Interview: "counterrevolution" threatens mass hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners

17 April 2012

120417-prisoners-day.jpg

Israel currently jails 4,600 Palestinian political prisoners.

(Issam Rimawi / APA images)

The rot of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority is more widespread than previously thought, according to Mourad Jadallah, legal researcher with the Palestinian human rights and prisoner advocacy group Addameer. The PA, Jadallah points out, even goes as far as cooperating with the Israeli Prison Service and ordering some Fatah-affiliated prisoners to subvert Palestinian hunger strikes.

The Electronic Intifada visited Jadallah at Addameer’s office in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on Monday, the eve of Palestinian Prisoners’ Day. The office was abuzz with activity as Khader Adnan, the Palestinian political prisoner who recently went on a 66-day hunger strike, is due today to be released by Israel. Adnan has been held without charge or trial since his arrest in December. His scheduled release for 17 April is the result of a February deal reached to free him, in exchange for ending his record-breaking hunger strike.

The Electronic Intifada interviewed Jadallah in London in March, but a lot has happened since then, with several Palestinian prisoners, such as Hana al-Shalabi, taking up the baton and going for long hunger strikes against Israel’s regime of arrest and detention. On Sunday, the Palestinian Authority prisoners minister announced to the world press that Palestinian Prisoners’ Day would mark the start of a massive new wave of hunger strikes.

Asa Winstanley: Palestinian hunger strikes seems to have developed a lot recently. It’s an old tactic, but there seems to be a new focus on it.

Mourad Jadallah: We have days for hunger strike for prisoners from Fatah and [then] twenty other days for prisoners from the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], which means that also the prisoners’ movement is not united like it was [in the past]. So what happened outside the prisons is reflected inside the prisons’ movement.

AW: The factional divisions you mean?

MJ: Yeah. Like today — this is something we don’t want to talk about but maybe for The Electronic Intifada we can say [that] until today we are not sure that the prisoners of Fatah will participate [in the hunger strike starting tomorrow].

AW: In the last interview we had in London, we mostly talked about Khader Adnan, and the continuity with the PFLP hunger strikes in September and how it continued with Hana al-Shalabi. Tell us about what has happened in the prisoners movement since then.

MJ: Khader Adnan created a new school inside the prisons, which means this is a new style, this is the longest hunger strike in the history of the Palestinian prisoners since ‘67 [when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip]. We think he achieved something; he sent a message for the prisoners, for every Palestinian around the world, that, by yourself alone, you can achieve something, you can do something. And this is what Hana al-Shalabi did.

And also we must not forget Kifah Hattab. Kifah Hattab is a prisoner who served one life sentence. He asked, since he is a military man, to be treated as a war prisoner, according to the Third Geneva Convention. And this is something new because we as a human rights organization, we keep talking about the Geneva conventions, the third and the fourth convention, but it was the first time that a Palestinian prisoner asked to be treated as a war prisoner since many years.

We know Omar al-Qassim in the early ’80s and ’70s said, I am a war prisoner so you have to treat me in this way according to this status. So it seems like most of the Palestinian prisoners have been waiting for the peace process to release them, and now they come back to fight for their rights as war prisoners, as fighters, as civilians who fight against the occupation — they are not waiting for the peace process to release them. They want to fight for their rights immediately.

AW: It’s another parallel with Bobby Sands like you were talking about in the last interview, because that was what the Irish Republican hunger strikers’ struggle was for: political status. Maybe it’s a new awareness of the fact that the peace process is nothing, and there is no point in waiting for it.

MJ: Exactly. This is one side of how we can explain all these hunger strikes in the prison. From one side, the peace process failed to release the prisoners … And the other side, you have the [prisoners] exchange. Most of the prisoners released … they are affiliated to Hamas. So the other prisoners said, OK, what we have [are] political factions who just look out for their own prisoners and if we are from other parties nobody will ask for us and the peace process can’t release all the prisoners … The prisoners decided and they understood that they have to fight for themselves.

AW: Most of the prisoners released in the exchange were from Hamas?

MJ: Especially in the first phase of the release — 80 percent of them were from Hamas.

AW: Why was that?

MJ: This is what Hamas wanted, and also the majority of prisoners today, they belong to Hamas. This is the reality even after the exchange. And we know that Fatah and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], when they release the prisoners, they look for the Fatah prisoners, they want to keep this legitimacy at least in the eyes of the Fatah prisoners.

