Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Palestine: Inside the Home of Hana Shalabi

Al Akhbar English published my interview with Hana Shalabi's sister Zahra on Hana's 40th day of hunger strike

On my Electronic Intifada blog, I wrote:
There are no words left after this. I picture Hana lying in a hospital bed, enduring an incredible amount of physical pain in addition to the taunts of the Israeli soldiers around her, who tell her over and over again that she will not survive, that she is not Khader Adnan, that the world does not care about her, that she will die alone and forgotten.

I don’t want to immortalize her; I just want her to live.

By: Linah Alsaafin
Published Monday, March 26, 2012

Burqin, Occupied West Bank – A tent, decorated with the flags of Palestinian political factions and posters of 29-year-old Hana, adorns the front yard of the Shalabi family home. On the eve of Mother’s Day, the tent had received a steady stream of visitors since the morning. Teachers and students from Burqin’s secondary school, members from the village’s women and farmers’ societies, and mothers of Palestinian martyrs gave the family long-stemmed roses and flowers, enough to form a huge bouquet.

Hana’s elderly mother Badia spends most of her days sitting inside the tent. She can’t stand being inside the house – it reminds her too much of Hana’s presence.

For the past 40 days, Hana Shalabi has been on hunger strike, consuming only water. Being held under so-called administrative detention, an outdated policy that Israel uses frequently to arrest and hold Palestinians for an indefinite period of time under the pretense of security threats based on “secret evidence,” Hana hasn’t been formally charged with any crime. Her health is deteriorating rapidly and according to the last inspection carried out by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel last week she is at risk of “imminent death.”

Zahra Shalabi leads the way into the small but immaculate house. Zahra begins talking earnestly about her sister Hana, who despite being nine years her junior is the closest to her.

Hana’s elderly mother Badia can’t stand being inside the house – it reminds her too much of Hana’s presence.“Everything Hana did in this house now feels like a dream,” Zahra says, adding that “she would wake up in the morning and make tea or coffee for us both. Sometimes I can’t believe she is not here anymore.”
Hana is one of five Palestinians who have been rearrested by Israel after being released in the October prisoners’ release between Hamas and Israel, in violation of the deal’s conditions. Prior to her release in October, Hana had spent 25 months in prison under administrative detention, which can be renewed every six months.

During the last family visit, Hana informed her mother that she would begin a hunger strike if her detention was renewed for the sixth time. When the prisoners’ deal came out, it was a welcome and joyous surprise.

“We were all filled with immeasurable happiness,” recounts Zahra. “Hana couldn’t believe she was out of prison. We stayed up past midnight on the day she was released, just chatting and laughing so much. She told me stories about life in prison, the types of dinners she’d cook with the other female prisoners, the sanitary conditions of the cells, all in a joking way.”

The four months between October and February were trouble-free days, bursting with dreams and ambitions. Hana loved to socialize and meet with people. She was busy with getting her papers in order to register for university, with her eyes set on enrolling at the American University in Jenin. She wanted to get her driver’s license, and later buy a car. She went on a shopping spree, buying new carpets and curtains for her bedroom, as well as new clothes since she couldn’t stand to wear the ones she owned before her imprisonment. Also she dreamed of getting married and of finding the perfect man to spend the rest of her life with.

Hana is one of five Palestinians who have been rearrested by Israel after being released in the October prisoners’ release between Hamas and Israel.On February 16, at 2:30am, Zahra woke up to the sound of unusual noises outside the house. At first, she thought it was a few stray dogs, but then came the unmistakable rumble of an Israeli army jeep. Hana woke up in a frenzy, gasping “The Israelis, the Israelis!” She confusedly thought that the occupation soldiers had come for her brother Ammar, who spent two weeks in prison after the Palestinian Authority arrested him in 2009 on the baseless accusation of weapon possession. The thought of getting rearrested did not cross her mind until the Israeli commander called her name.
“She began jumping around like a caged bird,” Zahra says. “She was panicking, and kept repeating over and over again that she was not going to go with the soldiers because she didn’t do anything.”

The soldiers raided the house, making the inhabitants sit on the floor. One soldier grabbed Hana, who tried to push him away. He began beating her. Another unit went upstairs to her brother Ammar’s house, and scared the children by charging in with police dogs.

