Interview: Hunger strikes created “new sense of solidarity”

Janan Abdu: “We need solidarity to keep us strong”

Ben White

Palestinian political prisoner Ameer Makhoul recently participated in a hunger strike that took place across the Israeli prison system in late September/early October. As The Electronic Intifada reported last month, Palestinian political prisoners were protesting Israel’s pervasive use of solitary confinement, arbitrary denial of family visits and a recent policy to deny political prisoners from receiving an education.

Makhoul is serving a nine-year prison sentence upon accepting a plea deal after a sham trial based on a coerced confession. Following his arrest at his family’s home in Haifa in the middle of the night in May 2010, Makhoul was subjected to ill-treatment that his lawyers say amounts to torture before the state leveled trumped-up charges of espionage based on secret evidence against him.

It is widely believed that Makhoul has been politically persecuted for his leadership in the Palestinian community in Israel, and his advocacy for the community’s political rights and support of boycott, divestment and sanctions measures against Israeli apartheid. Amnesty International has called Makhoul a prisoner of conscience.

During the recent hunger strike, Makhoul was transferred from Gilboa prison to Megiddo. In an interview with The Electronic Intifada editor Maureen Clare Murphy, Makhoul’s wife, activist Janan Abdu, explains how this is a desperate attempt by the Israeli authorities to break the prisoners’ spirits and organizing capabilities.

Abdu also gives a frank description of what it is like for the families of political prisoners as they anxiously wait to learn whether their loved ones will be included in the next group of prisoners slated for release as part of the swap agreement between Israel and Hamas. The Electronic Intifada recently published Makhoul’s analysis of the Israel-Hamas deal.

Abdu also stresses the importance of solidarity activists campaigning in support of Palestinian political prisons and writing to individual prisoners to keep up their morale. Addresses for political prisoners can be found on the website of the human rights group Addameer. Ameer Makhoul may be written at:

Ameer Makhoul
Department 2
Gilboa Jail
Gilboa, 10900

Maureen Clare Murphy: Can you give us an update on Ameer’s situation?

Janan Abdu: We are talking about a person in prison. Even when I say he’s good, it’s limited, you know. But he’s healthy and his morale is good and that’s the important thing.

MCM: Can you describe some of the tactics Israel used with Ameer and the other protesting prisoners during the civil disobedience campaign, to try to break their spirits?

JA: It was the last opportunity for the prisoners to express their situation and maybe to make the outside community out of the prison to do something also, to make awareness better of their situation. During the strike, it seems like the prisoners, the older ones, anticipated this kind of act from the prison authorities. When they are on strike, the prison services directly separate those who are on hunger strike and those who are not taking part, and they make a lot of restrictions. They get into the rooms and take out everything from the room except the bed to sleep on.

Even the salt — I didn’t know about this before — even the salt that’s important for the hunger striker’s health. What I understand, the person who is on strike needs salt water because it helps the body to keep the minerals inside the body. What I understand from Ameer, [the prison guards] get into the rooms with a water spray in case the prisoners manage to hide salt, so it will be damaged. This means the jail services say to the prisoners, if you decide to go on hunger strike, you can die. We don’t care.

As I understand, the prisoners decided to take part in the strike, but not all of them at the same time. They made an agreement that some will be on hunger strike, some will take part in the hunger strike later in a few days and in the meantime will communicate with the lawyers, with the media and the people outside.

But the jail services decided to separate the prisoners and disrupt the group connections between the prisoners. So Ameer was transferred to another jail. It was during the same days of the exchange deal and the prisoners didn’t know about the exchange. But it seems that the prison authorities know about it, and they decided to separate the prisoners so that maybe they can break them this way.

The prisoners couldn’t communicate and they thought that they would be separated in different departments — but later they learned they would be transferred to other jails. When you have a group and leaders and everyone has a mission to do and they are organized like this, when you separate them you can confuse them. You can manage to break the hunger strike.

