“No one cares about the prisoners.” Over the past few years, I have heard this phrase – or some variation of it – uttered many times by freed Palestinian prisoners and their families. Whenever I conduct an interview regarding this crucial and highly sensitive topic, I am told, repeatedly, that “no one cares.”
But is this really the case? Are Palestinian prisoners so abandoned to the extent that their freedom, life and death are of no consequence?
The subject, and the claim, resurfaces every time a Palestinian prisoner launches a hunger strike or undergoes extreme hardship and torture, which is leaked outside Israeli prisons through lawyers or human rights organizations. This year, five Palestinian prisoners died in prison. The Palestinian Prisoners Club has said around 224 Palestinian detainees have died in Israeli prisons since 1967, of whom approximately two-thirds died after experiencing torture, medical neglect, or both.
Even humanitarian aid workers, like the head of World Vision’s Gaza operations Mohammed el-Halabi, are not immune to degrading treatment. Arrested in August 2016, el-Halabi is yet to be convicted for any wrongdoing. News of his plight, which originally received some media attention – due to his work with the U.S.-based organization – is now merely confined to Facebook posts by his father, Khalil.
As of October 1, el-Halabi has been paraded before 151 military trials, yet the evidence the state claims to have against him has been kept secret. The cherished Palestinian man, who has played a major role in providing cancer medicine to dying children in Gaza, now holds the record of 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, whether 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 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 families of Palestinians who were freed from Israeli prisons, only to die in a matter of months, or live a life of endless pain and constant ailments for years following their release.
According to some estimates, over 800,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned in Israeli jails since the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967.
Maher al-Akhras is currently writing the latest chapter in this tragic narrative. At the time of writing this article, he has just concluded 77 days of uninterrupted hunger strike. No medical opinion is necessary to tell us that al-Akhras could die any moment. A recent video released of al-Akhras on his Israeli hospital bed conveyed a glimpse of the man’s unbearable suffering.
With a barely audible voice, the gaunt, exhausted-looking man said that he is left with only two options: either his immediate freedom or death within the confines of Israel’s “phony justice system.”
On October 7, his wife, Taghrid, launched her own hunger strike 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 various 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, but, rather, cemented it.
Largely dropped from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations agenda at the time, but permanently, eventually, 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.
Certainly, some Palestinian prisoners were released in small batches occasionally, as “gestures of goodwill”; but the system, itself, which gave Israel the right to arrest, detain and sentence Palestinians, remained intact.
To date, the freedom of Palestinian prisoners – nearly 5,000 of them are still held in Israel, with new prisoners added daily – is not part of the Palestinian leadership political agenda, itself subsumed by self-interests, factional fights and other trivial matters.
Being removed from the realm of politics, the plight of 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, resulting in the freedom of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. And, second, the prisoners’ own hunger strikes, which 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 often places disproportionate focus on their own striking prisoners and, largely ignores 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 to hold 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.
Maher al-Akhras, and thousands like him, should not risk their lives to obtain basic human rights, which should, in theory, be guaranteed under international law. Equally important, Palestinian prisoners should not be left alone, paying a price for daring to stand up for justice, fairness and for their people’s freedom.