Clad only in light pajamas and prevented from dressing more moderately, Hana was taken outside in the cold by “Officer Shalom,” who interrogated her for five minutes. Shortly afterward, she was taken away and almost immediately began her hunger strike after being subjected to more beatings and forced to undergo a humiliating strip search in the presence of a male soldier.

Posters of Hana are plastered inside the house. On one wall is a large framed picture of her martyred brother Samer, who was shot by Israeli soldiers in September 2005. The picture had a Fatah subheading denoting his membership of Fatah’s armed military wing, Al-Quds Brigades.

When asked about Hana’s Islamic Jihad affiliation Zahra gives a small smile. “She’s not really Islamic Jihad. She doesn’t belong to any faction. When Israel imprisons you, their security services ask which political faction you belong to. Hana chose Islamic Jihad on a whim.”

Israel offered Hana a reduced sentence of four months on March 3 after 17 days of her hunger strike but she was adamant that she would only break her strike if she was released immediately. Again, it should be noted that no one knows why she is being held or what the evidence against her is.

“Is Hana Israel? Is she the US?” Zahra asks angrily.

“Does she have missiles or rockets? Where is the threat to Israel? Why can’t we visit her? I know Hana, we grew up together. She has done nothing. It’s the biggest injustice for Hana to die in prison, because she is innocent. I am sure my sister will not make it through another seven days. My sister is dying,” Zahra says as she begins to cry.

She continues by saying, “I would never place my enemy in my sister’s position. We remain steadfast despite the pain exploding within us. I would not wish this on anyone.”

Israel offered Hana a reduced sentence of four months on March 3 after 17 days of her hunger strike but she was adamant that she would only break her strike if she was released immediately.The Shalabis appreciate the moral support that has come from not just Palestine, but all over the world. However, they want that support to turn into action, to secure the immediate release of Hana, as she languishes in the Israeli Me’ir Hospital in Kfar Saba, where she was transferred to on March 20. Every time there is a court hearing to assess Hana’s appeals the family’s nerves are stretched thin in a psychological tug of war, only to have their hopes plummeted after every trial postponement.
On Monday, March 19, Hana’s parents met with the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas at the PA compound al-Muqataa in Ramallah. They asked him to secure the release of their daughter. Abbas replied that he would do his best, but Zahra dismisses his claims.

“Why does he call himself a president if he can’t use his diplomatic powers to release my sister? I don’t believe he is even trying. When Hana was arrested for the first time in 2009, ‘Captain Faisal’ the Israeli officer waved some papers in our direction when we demanded to know why she was getting arrested. He told us the PA gave him the secret file they had on her.”

Zahra is a thin woman who has grown old before her time. Her eyes are pits of sadness and she unexpectedly breaks down into tears in the middle of talking levelly for long uninterrupted stretches. She has trouble sleeping at night, often dreaming of her sister coming toward her with her hands cuffed, imploring Zahra to get them off of her. She wakes up fitfully, and says that she feels her sister’s pain.

“Her weakening heartbeat is my weakening heartbeat. Her stomach pangs are my own stomach pangs. If she dies, I hope she haunts the dreams of everyone who is responsible for her life, everyone who could have done something to secure her release but didn’t. The reality is that the world has failed Hana. What can we do other than put our faith and trust in God?”

Monday, March 26, 2012

Imperfect revolution: Palestine’s 15 March movement one year on

What was the 15 March movement really about?(Issam Rimawi / APA images)

As published on Electronic Intifada

On 17 February 2011, a group of young activists gathered in one of Ramallah’s nondescript cafés to plan for a revolution. Some already knew each other, others didn’t. They Skyped with four activists from Gaza in a meeting that initially focused on translating efforts on social media to action the ground, with the aim of reigniting the Palestinian street into demanding its rights from the oppressors once again.

This was the overture to the short-lived “15 March” movement, as it was dubbed by the local media after the event that took place on that day last year. The movement called for national reconciliation and used the rallying cry of ending the Hamas-Fatah division. Large protests took place in Gaza City and in Ramallah, where they were subsequently hijacked by Hamas and Fatah supporters and security forces, respectively. Many of the 15 March protesters were beaten up.