But the hunger strike didn’t continue — because of the exchange and because the jail authorities started to transfer those who were supposed to be freed. The jail authorities in some of the jails negotiated with the prisoners and promised to make a solution [to meet their demands]. In Gilboa jail, where Ameer is jailed, the strike started on a Monday and it was stopped on a Thursday.

MCM: Are they planning on resuming the campaign of hunger striking and civil disobedience?

JA: For now there are no plans to resume the hunger strike. First, they need to prepare. It’s not easy to be on hunger strike. And second, the jail authorities, in general, not in specific prisons, say they already negotiated with the hunger strike leaders and announced they are going to meet some of the demands. We know that some of the leaders and prisoners who were held in solitary confinement for a long time, the jail authorities decided to not hold them in isolation any longer. But some of them, like [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader] Ahmad Saadat remain in isolation for security considerations for at least one more year.

Part two of the exchange now is supposed to happen in less than two months. All of this affects the prisoners directly and they need to prepare for this situation. No one knows who will be among the 550 prisoners who will be released, and there is a hope that some of them will be from ‘48 territories [what is now considered “Israel”].

As you can imagine, one who was in prison and sentenced to life, or the older guys, they have expectations but no one knows who will be released and no one knows who will decide this. This situation is complicated and I think they need some time; after the second part of the exchange finishes, it could be a new situation in the prison.

I think the hunger strike succeeded. Most of their goals were met. But the political prisoners are waiting now.

MCM: Do you have any hope that Ameer might be released with the next phase of the prisoner swap? Can you describe what it is like for the families of political prisoners, not knowing whether their loved one will be amongst those released?

JA: I’m realistic, and so is Ameer. I would like it if Ameer would be part of this deal. But I know his position as a leader from ‘48, his position as general director of [the nongovernmental organization network] Ittijah and the chairperson of the Committee for Freedoms; he’s part of the international and local community [advocacy] for human rights defenders. He has a lot of history of working for the Palestinian case, for the prisoners’ case, for human rights. I would like for him to be part of the deal but I don’t know who are deciding who is released — is it Hamas, is it Israel, is it the Egyptians? Nobody knows.

If it is Israel who decides, we don’t know for sure who in Israel is deciding; it is not the political level, it is the security level, the Shabak [Shin Bet], the GSS. Whether they think that Ameer is still some kind of threat to Israel or not, I will do my best to have Ameer released. Whoever is released, it is a success for the political issue and for the Palestinians and for the whole political prisoners issue.

When I visit Ameer, I meet other families of prisoners. All of them are happy for those who are released and hope that every political prisoner is released. We families understand most the prisoners’ suffering, and it’s important to have them released.

I saw families who have been friends for years, visiting their sons in prison, and one was released and the other wasn’t released, and you can see that it was arbitrary who would be released. So this makes the families confused. But still they are happy for the others. If you ask any family, they will say every family wants their prisoner to be released.

If I think of the other five to seven years that Ameer needs to serve, since he was sentenced to nine years, it can make us crazy. He’s 53 years old already. I’m not worried at all about his morale and how he feels because he is in good hands from the side of the prisoners. They are all like family. But I am worried about Ameer and the others because the situation in the prisons is so bad — the food is so bad, they lack basic things like vegetables and fruits. I received a letter today from Ameer talking about how for two weeks the jail hasn’t offered a potato or an onion. Prisoners are not allowed to have vitamins. I tried to buy Ameer vitamins with my own money but the prison wouldn’t allow him to have it. Some medical tests, like for cancer, which the health ministry recommends for people more than fifty years old, aren’t offered.

Even after the hunger strike, they don’t have Arabic newspapers, they are not allowed to return to their studies, they don’t have Arabic TV channels. You can imagine that the prisoners are living in the minimum situation for survival. This is what makes me worried about Ameer and the others. It’s so important to have a campaign and to publish about the Palestinian political prisoners, to expose the situation, to let other people know about it. Israel is trying to black out about the situation, not talking about the political prisoners as humans, describing them as terrorists, and describing the situation in the Israeli prisons as good and suitable to a state that’s part of the first world. But it’s not like that.

