Samer Al-Essawi's story still has not received the coverage it deserves. While people all over the world support Samer, major media outlets and human rights organizations have yet to step up to the plate to tell Samer's story. Samer is not the first member of his family subjected to the brutality of the Israeli occupation. From his grandfather to his uncle, parents and siblings, Samer's entire family has been violated by the occupation.
I was able to interview Shireen Al-Essawi, Samer's sister, who is no stranger to the aggression of the Israeli state, by telephone. We talked about how Samer's case is affecting her and her family's daily life and the impact it has had on them. She told me that they are subjected to raids almost daily, and that their water and electricity have been cut off numerous times. Her brothers have all been arrested and detained for periods ranging from between 1 to 19 years and they are arrested and taken to police stations for questioning several times a week. When I asked her on what charges they were being arrested, she said "simply for being associated with Samer." In addition to this, Shireen who is a lawyer, is banned from entering a court room for 6 months following an incident at one of Samer's hearings. The court is now demanding that she be disbarred, hence preventing her from making a living. However, the hardest thing of all is that they are unable to visit Samer, and only have contact with him through his lawyer.
I also asked her how this is affecting the people of their district, Al-Issawiya, in East Jerusalem. Shireen spoke to me about how the people of her district are suffering at the hands of the occupation. According to her, Al-Issawiya is subjected to raids, tear gas attacks and building demolitions on a daily basis. Since December 13th, 2012, there have been arrests every day in Al-Issawiya, and the number of arrests has reached 200 arrests in their district alone. Shireen also explained how children were the main targets of these arrests, and how they were taken from their homes during night raids. She also told me how the solidarity tent put up for Samer had been torn down 35 times by Israelis.
Shireen was arrested in 2010 and served a year in an Israeli prison. I asked her about the charges and her experience behind bars. She said that she was arrested due to the fact that she was a lawyer handling the cases of Palestinian prisoners and was charged with supporting terrorism. When asked about how she was treated, she told me "they don't care if you are a man or a woman; the treatment is just as brutal." Shireen was in interrogation for 28 days during which she was tied to a chair in uncomfortable positions for 19-20 hours at a time. The guards were aggressive and constantly insulted her.
Next, I asked her how Samer was doing. She told me he is still in Kaplan Medical Centre and hooked up to machines regulate the irregular heartbeat he is suffering from and that he is extremely weak – he is in a critical medical state. However, she also said, "Despite his deteriorating health, his spirits are high. Every time his lawyer says he is going to cheer Samer up, he comes back and tells us Samer cheered me up." She told me he is determined and insistent on his strike until he gains freedom or martyrdom; he is at peace with his decision.
When I told Shireen that everyone was wondering how Samer had lasted for 225 days without food, she said that as long as Samer is conscious, he refuses glucose drips, however, once he passes out and is unconscious, he is given the drip. Despite this, he continues to refuse food and glucose while he is alert.
I also asked Shireen why despite there being a number of Palestinian hunger strikers, Samer's case is so significant and why he has had the most support. She explained to me that other than the obvious reason; the fact that Samer has been on a hunger strike for 225 consecutive days which is unprecedented, many Palestinians have approached her and told her how they considered Samer to be their son or brother. She said, "Everyone identifies with Samer, he embodies the dreams, hopes and determination of the Palestinian people." He continued his strike in spite of Israel's unjust policies and the harassment of his family. Shireen also explained that prisoners like Samer who is protesting the re-arrest of the prisoners released in the prisoner exchange agreement, and Ja'afar and Tarik who are protesting administrative detention, have gained popularity and support because "the battle they are fighting is not a personal battle, but a battle for the people"; they are protesting against the violation of all Palestinian prisoners in Palestine.
This question was followed up with the question of why the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, has refused exile of the prisoners to Gaza or Egypt. Shireen clarified this by explaining that Samer made very clear from the beginning that he totally rejects the idea of exile. He is a Palestinian Jerusalemite and will not be exiled from his hometown, even if it costs him his freedom. "President Abbas knew Samer's position on this matter, and refused Israel's offer to release the prisoners on hunger strike into exile. This was the Palestinian Authority's way of showing their support to Samer and the other hunger strikers." She also explained that even though this was the official position of the PA, individual prisoners were free to choose exile if they pleased.
Since Shireen is a Jerusalemite and is subjected to hardships on a daily basis, I asked her to shed some light on the suffering of Jerusalemites, as I felt that the problems they faced were somewhat unique and were not well-known. She told me there were many issues and violations they were subjected to on a daily basis, but she would highlight the most common and serious. First, she told me, Jerusalemites are faced with the challenge of house demolition. The Israeli Authorities have issued demolition orders against 80% of Palestinian homes in Jerusalem on the grounds that they have been illegally constructed. She explained that "construction permits are not issued to Palestinians, and when we try to build our houses, we receive demolition orders. They want to erase the presence of Palestinians in Jerusalem." The second issue Palestinians face, according to Shireen, is that Jerusalemites are having their permanent residency cards revoked. We cannot leave for more than 2 years or our residency is taken away from us leaving us with no rights to stay in Jerusalem. Another injustice faced by Jerusalemites is that they are charged high property, water and electricity taxes but receive no services in return; "The Israelis receive 100 per cent of the services, and our services do not even amount to 1 per cent." Furthermore, Shireen told me that in Jerusalem, children are arrested at an alarming rate, they are assaulted by the ultra-orthodox Israeli Jews and settlers, and houses are illegally seized.
Being a lawyer, Shireen has seen her fair share of hearings in Israeli courts. She gave me an example of the injustice and discrimination faced by Palestinians in Israeli courts. In Samer's case, he was re-arrested for allegedly entering the West Bank, sentenced to 8 months imprisonment and may have to serve the remainder of his original sentence of 30 years. On the other hand, settlers enter the West Bank and establish settler blocs illegally. However, they are simply arrested, given a warning, and released after which they return to their illegal blocs. Shireen said, "This double standard has to stop. The same laws are set for Palestinians and Israelis and they should be applied equally."
As a final question, I asked Shireen what we, as ordinary people, can do for Samer, and if she had any final words. She began by expressing her appreciation for everyone who is supporting Samer and defending him. She also said that she hopes that everyone in the world would stand in solidarity with him. Shireen also said that "the major influential countries in the world, as well as human rights organizations and media outlets, have a responsibility to support Samer and put serious and official pressure on Israel to release him." Individuals can write articles about Samer and spread his story, as well as protest in front of the Israeli consulates and write letters to members of parliament and other officials in their countries to inform them of Samer's case and demand his release - "every little helps."