The movement petered out relatively quickly, and on the surface it seemed like that was that, just another unsuccessful minor chapter in Palestine’s history of factions, youth groups and political blocs. But who were the activists who called for the protest, and what was 15 March really about?

Breaking the mold

Before the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, different activists had contemplated arranging a big event on a particular day. Hamas’ stronghold on the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority’s control over the West Bank severely stifled freedom of expression and curtailed individual rights, creating a tense atmosphere not unlike that of a police state. Speaking out — however casually — against the wrong political faction would result in an arrest, a beating and threats. Youth activists were determined to break through the mold of autocratic rule by their own leadership, which they saw as an arm of the Israeli occupation.

As the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt played out, a few solidarity protests were organized by the activists in Ramallah. Demonstrators were beaten up and harassed by the Palestinian Authority’s preventive security forces. A protest or demonstration couldn’t take place in the West Bank without getting an approval or a license of some sorts from the PA. At the same time, many Facebook groups and pages against the Fatah-Hamas division and Israeli occupation began to appear, boasting tens of thousands of followers.

Ebaa Rezeq, an activist from Gaza, found out about the initiative from blogs and Facebook, before friends asked her to be a part of the group. “They were only starting work by talking to drivers, salesmen, families at home, schools and universities, trade unions and associations,” she recalled. “It wasn’t about getting youth groups and activists recruited; it was about getting the public involved and this was one of the reasons why I believed in this movement.”

Somehow, the date decided on for the protest was 15 March. The two main organizing groups with assertive roles were in Gaza City and Ramallah. Activists in Gaza decided to base the event around ending the division between Fatah and Hamas, which harmed them more than it did to the Palestinians in the West Bank.

A shallow slogan?

However, not everyone agreed that ending the division was the priority. Murad Jadallah, a member of the youth group Hirak Shababi al-Mustaqil (Independent Youth Movement) stated that there was no doubt the slogan “The people want an end to the division” was shallow to say the least. “It does not offer any implication as to what caused the division — which was the result of the absence of a unified national resistance strategy, not because there was one government in Gaza and another government in the West Bank — but at the same time it was a unifying slogan that that was easy for people to repeat.”

Activist Fadi Quran concurs that the slogan, modeled after the famous Egyptian chant of “The people want the fall of the regime,” was a soundbite that the local media could carry more effectively. The group in Ramallah wanted something that addressed and unified all Palestinians, because, as Jadallah put it, the last twenty years of the “peace process” had solidified the reality into geographical splits and concessions, in addition to disenfranchising refugees from the political process. Therefore, the demand for Palestinian National Council elections was introduced, with every Palestinian regardless of where he or she is based having the right to vote.

“Calling for PNC elections was not something new,” Jadallah pointed out. “The Hirak Shababi or other youth groups didn’t invent this call. It is merely a translation of the political concept introduced at the beginning of the 1990s, ‘Reorganizing the Palestinian house.’ That time period demonstrated that the Palestinian house, the Palestine Liberation Organization, had no democratic foundations as the mechanisms of decision-making were undertaken by an executive body within the PLO based on dictatorial ones.”

Hunger strike dynamics

Two days before 15 March, a hunger strike and sit-in by the youth began at Manara Square in Ramallah’s city center. Activists got wind of news that Fatah, along with other political parties, was planning to co-opt the event. Therefore, a pre-emptive action was necessary in order to convey the message of PNC elections louder than the parties’ mantra.

Maath Musleh spent 21 days on hunger strike. There were initially nine hunger strikers, but dozens more slept at Manara Square. Some were politically affiliated, others were not. They were attacked on more than one occasion by PA security thugs, and had their tent burned down. Musleh achieved seniority in the tent set-up because of his commitment to the hunger strike, and was determined not to impose any kind of structural leadership in the tent. The hunger strikers began to form their own dynamics, and pushed forward two more demands: the release of all political prisoners held by Fatah and Hamas, and an end to the propaganda wars implemented by both factions against each other.

“There were some people in 15 March who were against our hunger strike,” Musleh said. “They were convinced we were in over our heads.”

Tents were set up in the centers of Nablus, Bethlehem, Jenin and Gaza City. The coordination between the activists was poor and fragmented. Fadi Quran attributes that to what he calls the “tyranny of completely horizontal groups.”

