Saturday, October 15, 2011

You Might Take My Life, But You Can't Take My Soul*

The Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike has been going on for seventeen days, at the time of writing heading to the eighteenth day shortly. The Minister of Prisoners Affairs Issa Qaraqe labeled the prisoners’ conditions as a “disaster” with some suffering “complete bodily collapse.” I’ve struggled with writing about this topic. How to blend in the personal, the observations, the analysis, the facts, and the flowery writ all in one cohesive go?

Prisoner statistics and tidbits have ingrained themselves deep inside my brain. Since Israel’s occupation of the East Jerusalem, West Bank, and the Gaza Strip in 1967 over 700,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel. Each Palestinian family has had at one point or another a member that was imprisoned. Two fifths of all Palestinian males have spent time behind Israeli bars. 7000 children since the year 2000 have been detained. Currently there are 15 members of Parliament imprisoned. Female prisoners who give birth in prison have their arms and legs shackled. 87% of the children arrested have been subjected to physical torture. At the height of the second intifada, there were 11,000 prisoners detained. A UN report published in March of this year puts the number of prisoners at 6000. According to a report released by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) in October of the same year the prisoners numbered around 5503. 270 prisoners are held on administrative detention, a term meaning “being held indefinitely without ever knowing the reason why.” Most prisoners are denied fair trials and instead are subjected to arbitrary military trials where the occupier is judge, jury and executioner.

Almost every article covering the hunger strikers has a paragraph that starts with the following sentence somewhere. On September 27th, an open ended hunger strike was announced by prisoners affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP) to protest the squalid conditions and rights abuse that is their reality. The next few days saw a rapid increase of prisoners from all factions taking part in the hunger strike. Wednesday, October 12th was a global day of solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners, who had been on strike for 16 days. This story has received little to absolute zero coverage by the western media. Armed with social media, Palestinian and international activists and bloggers used the hashtags #tweepstrike and #HS4Palestine to create more awareness, and one line was retweeted hundreds of times to declare their solidarity by hunger striking for 24 hours on Wednesday: My name is (------) and I will go on a hunger strike on Wednesday in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners.

I’ve had uncles on both sides of my family imprisoned. My own father was arrested three times. One of my maternal uncles, Bahjat Itayem (God rest his soul) became the youngest prisoner in the West Bank and Gaza when he was arrested in 1975 at the age of sixteen years old. Mahmoud, the youngest of my father’s brother, was also sixteen when he was arrested. The first intifada surged with youth throwing rocks at Israeli armored jeeps and soldiers. One time the soldiers chased a group of youth, Mahmoud included. He took a wrong turn into a road blocked with concrete slabs—a sure tactic from the Israeli army designed for the very purpose of trapping people and making sure they didn’t get away. The soldiers piled army fatigues on Mahmoud so that no one would recognize him and frog marched him to the jeep. When this story was told me years later, one harrowing detail stood out more than the rest. When news of Mahmoud’s arrest reached my grandmother, she took to roaming the narrow streets of the Khan Younis refugee camp in her bare feet, wailing my uncle’s name.

Ramallah, befitting of the bubble it is should consider changing its name to Apathallah. Perhaps people would object to its sacrilegious term. Or maybe they’d be too apathetic to care. Since the prisoners’ announcement of their hunger strike, a symbolic tent was set up in Clock Square. Posters and pictures of prisoners decorated the scene. Banners were hung from building bearing slogans of freedom. A few days later, a group of youth decided to also go on hunger strike in solidarity with the prisoners. They camped out in the tent. Another tent was set up outside the Red Cross building in Al-Bireh and the hunger strikers moved there. The initial tent was ignored, and hardly anyone visited it. At noon, the tent in front of the Red Cross building would have maybe fifty people sitting there, mostly comrades from the PFLP and families of the prisoners. The posters there are mostly of the PFLP’s secretary general Ahmad Saadat, sentenced to thirty years and who has been in solitary confinement since his arrest three years ago. I’ve frequented the tent a few times in the late afternoon for a couple of hours at a time. A handful of comrades or activists sit around, sharing stories of the tear gassed protest at Ofer prison on Tuesday the 11th, shaking their heads in disbelief at an ancient mother of a prisoner who declared that she would also go on hunger strike indefinitely, smoking cigarette after cigarette as they confirmed the increasing number of prisoners joining in. Representatives or supporters from other political factions were not present.

Yet the subject of prisoners is not confined to any political faction. It is a highly significant national issue, highlighting the plight of the Palestinians who refused the shackles of Israeli occupation and colonization. Even before that, when Palestinians resisted the increasingly arbitrary measures of the British Mandate rule, three Palestinian prisoners, Mohammad Jamjoum, Fuad Hijazi, and Atta al-Zeer were hanged in the Buraq Revolution of 1929. Forget Israel’s depiction of those same prisoners as a monolithic entity of terrorists and child killers. It’s not exactly in Israel’s agenda to paint them in a favorable or even neutral light. The prisoners are true freedom fighters who have sacrificed years and years of their lives for a conviction so deeply cemented within their souls. They refused to live in their own homeland as a dirty inferior race. They refused to recognize the occupation’s whitewashed so-called legitimacy, which came off the back of a racist ideology that first settled a tiny white minority on the indigenous lands of the Palestinians who were living there for hundreds of years. Many were arrested for no reason, or judging by Israel’s standards of being either a security threat or an existentialist threat to the poor beleaguered state of Israel. Paltry misdemeanors such as throwing rocks or participating in protests or knowing someone who might be a dangerous person were more than enough reasons to get imprisoned. Prisoners became another icon of sumoud, steadfastness. Injustice will not stand for so long. The prisoners, along with the refugees, became another resolute pillar in Palestine’s struggle for peace, justice and equality.

