A Parliament of Prisoners

Relatives of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails protest asking for their release in Gaza City January 9, 2006. (Wesam Saleh/Maan)

Most attention surrounding the 25 January 2006 election has focused upon the sweeping victory of Hamas at the polls, and with good reason. But there are other aspects to this year’s election that will also leave permanent impressions upon the future of Palestinian national activity. Among the 132 Palestinians who won seats in the Legislative Council, 15 of them are prisoners. 14 are imprisoned in Israeli jails, and one sits in a Palestinian administered jail in Jericho, with CIA and British Intelligence oversight. 11 of them are affiliated with Hamas, 3 with Fateh, and one with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Prisoners and the prisoner issue play a major role in Palestinian politics. Palestinians are proportionally one of the most detained nations on earth. Of the Occupied Territories’ present day 3.6 million population, over 600,000 have been held in Israeli jails for periods ranging from one week to life, since 1967. That experience has also been particularly traumatic: the Israeli Human Rights organization Btselem estimates that 80% of Palestinian prisoners are tortured, while the Palestinian Prisoner Society counts no less than 106 Palestinians who have been killed or died during interrogation, hunger strike or as a result of poor medical treatment. While historically the prisoner issue is something the whole of Palestinian society can relate to, it is important to acknowledge that prisoners also hold significant political and social stature in the national movement, given that they represent some of its most dynamic, charismatic and radical elements. The 15 members of parliament just elected are no exception to that rule. A brief summary of them provides valuable insight into the new geography of political forces that compose the Palestinian national movement in the wake of the recent Hamas victory. This applies to the faces which emerged as part of the Hamas list itself (and who are less known to English language readers), in addition to certain unifying political characterizations we can acknowledge amongst all prisoners who won PLC seats in this year’s election.

Hamas Prisoners

1. Sheikh Hassan Yousef: 50 years old, from the village of Janiyeh, west of Ramallah. Studied Shari’a [Islamic Law] in Jordan and Education at Birzeit University. Is known for his participation in the coalition of National and Islamic Forces in Ramallah, which attempted to provide cross-factional strategic direction at the beginning of this Intifada. On April 10, 2005, he surprised many by appearing at Al Aqsa Mosque Compound to defend it from Jewish fundamentalists who were attempting to storm it.

2. Mohammed Al Natsheh: 47, Hebron. Natsheh held the #4 slot on the Change and Reform slate (the slate Hamas ran its candidates on). Studied Shari’a in Jordan. Al Natshe has been arrest 8 other times by the Israeli Occupation authorities and was expelled to Marj a-Zuhour, south Lebanon in 1992 for 9 months. He is currently serving an 8 year sentence.

3. Dr. Omar Abdel Razek: Born in Salfit village in 1958. A professor of economics at An Najah University, Nablus. Abdel Razek held the16th slot on the Hamas slate. He is a researcher at the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute (MAS) in Ramallah, and earned his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1986. Abdel Razeh has won a series of awards in the Arab world for his writings and research. He has been arrested two previous times by the Israelis as an administrative detainee - a form of detention where Israel does not have to provide charges or evidence against a detainee who can be held indefinitely for renewable 6 month periods. He presently sits in the Moscobiya interrogation center in Jerusalem.

4. Ibrahim Abu Salem: Born in 1948 in the village of a-Sidreh, near Ramleh, his family fled that same year to Bir Nabala near Jerusalem. Holds a BA in Islamic studies from Jordan, and a Masters (with distinction) from Al Azhar University, Cairo. Has been in administrative detention since September 2005, and was recently renewed for an additional 3 months.

5. Ahmed Ali Al Haj Ali: Born in 1940 in the destroyed village of Qaisariyyah near Haifa. In 1948, his family fled to the West Bank, ending up in Ein Beit Al Ma’ Camp in Nablus. Has a degree in Islamic Law from Damascus University (1974), and a Masters in Islamic Studies from An Najah University, Nablus (1994). Was expelled to Marj a-Zuhour, South Lebanon in 1993. Presently he is an administrative detainee in Ansar III (Israel’s infamous Negev tent prison camp).

