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Reflections on a Delegation to Imprisoned Palestine

Emory Douglas, BPP Minister of Culture, with Mukhles Burgal an

Emory Douglas, BPP Minister of Culture, with Mukhles Burgal and his son.


At the end of March 2016, I was part of a nineteen-member Prisoner Solidarity and Labor Delegation that traveled from the United States, the country with the largest number of prisoners in the world, to Palestine, a nation where 40% of the male population has been imprisoned. (This article focuses on the prisoner solidarity portion of the delegation. To understand the full breadth of the delegation’s trip, see our delegation statement.) Convened by Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, professor at San Francisco State University, this was the first U.S. delegation to focus specifically on political imprisonment and solidarity between Palestinian and U.S. prisoners. We built on a long history of mutual inspiration and exchange dating back to the 1960’s. In 2013, when prisoners at Pelican Bay prison in California undertook an historic hunger strike to protest long term solitary confinement at the same time as Palestinian prisoners were on hunger strike against administrative detention, this exchange was renewed. Khader Adnan, a former Palestinian political prisoner who had waged a hunger strike in Israeli prisons for 66 days, sent a strong message of solidarity to the California hunger strikers, supporting their actions.

Our delegation grew out of this consciously revitalized connection across walls and borders. The Israeli and U.S. states have collaborated continuously, since the establishment of Israel in 1948, to develop repressive carceral strategies to contain resistance to colonialism and racism. We wanted to bring a delegation of people who were actively engaged in the struggle against imprisonment to Palestine to meet with their Palestinian comrades. Hank Jones, a former member of the Black Panther Party was imprisoned three times for his political activities, most recently in 2007 when he was arrested as part of the San Francisco 8 case. Laura Whitehorn and Claude Marks each spent years in prison for their anti-imperialist actions. Manuel La Fontaine was radicalized by prison elders during the time he spent in California state prisons and now organizes with All of Us Or None. Emory Douglas was minister of culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 to 1982 and continues his work as a revolutionary artist today. All of the delegation members came with an understanding that the Palestinian struggle for freedom is a central part of building a worldwide movement against U.S. imperialism and for liberation.

From the moment we crossed from Jordan into Palestine, we were surrounded by the dense matrix of border crossings, military checkpoints, walls, gates, watchtowers, surveillance cameras and 22 prisons that ensnare Palestinians, enforcing a racist, apartheid control over their daily lives. According to Professor Reema Hammami of the Institute of Women’s Studies, Birzeit University, the Zionist state has developed the most intensive regime of spatial control over a land area that has ever been invented. Its goal is to crush Palestinian resistance that has been sustained, against all odds, since the Nakba (catastrophe ) 68 years ago.

Since 1967, Israel has imprisoned approximately 800,000 Palestinians and currently holds 7,000 Palestinian political prisoners. With the help of Zakaria Odeh, executive director of the Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem , we met dozens of former prisoners – old and young, women and men, all widely respected for their role in the freedom struggle. Everywhere we were welcomed as fellow “strugglers,” people whose life experiences, values and commitments were linked to theirs, an honor which we took very seriously. One of our first visits was with Mukhles Burgal in his home in Lydd. Mukhles spent 28 years in prison and finally was released in 2012 as part of the exchange of Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit for the freedom of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Mukhles’ son sat on his lap, listening as Muhkles described how his own father had fought against the colonization of Palestine before the 1948 Nakba which displaced 85% of Palestinians from their land.

Mukhles was first imprisoned at twenty years old and was arrested for the second time in 1987 and charged with attacking an Israeli military bus. He was interrogated violently for fifty-seven days, enduring sleep deprivation, noise, and extreme cold. The Israeli interrogators threatened his family and used prisoners who were collaborators to undermine his resolve, but he was able to overcome all of this. To withstand the pressure of interrogation, prisoners practiced sumud, a concept rooted in the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle which can be best translated as steadfast resistance or standing one’s ground with dignity.

Themes of collectivity, sumud ,and intergenerational commitment to Palestine’s freedom were repeated by all the former prisoners we met. We spoke with four women who had previously been in prison themselves. Now, they explained, they were visiting their children in prison. “Palestinian mothers bring their children up to be steadfast,one of the women commented and went on to describe how she taught her son not to betray the movement if he were arrested. “The Palestinian mother loves her children very much, but you cannot believe how much she loves her homeland,” one of the other women declared.

The women described the arduous challenge of visiting their children in prison, traveling for 10-15 hours each way, passing through multiple checkpoints and enduring several humiliating full body searches at the prison itself. If no arbitrary circumstance prevented the visit from happening, they were finally able to see their child for half an hour through a plexiglass window. We were struck by the similarity of the grueling prison visiting process for families in the U.S., designed to torment families and prisoners alike.

Rula Abu Duhou , a former prisoner and current faculty member at Birzeit University’s Institute of Women Studies , told a story about collective steadfastness among women prisoners and how it led to an important victory. After the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Israelis agreed to release prisoners as a goodwill gesture. However, the releases didn’t include those with long sentences, those who were sick, or the women. The women prisoners began to organize themselves and their mothers formed a committee to advocate for their release.

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Then in 1996, right before Palestinian legislative elections were to be held, the Israeli government announced that all the women who were together in Hasharon prison would be released, except for five. The women took a vote and decided that either all forty of them would be freed together or none of them would leave. The prison threatened to forcibly release them if necessary, so the women locked themselves into two cells, blocking the Israeli guards from entering. They were hungry and very crowded in the two cells but they kept their spirits up, telling stories and encouraging each other. Several days later all of them were released. “We won our collective freedom through collective struggle,” Rula concluded pointedly.

