At the end of 2012, there were 4,656 Palestinian political prisoners being held in Israeli prisons and detention centres. That figure includes 178 administrative detainees, 11 women and 177 children. In recent weeks, it is two hunger-strikers, Samer Al-Issawi and Ayman Esharawna, whose plight has grabbed global attention. The personal background and circumstances of the former is exceptionally distressing.
A resident of Al-Issawiya village in south Jerusalem, Samer comes from a family with a long history of resistance against British and Israeli rule. When the Israeli occupation destroyed the home of his brother recently, cut the water supply to the home of his mother and debarred his sister Shereen, a lawyer, from practicing her profession for six months, it seemed like a case of déjà vu.
Samer's grandfather, Ahmad Al-Issawi, was a leader of the 1936 uprising and a founding member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). He was imprisoned several times by the British Mandate authorities and later sentenced to death, escaping just hours before the time set for his execution.
As for Samer, his political initiation started with the first Intifada in 1987. He recalls how he and his four brothers – Midhat, Rafat, Firas, and Fadi were detained during that period and served with prison sentences ranging from one to seven years.
That was the stone-throwing generation; they had no rockets or any other means of resistance. Still in their early teens, they were struck with the full force of what passes for law in the occupied Palestinian territories. Indeed, within months of his release, Fadi, aged 16, was killed by the Israeli occupation forces for protesting against the massacre of Palestinian worshippers by a settler in Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque.
With the onset of the second Intifada, Samer was detained and released several times. He was finally handed a 30-year jail sentence for attacks on Israelis in 2002.
While Samer Al-Issawi sees himself as a prisoner of war, the Israeli establishment regard him as a "terrorist". Although he and his siblings were all incarcerated for extended periods, Samer was the one who appeared to be absent permanently from home. For ten years he never met any of his brothers; the Israelis made sure that they were always kept in separate prisons. By 2010, all four siblings, including Shereen, were imprisoned.
Born in December 1979, Samer is now battling for his life. Long years of imprisonment, deprivation and torment have taken their toll. Still, he continues to resist with the only weapons left available to him; an undaunted spirit and an empty stomach. His resolve is never to succumb to what he regards as Israel's racist policies.
When the news reached him of the demolition of his brother's house and the other arbitrary measures against his family, Samer had no doubt that this was all part of a calculated campaign of victimisation of his family to force him to break his hunger strike. From his "hospital" bed in Ramleh Prison, he assured his lawyer that this will never happen: "As long as my heart beats and God infuses my body with the spirit of a believer, there will be no turning back until freedom or martyrdom."
Shortly after his release in October 2011 as part of the exchange for the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shailt, Samer was rearrested; this time the pretext was that he broke the condition of his release by visiting the West Bank. He faces another twenty years behind bars to complete the original sentence. Now perilously close to death, it would be something of a miracle if he lasts another ten months.
Try as they may, the Israeli authorities are yet to advance a cogent and compelling explanation in court for their persecution of Samer Al-Issawi and his family. There are thousands of illegal Jewish houses in the occupied territories; unlike the Issawi family's, they are served with electricity and water.
Shereen Al-Issawi is convinced that the campaign of terror against her family and the Palestinian residents of Al-Issawiya village is to intimidate and ultimately force them out of Jerusalem. She recalls that "during interrogation they used to threaten to seize our identity cards and expel us to the West Bank."
While the appalling plight of Samer and the hunger strikers is a matter of extreme urgency, there are another 110 prisoners languishing in Israeli jails since before the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords. They were never included in any of the subsequent exchange deals. The Palestinian Prisoners' Forum confirms that 10 are from Jerusalem, 14 are from Israel, 28 are from Gaza and 58 are from the West Bank.
Whether he survives or not, Samer Al-Issawi has placed before the free world its moral, legal and political duties toward the Palestinians in Israeli jails. They may be "disappeared", but they're not forgotten. The newly-recognised State of Palestine is no less culpable. It must take the lead by activating the 2012 Baghdad Declaration at the UN for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legal status of the Palestinians in Israeli occupation jails. That should be followed by similar action within the International Criminal Court.
Is there the political will to act? Shereen Al-Issawi is doubtful. She recalls that while the Palestinian presidency saw fit to convey condolences for the death of Amnon Shahak, a former Israeli general responsible for the killing of Palestinians, they have never contacted her family to enquire about Samer's health. Yet, with indomitable people like him, the struggle for freedom and dignity will continue.