“It doesn’t matter if he goes to Gaza,” said Zahra Sharawna, Ayman Sharawna’s mother. “To be freed is the most important thing.” I understand how these words could come from a mother who fears for her son’s life. She, driven by her motherly emotions, simply wants him to live, even if many Israeli apartheid checkpoints separate her from him. But I must question was that actually the victory that Ayman Sharawna’s hunger strike aimed to accomplish, to get out of prison alive regardless of release conditions? I don’t think so.
A Palestinian’s fight has never been about oneself. It has always been a collective resistance of different forms, for the sake of collective justice for all Palestinian people. Some national principles identify our struggle for freedom. Every Palestinian revolutionary should be armed with them. One is embracing our right to return as the most sacred and ultimate goal.
“One whose hands are in water isn’t like one whose hands are in fire.” This traditional saying always comes to mind when I encounter a complicated situation many people would find it easy to judge superficially. I am not in a position to imagine the kind of inhumane pressure to which Ayman Shrawna was subjected. However, being a daughter of a former prisoner who served 15 years, and having intensively read and heard many ex-detainees’ prison experiences, makes me better able to guess.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights condemned Israel’s expulsion of Sharawna to Gaza calling it a “forcible deportation” which is a violation of international law. As such Israel alone is responsible, and we must consider that Sharawna is not acting of his own will.
But still, I was shocked to hear that the man who remained steadfast for nearly eight months of hunger strike, who tolerated all the pain and pressure attached to it, succumbed to such blackmail, to be expelled to Gaza for at least ten years in exchange for his release. This wasn’t the victory of which I personally expected to hear. I reacted to the news with a shocked face and stony eyes, unable to shed a single tear.
Emotionally, I could celebrate and agree with Ayman that “both are my people, whether in Gaza or Hebron.” But I can’t help listening to my inner worries. I believe that our emotional reactions and stances will only serve the Israeli occupation’s long-term goals: turning the Gaza Strip into a ghetto isolated from Palestine, and expelling as many people as possible from the occupied territories in the West Bank and ‘48 Palestine. My fears that this will open the gate for Israel to intensify its systematic policy of ethnic cleansing against more Palestinian political prisoners left me unable to taste the victory in Ayman Sharawna’s release.
These worries flooded my mind, but Samer Issawi’s statement on deportation lessened my stress and cultivated hope instead. His opinion was just what I expected, wonderful and strong from a stubborn man of dignity and poise, who continues his hunger strike of nearly seven months and doesn’t give up his principles for the sake of his own physical relief. He is aware of the long-term aims behind the inhumane practices of the Israeli occupation. He believes that his detention, a violation itself, cannot be fixed with a further violation.
According to him, this hunger strike isn’t a personal battle; rather, it’s a collective one. He refuses to be released with the condition of deportation, even within our historic Palestine.
Fawwaz Shloudi, a Palestinian lawyer, managed to visit Samer Issawi after many attempts and asked him whether he will ever agree to be deported to Gaza in exchange for his freedom. Samer answered:
Regarding the Israeli occupation’s offer to deport me to Gaza, I affirm that Gaza is undeniably part of my homeland and its people are my people. However, I will visit Gaza whenever I want or feel like it, as it is within my homeland, Palestine, which I have the right to wander whenever I like, from the very north to the very south. I strongly refuse to be deported to Gaza as this practice will just bring back bitter flashbacks from the expulsion process to which our Palestinian people were subjected during 1948 and 1967.
We are fighting for the sake of the freedom of our land and the return of our refugees in Palestine and the diaspora, not to add more deportees to them. This systematic practice by Israel that aims to empty Palestine of Palestinians and bring strangers in their place is a crime. Therefore, I refuse being deported and I will only agree to be released to Jerusalem, as I know that the Israeli occupation aims to empty Jerusalem of its people and turn Arabs into a minority group of its population. The issue of deportation is no longer a personal decision, it is rather a national principle. If every detainee agrees to be deported outside Jerusalem under pressure, Jerusalem will eventually be emptied of its people.
I would prefer dying on my hospital bed to being deported from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is my soul and my life. If I was uprooted from there, my soul would be uprooted from my body. My life is meaningless away from Jerusalem. No land on earth will be able to embrace me other than Jerusalem. Therefore, my return will be only to Jerusalem and nowhere else. I advice all Palestinians to embrace their land and villages and never succumb to the Israeli occupation’s wishes. I don’t see this issue as a personal cause that is related to Samer Issawi. It is a national issue, a conviction and a principle that every Palestinian who loves his homeland’s sacred soil should hold. Finally, I reaffirm for the thousandth time that I continue my hunger strike until either freedom and return to Jerusalem or martyrdom! (original translation by author)
International law prohibits the expulsion and transfer of people in occupied territories, be it deportation to another country or forced relocation within the occupied territory. Security Council Resolution 607 “calls upon Israel to refrain from deporting any Palestinian civilians from the occupied territories” and “strongly requests Israel, the occupying Power, to abide by its obligation arising from the Convention.” But these words, as history proves to us, are merely words. We have experienced enough empty words and conventions and “international human rights laws” that do NOT apply to us, as if our humanity is in question.
If the United Nations and the all the world’s governments keep of taking this submissive stance on Israel’s crimes and watch, reacting only with silence, we should NOT normalize their violations even if it costs us our lives. People like Samer Issawi teach us how to stand firm and not compromise our rights. Thank you, Samer, for teaching us how meaningless life is without freedom and dignity.