We heard repeatedly about the dialectical relationship between the struggle inside prisons and outside. During the first Intifada the slogan used was “Bring the intifada inside the prison cells and bring the prison into the streets.” A 1992 prisoner hunger strike was one of the most successful due to the level of outside support connected with the intifada.

On the other hand, everyone we met, including representatives of political parties, grassroots, social and cultural organizations talked about the destructive impact the 1993 Oslo Accords have had on the struggle outside and inside prisons. Masked as a step towards Palestinian autonomy, the Accords have reinforced Israeli colonial control, dramatically escalated the takeover of land in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and have weakened the fabric of the movement . As one former prisoner explained,” most significantly, Oslo has occupied the mind.”

Now, twenty-three years post-Oslo, a broad cross section of organized forces agree on the critical need to rebuild a more unified Palestinian liberation movement. Key to this unity is upholding the right of return for all Palestinians with the goal of creating a sovereign Palestine. At the same time, in the face of escalating home demolitions, land confiscation, multiplying checkpoints, religious provocations, arbitrary arrests, and state-sanctioned Israeli vigilante terror, Palestinian youth in East Jerusalem and the West Bank have begun to rise up, using a variety of tactics, in what many are calling a third intifada. According to numerous people we spoke with, this new intifada is providing an alternative to the Oslo way of thinking and represents the insurgent consciousness of a new generation.

Israel’s response to this resurgent movement has been brutal. Since October 2015, 5,000 arrests have taken place and dozens of extra-judicial executions. The assault against youth has been accompanied by a new level of sadistic punishment of their families. We met with Muhammad Elayyan, himself a former prisoner, a lawyer and the father of Bahaa Elayyan who was shot dead on October 13, 2015 by Israeli police for allegedly attacking an Israeli bus. As punishment for his son’s offense, even though no evidence or published proof has ever been presented linking Bahaa to the attack, their family home was demolished in January 2016

Additionally, the Israelis refused to release Bahaa’s body, as well as the bodies of 55 other youth who have been killed since October 2015. A few of the fifty-five bodies had been returned to their families frozen in a block of ice with the requirement that they be buried within a few hours, making it impossible to bury them according to Sharia law. Muhammad’s family refused to accept Bahaa’s frozen body. Along with the other “families of the unburied bodies,” they have brought their demand to release the bodies to the Israeli Supreme court and have launched an international campaign to expose this new level of psychological/cultural warfare against Palestinian families. After our wrenching visit with the family, we went to look at the gaping hole which had been the site of the Elayyan family home before its demolition. Painted in Arabic on the wall of an adjacent house were the words, “The blow that does not break your hand makes you stronger.”

The spirit of that slogan reverberated throughout our trip. Oslo might have weakened the Palestinian hand, but it certainly hadn’t broken it. That spirit was reflected in the remarkable murals painted on walls across Palestine, including the apartheid wall in Bethlehem and the walls and ceilings of the Ibdaa Cultural Center in Dheisheh refugee camp. We witnessed the spirit in the tireless work of the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights organization that defends political prisoners day in and day out and in the dedication of Defense for Children International-Palestine that strives to protect the rights of Palestinian children, including those in prison and detention. And we applauded that spirit in the unprecedented success of the international BDS campaigns, a success that has so threatened Israel that an Israeli minister recently called for the civic assassination of BDS leadership.

This spirit was also pervasive at two conferences we participated in at Birzeit and An-Najah universities where many of the faculty and student presenters were former prisoners. Here, members of our delegation shared stories of incarceration, racism, clandestine struggle, and the challenges of building political movement in the U.S. We also brought messages of solidarity, collected in a pamphlet, from current U.S.-held political prisoners, including Herman Bell, Jalil Muntaqim, David Gilbert, members of the MOVE 9, and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia actually called in to the conference from prison in Pennsylvania , and commented eloquently on the links between the Black and Palestinian freedom struggles. The pamphlet had a picture of Rasmea Odeh on its cover, drawn by transgender political prisoner Marius Mason. Decades after being tortured in Israeli prisons, Rasmea, who now lives in Chicago, is being prosecuted on trumped-up charges by the U.S. government in conjunction with Israel, a punishment for her continuing support for Palestine’s liberation.

Back in the United States, Palestine is being discussed more broadly than ever, even entering into the Presidential debates. At the same time, attacks on Palestine’s supporters by Zionist organizations are escalating, especially on campuses where divestment and other pro-Palestine campaigns are gaining momentum. Students and faculty are being labeled anti-Semitic, and their future education and employment is being threatened. In this charged atmosphere, there is increased pressure to tone down the scope of solidarity. In Palestine, we learned that compromising fundamental principles has only weakened the liberation movement. We are committed to amplifying the voices of 7,000 steadfast Palestinian political prisoners and to upholding the right of return, self-determination, and sovereignty for Palestine as non-negotiable principles, in the spirit of sumud.

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Diana Block is the author of a novel, Clandestine Occupations – An Imaginary History (PM Press, 2015) and a memoir, Arm the Spirit – A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back (AK Press, 2009).  She is an active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners  and the anti-prison coalition CURB. She is a member of the editorial collective of The Fire Inside newsletter and she writes periodically for various online journals.

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