6. Fathi Al Qar’awi: Born in 1958, as the descendents of refugees from the destroyed village of Sabbarin, near Haifa. His family lived in Nur Al Shams refugee camp in Tulkarem, before moving to Ramin village near Tulkarem. Al Qar’awi held the #13 slot on the Change and Reform slate. He holds a BA in Shari’a studies from Jordan University, and was a former deportee to Marj a-Zuhour. Qar’awi was arrested in 2002 initially as an administrative detainee (8 months) and later was charged with “membership in a terrorist organization and posing a threat to regional security”.

7. Hatem Qafisheh is a businessman who owns a tourism company, which also facilitates the Hajj pilgrimage. He also studied contemporary Middle Eastern politics, and Islamic studies before having his studies interrupted by prison. Qafiesheh is a former deportee to Marj a-Zuhour, in addition to being a survivor of the 1994 Hebron massacre, where 29 Palestinians worshippers were killed by US/ Israeli citizen Baruch Goldstein at an early-morning prayer service. Qafeisheh was arrested and detained for 27 months after those events, and was a leading figure in the “Intifada of the Administrative Detainees” - a hunger strike for prisoner rights held in, Mejiddo, Damoun, and Telmond prisons in the mid 1990s.

8. Doctor Azzam Al Tamimi: Born 1956 in Hebron. Studied and earned a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University in Mecca. Throughout his life he has been imprisoned on 8 different occasions, in addition to being deported to Marj a-Zuhour in 1993. He is presently sitting out a 6 month administrative detention order in Ofer prison. Was previously imprisoned for cases of “incitement” and “political and social activities”.

9. Journalist Nizar Ramadan: 45 years old. The father of 8 children. Has a BA in Islamic studies from the Shari’a College in Hebron, and a Masters in contemporary Islamic studies from Al Quds University, Abu Dis. Worked as a correspondent for a series of print and web-based news sources including Al Sharq al Awsat (Qatar, 7 years), Al Jazeera Net (responsible for coverage of its Israeli news file), Islam online, Al Usra [Holland], Al Wifaq [Iran], and Al Quds Press.

10. Mohammed Abu Jahisheh: 50 years old, from Ithna village near Hebron. Father of 13 children. Holds a BA and Masters in Islamic studies from the Islamic University in Mecca, and is in the midst of preparing his PhD for the University of Applied Science in Sana’a, Yemen. Has been held in administrative detention for the past 6 months. Abu Jaheisheh played a leading role in an assortment of committees and grassroots activities (including membership in the local Tribal Council) in the Hebron district. He is an elected judge in Shari’a matters, and was also a deportee in 1992 to South Lebanon.

11. Khaled Tafesh: Born 1964 in Bethlehem. Holds a BA in Islamic studies from Al Quds University. Was arrested in the 2002 Israeli invasion of Bethlehem, and given a 4.5 years prison sentence. He is also a former deportee to South Lebanon.

Fateh Parliamentary Candidates

12. Marwan Barghouti: One of the best known Palestinian prisoners and political leaders. Held the #1 slot on the Fateh slate. Played a leading role in this Intifada, and is considered one of the main ‘heirs’ of Arafat who can lead Fateh in the future. Arrested in April 2002, he is currently serving 5 life sentences in Israeli prison. He is the Secretary General of Fateh in the West Bank, and a former deportee to Jordan in 1986, after being a student leader at Birzeit University years before. Upon his return to the West Bank in 1994, Barghouti finished a Masters at Birzeit University in International Studies, and was elected a representative to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996. He played an instrumental role in achieving a cease-fire from all Palestinian factions in 2003, despite being in prison.

13. Jamal Hweil: Held the #26 slot on the Fateh slate. Born in Jenin Refugee Camp in 1970, Hweil is the twin brother of Najib Hweil, who was one of the founders of the Black Panthers in Jenin, Fateh’s first paramilitary in the 1987 Intifada. (Najib was eventually assassinated by an Israeli death squad in March 1991.) Jamal graduated from Jordan University in 1995 from the college of Economics and Social Sciences, and was a manager in an economic body within the Legislative Council. He is the Secretary General of the Youth and Social Services Center in Jenin Refugee Camp, and lived for years as a wanted activist at the beginning of this Intifada. Hweil played an active role in organizing the defense of Jenin Refugee camp in April 2002 which resulted in 23 Israeli soldiers killed, and the destruction of over 400 Palestinian refugee homes. He was arrested in that invasion.