Tuesday night, the same day as the Ofer protest came the news that Hamas has secured a deal with Israel which would see the release of over a thousand Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, a corporal who was captured along the border of Gaza five years ago. As more news began to trickle in, I was initially hit with euphoria. All of the women and children would be released. Three hundred prisoners sentenced to multiple life sentences would be released. Even more, hundreds of families would be joyfully reunited with their sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, wives, sisters, daughters, mothers. I still believe that the Israeli government doesn’t care for Shalit. They could have made this deal years ago. Call it a popularity call for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Call it Israel finally adjusting to the recent geopolitical changes around it. The same motives apply to Hamas; a boost in popularity (anyone, UN failed bid for statehood or a thousand prisoners released?), hesitancy to pledge support to Syria’s domestic bloody crackdown on its own people. The scenes in Gaza were of celebratory festivities, with various hacks from Hamas making seminal speeches filled with vows and victory speak, and de facto Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh throwing sweets to the crowd. Ramallah it seemed couldn’t care less. A few people went to the Manara Square and were met with the PA’s security forces, ready to crack down on any non-PA decreed initiative. The scenario was now flipped on to its other side. A few weeks ago Ramallah was bouncing with bused in Fateh supporters from neighboring villages and towns to support Mahmoud Abbas’ UN bid, while Gaza city was silent.

More details emerged. The release would happen in two stages, one next week either Monday or Tuesday (450 prisoners) and the rest after two months. Marwan Barghouti was going to be released. So was Ahmad Saadat. Wait, no they’re not. Oh yes they are. No, no it’s been confirmed. Are you sure? Barghouti, Saadat not to be released! Barghouti, Saadat are not part of the deal! A thousand and twenty seven prisoners are to be released. They are not leaders of political parties, but they are just as equal. Let’s not forget that. Forty prisoners were to be exiled from Egypt to an unknown third country. This is in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva convention, which prohibits prisoners under occupation from being moved outside the country. Over two hundred prisoners originally from the West Bank are going to be exiled to Gaza, the dumping ground for those bad apples. Who’s to say Israel won’t arrest another thousand Palestinians in the upcoming weeks, months? Discontent raised its head. Is that why Hamas affiliated prisoners didn’t join in the hunger strike under its heading? Are you all happy that a thousand prisoners are getting released? What about the other six thousand? Are you celebrating the fact that one Israeli is worth a thousand Palestinians? Are we that dehumanized? Are we dogs? No, dogs are better off than us. This deal is worth nothing if my sons don’t get out! How did they decide which ones to release? If my sons aren’t on that list…They are no better than my sons! My sons! My sons! Auntie, God willing your sons will be free.

Wednesday I went on the global hunger strike in solidarity with the prisoners. It was extremely heartening to read the many tweets from people all over as they declared on Twitter that they too will be on hunger strike. How long does it take for one to die from starvation? Three weeks, I heard. What if you were tear gassed in your cell first, beaten up, and crammed into cells way past its holding capacity? What if you get thrown into solitary confinement and are denied basic medical attention? Such was the reaction from the IPS to the hunger strikers who are not demanding for rainbows to squeeze out skittles, or for luxurious water beds, or for five star dining. They demand an end to solitary confinement. They demand their right to education and access to books. They demand family visits. They demand to be treated like humans, and not like animals with chains bounding their hands and feet during meetings with their lawyers. They demand the right to be able to hug their families, lest their children suffer the same fate as ten year old Areej Skafe who died as a result of being denied permission to hug her imprisoned father.

The world knows who Gilad Shalit is, The Most Important Prisoner in the Whole Wide World. The discrepancy is obvious from the western media’s portrayal of what this prisoner swap deal means SOLELY for Shalit, disregarding the occupied, the inferiors. They know his age, they’ve seen his pictures, and they are familiar with his parents. They have counted every tear his mother has shed. The thousand and twenty seven Palestinian prisoners are treated as a statistic, devoid of any meaning other than a number. They have parents too. Some lost their mothers or fathers while serving long years in prison and never got the chance to say goodbye. No Israeli life is worth more than a Palestinian’s. A campaign has started on Facebook titled “Prisoner of the Day.” Every day will be devoted to one Palestinian prisoner, personalizing his or her story, sharing pictures of them, messages from friends, past hobbies they enjoyed on social media sites. The first prisoner to be shared is Shadi al Shurafa, a 32 year old man from Jerusalem who was sentenced to twenty five years. He has served nine years so far. Shadi used to play on the basketball team of DeLaSalle. He’s a human being too. He wasn’t a soldier. Soldiers run the risk of being captured. Basketball players don’t.

The Battle of Hungry Stomachs will continue until all demands are met. How many Bobby Sands must we have before the world finally pays attention? Solidarity and Awareness are the key ingredients to any just cause.

*The title is a reference to a song by hip hop artist Lowkey, called 'My Soul.'

1 comment:

  1. The history in the 1920s, even before the 1930 execution of the three prisoners from the al Buraq revolt, of Palestinians hunger-striking to protest arbitrary imprisonments and prison conditions, is so rich and full of discourse which like yours, are very articulate and are often wrenching treatises against capital punishment and treating Palestinians as less than human.
    Sadly however, the history of these calls to awareness are not so rich in actually getting anything changed. There is awareness and solidarity but how to bring such things to the masses who can pressure the right people? Israel is the master of making up its own narrative and Gilad Shalit is the narrative par excellence of the Israel national identity currently...its impossible to challenge from outside it seems, to bring awareness of what the administratively detained, the women, children, and of course the innocent of any sort of real crime face in Israeli jails..