By Ramzy Baroud
Over the past few years, I have heard the words “no one cares about the prisoners” — or some variation of them — uttered many times by freed Palestinian prisoners and their families. Whenever I conduct an interview regarding this crucial and highly sensitive topic, I am repeatedly told that no one cares. But is this really the case? Are Palestinian prisoners abandoned, meaning their freedom, life and death are of no consequence?
This subject, and the claim, resurfaces every time a Palestinian prisoner launches a hunger strike or undergoes extreme hardship and torture, which is leaked outside the Israeli prison system by lawyers or human rights organizations. This year, five Palestinian prisoners are reported to have died in Israel’s prisons as a result of alleged medical negligence or, worse, torture.
Even humanitarian aid workers like Mohammed Al-Halabi are not immune to degrading treatment. Arrested in August 2016, Al-Halabi is yet to be charged for any wrongdoing. News of the Gazan’s plight, which originally received some media attention due to his work with the US-based World Vision organization, is now merely confined to Facebook posts by his father, Khalil.
As of Oct. 1, Al-Halabi had been paraded at 151 military trial appearances, yet he is still unaware of what charges he might face. The cherished Palestinian, who played a major role in providing cancer medicine to dying children in Gaza, is now subject to the longest military trial ever carried out by the Israeli occupation.
Desperate for some attention and fed up with cliches about their “centrality in the Palestinian struggle,” many prisoners, either individually or collectively, launch hunger strikes under the slogan: “Freedom or death.”
Those who are held under the draconian and illegal administrative detention policy demand their freedom, while so-called security prisoners, who are held in degrading conditions, merely ask for family visitations or food that is suitable for human consumption.
Health complications resulting from hunger strikes often linger long after the physical ordeal is over. I have interviewed the families of Palestinians who were freed from Israeli prisons, only to either die in a matter of months or live a life of endless pain and constant ailments.
More than 800,000 Palestinians are estimated to have been imprisoned in Israeli jails since East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza were occupied in June 1967. Maher Al-Akhras is writing the latest chapter in this tragic narrative. At the time of writing, he had just concluded 77 days of uninterrupted hunger strike. No medical opinion is necessary to tell us that Al-Akhras could die at any moment. A recent video released of the 49-year-old on his Israeli hospital bed offered a glimpse of his unbearable suffering.
In a barely audible voice, a gaunt, exhausted-looking Al-Akhras said that he is left with only two options: Either his immediate freedom or death within the confines of Israel’s “phony justice system.” His wife, Taghrid, even launched her own hunger strike last week to protest the fact that no one cares about her husband.
Once again, the lack of concern for the plight of prisoners, even dying ones, imposes itself on the Palestinian political discourse. So why is this the case?
The idea that Palestinian prisoners are all alone in the fight for freedom began in the early 1990s. It was during this period that the Oslo Accords were signed, dividing the Occupied Territories into zones governed by some strange Kafkaesque military system; one that did not end the Israeli occupation, instead cementing it. Largely dropped from the negotiations agenda at the time were several pressing issues fundamental to Palestinian rights and freedom. One of these issues was Israel’s brutal system of incarceration and imprisonment without trial.
Some Palestinian prisoners were occasionally released in small batches as “gestures of goodwill,” but the system itself, which gave Israel the right to arrest, detain and sentence Palestinians as it pleased, remained intact.
The freedom of Palestinian prisoners — nearly 5,000 of them are still held in Israel, with new inmates added daily — is not part of the Palestinian leadership’s political agenda, as it is consumed by self-interest, inter-factional fighting and other trivial matters.
With them being removed from the realm of politics, the plight of Palestinian prisoners has, over the years, been reduced to a mere humanitarian subject — as if these men and women are no longer political agents and a direct expression of Palestinian resistance on the one hand, and Israel’s military occupation and violence on the other.
There are ample references to Palestinian prisoners in everyday language. Not a single press release drafted by the Palestinian Authority, its main Fatah faction or any other Palestinian group fails to renew the pledge to free the prisoners, while constantly glorifying their sacrifices.
Unsurprisingly, empty language never produces concrete results.
There are two exceptions to the above maxim. The first is prisoner exchanges, like the one that took place in October 2011, which resulted in the freedom of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Second is the action of prisoners going on hunger strike. These are incremental in their achievements but have lately become the main channel of resistance. Sadly, even solidarity with hunger strikers is often factional, as each Palestinian political group places disproportionate focus on their own striking prisoners, while largely ignoring others. Not only has the issue of prisoners become depoliticized, it has also fallen victim to Palestine’s unfortunate disunity.
While it is untrue that no one cares about Palestinian prisoners, thousands of Palestinian families are justified in holding this opinion. For the freedom of prisoners to take center stage within the larger Palestinian struggle for freedom, the issue must be placed at the top of Palestine’s political agenda — by Palestinians themselves and by Palestinian solidarity networks everywhere.
Al-Akhras and thousands like him should not have to risk their lives to obtain basic human rights, which should, in theory, be guaranteed under international law. Just as importantly, Palestinian prisoners should not be left alone, paying the price for daring to stand up for justice, fairness and for their people’s freedom.