So everyone is saying, OK, Hamas succeeded to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners — 80 percent of the first phase, which is like 450, they were Hamas. And the others, who were serving short sentences, were from different parties. So maybe it’s time for others to do the same as Hamas and release their prisoners.

… Since the beginning of the year there have been some short hunger strikes … Then suddenly you have the PFLP prisoners who went on an open hunger strike for twenty days, then Hamas came and did the prisoner swap … And then Khader Adnan put all the focus on Islamic Jihad. So you have a competition between the political parties. At some point you have the focus on the Fatah prisoners.

AW: How many prisoners are currently on hunger strike?

MJ: We [at Addameer] don’t like to talk about number at this moment of the hunger strike, because recently we haven’t been able to visit the prisoners. We are the only organization which is denied from visiting the prisoners. Our lawyer Samer Sam’an got an order to deny him from visiting the prisoners. And this is what happened with Addameer’s lawyer during the hunger strike. So yesterday we hired a new lawyer to be able to visit during the hunger strike. Samer Sam’an is being denied for six months [from visiting].

AW: Was there a reason given?

MJ: They don’t tell you a reason, [they say it’s] for “security reasons.”

This is what happened with Anan Odeh during the September hunger strike … So we have been forced to hire a new lawyer. And starting from tomorrow, the director of the organization, Sahar Francis, will do the prison visits. Mahmoud Hassan, the head of the legal unit, will be visiting tomorrow.

AW: Attempting to visit prisoners?

MJ: We will try. We sent the request, we asked for the permission. So God willing, tomorrow we will be able to start the prisoners visits and meet with the key point[persons] of the prisoners movement. But we are not sure we will get the permission or we will be able to visit. At any moment they can declare an alert and they can say, we have an urgent situation, so we will deny all the lawyer visits.

AW: But at the same time there are other Palestinian lawyers who can visit, so is this directed at your organization in particular?

MJ: We think yes, because in the last year, two of our lawyers have been denied from visiting and the director of the board is not allowed to come from Jerusalem to the West Bank.

AW: So he’s got Jerusalem ID but he’s not allowed to come to the West Bank?

MJ: Yes. And this is something we didn’t see with the other organizations. And this is part of cutting the links between the prisoners in different prisons and between the prisoners and the outside, and the community who want to support the prisoners in their hunger strike.

You have, according to the information that we get from different sources, the PFLP, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the DFLP [Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine] and Fatah from Gaza — they will start the hunger strike [tomorrow], along with some of the old prisoners belong to Fatah [those who were arrested before the 1993 Oslo agreement].

Which means, that some big part of Fatah don’t want to participate in this hunger strike, especially those from the West Bank, because they have different conditions. If you are Fatah and you are from Gaza, which means you are imprisoned and you have not been allowed to receive a family visit since 2006, and maybe you are serving a long sentence, you feel more attached to Gaza and not to the West Bank, and you don’t have this link with the [PA] security forces.

We know that some of the prisoners who are Fatah and they are in the prison today, they keep working, they are still employees in the security forces. So we imagine, we analyze, we can say that some of them, they get orders, they still get orders from outside.

So who takes the decision on behalf of the prisoners movement today? Usually it was inside the prisoners’ movement. But recently because the type of prisoners has been changed, so some of them get their orders from the [PA] security services.

AW: So these kind of prisoners would be Palestinian Authority police who fought against the Israeli army during the second intifada?

MJ: Yeah. We know that 70 percent of the prisoners are workers, and the rest they are coming from different categories. But according to the Palestinian Authority, they say that hundreds of the prisoners have served in the [PA] security forces. So they have different behaviors, and this is what we hear from the ex-prisoners who have been recently released; they told us that they have different culture, different behavior and they are not respecting the rules inside the prison, and they [have privileges] inside the prison, which means they have a lot of money coming from different resources.

This is part of the corruption, that Israel and the Palestinian Authority are doing inside the prisons.

AW: So you’re basically saying the Dayton regime, referring to the PA forces trained by US Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, even extends inside the Israeli prisons.

MJ: Right. This is why I call them the counterrevolution inside the prisoners movement.

