Samer Issawi’s struggle in Israeli jail inspired “entire generation” in Jerusalem

Released from prison on 23 December, Samer Issawi poses for a photograph with his sister, Shireen.

Saeed Qaq APA images

This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:

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Budour Youssef Hassan on release of Samer Issawi

Budour Hassan: First of all, we were waiting for that day way before it happened. Even a month or two months before that, we were already preparing what we were going to do and saying that it will be a very special day in Jerusalem. So just a night before the release, the Israeli occupation soldiers threatened the family not to hold any celebrations, and when his mother, Leila Issawi, was praying during dawn prayers, the Israeli police entered the home and said clearly that “you should not hold celebrations.” The mother said it was out of our hands, it was not we who decide to hold them or not, because the people are going to hold celebrations and we can’t prevent them.

So from the early morning, the mother, Leila, and Shireen [his sister], and the family, went to Shatta Prison where Samer was held, to meet him when he was about to be released. But from the morning, activists, journalists and so many people began gathering inside the house. The house was full starting from 9am, and it was so tense — we knew that he was going to be released, but the tension of expecting to meet Samer at last, and the hope and the happiness — it was something that has not happened in Jerusalem in such a long time.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Budour, you finally got to meet Samer as well, can you talk about his health condition and what he said to you as a free man?

BH: Yes. His health condition was excellent, he ended his hunger strike — first of all, we should be clear that it was not a full hunger strike in the sense that he started it in … of course that does not belittle his achievement and the heroic things that he did, but he began the hunger strike by returning meals, starting from August. Then he escalated, starting on a full hunger strike but only using IV and taking vitamins, and sometimes he would take vitamins, for example, but when he was threatened or offered by the Israelis to be deported, he’d escalate his hunger strike, and, for example, refrain from even taking vitamins.

He ended his hunger strike in April, when he was terribly in serious conditions, and doctors, the Red Cross doctor said that his health condition was very dangerous and he was dying, some said. But it was amazing to hear his mother say that she never [believed] that he’d die. Whenever she heard from doctors that Samer’s conditions were dangerous, she always had faith that he would survive and he would emerge victorious.

So, eight months after he finished his hunger strike, his health condition was excellent, and he was smiling and very happy. It was really wonderful to see him surrounded by kids. He loves spending time with kids, and he was very joyous, as was the entire family.

He said lots of things, he talked about first of all that the victory would not be achieved until all prisoners are released, he told me about the first few days of his hunger strike … it was also nice to hear from his mother. She mentioned the importance of Facebook — a woman in her sixties, speaking about the important role that Facebook campaigning and campaigning in social media, has played in raising awareness and attention on the case of Samer Issawi.

Shireen played an instrumental role because she was talking to local and international media about Samer’s case, about his health condition, and about his court hearings — Shireen is also a lawyer, so she understands a lot about the legal background of the situation. She was devoting her entire life just to be her brother’s voice outside the prison bars. And she did it really amazingly.

NBF: Budour, you also wrote that Samer’s 16-year-old niece, Leila, had noted that her uncle’s imprisonment and hunger strike had politicized an entire generation in Issawiyeh. How so?

BH: Whenever you’d go to Issawiyeh to take part in a demonstration calling for Samer’s release, you’d see children participating in demonstrations and chanting — it wasn’t like they were told to do so. It was very clear that they were very aware of what they were saying. And for example, in the protests outside the Ramle Prison Hospital where Samer was held in February, there were children — a child of the age of seven was leading the chants of demonstrations, chanting them by heart.

And when you talk to children, they discuss politics with you, they discuss the condition of their brother, they talk about those who are not doing their job — they criticize politicians, they feel like these politicians are not doing their job and are not doing enough.

And Issawiyeh has been an area that has always faced crackdowns and intimidation by police, it’s not new. It’s one of the areas that have witnessed a lot of protests in the past, and of course land confiscation by the Israeli occupation forces. So it’s not like this is new to Issawiyeh, but the event of Samer’s arrest really escalated that feeling, you’d see people of all ages participating in protest. And also because the Israeli occupation has sort of imposed collective punishment on the entire village. Everyone was affected. And they felt like — Samer was close to many people, he’s popular in the village. Everyone had the resposibility to fight for his release. He was their son. It wasn’t just because he’s Palestinian, it was also because he was from Issawiyeh.

