedly, we surrounded the flame and watched the champion of empty stomachs, Hana al-Shalabi, light it to mark Prisoners’ Day with a symbol of loyalty to those who are still locked behind Israeli bars and a promise that they will be never forgotten, and that we will always call for their freedom. I hope one day, we will light up this flame when Palestine is free and Israeli prisons have been emptied.
On April 17th, many popular events were held throughout Palestine. Prisoners’ Day was different this year. It had a sweet taste as the day Israel released Khader Adnan, another hero of empty stomachs who hunger struck for a record 66 days to protest being held in administrative detention without charge. His freedom put bright smiles of hope on the angry faces of prisoners’ families.
In Gaza, Palestine’s flags colored its blue sky. I left home early, eager to join the events. Marches came from every street of Gaza. All ages and genders, and many disabled people, joined the protest. It was a remarkable scene of unity and compassion between Palestinians in Gaza. Even schoolchildren participated, with their tender voices chanting, “Rise our moon, rise and light the whole universe. We weren’t born to live in humiliation, but to live in freedom.” Marches came from all directions to unite in front of the ICRC. I felt a revolution inside me when I saw thousands of people uniting their voice: “Free, free Palestine.”
School group of scouts joined the march for Palestinian Political prisoners. (Joe Catron)
Among the protesters, ten-year-old Haitham Al-Zariey, holding a picture and chanting loudly, attracted my attention. “Who is the person in the picture?” I asked him. “This is my uncle Hussien,” he said with a smile of pride. “He has been detained for eleven years. I was born when he was in jail. A few years ago, I learned that I have an uncle held captive by Israel. I have never met him.” When I asked him what he wished he could tell his uncle, he answered, “I wish I could tell him that I am here chanting for his freedom, and the freedom of all other Palestinians in Israel’s prisons. I hope I can witness his freedom soon. I wish Israel at least allow us to visit him.”
I was thrilled by the little boy’s awareness of the prisoners’ issue. Haitham is a small example of the rising revolutionary generation who will go on demanding justice and freedom for all Palestinians. On Prisoners’ Day, we renew our promise to never forget those who sacrificed precious years for the sake of our freedom and dignity. Someday all chains must break. Freedom for all Palestinian political prisoners.
“We didn’t cry during farewell!
For we didn’t have time, nor tears, Nor was it farewell
We didn’t realize that the moment of farewell was farewell
So how could we cry?”
Said Taha Muhammad Ali, one of the leading poets on the contemporary Palestinian literary scene, describing his expulsion from his homeland. He was 17 years old, old enough to remember the gloomy day when he was ethnically cleansed from his original village, Saffuriya, together with most of its inhabitants and more than 600,000 Palestinian from 512 other village, during the 1948 Nakbha. But in 1949, Taha returned to Nazareth, making it his home.
However, my grandparents and hundreds of thousands couldn’t. They had fled to Gaza. They thought that it would be a matter of two weeks and then they would be back. But ever since then, they lived and died in Gaza’s refugee camps.
Ethnic cleansing has continued in many forms. On March 30, 1976, more Palestinian land in the north was confiscated so that Jewish settlements could be built on its ruins. But Palestinian people rebelled against the Israeli occupation and confronted its forces. A popular uprising took the form of marches and a unique general strike that provoked the Israeli occupation forces, causing their murders of six heroes, together with the wounding or detention of hundreds of other people. Their only crime was that they refused to give up their land and protested non-violently, but powerfully, against dispossession.
It is significant as the first time since 1948 that Arabs in Israel organized a strong response to Israeli policies as a Palestinian national collective. That’s why this day was etched in the history of the Palestinian struggle and ever since, Palestinians have commemorated March 30 as “Land Day”, to emphasize our embrace of Palestinian land and our rejection of the criminal occupation and its illegal settlement.
We are about to observe the 47th anniversary of Land Day. As I welcome this immortal day, a flood of memories flows through my mind. I can’t remember my grandfather well, as he died when I was very young. But I can very clearly recall my memories of my grandmother, who played a key role in forming the person who I am.
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky! ”
Only when I got older did I learn that lullabies are songs sung to kids until they fall asleep. I never slept to a lullaby. Yet I can’t count the times I slept while listening to my grandmother telling her favorite, most touching story, the story of Nakba, the story of her raped lands. Unlike other kids around the world, the Nakba was my lullaby.
“Behind every great man there is a woman.” This proverb could not find a better example than my father. He always said, “I have God in the sky and my mother on the ground.” She had been always his role model and the reason he embraced resistance as his choice during his youth. Now his resistance is centered on planting his patriotic values and his love for the homeland in his children, in us, so we, the third generation, carry on demanding our people’s stolen rights.