As it is outside the prisons, you have some Palestinians who have some benefits from the occupation. And you have some prisoners who are not ready to go on a hunger strike because they have some benefits and under-the-table agreements with the IPS, the Israeli Prison Service. They are fine in their [situation], they get a lot of money, they don’t want to fight, they don’t want to be isolated, they don’t want to be punished, they don’t want to be transferred to another prison, they don’t want to be denied from receiving family visits, and they know that if there will be a renewed negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, maybe they will be released. So why should they dirty their records in the Israeli files?

AW: If we’re not sure that most Fatah prisoners are going to participate, why did prisoners minister Issa Qaraqa tell AFP yesterday that 1,600 Palestinian prisoners will go on hunger strike tomorrow?

MJ: Issa Qaraqa is one of the best personalities who work for the prisoners’ case, we admire him and we respect him. We think that he’s clean man. And he’s an honest man, when he says something, we can believe him.

But this is the truth: you have 4,600 prisoners today. When you are talking about [only] 1,600 [on hunger strike], what does it mean? That means that in some prisons they are not participating in the hunger strike tomorrow.

AW: In September, it seemed like the PFLP prisoners’ hunger strike was really gaining momentum, but then the timing of the Hamas exchange seemed to defuse it. It’s like you were saying: the factions are kind of competing with each other.

MJ: Exactly. And this is exactly the same situation, and that’s why we are afraid. We are afraid for this hunger strike … we are not seeing till this moment the unity of the prisoners movement, because some Fatah members don’t want to participate. And we have some stories like yesterday … that Fatah prisoners told the PFLP prisoners, if you want to do your hunger strike, you have to leave the room! One prisoner told his mother, and the mother called Addameer to tell us …

So basically you have these divisions between the Palestinian factions, mainly between Hamas and Fatah, but also the Palestinian society is divided in two: some of the people want to fight in a very simple way, a peaceful way like the hunger strike. But some of the people don’t want even to try.

And this is why we talk about revolution and counterrevolution.

AW: Will Khader Adnan be released tomorrow on Prisoners’ Day? How optimistic are you?

MJ: We were talking about this today. Most of us agreed that Israel doesn’t want heroes in the prisons. Khader Adnan succeeded to be a hero and to bring all the attention of the international media about him. We think Israel will release Khader Adnan [in the next few days] … we are not sure, but we think that he will be released at some point, but that doesn’t mean he will be free for a long time. This is not a guarantee that they will not arrest him [again].

AW: So Israel would still prefer that victory to keeping him in prison where he could be even more of a focus?

MJ: To put Khader Adnan in prison, you bring all the attention of the world. So maybe it’s less costly for them to release him …

Look what happened after Khader Adnan. He did 66 days on hunger strike. And now we have Bilal Diab, and Thaer Halahleh. They are on their 49th day of hunger strike … People now believe they can do a hunger strike [for] more than fifty days and they can go as far as 66 days. They have this belief that they can do it. Their body will support this because Khader Adnan did it.

AW: When the hunger strike starts tomorrow, what do you think will happen?

MJ: It depends how the hunger strike looks. We know that sometimes the prisoners diffuse information to confuse the Israeli side. For the moment, we don’t know the white line from the black line. We have to wait and see at least the first week. We don’t think that tomorrow we will see an intifada in the Palestinian streets, no. The Palestinians will wait to see because they don’t want to support a movement which is not united. They don’t want to support a weak movement. And this is the problem. People started to support Khader Adnan when they were sure that he would succeed … we don’t want to be broken again. We want to achieve something, we look for a victory as a people, as a collective.

We prefer to be pessimistic, I think, than optimistic … Addameer [will] support the prisoners starting from the first moment of their hunger strike, but the people in the street, they will wait. They will wait till they see that the prisoners movement has one voice.

We think that those prisoners who don’t want to participate in the hunger strike will follow if the hunger strike will continue.

Things are still ambiguous for everyone [because we don’t know the tactics yet].

AW: Interesting what you say about the prisoners putting out their own disinformation to confuse the enemy.

MJ: … If the Israelis know the plan, they will do their best to take the leaders and put them in isolation. It’s a war, and you have to have secret cards to play at the right moment …

AW: So do you think this information about some of the Fatah prisoners not joining in, could potentially be misinformation?

MJ: We hope so! But I’m afraid that it’s real.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist based in London.