“We didn’t have a clear process for decision-making, which largely fell on those who were capable of pushing their ideas forward. In many cases that fell upon me, but I wouldn’t say it was leadership as much as tyranny, unfortunately — something I’m learning from.”

There were three different driving forces involved in 15 March: the hunger strikers, the other groups in the different cities, and the Ramallah-based group that numbered around thirty activists. As a result, there were a lot of demands coming from three dynamics without consulting each other first which contributed to obscuring the main message they had all set out to achieve, unity of all Palestinians through PNC elections.

“We learned that we couldn’t mobilize people by calling them to stand with us,” Quran said. “We have to introduce ourselves, make our plans known, what we stand for, what we were working on and towards. This much wasn’t even clear to the people within the group, so how were we supposed to let youth be part of something we still weren’t clear on?”

Media circus

The reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah was signed on 11 May, an empty gesture that changed nothing. Before that, five activists from 15 March met with PA president Mahmoud Abbas. As they entered the office, a media circus was waiting for them. The activists asserted that they would not speak in front of the cameras, thus blocking the media stunt, but which the PA still later used to create divisions by telling the protesters at Manara Square that the activists who met with Abbas saw themselves as leaders of the movement.

None of the activists expected the meeting with Abbas to change anything. They presented him with their demands: PNC elections, an end to media incitement and the release of political prisoners, which they had a list of. Abbas was flippant in his reply, blithely telling them that the PA holds no political prisoners. Needless to say, the meeting was unproductive.

The lack of strategy was telling, and that reflected in the disintegration of relations within the movement and between other groups. Mistrust, frustration, breakdown of communications, certain activists making decisions on behalf of the group without informing them beforehand were evident as a result of the absence of principles and values that were not firmly set at the beginning.

Maintaining momentum

“We were lucky that Land Day [30 March] came,” reflected Musleh. “Then we had a protest for Prisoners’ Day on 17 April, which kept the momentum going. Every Friday we’d hike through the mountains to protest in Nabi Saleh, but mobilization was nonexistent.”

The Hirak Shababi activists knew that Manara Square wouldn’t transform into Tahrir Square overnight. Palestinians are exhausted after more than six decades of suffering and sacrifice. Tensions between 15 March and Hirak Shababi accumulated, with the former accusing the latter of being politically affiliated and doubting its motives.

“Hirak Shababi has two features that explain why a year later, we’re still a movement whereas 15 March fell apart,” explained Jadallah. “Historically, Palestinian political parties derive their legitimacy and credibility from affiliation to a party or faction, and the experience of getting arrested by Israel. There was a fear on 15 March’s part of being swallowed up by Hirak Shababi, thus eliminating their qualities of leadership which were based on their English language proficiency, and their reliance on social media.”

One year later, the situation in Gaza remains dire. And freedom of expression is still repressed, according to Ebaa Rezeq: “In addition to receiving regular summons for interrogations, activists like Asmaa el Ghoul got a lot of death threats for writing critical articles about the situation. Mahmoud Abu Rahma [of the human rights group Al-Mezan] was stabbed by masked men for criticizing the resistance. It’s extremely dangerous to write while in Gaza.”

Breaking the fear barrier

Over in the West Bank, the mood is more optimistic. The number of activists has grown, and 15 March broke the fear barrier that made people think twice before protesting in the street. Jadallah stressed how the need for continued coordination gave birth to other initiatives, such as Palestinians for Dignity (against Israeli-PA negotiations).

The groundswell is not just in the West Bank. The 15 May (Nakba Day) protest commemorating the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was coordinated with Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, with some of the protesters succeeding in crossing the borders to Palestine. Later on in the year, in Haifa, a group with a large followers’ base called Hungry for Freedom originated from the September-October general prisoners’ strike.

“The right message should be directed to the appropriate place,” Jadallah said. “We need to regain the situation of directly confronting the occupation because that will cost Israel dearly, as well as uniting all Palestinians.”

“There is a collective identity we’ve developed,” Quran said. “This identity may look very disintegrated on the surface but at its core is a collective entity of youth who disagree on many things but agree on much more essential values.” The question is how to preserve that. Following his recent arrest while taking part the third annual Global Open Shuhada Street protest in Hebron, Israeli soldiers interrogated him about how the major protests were coordinated. “I know something is right when the Israelis are panicking about it,” he said.

