Dignity and freedom are more precious than food: this is the belief that arms our Palestinian political prisoners and strengthens their determination against Israeli jailers.
The revolution of hunger strikes inside Israeli jails continues. Palestinian icon Khader Adnan’s hunger strike against administrative detention — detention without charge or trial — began last December, lasted for 66 days and ended with victory. This awakened our heroes’ pride to continue what Khader Adnan started and put an end to indefinite internment without charge or trial.
Waves of individual hunger strikers have joined the battle since then, including Hana al-Shalabi, Thaer Halahleh, Bilal Diab, and Mahmoud Sarsak. The victories these former administrative detainees won freed them from Israel’s hands and inspired more to carry on the fight.
The other evening, I went with a group of friends and relatives to Gaza’s beach to escape the power cuts at our houses. I planned to enjoy the sunset and breathe fresh air while chatting about my sister’s wedding in a month. Instead, I found myself saying how ashamed I felt for getting preoccupied with studies during my exams and not blogging about the hunger strikers. That started an endless, emotional conversation about them. It was very late when we realized that we had been so absorbed by the conversation that we missed the sunset.
“Why haven’t Samer al-Barq and Hassan Safadi reached any victories yet, even after their hunger strikes broke records?” we wondered.
Who should we blame for the critical condition they face? Should we blame Palestinian leaders, for whom the issue seems unimportant? Or those politicians who trade with Palestinians’ lives? Or divided factions who care for their own gains more than the public interest? Or the popular movement inside Palestine that is not doing enough? Or the deteriorating economic situation that chokes people in Palestine and pushes them to self-immolation, like Ehab Abu Nada? Or the international community and human rights organizations who stay silent while watching these crimes against humanity in Palestine, either in Israel’s jails, in the Gaza Strip’s open-air prison, or in the occupied West Bank?
I feel confused. I can excuse my oppressed people, for their priorities have reversed. They also face slow death under Israel’s stifling apartheid regime. All they care about is surviving each day. They don’t dare to have future plans because they don’t want to be wishful in a place unsettled politically, economically and socially.
But what about free people around the world? Our hunger strikers are freedom fighters, struggling for justice, for humanity. Why turn your backs on them?
Every second makes a difference
When I returned home from the beach, I phoned Samer al-Barq’s family in Jayyous, a small village near Qalqilya in the occupied West Bank — a place I cannot visit from the Gaza Strip.
My hands shook when I spoke to Samer’s father. I thought he would appreciate a call from Gaza. He did, but in my heart, I felt useless and ashamed that my call came late, as he is expecting to hear the news of his son’s death any moment. I knew, though, that my words would be useless. I tried to pull myself together and not to cry as I told him, “I pray for your strength, and that you will hug your son alive and victorious soon, inshAllah,” but I wasn’t strong enough to control my shaking voice.
Every minute, if not second, can make a difference in Samer’s life now. He began a hunger strike two days before the mass strike started on Prisoners’ Day, 17 April, to protest his administrative detention. An end to administrative detention was one of the mass hunger strike’s demands. In exchange for its end, an agreement was reached on 14 May between the Israeli Prison Service and the higher committee of the hunger strike, with Egyptian mediation, to meet our detainees’ demands.
According to the Palestinian human rights group Addameer, “The agreement included a provision that would limit the use of administrative detention to exceptional circumstances and that those held under administrative detention at the time of the agreement would not have their orders renewed.”
Accordingly, Samer ended his strike. But a week after the 28-day mass hunger strike ended, he discovered that his administrative detention order had been renewed. That pushed him to resume his hunger strike to protest this violation of the agreement. His renewed hunger strike has lasted 110 days.
“Since Samer started his hunger strike, we have been banned from seeing him,” his father told me on the phone. “To pressure him to end his hunger strike, the IPS [Israeli Prison Service] denied his right to family visitations. We have heard nothing from him since then, only from the International Committee of the Red Cross.”
I asked his father if I could speak to Samer’s mother. “His mother barely speaks at the moment,” he replied. “She is traumatized and depressed by what her son is enduring. She weeps over Samer all day. She stops only when she falls asleep. She was hospitalized a few times. Pray for her strength!”
I stayed silent for seconds, unable to say anything. I couldn’t imagine how painful it is for a mother to witness her son’s slow death. But he resumed angrily, “It drives me mad to see my son detained until now for no reason.”
“Nothing at all was found against him?” I interrupted.
