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Chess plays important role in lives of Palestinian inmates of Israeli prisons

Palestinian men play chess on 18 October 2007 [MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP via Getty Images]
Palestinian men play chess on 18 October 2007 [MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP via Getty Images]

In his nearly a decade-and-a-half in Israeli prisons, Palestinian chef, Hassan Shtayeh, has whiled away many hours playing chess and organising tournaments, Anadolu News Agency reports.

Shtayeh, a professional chess player, has a creative style of playing, even in the most difficult of times.

He was arrested for the first time in 1987 and is still placed in administrative detention, from time to time, without any clear charges.

In 1995, he was interrogated and underwent solitary confinement in the Ashkelon interrogation centre, and decided to play chess.

Sitting at a table in a cafe in the city of Ramallah playing chess with one of his friends, Shtayeh, now 55 years old, described in detail how he made a chessboard using cigarette ashes, bread, and a mattress cover.

"I spent 97 days in interrogation. As a man who plays the game daily, I decided to create a chessboard. It helped me stay coherent," he told Anadolu Agency.

READ: Palestine ex-prisoner recalls his 33 years of struggle in Israeli jails

On the brown mattress cover, he used the cigarette ashes to create white squares and the bread to form the chess pieces and marked them with the cigarette ashes.

Shtayeh said the game is a symbolic reflection of the human will to win, whether in a match or in the struggle for freedom.

Through the International Committee of the Red Cross in Palestine, chessboards are allowed in the prisons annually for inmates, along with other kinds of physical and mental games.

But, according to former Palestinian prisoner, Hadi Tarshah, there are not enough chessboards for all inmates.

Despite this, the Palestinian inmates organise championships annually, in conjunction with the anniversaries of national events during the ongoing struggle of Palestinians for freedom.

Lives of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails - Cartoon [Arabi 21]

Lives of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails – Cartoon [Arabi 21]

According to Shtayeh, the winners in each prison wing move to other wings to compete with other inmate winners, but this has not been easy.

"The way to gain each simple right was through struggle, either hunger strikes or refusing meals, just to have our right to organise the championships in the whole prison and allowing the winners to move between the prison wings to complete the championship," he said.

During his detention periods, Shtayeh won the championships in 1992 and 1995 in Majdo Prison, located 125 kilometres (77.6 miles) north of Jerusalem.

Memories of chess nights

Outside prison, Shtayeh still meets with his friends who he used to play chess with when they were inmates and remembers those days.

He recalled his fellow inmate, Omar Barghouthi, who passed away in 2021 and was his competitor many times over the years in prisons, where both of them underwent administrative detention.

"Omar was a professional player, and it wasn't easy to meet an excellent player, so we were always competing. I competed with him in the official championships in 1995 and 2002, in addition to regular games every evening," he said.

"When I saw him in an absent-minded state, I realised that he was thinking about the outside, so immediately I called on him to start a competition, to stop the pain of missing outside life."

International Chess Day

In 2019, the United Nations declared 20 July as International Chess Day to celebrate the game.

According to the UN, "chess is a global game, which promotes fairness, inclusion and mutual respect," and "it can contribute to an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding among peoples and nations."

It said chess also offers important opportunities in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals, including strengthening education and realising gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

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