“As soon as I left prison, I went to Nael’s grave. It is adorned with the colors of the Palestinian flag and verses from the Holy Quran. I told my little brother how much I loved and appreciated him, and that, one day, we would meet again in paradise.”
The above is part of a testimony given to me by a former Palestinian prisoner, Jalal Lutfi Saqr. It was published two years ago in the volume ‘These Chains Will Be Broken’.
As a Palestinian, born and raised in a refugee camp in Gaza, I was always familiar with the political discourse of, and concerning, political prisoners. My neighborhood, like every neighborhood in Gaza, is populated with a large number of former prisoners, or families whose members have experienced imprisonment in the past or present.
However, starting in 2016, my relationship with the subject took on, for the lack of a better term, a more ‘academic’ approach. Since then, and up to now, I have interviewed scores of former prisoners and members of their families. Some were imprisoned by Israel, others by the Palestinian Authority. I even spoke to prisoners who experienced the brutality of Middle Eastern prisons, from Iraq, to Syria, to Egypt and Lebanon. A few particularly unlucky ones have endured multiple prison experiences and were tortured by men speaking different languages.
Some prisoners, now quite old, were imprisoned by the British army, which colonized Palestine between 1920 and 1948. They were held according to the 1945 so-called Defense (Emergency) Regulations, an arbitrary legal code that allowed the British to hold as many rebelling Palestinian Arabs without having to provide a cause or engage in due process.
This system remains in effect to this day, as it was adopted by Israel following the end of the British Mandate. Following minor amendments in 1979, and the renaming of the law into the “Israeli Law on Authority in States of Emergency”, this is essentially today’s so-called ‘Administrative Detention’. It allows Israel to incarcerate Palestinians, practically indefinitely, based on ‘secret evidence’ that is not revealed, even to the defense attorney.
These ‘emergency’ laws remain in place, simply because Palestinians never ceased resisting. Thousands of Palestinians were held without evidence or trial during the First Palestinian Intifada, the uprising of 1987. Most of them were kept in horrific living conditions, in tent cities in the Naqab Desert.
According to the Palestinian Commission on Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs, around one million Palestinians were imprisoned between 1967 and 2021. Currently, hundreds of Palestinian ‘administrative detainees’ are held in Israeli prisons, an act that violates international law on various counts – holding prisoners without trial or due process, and transferring prisoners to enemy territories, the latter being a stark violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.
Of course, respecting international law has never been Israel’s strongest suit. In fact, Israel continues to deliberately ignore international law in numerous aspects of its illegal military occupation of Palestine, rationalizing such actions on ‘security’ grounds.
Palestinians are also doing what they do best, resist, under the harshest circumstances and by every means available to them. Tellingly, the strongest of such resistance takes place inside prison walls, by gaunt looking, and often dying hunger strikers.
Khalil Awawdeh, a 40-year-old Palestinian from a village near Al-Khalil (Hebron) is the latest prisoner hunger striker to make history, by simply refraining from eating for 180 days. His weight has dropped to 38 kilograms, after losing over 40 kilograms while on hunger strike. The images of his half-naked, skeletal body have been deemed ‘graphic’ and ‘offensive’ to some social media users, and were removed as soon as they were shared. At the end, he could only whisper a few words. Though barely audible, they were filled with courage.
On August 31, Awawdeh ended his hunger strike, after reaching a deal with the Israeli prison administration to release him on October 2. His first words after that agreement were hardly those of a dying man, but of a triumphant leader: “This resounding victory extends the series of great victories achieved by the mighty and honorable people of this nation.”
These words, however, were not unique. They carried the same sentiment communicated to me by every single freed prisoner I have interviewed in recent years. None have any regrets, even those who spent most of their lives in dark cells and in shackles; even those who lost loved ones; even those who left prison with chronic diseases, to die soon after their release. Their message is always that of defiance, of courage, and of hope.
Awawdeh is neither the first, nor the last prisoner to undergo these life-threatening hunger strikes. The strategy may be explained, and understandably so, as the last resort or as acts of desperation by individuals who are left without alternatives. But for Palestinians, these are acts of resistance that demonstrate the power of the Palestinian people: even in prison, handcuffed to a hospital bed, denied every basic human right, a Palestinian can fight, and win. Awawdeh did.
When Jalal Lutfi Saqr learned that his brother Nael was killed by the Israeli army in Gaza, he was a prisoner in Israel. He told me that the first thing he did when he learned of his brother’s death was kneeling down and praying. The following day, Jalal spoke to the mourners in his Gaza refugee camp using a smuggled cell phone by telling them, “Ours is a long and painful march for freedom.
“Some of us are in prison; others are underground, but we will never cease our fight for our people. We must remain committed to the legacy of our forefathers and our martyrs. We are all brothers, in blood, in the struggle and in faith, so let’s remain united as one people, as brothers and sisters, and carry on, despite the heavy losses and tremendous sacrifices.”
Jalal’s call on his people was made twenty years ago. It remains as relevant today, as it was then.