On Thursday, May 10th, word traveled around that Palestinian Authority de facto president Mahmoud Abbas was coming to the prisoners’ solidarity tent in al-Bireh, near the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, at 6pm. As I explained in this week’s Electronic Intifada podcast, this tent, unlike the one at Clock Square in Ramallah’s city center, is where ministers and officials spend a few minutes of their time, preferably when media is “conveniently” around, to make empty gestures of supporting the mass hunger strike taking place in Israeli prisons.
A group of ten protesters went to the tent just before 6pm. They had with them rolled-up posters and an angry, determined glint in their eyes. They did not forget that Abbas was quick to telephone Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to pay his condolences after his ancient father recently died, but was silent regarding the hunger strikes of Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab (entering their 75th day on hunger strike at the time of writing) and the mass hunger strike that began on April 17th, undertaken by up to 2,500 prisoners. The protesters said hello to Thaer Halahleh’s father and the mothers of prisoners who were sitting in the front row. These mothers spend hours upon hours sitting in the Clock Square tent, and have developed a warm maternal relationship with the protesters.
A sickening sight
The tent was crawling with security forces and beefy-looking plainclothes policemen. On the rooftop of every building around the tent were Dayton-trained and approved PA snipers. It was a sickening sight to see.
The beefy plainclothes policemen zeroed in on some of the protesters. One demanded to see what was written on the poster. Another tried to grab the camera of a girl who was interviewing the mothers of prisoners and asking them about the difference between the two solidarity tents. She had captured their words of frustration and disappointment toward Abbas and the so-called Palestinian leadership’s silence regarding the prisoners’ issues. One mother snapped at the policeman to leave the girl alone. “This is called obstructing freedom of press!” she shouted at him. “Aren’t you for freedom of press? Let her continue interviewing me!”
The protesters slinked to the only available seats in the back row. Security forces surrounded them, eying them conspicuously. Suddenly there was a flurry of movement. Fashionably late, the president and his entourage had finally arrived.
Immediately, the protesters stood up on their chairs and unfurled their posters. The slogans read, “The people demand the release of all prisoners” and “Where is the PA’s stance after 73 days of hunger strike?” and “Mr President, just so you know, we number more than three” and “President Abbas said ‘We want peace not a third intifada’; The people want an intifada not peace.”
Thugs instantly ripped the posters. There was a loud and angry verbal confrontation between a couple of the protesters with the thugs. One official pushed his way through and ordered the protesters to shut up, as the president was about to speak. The protesters refused to do so. Plainclothes policemen stood on chairs in front of the protesters, blocking them from view. A chant from the protesters began: “We want our sons! Bidna awladna! We want our sons!” Over and over again, the chant was repeated. The mothers and families of prisoners joined in. “Bidna awladna! Bidna awladna!” Thugs to the right of the protesters began chanting pro-Abbas slogans. The mothers of prisoners raised their voices louder. “Bidna awladna!”
The mukhabarat (intelligence) wasted no time in capturing each protester’s face with their camera phones. Abbas began speaking in his mechanical way. No one could even remember what he said. Later the families of prisoners agreed that it was a poor performance, yet another speech paying lip service to the prisoners’ cause and undermining the suffering the families endure year after year.
“The prisoners’ issue is essential”
Organizers of the event marched over to the protesters and hissed that the chants must be stopped at once since there was a program to be followed. In response, the protesters pushed their way to the front and began chanting again, “No ministry and no minister, until we free all prisoners!” Mothers of prisoners stood up and began chanting on their own, Abbas’s monotonous voice muffled. Another poster was torn up, and one girl was hit repeatedly on her arms. A thug put his arm around her neck but she managed to push him away. Protesters found themselves just outside the cocooned circle of media and security forces with Abbas in the middle. One chant was shouted furiously.
“Our national authority, we demand a serious stance!”
Over and over again.
“Oh Fayyad and Abbas, the prisoners’ issue is essential!”
Tayeb Abdelrahim, the secretary-general for the presidency, was standing a few feet from where the protesters were, staring at them with a look of disgust. At the last chant, his face dramatically changed. He turned purple, his eyes bulged out and he lunged at the protesters, screaming that they had no respect for the president and that they were poorly raised- amidst a plethora of insults. One man had to go and restrain him.
Fatah party goons were standing with the protesters now. They tried to drown out chants in support of the prisoners by chanting pro-Abbas slogans again. Abbas and his circus left. He barely spent ten minutes at the tent, and completely ignored the families. The protesters began making their way out to the main street, a few of them in tears as a result of the blatant show of disrespect shown to the families of prisoners, and the despicable behavior of the thugs. One thug began cursing at a protester, calling her shocking names and laughing heartily as she yelled back that the prisoners deserve so much more than this. One Fatah goon screamed at them, “You all are working for foreign agendas! CIA!” Others started jeering. “Where are you all going? The solidarity event is still not over yet!”
“My brother did not spend ten years of his life behind bars for these people,” one protester wept. “They are not worth fighting for.”
One reporter passed by and said quietly, “Much respect for what you all did. I completely respect and support what you did.”
The protesters with a few family members of prisoners decided to walk back to Ramallah’s city center and not go in their cars, as the plainclothes policemen were following them. A motorcade of Fatah supporters whizzed past the main street, blasting their factional music and laughing like it was a festival.
Once the protesters reached the tent at Clock Square, plainclothes policemen were already present. They expressed their support for what the protesters had done, and began asking questions in a casual manner. The protesters quickly left the tent.
Palestinian Authority police (non)state
This is the police (non)state of the Palestinian Authority, which plants its intelligence in popular places that are not Fatah- or PA-approved. This is the police (non)state of the Palestinian Authority which attacks dissidents and repeats the same diatribe other Arab countries use against opposing voices. This is the police (non)state of the Palestinian Authority which cares not one single jot for the pain and anguish and heartbreak thousands of families go through every waking moment of their lives, with their sons and brothers and husbands locked away by Israel in inhuman conditions and treated cruelly and unfairly. This is the police (non)state of the Palestinian Authority that prefers “economic peace” to a struggle for true liberation, justice, and dignity.
One popular chant in the daily protests that have swept Ramallah in the last two weeks goes: ”Those calling for peace will tomorrow write on the walls they regret they did so.”
For freedom, for dignity, our prisoners are a constant reminder that life under the boot of occupation is not a life worth living. That is why the PA leadership are afraid of this “intifada in Israeli jails.”