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 perhaps stronger than her then. 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.”
As the Palestinian prisoners’ rights group Addameer recently reported, “Since 1967, over 200 prisoners have died in captivity, fifty-one of them from medical negligence. Alarmingly, there is a recent trend of prisoners who have died shortly after they are released from medical complications that went untreated during their detention.”
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.
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.
As Addameer added in their report:
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.
Ayman Shrawna has suspended his 178-day hunger strike for ten days, as he has been promised by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) that it would review his case and release him by the beginning of next year. He is allowing himself to have only fluids, but has threatened to continue his strike if the IPS fails to fulfill its promises. This leaves Samer Issawi alone in this battle of empty stomachs, continuing his historic hunger strike that has lasted for 183 days.
While surfing on Facebook this week, I saw a video my best friend Loai Odeh had shared of the attack on Samer Issawi in an Israeli court. It made me feel sick and angry, but not shocked.
“Your humanity and determination is always stronger than their brutality and savagery,” Loai wrote to his friend Samer, whom he grew up with in Jerusalem, and with whom he shared a cell in Israeli jails and was released in the prisoner exchange deal last year. Loai had first thought that Samer was luckier than him to be able return to Jerusalem. By contrast, Loai was expelled to the Gaza Strip from his hometown, where every corner guards his and Samer’s precious childhood memories.
“I know how stubborn he is,” Loai told me when Samer was kidnapped by Israeli forces on 7 July and declared an open hunger strike to protest his re-arrest. “He will not break this hunger strike until he is set free, even if it costs him his life.”
Loai spoke beautifully to me about Samer many times, which made me feel spiritually close to him. “Samer is stronger than all these hardships.” Loai keeps repeating these words over and over again as he counts the days of Samer’s mounting hunger strike.
I remember when Loai called me last Sunday, December 16, saying that it was Samer’s birthday. “He is celebrating his birthday in hunger, in a cold dark cell,” he said after a few seconds of silence that interrupted our call.
“Keep being free,” Loai wrote as a birthday greeting to Samer. “Keep your head held high over their barbed wires and racist walls. You shall be among us, my comrade.”
Despite the grave conditions Samer suffered on his birthday and still suffers, he and all the Palestinian people still have something to celebrate: his indestructible will. He is armed with a determination that makes physical necessities like food meaningless. This steadfastness is more harmful to the Israeli military than any weapon. It drove them to attack him and his family, and to destroy sit-in tents erected in solidarity with him in Jerusalem, especially in his home village, Issawiyeh. We are all proud of Samer, who reminds us that our cause is just.
As I read Facebook status updatesby Shireen, Samer Issawi’s sister, her simple but powerful words moved me so much that I burst into tears. She vividly narrated how Samer and her family were attacked three days ago in the Israeli court, which she described as “racist.”
“Seven Israeli occupation soldiers savagely attacked Samer, ignoring his critical health condition and the fact that he was shackled to his wheelchair,” she wrote.
His family saw this brutality against Samer, and tried to protect him and prevent soldiers from beating him, but were dragged outside the court. Shireen wrote that the judge of the court was also there, watching idly. Instead of trying to do anything to end this brutality against a sick, shackled prisoner lingering at the edge of death, he ran out of the court. This judge and the IPS should be held accountable for their crimes against humanity.
Yesterday morning, I heard Samer’s mother speaking to Palestine Today TV live by telephone. She described how she saw her dying son being beaten. “All he did was try to shake hands with me,” she said. “This might have been the last chance for us to see, touch, or say goodbye to each other.” Her shaking, sorrowful tone still echoes in my ears.
She also described how Israeli soldiers raided their house in Jerusalem the same day, broke into Shireen’s room, and kidnapped her. Shireen has done nothing but try to give a voice to her brother. She has worked very hard organizing solidarity hunger strikes and protests. She has spoken to human rights organizations and international media, calling on people around the world to support her brother. But she is a threat to Israel because she is a strong voice of truth.
One of Shireen’s status updates reflected how she felt during the day she spent in an Israeli cell. “When they pushed me into that narrow, horribly dirty and cold isolation cell, I felt more spiritually united with my brother Samer,” she said. “I can’t put into words how proud I felt that my brother Samer can endure these hardships. He is a legend, as he remains resolved to continue his hunger strike despite all the difficult and painful circumstances he has endured.”
This cold weather makes the hunger strike a lot more difficult. The colder it gets, the more food the hunger striker needs. All our Palestinian political detainees suffer as the IPS refuses to supply them with winter clothes, sheets, and shoes, in attempt to break their will. Israel will never succeed. No matter how and to what extent the IPS oppresses our heroes, they will remain strong and defiant.
In Gaza, we have set up a tent to express solidarity with Samer Issawi, Ayman Shawana and all Palestinian political prisoners. Groups of people from different generations keep coming back and forth to the tent expressing their solidarity in different ways. Yesterday, I attended a poetry reading organized by the Islamic University of Gaza, featuring the Egyptian poet Hesham El-Jakh. I could see a group of students holding Samer Issawi’s posters while waving the Palestinian flags. Observing how our heroes inside Israeli jails unite the Palestinian people everywhere makes me proud and happy.
Don’t hesitate to do anything you can in support of Palestinian hunger strikers. Your silence gives the IPS impunity to continue its cruelty against our detainees, violating international humanitarian law. Your silence can lead to the killing of our heroes. Act now to end our hunger strikers’ suffering. We want our hero Samer Issawi to stay alive.