“Why doesn’t the international community support the fighters of Palestine?” Iyad Abu Khaizaran asked, sitting in his Gaza apartment.
Abu Khaizaran, 41, was one of 477 detainees freed on 18 October 2011 in the first phase of Hamas’ prisoner exchange with Israel, and one of 205 banished by Israel from their homes in the West Bank. Like 163 others, Abu Khaizaran, a native of Tubas, was forcibly relocated to the Gaza Strip.
Hamas had reached the deal with Israel to free, in two phases, more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier they had captured in 2006.
A day before the exchange, two Palestinian human rights organizations, Addameer and Al-Haq, said in a statement that the “terms violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits forcible transfers and deportations of protected persons, a proscription that is part of customary international humanitarian law.”
The organizations added: “Unlawful deportation or transfer also constitutes a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention and qualifies as one of the most serious war crimes” (“Between a rock and a hard place: the fate of Palestinian political prisoners,” 17 October 2011).
However, Abu Khaizaran was less interested in discussing his own banishment than the Palestinian struggle. “I had the right to fight this occupation,” he said. “International law allowed me to do that.”
“I didn’t care about the length of my sentence, or how many years I would spend inside Israeli jails,” he added. “Our struggle was just. For this reason, I was never sad during my imprisonment.”
Isolated from family
But the conversation eventually turned to Abu Khaizaran’s detention. A founder of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement’s armed al-Quds Brigades in Tubas, he was captured by Israeli soldiers on 3 October 1991 during an operation against a military checkpoint. This followed a previous twenty-month detention.
“Before I was detained, I was shot and injured by eleven bullets,” he said. “My condition was very critical.”
Sentenced to a lifetime plus 25 years, he was frequently isolated from both his family and other detainees. “Once, I didn’t see my family for four years,” he said. “Sometimes detainees’ families would spend their whole day in the ‘journey of death,’ only to be turned away at the gate. The guards did this only for revenge.” This is a reference to the long, arduous journeys Palestinian family members often must make to visit imprisoned relatives in Israel.
It was in an isolation cell at Ashkelon prison that a visiting attorney told him of the mass hunger strike launched on 27 September last year by Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmad Saadat, then isolated in Shata prison himself. Abu Khaizaran joined it, never expecting to be freed only days later in a prisoner exchange.
“My happiness after the exchange cannot be expressed,” he said. “It was very high. The exchange was a victory for Palestinians. Israel didn’t grant it easily.
“The international community never showed any concern for thousands of Palestinian detainees until [captive Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit was captured. And that is a bad comparison. We cannot equate a soldier who was captured while shooting at civilians with Palestinians resisting the occupation of their lands. ”
As crowds gathered in the streets of Palestine on the evening of 11 October 2011 to celebrate news of the impending exchange, rumors swirled it would include Saadat. But a 15 October official list showed he would stay imprisoned (on the same day as the first stage of the prisoner release, a deal was reached to end the hunger strike).
Nonetheless, Saadat’s wife Abla has expressed support for the agreement.
In a message to The Electronic Intifada emailed via the Campaign to Free Ahmad Sa’adat, Abla said the release was “an achievement of the Palestinian resistance and it should be clear that whenever prisoners are freed, it is always a victory for the prisoners’ steadfastness and the Palestinian resistance.”
“In the past year — since 18 October and in many ways sparked by the September-October 2011 hunger strike — the struggle of Palestinian prisoners within the Zionist jails has escalated dramatically. Our prisoners have been leading our national movement, with empty stomachs and full of steadfastness.
“Ahmad was finally released from isolation after over three years, multiple hunger strikes and lengthy struggle because of the victory of our prisoners in May of this year, and their united effort,” she added, referring to a fast undertaken in April and May of this year, that has become known as the Karameh (Dignity) hunger strike.
To end that strike, as well as the one led by Ahmad Saadat in 2011, Israel promised to stop its isolation of Palestinian detainees (“Victory on the way in hunger strike,” Campaign to Free Ahmad Saadat, 18 October 2011). On 14 May this year, it also agreed to release some Palestinians held in administrative detention (without charge or trial) and allow visits by first-degree family members to all prisoners (“Statement of victory from the strike leadership,” Samidoun, 16 May 2012).