14. Abu Ali Yatta: Born in 1956, and the father of 3 children, Abu Ali comes from the town of Yatta, south of Hebron. Abu Ali held the #2 slot on Fateh’s slate, owing to the fact that he is one of the party’s most senior prisoners. After joining Fateh in the early 1970s, he was arrested in 1980 after leading a military attack which killed one of the heads of the Jewish settlers in Hebron. He is presently serving 2 life sentences. Abu Ali suffers from medical conditions as a result of his extended time and poor treatment in prison, including weak vision and heart problems. It is significant to note that Abu Ali represents Fateh prisoners who were never released by the Oslo process.

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

15. Ahmed Sa’dat: The elected head (Secretary General) of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Sa’dat took his position from Abu Ali Mustapha who was assassinated by Israel in August 2001. He is the sole Palestinian parliamentarian held in a Palestinian Authority jail, and was arrested in November 2001 by the PA after his alleged involvement in the assassination of former Minister of Tourism Rehev’am Ze’evi. (Ze’evi was the head of the Israeli Transfer Party, one of Israel’s most overtly racist and fascistic Knesset parties.) Sa’dat was never put on trial by the PA, but was sent to Jericho prison together with 4 other prisoners, after the PA made a deal with Israel and the US to end the 40 day stand off at Arafat’s headquarters in Ramalla. Sa’dat was born in El Bireh in 1953 to a refugee family which years earlier had been forced from the village of Deir Tarif, near the depopulated Palestinian city of Al Ramleh. Sa’dat was active in student life beginning in 1969, and has been imprisoned 8 times by the Israelis, and 3 times by the Palestinian Authority, spending a total of more than 14 years in differing prisons.

It is also worth noting that two additional member of the Legislative Council who were just voted into office are heads of organizations which specifically work on the prisoner rights issues: Issa Qaraqi’ [Fateh] was the head of the Palestinian Prisoner Society (Nadi Al Assir in Bethlehem, and Khaleda Jarrar [PFLP] was the former head of Addameer Prisoner’s Support and Human Rights Association located in Al Bireh. Qaraqi’ was the #16 slot on the Fateh slate, and Jerrar was #3 on the PFLP slate.


The election of 15 prisoners as part of the Palestinian Legislative Council is an appropriate reflection of the era Palestinian politics finds itself in. As Israel quite openly declares that it will unilaterally impose its final borders upon the Palestinians; and as it becomes clearer to the world that the areas left to the Palestinians will be nothing less than fragmented walled-in ghettos, surrounded by settlements, checkpoints, unmanned drones, watchtowers, razor wire, and trenches, the existence of 15 prisoners as the face of the Palestinian political leadership is a fitting symbol for what the Palestinian people truly are - an imprisoned nation, fighting from their freedom.

In this context, there should be no illusions as to what the Palestinian Legislative Council can do, considering the inhibiting factors the Israeli occupation can and will throw up to prevent this body asserting real power - if it every really had any power to begin with. Indeed it is clear that Israel, the US, and quite possibly the EU, will play an active role in attempting to suffocate the new Palestinian parliament economically, hoping that it can prevent it coming up with genuine programs capable of serving the needs of the Palestinian constituency who voted for them. Israel will likewise do all in its power to additionally humiliate, dehumanize, and strangle all levels of Palestinian national activity in general, as it attempts to stem the moral victory the elections ushered in. Indeed if there is something that can be said about the PLC candidates in prison who have won seats in this election, it is that whatever their party affiliation, all have openly rejected the US-led Oslo model of negotiating with Israel, and all have affirmed the Palestinian right to resist. This political trajectory (not just Hamas), won the 25 January 2006 elections, and it is this political trajectory which Israel the US will continue to attempt to uproot.

Toufic Haddad is a Palestinian-American activist and writer presently living in San Francisco. He is currently co-editing a book with Dr. Tikva Honig-Parnass on the Palestinian Intifada, to be published by Haymarket Books in the fall of this year. This report would not have been possible and owes much gratitude to the hard work and research of the friends at Ramattan News Agency in Gaza City.

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