Today, Palestinian prisoners Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh entered their 70th day on hunger strike. Hasan Safadi has entered his 64th day; Omar Abu Shalal his 62nd day; Mohammad al-Taj his 51st day; Ja’far Ezzedine his 47th day; Mahmoud Sarsak his 46th day.
I interviewed and spoke with some of the families of these prisoners. I first went to see Hasan Safadi’s family in their house in the old city of Nablus:
Safadi is no stranger to spending time in Israeli prisons. He was first arrested when he was just 16-years-old in 1994. From 2007 to 2010, he became the longest administrative detainee in Israeli prison, with his detention renewed every six months over and over again.
After his release, he was arrested by the Palestinian Authority for 48 days and spent the next five months being summoned for interrogation regularly. Prior to his arrest by Israel in 2007, he had spent 43 months in prison. In total, Safadi spent 10 years as an administrative detainee in Israeli prisons, without ever once being sentenced or charged officially.
Afraid to sleep
Hasan’s mother revealed that she doesn’t sleep because she is afraid she’ll see Hasan dead in her dreams. She has collapsed more than once and had to be taken to the hospital numerous times for conducting her own hunger strike in solidarity with her son. I saw her again on Saturday when she came to the solidarity tent set up in Ramallah’s city center, and asked her how her morale was. She nodded and whispered “Hamdulilah” (“Praise to God”). What made it so much more painful was that it was she was struggling to keep her mask of resiliency on. This diabetic 65-year-old mother, whose oldest son was killed by Israeli soldiers back in 1996, is clearly exhausted:
“I don’t want Hasan to know of my hunger strike,” she said speaking softly. “I don’t want him to worry about me. One of my grandchildren wanted to write on his Facebook page about my hunger strike but I forbade him from doing so.”
She added, “He’s a compassionate person. Quick tempered, but the most loving of my 11 children. Safadi has told me time and time again, in and out of prison, that he gets his strength from me. If he sees my crying on TV, for example, he tells me it’s like I’ve placed him inside another prison.”
I went to Kufr Ra’i, one of Jineen’s villages to meet with Bilal Diab’s mother, Um Hisham. An extremely hospitable and sweet old woman, her tears filled her eyes over and over again but never spilled over. She swore I wouldn’t leave until I ate, and a lavish feast was promptly prepared. She sat at the table, urging everyone to eat while not touching a single morsel herself.
Harassment of supporters
Bilal’s older brother Azzam is serving a life sentence since 2001 in Israeli prison, and has carried out a hunger strike to support his brother. Azzam is on his 45th day of hunger strike. The solidarity tent set up outside the home of Bilal’s other brother Hamam was raided by the Israeli occupying army twice so far. Soldiers took pictures of the posters inside the tent, and during their last raid arrested someone from the village for supporting Bilal’s hunger strike:
Diab was just 18-years-old and a high school senior when he was first arrested by the Israeli occupying army in October 2003 from his village of Kufr Rai. He was sentenced to prison for seven and a half years for what Israel called his “political activism in the Islamic Jihad group.”
When he was arrested, he defied the Israeli soldiers’ commands to look at the ground instead of at their faces, and when he refused they threatened to shoot him. Diab was unshaken, and replied scathingly that either way, death is inevitable. These comments caused a significant amount of distress for his mother who was listening in on the exchange from the other room, confined there by the soldiers.
After his release in February 2010, life was never the same for Diab. He was arrested for short periods of time and was repeatedly summoned by the Israeli intelligence for interrogations, which usually lasted for days. One interrogation in May lasted for seven days. Diab was also arrested by the Palestinian Authority for 28 days, a subject his mother is not keen to discuss.
“Bilal is the youngest of my 13 children,” Umm Hisham said. “His father died when he was 8-months-old, so he was always spoiled by his brothers and sisters. I ask everyone, anyone whose human rights means something to them, to help us, to release Bilal, to free Bilal.”
Family forced apart
Thaer Halahleh’s sister lives in Ramallah. During the weekly Red Cross rally for the prisoners’ families, she told me how Thaer’s 2-year-old daughter Lamar enjoys the attention her father is getting in their village of Kharaas, Hebron. Lamar was born while Thaer was imprisoned, and has only met her once when she was four-months-old. Lamar is convinced that because of the solidarity tent set up outside her grandparents’ home and the constant stream of visitors, there is a wedding every day and demands her mother to dress her up in a new dress every day.
Thaer has been arrested for a total of ten years. He was arrested two weeks after his wedding, and spent a year and a half in prison. After his release, he was allowed a respite of five months before being arrested again in 2010, held under administrative detention. His detention was renewed for four times, and he began his hunger strike with Bilal Diab (the two became as close as brothers during their imprisonment together) when his detention was renewed yet again.
Omar Abu Shalal was arrested on the Allenby border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan on his way to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Divorced with no children, his story was the hardest to personalize:
On 15 February 2012, Abu Shalal’s detention was further extended by six months. Inspired by the hunger strikes of Khader Adnan and Hana al-Shalabi, and by the solidarity strikes of Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh, Omar began his open-ended hunger strike on 7 March.
“When I first heard of his strike, I welcomed it,” his sister Samira confessed. “At the same time, I was scared for him, since I know that when my brother sets his mind to something he won’t back down until he’s achieved whatever it is he wanted. He always had strong faith in undertaking big decisions like this.”
Collapsed in court
Yesterday prisoners rights group Addameer and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel released a joint statement on the dangerously worsening health of the hunger striking prisoners who have refused food for more than two months now. Bilal Diab collapsed in court on 3 May and the Israeli authorities denied anyone from reaching him for over half an hour. He is being held in Aassaf Harofeh hospital in Tel Aviv, is suffering from hypothermia and is losing sensation in his feet.
One of Addameer’s lawyers was finally allowed permission by the Israeli authorities to visit Hasan Safadi, who informed the lawyer that on 3 May, he was given treatment via an injection to his arm in clear violation of his demands.
“Addameer and PHR-Israel are alarmed by this news, as forced treatment is in strict violation of the principles of medical ethics and the guidelines of the World Medical Association and the Israeli Medical Association,” the statement read. ”According to the Malta Declaration, ‘Physicians need to satisfy themselves that food or treatment refusal is the individual’s voluntary choice. Hunger strikers should be protected from coercion. Physicians can often help to achieve this and should be aware that coercion may come from the peer group, the authorities or others, such as family members. Physicians or other health care personnel may not apply undue pressure of any sort on the hunger striker to suspend the strike. Treatment or care of the hunger striker must not be conditional upon suspension of the hunger strike.’”
The Ramleh prison hospital is our own H Block. Khader Adnan may be the living equivalent of Bobby Sands, but Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh are living martyrs, with the days of their lives painfully numbered. They are dying to live.