These deals remain unfulfilled, Abla Saadat said. “The heroic steadfastness of our prisoners confronts an enemy that continues to isolate Palestinian prisoners like Dirar Abu Sisi and Awad al-Saidi, continues to attack Palestinian prisoners in their cells, and continues to kidnap Palestinians from their homes, including the freed prisoners of 18 October 2011.”
Palestinians detained by Israel following their release in the exchange include Ayman Sharawna and Samer Issawi, both of whom are still on hunger strikes against new administrative detention orders. Sharawna has been depriving himself of food for more than 100 days.
After his release, Abu Khaizaran found himself among the more isolated of those banished to the Gaza Strip. A longtime Islamic Jihad member, he had left the organization and was politically independent by 2011. While he, like other freed detainees, received relocation and financial assistance from the Palestinian administrations in Gaza and Ramallah, political movements arranged other networking and social opportunities for their own members.
“All of us are suffering,” he said. “But the independents are suffering more.” His salary from the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, he said, doesn’t even cover the taxes levied on his family land in Tubas. “At least I am out of jail,” he added. “Although I was expelled and miss my family, I am happy to be free. I look forward to the day when all detainees are released.”
Abu Khaizaran has started a new life in internal exile. He has married and is now awaiting the birth of his first child this month, and studies and discusses a broad range of topics voraciously.
Like many freed detainees, he rarely misses weekly protests at Gaza’s International Committee of the Red Cross headquarters or other local events supporting the prisoners’ movement. “I participate in all activities concerning the issue of detainees,” he said. “When Mahmoud Sarsak was hunger striking, I visited his family and presented them with a trophy to show my solidarity. But these activities don’t do much to solve the issue. Israel doesn’t believe in peaceful, political struggle.”
Respect international law
One thing that can work, Abu Khaizaran believes, is international pressure. “The world, and especially the Arab governments, must pressure America and Europe,” he said. “Those within these countries should do the same. These are the countries that can implement the Geneva Conventions and other international laws in Palestine, and for the benefit of Palestinian detainees. Israel has convinced many countries to support its policies. It acts like it’s above international law, and the international community allows it. But even Israel cannot fabricate realities.”
And those realities, coupled with international support, can infuse Palestinian resistance with strength, he said. “Israel cannot kill three million people who come to pray inside al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem] with flowers. If all the Arab people make a vow to God to march through Egypt and Jordan to pray in al-Aqsa Mosque, Israel cannot stop them.
“I don’t oppose Israelis because of their religion. We want them to have a place under the sun, as much as we are looking for one of our own. But when Israel forces Palestinian out of their lands, how can we live with them?
“My message to them is to stop the violence and fundamentalism inside Israeli society. Israel is based on ethnic premises. they expel Africans from Israel just because they are not Jews. And they have treated us the same way.
“Of course Jews can stay in Palestine. We cannot chase them back out — impossible! But an exclusive state in Palestine is unacceptable. Palestinians have the right to return to our lands, and we will.”
Ahmad Saadat denied visits
A year after Ahmad Saadat’s hunger strike, Israel continues to refuse to allow three of his children to visit him (“Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails: the case of Ahmad Saadat,” Al Akbhar English, 9 September 2012).
“I cannot stress enough that families continue to be denied visits with our imprisoned family members, and prisoners denied visitation and education, with devastating impacts on the families of prisoners,” Abla Saadat said. “One year later, it remains clear that only resistance wins freedom for Palestinian prisoners and that the steadfastness, struggle, courage and unity of our prisoners is a light and an inspiration to the entire Palestinian nation and all people of conscience.”
“As a human being, I don’t seek out enemies,” Abu Khaizaran said of the struggle that brought him to Gaza. “When anyone is a human being, he should treat you as a human. And the most important thing is that the basis of our fight must be human.”
Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He works with the Centre for Political and Development Studies and other Palestinian groups and international solidarity networks, particularly in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions and prisoners’ movements. He blogs at joecatron.wordpress.com and can be followed on Twitter: @jncatron.