“Not at all, except him being a religious man with a beard who lived in Pakistan, earned his master’s degree in science analysis, and taught science in its universities,” he added. “He married there to a Pakistani woman, but barely lived a year in peace with her for unknown and mysterious reasons” before he was arrested and his ordeal began.
Arrested in Pakistan, detained in Jordan and delivered to Israel
The details of Samer’s arrest are not entirely clear, but what is known is that Samer has been subjected to arrest and detention by multiple countries without charge or trial.
Amnesty International reports that according to Samer’s brother, Samir Helmi al-Barq, Samer was “arrested by the Pakistani authoritie on 15 July 2003 and held for 14 days after applying to study for a PhD in Islamic Studies in Islamabad.”
He was then handed over to the US authorities and kept for an additional three months in a secret prison in an unknown location outside Pakistan.
He alleged, in a private statement received by Amnesty International, that he “suffered numerous forms of inhumane torture during that period”.
Al-Barq said he was handed over to the Jordanian authorities on 26 October 2003, who kept him in detention for over four years, without charging him or telling him why he was being held.
He said he “was tortured physically and mentally” and “hidden from human rights groups, [and not] allowed to contact [his] family”.
After being transferred several times between prisons, he was released on bail in January 2008.
The Jordanian authorities arrested him again in April 2010 and handed him over to the Israeli authorities three months later.
Though some of the details differ from Amnesty’s account, Addameer also reports that Samer was held for more than four years in Jordan without trial or charge, adding that he spent three of these years in isolation. Addameer adds:
Samer was eventually released in January 2008 and then settled in Jordan where he began working in a medical laboratory, while he wife joined him from Pakistan. During this time Jordanian intelligence continued to target Samer and subjected him to intensive interrogation which lasted for periods of a few days to a number of months. His last detention lasted from April 2010 to 11 July 2010.
On 11 July 2010 Samer was brought by Jordanian intelligence to Allenby Bridge, the border crossing between Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territory, where he was handed over to Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF). Samer was then taken to Ofer Prison, near Ramallah, where an Israeli military court issued him with an administrative detention order. As a result, Samer has been held for almost 800 days - without trial or charge – based on secret information.
Samer’s father explained to me that since his detention by Israel, Samer’s “administrative detention order has been renewed seven times. The last was on 22 August, after more than three months of his hunger strike. His rapidly deteriorating medical condition didn’t stop the merciless IPS from extending his detention.”
Samer’s time in detention in Jordan was very tough. When he was arrested by Israel, he endured even more brutality, especially during his hunger strike. Trying to pressure him to end his strike, the IPS transferred him to Ramleh prison hospital, or the “slaughterhouse,” as many ex-detainees describe it when recalling the medical neglect, humiliation and discrimination they endured there.
Akram Rikhawi, who suffers several medical problems, and who went on a 102-day hunger strike against the medical neglect he and his disabled and ill comrades endured inside Israeli jails, described the Ramleh prison hospital as “a slaughterhouse, not a hospital, with jailers wearing doctors’ uniforms.”
The IPS attempted to pressure Samer and his comrade Hassan Safadi to end their hunger strike using various methods. They were put in a narrow isolation cell, with barely any space for their shared wheelchair, and shackled them to their hospital beds, even though they could barely move.
Even worse, they were physically attacked by jailers when they protested against their terrible conditions in Ramleh. On 13 August, Hassan’s head was twice slammed against the iron door of his cell, causing him to fall to the ground, unconscious. Prison guards then dragged him through the hall, past all the other prisoners.
Miracle needed to save Samer
Samer’s father told me, “A delegation from the ICRC [the International Committee of the Red Cross] and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel visited us recently and said that Samer’s death is imminent, unless a miracle happens to rescue him. He has lost more than 20 kilograms so far.”
According to Al Jazeera (Arabic), Israel agreed to release Samer on condition of deportation if he ends his hunger strike, but not let him live within the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Remember that the deportation of Palestinians, within or outside the Palestinian territories, is a war crime under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. However no country so far has accepted him.
Yesterday, Samer’s father protested at the Egyptian representative office in Ramallah to ask it to receive Samer in Egypt.
At the end of the call, I asked his father to tell me what he wished to tell the world. He replied vigorously, “His hearing is on Sunday, 9 September, and no one knows if the court will decide in Samer’s favor or against him. Besides, I don’t even think that Samer can wait for days. He’s motionless on his hospital bed, suffering gravely.”
“Every minute matters in his life now. I want them to know that my son isn’t on hunger strike in search of death. He is simply desperate for a real life with freedom, dignity and justice. I urge them to take action, or if he dies, the responsibility for his death will be on our shoulders.”