Jailed by Israel for his cartoons, Mohammad Saba’aneh speaks out

Man cowering in corner is told to resist by his shadow which assumes a strong standing posture

Mohammad Saba’aneh started drawings while in prison and completed them when he was released.

Dylan Collins

More than 300 persons came to the opening night of cartoonist Mohammad Saba’aneh’s Cell 28 exhibition at Ramallah’s Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in the occupied West Bank on 6 November.

“I think it’s very important for Palestinian artists to talk about the Palestinian prisoners because it’s a very human issue,” Saba’aneh told The Electronic Intifada.

Originally from the village of Qabatiya near Jenin, 34-year-old Saba’aneh started drawing all the pictures on exhibition while he was in jail, completing them later.

He spent five months in prison after being arrested by Israeli occupation forces this past February. After two months of internment without charge, Israel charged him with drawing cartoons in a book they alleged had some association with Hamas.

The photographs on display deal solely with issues regarding Palestinian political prisoners. The themes include family visits, longing, loneliness, solitary confinement, prisoner transfers, education in prisons and healthcare in prisons.

“I want to explain to people what exactly is happening inside Israeli jails,” Saba’aneh said. “Everyone deals with Palestinian prisoners as heroes, but I want to deal with this as a human case … No one talks about the Palestinian prisoner’s mother or his kids, or entertainment — like listening to a football match on the radio.”

Saba’aneh depicts these details of daily life for prisoners and their families in his cartoons. “The whole idea of this exhibition is to resist [Israel’s] jails,” he added.


Cartoon shows leaves from olive branch morphing into hand grenades

Mohammad Saba’aneh’s cartoons frequently criticize the so-called peace process. (Image courtesy of Mohammad Saba’aneh)

Saba’aneh, who has a daily cartoon in the Palestinian newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida, has published his work in newspapers across the Arab world. His cartoons are decidedly political, frequently criticizing Israel, the Palestinian Authority and mainstream Palestinian political parties.

On top of publications and exhibitions, Saba’aneh also gives cartooning lessons to youth to raise awareness and spread the profession.

Targeted by Israeli occupation authorities for the opinions expressed in his art, he was arrested in February at the King Hussein border crossing between Jordan and the occupied West Bank.

“I was returning to Palestine from Amman [Jordan] on a work trip when [Israeli soldiers] stopped me and asked me about my identity,” he explained.

“Then they searched me, asked me about the things I had with me, and then a policeman came and told me I was under arrest.”

He spent two months in the notorious al-Jalameh prison near Haifa before being transferred to another one in the Naqab (Negev) region in the southern part of present-day Israel. Saba’aneh said that at the beginning, “They investigated me about everything, about my activity, about my participation in international [art] exhibitions, and about my opinions.”

In the end, the focus of the interrogation became a book about Palestinian political prisoners that Saba’aneh’s brother — a member of Hamas — wrote and published. Because several of Saba’aneh’s cartoons were published in his brother’s book, “I was charged with collaboration with Hamas.”

“I told them that the collaboration was with my brother, not with Hamas. Actually Hamas hates me,” Saba’aneh said, explaining that he had angered many Hamas members when he published a cartoon that openly criticized Ismail Haniyeh, a senior member of Hamas who was elected Palestinian Authority prime minister in 2006.

He stressed that the charges against him were baseless because he frequently publishes cartoons critical of all Palestinian political parties — particularly Fatah, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Saba’aneh said he had expected to be arrested for a long time because he had been under attack by pro-Israel media outlets and websites since 2011.

For instance, the rightwing group Palestinian Media Watch accused the cartoonist of calling for “the complete dismantling of Israel and its replacement by a Palestinian state” (“Palestinians will never give up any part of ‘Palestine’,” 25 August 2011).

And the website of Jewish Federation and Family Services used one of his cartoons — a map of all of historical Palestine — to encourage readers to oppose the Palestinian Authority’s 2011 bid for statehood at the United Nations.

“They always criticized me for drawing cartoons against the peace process and provoking people against Israel, and because I draw the Palestinian map as all of Palestine.”

He was eventually found guilty by an Israeli military court and sentenced to five months in prison.


Cartoon shows imprisoned man breaking through glass partition to touch child held by woman

“No one talks about the Palestinian prisoner’s mother or his kids,” says cartoonist Mohammad Saba’aneh. (Image courtesy of Mohammad Saba’aneh)

Throughout the five months Saba’aneh spent in prison, he was not permitted family visits or allowed to speak to his relatives via telephone. He was only able to keep in contact with his wife through cellphones secretly kept by his fellow prisoners.

He described extremely poor living conditions for prisoners and detainees, emphasizing the lack of basic healthcare and the frequent denial of food. Although he was inspired to draw cartoons about these issues, Israeli prison authorities forbid him from drawing or writing during the first two months.

After the two-month mark, Saba’aneh began drawing day and night. Many of the pictures and sketches he produced during this period now make up the Cell 28 exhibition.

One of the events that motivated Saba’aneh while he was in prison was the death of Maysara Abuhamdieh, a Palestinian detainee who died of cancer earlier this year after being treated by Israeli prison doctors with only low-strength pain killers.

“I gave my drawings to my friends when they were being released from jail so that they could give them to my wife,” Saba’aneh explained.

“I left blank spaces in all of the drawings, leaving out certain details that would let the Israeli authorities know that the cartoons are about the inside of the prisons.”

Once he was released, he completed the cartoons, drawing in details like barred windows, decals of prisoners’ clothing and shackles.

“If I finished the drawings in jail and included things that let them know they are about the jail, they wouldn’t let them out, especially from me,” Saba’aneh said.

A handful of his cartoons were smuggled out and published in al-Hayat al-Jadida while he was still behind bars.

Not scared

Cartoon shows cowered family carrying Jerusalem landmarks on their backs

Mohammad Saba’aneh’s cartoons are decidedly political. (Image courtesy of Mohammad Saba’aneh)

Israeli occupation forces routinely target artists, academics, journalists, activists and community leaders to stifle Palestinian civil society. When asked if he will continue publishing critical cartoons, Saba’aneh said that “cartoons have to criticize something — that’s what people are looking for.”

“The Israelis and the Palestinian Authority monitor our cartoons [and] if you show what they are actually doing they will attack you.”

At the same time, Saba’aneh stressed that he is not scared of being rearrested because “there was big solidarity with me in Palestine and outside … Many cartoonists drew pictures for me in solidarity.”

Saba’aneh’s cartoons have been displayed in exhibitions in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Jordan and elsewhere.

“From the first moment I arrived in prison, I was thinking about doing this exhibition,” Saba’aneh said of the Cell 28 show. “I am glad so many people are coming out and bringing their children.”

Saba’aneh is also attempting to have the same exhibition put on display in France.

“If the newspapers stop publishing my cartoons, I’ll keep publishing them by putting them on Facebook,” Saba’aneh said. “I hope I won’t go back to jail, but this is our life.”

“If you’re fearful of the Israeli army, the Palestinian Authority, or Hamas or anyone else, you won’t draw anything at all … I’d have to change my career.”

Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist whose articles have appeared on Al Jazeera English, Truthout and The Electronic Intifada. Follow him on Twitter @P_Strickland_.