Leila, for example, she’s only 16, but when you talk to her you’d really feel like she’s in her mid-twenties. She’s very aware politically, a very conscious feminist as well, and she emphasized the very important role that women have played in leading demonstrations, organizing protests and spreading the word about Samer on social media.

NBF: You mentioned collective punishment. Can you a talk a little bit more about the numerous attacks by Israeli forces on the village of Issawiyeh since Samer’s arrest, and even before, of course, and how the village suffered collective punishment?

BH: First of all, when the Israeli police forces enter Issawiyeh, they start firing tear gas and sound bombs, and it affects everyone. Sometimes they close the entrance to the village for days, besieging it. And that prevents people from entering and exiting the village freely. Sometimes they arrest — there were several arrests in the village since after Samer’s release, and that was used to intimidate people, to prevent them from protesting.

Even the house of Samer’s brother was demolished by Israeli forces when he was undergoing his hunger strike, in order to put pressure on the family to get him to stop. Sometimes fines were given to drivers by Israeli police, who would accuse them of driving violations. So they would be fined by the Israeli police. All these attempts were used by the Israeli occupation in order to intimidate people in Issawiyeh. But that proved only to bolster the determination of the people to continue.

And the thing is that in Issawiyeh, the youth are particularly anti-Israel and very passionate about why they do, so the Israeli occupation knew that whenever they enter Issawiyeh in order to try to quell protests, they will not be met with silence — people would respond. And usually the youth there are very courageous, so they respond with rocks, of course, as a means of self-defense. It was never an easy task for the Israeli occupation to disperse protests or to raid Issawiyeh freely.

Sometimes it was really a battle zone, on some occasions — especially on some Fridays, where there were planned, huge protests to call for Samer’s freedom, it was really a battle zone. You’d keep hearing the sound of sound bombs and tear gas being fired by the Israeli forces for hours.

And sometimes it even was — in visiting Issawiyeh and not hearing sound bombs was unpredictable. Because we are used to something else — we are used to always being in battles there. But the celebrations that happened in Issawiyeh on the day of Samer’s release really encapsulated all we want to see in Palestine. It was something really popular in terms of the political backgrounds of those who participated, in terms of the diversity of the crowd, it wasn’t just activists who participated — it was everyone.

Almost everyone in Issawiyeh took to the streets, and there were people from other areas in Jerusalem and outside Jerusalem who also accompanied us. It was really something awe-inspiring to see.

End transcript.

Patrick O. Strickland on forced displacement in Haifa

Patrick O. Strickland: In Wadi al-Siyah … first, it has to be contextualized. Wadi al-Siyah pre-dates the state of Israel, it is home today to only about 60 residents, and they’re all from the same family, the Abbas family.

However, since 1948 there’s been an exodus from the neighborhood. And that’s because after 1948, after the establishment from the state of Israel, it wasn’t recognized — although all of the people there and all the people also who left have documents from either the time of the British mandate, showing ownership of their homes and the land, or from the Ottoman period.

So, today what you have is that the local Haifa municipality wants to replace that neighborhood with a nature reserve. And what that means is that 60 residents, about 20 of whom are children, will be out of their homes. And of course because they come from the extreme low end of the socio-economic spectrum, that they really have no idea where they could go, possibly.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Tell us what you were doing today in Haifa, in another neighborhood of the city, what’s happening there.

PS: So there’s another neighborhood in Haifa where the situation is kind of similar, it’s called al-Mahatta, which means the station — that’s because of its close proximity to the train line that connects the south of present-day Israel, along the coast and all the way up north to the border of Lebanon. And in al-Mahatta you have many, many more people facing eviction, about 160 people, from 30 different families. Today there are 33 homes there, though just 15 years ago, according to local residents, there was somewhere around 150 homes.

But due to restrictions placed on the neighborhood — it can’t expand, for instance — homes aren’t being granted permits. If families grow and they need to build, then of course they can’t expand the homes and they’re forced to go out. Or their homes are demolished if they do. Basically what you have is an exodus also from this neighborhood — similar exodus but through different means.

Today, what the local municipality would like to put in its place, is first to expand an existing railway, and then to put restaurants, nightclubs, theaters and new homes in the place of this very small neighborhood which is already kind of encaged, due to Highway 2, a local port right there, because it’s close to the coast, and the train line. Caged in a triangle.

What you have is again another gentrification project that is touted by the city and by the state as cleaning up the area, or improving the area as a way of generating more income or bringing in more tourists, but of course the problem is that these sort of projects only take place at the expense of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and very rarely, if ever, take place at the expense of their Jewish Israeli counterparts.