I vividly recall how her steady, wide eyes struggled with tears every time she narrated that story. She must have repeated it thousands of times, and I am sure she would never have stopped if she were still alive. My siblings and I heard it many times. And, every time, her wrinkles evoked the same feeling, her voice shook the same way, calmly flowing with memories, then suddenly rising in anger as she said the same proverb: “The homeland is ours and the strangers fire us.”
“Your grandfather used to go every day to a high hill in north Gaza called Alkashef,” I remember her saying. “People used to see him sitting on the top, pondering his raped homeland, Beit Jerja, and crying.” Their wound was too deep to be healed or forgotten.
In Beit Gerga, my grandparents were farmers, living for the glories of the land as the majority of Palestinians did then. Every single day after their expulsion, they said, “Tomorrow we will return.” They were simple and uneducated people who didn’t understand the political games of Israel and its allies. They died before smelling their precious sand again.
The generation of the Nakba is dying. But another revolutionary generation was born, the generation of Intifadas, to which my parents belong. My father has always described his resistance, and his 15 years of youth inside Israeli prisons, as “the price of homeland and the cost of freedom and dignity.”
I love sitting with elderly people who witnessed the Nakba to listen to their stories, even if they are mostly alike. They remind me of my grandmother and my memories of her, which I cherish very much. Jabber is another example of a man born from a great woman’s womb. He is my father’s friend who was released in the same 1985 swap deal. He devoted his life to raise awareness about the daily human rights violations committed by the Israeli Occupation against our people, and he now heads the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and always prioritizes the political prisoners’ issue.
I met Jaber’s mother once in a festival for the prisoners released in the Shalit exchange. His mother does not know her own date of birth, but assumes she is in her 80s. I heard her telling the story of when her son Jabber was sentenced to two lifetimes. She described how she stood, proudly and strongly, and confronted the Israeli court for being unfair to her son, then started singing for Palestine, for resistance. “I didn’t cry nor scream,” she said. “If Netanyahu is hardheaded, we are even more so. We’ll never stop resisting. Resistance will continue until we restore out rights. I had four sons in prison at that time, and I walked to prison every day for 15 years hoping to meet them.”
She made me proud to be the daughter of a Palestinian mother when she said, while pointing to her breast, “My milk was fed to my sons, the milk of our homelands.” She continued firmly, “As long as there are Palestinian women giving birth and bringing up new generations, we will breastfeed them the milk of our homeland, we will breastfeed them with toughness and resistance.” Then she smiled and said that she told a CIA officer the same thing while looking at him in the eye, adding, “The land of Palestine is for her people, not for you!”
Palestinians have spent more than six decades sacrificing, paying the price of freedom for themselves and their lands that were stolen by the Zionist entity. You can rarely find a Palestinian family from whom none were killed, or have experienced imprisonment or deportation, or have had their houses demolished or lands confiscated. Not only people have paid the price for the freedom of the lands, but even the trees, stones, and even sands.
Israel continues to build more and more illegal settlements on what is left of our lands. They openly violate all international agreements, but no agreements, nor human rights organizations, can limit Israel’s daily violations and crimes against Palestinians and their lands. That’s why the Palestinian resistance will never die. Many more Land Days will happen, and they will be celebrated in one way or another, every day of every coming year, inside or outside the occupied lands, until we restore our stolen rights.
For this 46th anniversary of Land Day, I’d like to share a poem with you. I wrote it last May, speaking for every Palestinian refugee whose nostalgia grows with every passing day. This is to emphasize our spiritual attachment to our stolen lands, from which our grandparents were ethnically cleansed, and to stress our right to return.
My village, in which I didn’t live a single day
Has been living inside me everyday
Since I was born, I grow and my nostalgia
Grows more and more till it tears me up
It wasn’t me who chose to live far away
And neither my grandparents did
They were beaten, cleansed and dispossessed
Into tents of exile their souls were left
Gone with their olive groves and citrus fields
Leaving a wound to never be healed
Since my grandparents fled away
They thought they would return the next day
They died, but no need to sigh
As, their heritage, their songs and memories persist
They say that elderly people die
And after that the young will forget
But no way
Until return, Palestinians will resist
Our tears of hope will never dry
And when we return to our homelands
From ashes, trees will rise high
And white doves will over fly
And we’ll caress with our bare hands
Every precious berry of sand
This dream might not happen soon
But it absolutely will one day
If you didn’t read Part 1and Part 2 of my story, kindly press these links!
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!”
Shahd Abusalama is a Palestinian writer, artist and activist, born and raised in Jabalia Refugee Camp, Gaza, and now based in the UK. She is one of the co-founders of Hawiyya Dance Company who explore solidarity, identity, cultural resistance through Dabke, the folk dance of Palestine. She is a PhD candidate at Sheffield Hallam University, focusing on documentary films that address the Palestinian refugees in Gaza. She holds an MA in Media and the Middle East from SOAS, University of London, and a BA in English Literature from Al-Azhar University - Gaza.