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Ofer prison, West Bank

Ofer prison, West Bank. Photo: Christopher Michel / Wikimedia Commons / cropped from original / CC BY 2.0, license linked below article

Palestinian prisoners and the international solidarity movement are stepping up the campaign for freedom, reports Michael Lavalette

From the end of last year onwards, the Israeli prison complex has been disrupted by a number of prison and prisoner protests.

Last September, the situation inside Israeli gaols received some international attention when six prisoners tunnelled their way to freedom from the Gilboa prison. Although they have now all been recaptured, their audacious liberation highlighted the plight of Palestinian prisoners: the length of sentences, the conditions in which people are held, and the routinised abuses which lead to collective prisoner responses.

Gathering information about abuses in the system is not straight forward. The Israeli Prison Service (IPS) puts all manner of obstacles in front of organisations trying to find out basic information about the numbers of Palestinian prisoners being held and the conditions of their incarceration.

The Israeli based NGO, B’Tselem have recently been told that the IPS will no longer respond to their ‘freedom of information’ requests. On their latest figures (from September last), B’Tselem estimated that there were 4,184 Palestinian ‘security’ prisoners being held in IPS facilities, though they note this is almost certainly an underestimate of the actual numbers.

Defence of Children International (Palestine), part of an international network of child-focussed NGOs, keeps regular records of the number of children detained by the Israelis. Like B’Tselem, it is finding increasing difficulties trying to keep up-to-date records of child detainees. However, their latest figures (again from September 2021) suggest that 168 children are being held by the Israelis and 27 of these are in solitary confinement. DCI(P)’s impressive campaigning work over the years has led to them recently being labelled a ‘terrorist’ organisation by the Israeli state, making the vital support work they conduct with child prisoners much more difficult.

This data marks out the Palestinians as the most imprisoned population in the world. A young boy born in Gaza or the West Bank today will have a one in three chance of spending some time in an Israeli prison. There is substantial evidence of the mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners within Israeli gaols. A recent report by journalist, Zarefah Baroud told the story of Mohammed El-Halabi. Mohammed is the director of the Christian aid organisation, World Vision. The Israelis accused him of using the charity to funnel money to resistance organisations. Investigations by both World Vision and the Australian Government have completely exonerated Mohammed of any financial improprieties.

Torture and resistance

In prison, Mohammed has been subjected to all manner of deprivations and torture. His father Khalil El-Halabi, testifies: “Israeli intelligence officers placed a filthy bag over his head and hanged him from the ceiling for prolonged periods.” He suffered from sleep deprivation and frequent assaults. His father goes on:

“[The officers] kicked him, especially in his genitals, and then strangled him until he felt that he was about to die … At times, they placed him in a small room and played extremely loud music until the pain in his ears became unbearable. In the summer, they would strip him naked, and then blast him with flashes of hot air. They would repeat the same process in the winter, but with cold air, instead.”

Yet Palestinian prisoners don’t meekly serve their time. There is a long and proud tradition of prisoner resistance against the Israeli prison complex.

The prisoners are well organised. Each nominates one of the resistance organisations to look after their interests whilst inside. For the most part, these organisations work together to support each other and organise their resistance work. The prisons are forced to deal with the prisoner organisations. They organise around prison work, and also launch strikes and hunger strikes when needed.

At the start of 2022, much of the focus has been on the plight of two prisoners in particular: Nasser Abu Hmeid and Ahmad Sa’adat, although the campaign for prisoner exchange, early release, and liberation is for all Palestinian political prisoners.

Nasser Abu Hmeid is from the Amari refugee camp (just outside Ramallah). He and five of his brothers have been incarcerated inside the Israel prison machine since 2002. Their crime was to be members of the Palestinian resistance movement. During their time in prison, their family home has been repeatedly demolished by the IDF, as a form of ‘collective punishment’.  During their imprisonment, their mother and other family members have been refused visitation rights.

Nasser now has lung-cancer, but the Israelis refuse to release him. For the last three weeks he has been in a coma, but the Israeli Prison Services has refused to allow anyone, family members, representatives of the Red Cross, or political leaders, to visit him. As I write this, his condition is described as critical.

Ahmad Sa’adat is the General Secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He has been inside since 2002 on a thirty-year sentence. Inside he has established himself as one of the leaders of the Palestinian prisoners’ movement.

Between 15 and 22 January this year there were various global protests demanding the freedom of Nasser and Ahmad and for the release of all political prisoners. This included a number of protests outside Israeli embassy’s across Europe and the US.

We are now entering a renewed period of struggles in the prisons. In the international support networks we need to raise the demand to release all the Palestinian political prisoners from Israeli gaols.

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