NBF: So Patrick, in areas of present-day Israel, especially for Bedouin communities, there are dozens of so-called “unrecognized villages” in which the villages aren’t on a map and don’t receive barely any, if at all, municipal services. In the article you just published, you were talking about this neighborhood, Wadi al-Siyah, which also doesn’t have basic municipal services at all. Can you talk about this policy of denying services and also taking over the land?

PS: As far as I understand it, the policy of denying services is a way of pressuring indigenous Palestinian residents, neighborhoods or villages to leave. In the case of Wadi al-Siyah, only in the last 15 years has it been granted any municipal services at all, though since 1948, the residents have been paying municipal taxes consistently.

So although they pay these municipal taxes, only 15 years ago were they given electricity and water. Other than that, even today, they have no services at all from the state or from the city, no bus lines come in their direction. As mentioned in the article, Tawfiq Abbas, one of the local residents, told me that he walks over a kilometer just to take out the trash because trash services don’t come in this neighborhood.

And the glaring irony is that just in plain sight, you can see a new shopping mall, one of the largest in the state. So you can see that it’s not an issue of a lack of money in any case, and of course they are paying their taxes as well — it’s a systematic policy of pushing people out, not just in Haifa, but also in the Naqab or Negev region of present-day Israel in the south, where though the so-called Prawer Plan has been formally put on the shelf or put away for the time being, we’ve seen that housing demolitions have continued.

Just last week, al-Araqib was destroyed for the 63rd time. And as noted on The Electronic Intifada and elsewhere, there have been housing demolitions in villages such as Majd al-Krum, as well as Umm al-Fahim, which I think at least in my own opinion really demonstrates that Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes takes place on both sides of the so-called green line, though the excuses offered for it are different.

NBF: Patrick, how are communities in these neighborhoods where you’ve been fighting back?

PS: In the case of Wadi al-Siyah, because you only have one family of little socio-economic means, they basically just turned to a local NGO called Mossawa, which means equality, and they’re trying to fight it in court. Other than that, there has been very little activist presence around the issue of these neighborhoods in Haifa.

Now, in the case of al-Mahatta, the other neighborhood near the coast, one of the things today that the chairman of the neighborhood committee stressed during an interview with me, was his disappointment in the Palestinian political parties working within Israel’s political system, those that sit in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. He said that there have been no efforts to support al-Mahatta, and its 160 residents at all, so they don’t know what to do at this point. They reached out to the municipality and asked them if there’s any way they could benefit from this plan — even if it means that they lose their homes, if they somehow could get compensation, and they’ve been met with no answer at all.

NBF: Finally, Patrick, last week you published a story on the growing numbers of Druze youth who are refusing to serve in Israel’s army. What’s the situation like for these refusniks, and why are the numbers growing?

PS: It seems that the situation is very, very tough, because there’s pressure coming from several different angles — first and foremost, you have the obvious pressure from the state of Israel, from the government trying to pressure young Druze males to enter the army as part of an agreement that dates back to 1956, but then you also have a similar pressure coming from within the Druze society itself — it being a minority, a religious minority within the broader Palestinian-Arab community, that historically has served in Israel’s occupation army.

Of course there’s economic pressures as well as political pressures. If they decide to be conscientious objectors and outright say that they are refusing military service for political or moral reasons, then they have to serve prison time for potentially the entire three years that they’re supposed to serve in the military. However, what has led many of them to do instead is to intentionally take what is called “Profile 21” — which means that they intentionally fail a mental aptitude test. And that has long-lasting consequences. Even though it doesn’t mean prison time for them, it means that it’s something that’s on their permanent record for the rest of their lives — if they apply for jobs, if they apply to university, anything like this that could affect their long-term careers, or their long-term situation, it’s always on the record that they failed an official military mental aptitude test — so they’re considered “crazy,” or whatever.

But I would say that the reason that there’s a growing number of them, and what people have told me repeatedly, is that the state, Israel, though trying to tout the Druze as an example of a minority fighting on behalf of the Jewish state, or serving in Israel’s military, still treats them as if they’re second-class citizens. And you see that because Druze share villages with other Palestinian citizens of Israel, all across the country, and their economic situation is no different — the lack of land, the lack of career opportunities, the same basic institutionalized racism is directed at them almost to the same degree as other Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel.

End transcript.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).