Regardless of all the accusations of being a failure, 15 March managed to bring the cause back to the rest of the Palestinians. The past year involved an ongoing process of experimentation, always subject to adaptation and evolution. The street has become a place of expression of people’s interests, and community organizing has built awareness and injected Palestinian society with the spirit of volunteerism and resistance that Salam Fayyad’s state-building policy managed to corrode. For all of the revolution’s imperfections and trials, Palestinian youth are putting us back on the course to liberation.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Call to Action: Support Hana al-Shalabi as her health declines 4 weeks into hunger strike in Israel jail

The parents of hunger-striking political prisoner Hana al-Shalabi have issued a call to all Palestinians to protest this weekend in support of their daughter who is on her 28th continuous day without food in protest at her detention without charge or trial by Israel:

“We call upon the Palestinian National Authority, the Palestinian national factions, and all Palestinians to take to the streets on Saturday, March 17 and to demonstrate in support of our daughter Hana Shalabi and all administrative detainees.

Pressure on the Palestinian street is imperative in achieving Hana’s immediate release, as well as support for her open hunger strike [that began on February 16, 2012]

We as Hana’s family continue to support her hunger strike, and we want to let our daughter know that we are with her in every step of her hunger strike until she achieves her immediate release from the Israeli occupation jails.

Finally, we call upon all administrative detainees to join Hana’s hunger strike until they achieve their own release and to put an end to the unjust Israeli policy of adminstrative detention, which violates human rights and international law.”

Sharply deteriorating health

Yesterday Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHRI) visited Hana and reported that her health had deteriorated significantly.

“The second doctor’s second examination on 12 March indicated an additional deterioration in Ms. Shalabi’s condition, shown mainly in advanced muscle atrophy and wasting, additional weight loss, a significant reduction in blood sugar, severe dizziness and severe muscle pain, especially in her chest and back.”

Hana was violently re-arrested by Israel on February 16th after her release in the first half of the Hamas-Israel prisoner deal in October. She had spent 25 months on administrative detention, without ever being informed of the reason of her detainment and with no charges brought against her. Her hunger strike is one for freedom and dignity, which began immediately as a result of being horribly mistreated during her last arrest, which included a forced strip search by a male soldier, beatings, and later solitary confinement. She is held in HaSharon prison.

Amnesty International reiterates urgent concern

Amnesty International reiterated its concern for Hana al-Shalabi’s condition following the examination by PHRI doctors. Earlier this month, Amnesty issued an urgent action alert calling on people to contact authorities to demand Israel release Hana al-Shalabi and other so-called “administrative detainees” held without charge or trial by proper international standards.

Background on Hana al-Shalabi

Background from Addameer

“On 23 February 2012 Ms. Hana Shalabi was given an administrative detention order for six months. On 29 February there was a discussion regarding her detention in Ofer military court. On 4 March the military court decided to reduce the detention period from six to four months, but without promising not to extend or renew it. As a result, Ms. Hana Shalabi announced she would continue to hunger strike until her release. On 7 March, an appeal hearing regarding the court’s decision was held at Ofer, and the military judge ordered the parties to try and reach a compromise by Sunday 11 March, but an agreement has not yet been reached.

Administrative detainees’ protests are growing. Two additional administrative detainees, Bilal Diab and Thair Halahleh declared hunger strikes on 1 March, which they claim will continue until their release from administrative detention. On 3 March, two other administrative detainees declared hunger strikes until their release. Since the beginning of March, a number of administrative detainees have refused to acknowledge the military court and refused to participate in legal discussions of their cases. Due to Israel’s use of administrative detention, and the unwillingness of the military court to interfere in this practice, a hunger strike serves as a non-violent and sole tool available to administrative detainees to protest and fight for their basic human rights.

Approximately 310 Palestinians are currently held in administrative detention in Israeli prisons. Administrative detention allows Israel to hold detainees for indefinitely renewable six-month periods. The arrest is granted on the basis of “secret information” and without a public indictment. Therefore, administrative detainees and their lawyers cannot defend against these allegations in court.”