MCM: What was the mood like amongst Palestinians in Israel with the release of some of the political prisoners? Were there celebrations in 1948 Palestine like in the West Bank and Gaza Strip?

JA: One prisoner, called Ali, from a village near Haifa where we live, he’s now 46 years old. He was imprisoned when he was 23, and he spent 23 years in jail. So how can he not be happy, and the family, of course for them — I even can’t describe it. It’s like a wedding. It’s the happiest thing that can happen for a family, to suddenly get back someone who was held for 23 years. The Israeli prison rules don’t allow extended family to visit their relatives in prison.

The released prisoners are reborn. When I visited Ali to welcome him and congratulate him, a small kid cried near us. Ali he was so happy and he said to me, “You hear his cry?” He was so anxious to hear a cry of a baby. The things that for us, the ones outside the prison, that we take for granted — for them it’s [amazing] to hear the ring of a phone, the cry of a baby. I asked him how he was related to the crying child, and he said, “I don’t know yet.” He’s learning his family all over again because this child was born when he was in jail, and they were not allowed to visit him. So suddenly he met a lot of family he doesn’t know.

The prisoners who were released also feel sorrow. For example, Ali was jailed for 23 years with his friend Samir, and Samir wasn’t released. Ali was shocked and felt bad — why am I leaving and Samir is not? I heard this questioning from a lot of prisoners, because those who were released felt bad that the others are still in the prison. But I told Ali, it’s not your responsibility. Be sure that Ameer and the others still in the prison feel good for you. And even if they don’t feel good, it’s not because you were released, it’s because they’re still in jail and it’s not connected to you or your decision, it was part of the deal.

The most important thing in the end is to have a campaign to have awareness, to keep the issue of Palestinian political prisoners the agenda of the international community, in the local community and to connect it to the change happening in the Arab world. We need to believe that the situation is changing. Who could imagine that apartheid [in South Africa] would end? But it ended! And who could imagine the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia would end, but [they fell] in the end. When you have a will, you have a way.

We need to believe in our rights. There is a price that we pay, and the prisoners and their families pay the highest price. But we need to believe in our rights and our homeland and we need to believe that one day all the political prisoners will be released. This is what allows us to continue to live and continue to struggle.

MCM: I didn’t read about any rallies in ‘48 for the prisoners release. Was there any celebrating?

JA: Yes. And during the hunger strike, there was a new kind of solidarity and struggle outside the prisons; that was unusual. Usually the Arab parties have demonstrations, statements and so on. But there was a new kind of struggle by younger groups. There was a group at Haifa, at Nazareth, Umm al-Fahm, Shafa Amr — these other Arab cities that usually the youngest groups decided to take part in the hunger strike. They call themselves “Hungry for Freedom.” This kind of struggle, using the electronic media while being in the streets, it’s amazing. They even have an effect on the Arab parties. You can see there is a lot of awareness [about political prisoners]. I was exposed to this during Ameer’s jailing; the political prisoners issue is part of the agenda of our community and even in the media, more so than it was before. This is good and this needs to be continued.

It’s so important, as part of the campaigning, to send a postcard to the prisoners themselves, because you can imagine how they feel. I remember when Ameer wrote his article “Solidarity tastes different inside prison.” It’s true. We need campaigning to release the prisoners and meanwhile [letter writing] is a small thing to do, but it’s effective.

The prisoners have the right to appeal for a reduced sentence during the last third of the sentence. After two-thirds of the sentence has been completed, the prisoner may be released. The jail authorities say release depends on good behavior. You can imagine the political prisoners have the best behavior in the prison. They are not criminals. But statistically, if we look at the political prisoners who are granted a reduced sentence, it’s almost zero who are released. The vast majority who request the sentence decrease get a negative answer from the jail authorities.

We need to campaign around a lot of things — the bad situation inside the prisoners, the food, solitary confinement. The families are tired. We need this kind of solidarity to keep us, the families and the prisoners, strong and continue. When you struggle alone, you feel alone. The prisoners’ issue is also a political issue and part of the solution of the Palestinian question.

Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada.