What Thaer Halahleh’s family told me about his release brings joy, but raises troubling questions

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Palestinians hold a sit-in in front of the house of prisoner Thaer Halahleh in the West Bank village of Kharas. 

(APA images)

At around 1:30am Palestine local time I was lying on my side in my bed trying to sleep and doing my best to ignore the queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I thought about how the 64th commemoration of Nakba Day would pan out.

My phone suddenly vibrated jarringly. I grabbed it and the name of the last person I expected to call me was flashing on the screen: Abu Thaer Halahleh, the father of Palestinian hunger striker Thaer Halahleh. I immediately answered.

What I learned in the conversation was a cause for both joy, and serious concern about a pattern of pressure to isolate prisoners and coerce them into accepting deals.

“Hello?”

“Hello…is this Um Muhammad?”

“No, this is her daughter. Is that Fathiya?”

“Yes, it’s me, Thaer’s sister.”

My heart stopped. I thought she had called to tell me Thaer had died.

She cleared her throat. “I just want to tell you…I’m happy to tell you that Thaer has taken the decision to end his hunger strike in the morning.”

My heart swelled. “Tell me more!” I almost shouted.

“He will be released on 5 June after Israel signed a contract promising not to renew his detention… during that time he will receive medical aid to help his recuperation.” Fathiya was bubbling with happiness.

“What about Bilal Thiab and the other hunger strikers?”

“I’m not sure yet about Bilal…Thaer called my family in Kharas at around 12:45 am to inform them of the news. People in Kharas fired their guns in the air at 1am when they heard the news. The mosques’ loudspeakers carried the call of ‘Allahu Akbar’ at that time too. My family immediately called my father to tell him the news but he didn’t believe him. Thaer was allowed to make another call to my house, and we almost didn’t pick up because it was a private number…anyway, talk to my father.”

“Uncle! This is fantastic news!” I said to Abu Thaer.

“Yes, my daughter, thank God. You heard he was to be released on 5 June?”

“Yes…tell me, how did he sound on the phone? What was it like talking to him again after two years?”

“His spirits are high, and his voice…well you know, it’s a good thing he can even talk after 77 days on hunger strike. But one thing he said struck me hard. He told me that if I wasn’t satisfied with his decision he was ready to continue his hunger strike.”

I asked him if he knew more information. He told me that all administrative detainees signed a deal with the Israeli Prison Service (brokered by an Egyptian mediator) to end their hunger strike in return for getting released once their detention was up, with Israel promising not to renew their detention.

“This means that Bilal Diab will be released in August, because that’s when his administrative detention ends,” Thaer’s dad said.

Bilal was arrested on 17 August 2011.

“I don’t know if Bilal will be released on 17 August or not,” continued Thaer’s dad. “You know how it is with the occupation. They will find any excuse to postpone the release of a prisoner even by a few days. Thaer’s administrative detention ends on 27 May but he is getting released a week later.”

Deal raises new questions over role of Jawad Boulos and pressure on hunger strikers

The deal was struck after midnight, in the Ramle prison hospital. It is not known for sure whether Thaer and Bilal’s lawyer, Jamil Khatib was present, but Jawad Boulos, the lawyer who conducted the deals for Khader Adnan and the even murkier one with Hana al-Shalabi was there.

Israel has consistently denied prisoners access to their lawyers of choice, so there is special reason to be concerned when Israel allows lawyers who do not represent the prisoners into the room.

On 14 May, Maan News Agency reported that Issa Qaraqe, a Palestinian Authority minister, had told media that Boulos had been dispatched to Ramle Prison to speak to Thaer Halahleh and fellow long-term hunger striker Bilal Diab.

The Egyptian mediator, the Higher Committee for Prisoners, and the Israel Prison Service officials were also there.

Boulos was the key figure in the deal which ended up with Hana al-Shalabi being banished to Gaza for three years on 1 April in exchange for releasing her from administrative detention.

Boulos and Palestinian Authority officials claimed that this was al-Shalabi’s “choice,” but this was challenged by Hana’s father and by Hana herself in an interview with The Electronic Intifada:

In her comments to The Electronic Intifada, al-Shalabi demanded that her lawyer [Boulos] clarify to her and to the public the controversial circumstances surrounding the deal to send her to Gaza.

Al-Shalabi’s account casts doubt on the claims that it was her “choice” and confirm that she may have received misleading information in order to induce her to accept the deal.

Is there a pattern here? It does look like Israel and those working with it to end the strike are creating conditions where prisoners are isolated from family, their own legal representation and independent medical personnel and then a “good cop” lawyer of Israel’s and the Palestinian Authority’s choice is brought in to pressure them to accept a deal.

This has now become a pattern with Boulos and there must be clarity and accountability.

A deal, but is it a victory?

Thaer’s father was speaking to me outside on a street, waiting for a taxi to take him back home to Kharas in Hebron. He hadn’t slept for three days.

“You better prepare the mansaf,” I joked.

“Of course. I’ll be waiting for you and your mother to come down to Kharas,” he laughed.

The fact that Thaer and Bilal and the other six hunger strikers in their second or third month without food will survive is a cause for great happiness. Yet this deal doesn’t seem like a victory.

Thaer and Bilal have vowed over and over again that they will not end their fast until immediate freedom or martyrdom, and with the involvement of Jawad Boulos in the arrangement similar to that of Khader Adnan’s, there seems to be more to it than meets the eye.