“As soon as I left prison, I went to Nael’s grave. It is adorned with the colours of the Palestinian flag and verses from the Holy Qur’an. I told my little brother how much I loved and appreciated him, and that, one day, we would meet again in paradise.”
That is part of the testimony given to me by a former Palestinian prisoner, Jalal Lutfi Saqr. It was published two years ago in the volume These Chains Will Be Broken.
As a Palestinian, born and raised in a refugee camp in Gaza, I was always familiar with the political discourse of, and about, political prisoners. My neighbourhood, like every neighbourhood in Gaza, is still populated with a large number of former prisoners, or families whose members have experienced imprisonment in the past or present.
However, starting in 2016, my relationship with the subject took on, for want of a better term, a more “academic” approach. Since then, I have interviewed scores of former prisoners and members of their families. Some were imprisoned by Israel, others by the Palestinian Authority. I even spoke to prisoners who have experienced the brutality of other Middle East prisons, from Iraq to Syria; from Egypt to Lebanon. A few particularly unlucky ones have endured multiple prison experiences and were tortured by men speaking different languages.
Some prisoners, now very old, were imprisoned by the British army, which colonised Palestine between 1920 and 1948. They were held according to the so-called 1945 Defence (Emergency) Regulations, an arbitrary legal code that allowed the British to hold as many rebellious Palestinian Arabs as possible without having to provide a reason or engage in due process.
This system remains in effect to this day, as it was adopted by Israel following the end of the British Mandate period. Following minor amendments in 1979, and the renaming of the law as the “Israeli Law on Authority in States of Emergency”, this is essentially today’s so-called “administrative detention” process. It allows Israel to imprison Palestinians, more or less indefinitely, based on “secret evidence” that is revealed neither to the prisoners nor to their defence lawyers.
These “emergency” laws remain in place, simply because Palestinians have never stopped resisting the occupation of their land. Thousands of Palestinians were held without evidence, charge or trial during the First Palestinian Intifada, the uprising of 1987-1993. Most of them were kept in horrific living conditions, in tent cities in the Naqab Desert.
According to the Palestinian Commission on Detainees’ and Ex-Detainees’ Affairs, around one million Palestinians were imprisoned by Israel between 1967 and 2021. As I write, hundreds of Palestinian “administrative detainees” are being held in Israeli prisons; their detention violates international law on various counts, including holding prisoners without trial or due process, and transferring prisoners to enemy territories, the latter being a stark violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.
Of course, respecting international law has never been Israel’s strong point. In fact, it continues to deliberately ignore and flout international law in numerous aspects of its illegal military occupation of Palestine, rationalising its actions on “security” grounds.
Palestinians are also doing what they do best — legitimate resistance — under the harshest circumstances and by every means available to them. Tellingly, the strongest resistance takes place within prison walls, by gaunt and often dying hunger strikers.
A 40-year-old Palestinian from a village near Al-Khalil (Hebron) in the occupied West Bank, Khalil Awawdeh, is the latest hunger striker to make history, simply by refraining from eating for 180 days. His weight has dropped to 38 kilograms after losing over 40 kilograms while on hunger strike. The images of his half-naked, skeletal body have been deemed too “graphic” and “offensive” for some social media users, and were removed as soon as they were shared. At the end, he could only whisper a few words. Though barely audible, they were filled with courage.
He ended his hunger strike on 31 August, after reaching a deal with the Israeli Prison Service to release him on 2 October. His first words after that agreement were not those of a dying man, but of a triumphant leader: “This resounding victory extends the series of great victories achieved by the mighty and honourable people of this nation.”
His words, however, were not unique. They carried the same sentiment communicated to me by every single freed prisoner I have interviewed in recent years. None have any regrets, even those who spent most of their lives in dark cells and in shackles; even those who lost loved ones; even those who left prison with chronic diseases, to die soon after their release. Their message is always one of defiance, of courage and of hope.
Awawdeh is neither the first prisoner, nor the last, to undergo a life-threatening hunger strike. The strategy may be explained, understandably so, as the last resort or as an act of desperation by individuals who are left with no alternative. But for Palestinians, these are acts of resistance that demonstrate the power of the Palestinian people: even in prison, handcuffed to a hospital bed, denied every basic human right, a Palestinian can fight, and win. And that’s what Awawdeh did.
When Jalal Lutfi Saqr learned that his brother Nael was killed by the Israeli army in Gaza, he was a prisoner in Israel. He told me that the first thing he did when he learned of his brother’s death was to kneel down and pray. The following day, Jalal spoke to the mourners in his Gaza refugee camp using a smuggled mobile phone.
“Ours is a long and painful march for freedom,” he told them. “Some of us are in prison; others are underground, but we will never cease our fight for our people. We must remain committed to the legacy of our forefathers and our martyrs. We are all brothers, in blood, in the struggle and in faith, so let’s remain united as one people, as brothers and sisters, and carry on, despite the heavy losses and tremendous sacrifices.”
Jalal Lutfi Saqr made that rallying call to his people twenty years ago. It remains as relevant today, as it was then.