Mahmoud Hijazi was the first Palestinian political prisoner to be freed from an Israeli jail on April 17, 1971. On March 22, 2021, he passed away in the West Bank city of Ramallah aged 85. Since his release and deportation to Lebanon at the time, April 17 has been marked as the Palestinian Prisoners’ Day. Despite its immense importance to Palestinians and the fact that more than a million Palestinians have been arrested by Israel since 1967, the issue of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails has not won enough global publicity, and is not adequately reflected in Palestinian politics.
While researching the issue, I was shocked by the immense suffering and torment prisoners and their families have been subjected to throughout the years. Today, many in the West know Bobby Sands, the Irish prisoner who passed away in 1981 while on hunger strike, but few know Marwan Barghouti, a veteran Palestinian prisoner and political leader. Palestinian political prisoners have many stories that the world needs to hear. They might hold the key today to many problems that will impact the course of events in Palestine for years to come.
A few years ago, I had the chance to interview former Palestinian political prisoner Muhammad Abushawish, a neighbor, novelist, and avid cat lover. Abushawish passed away in April 2020 due to illness and health complications resulting from his incarceration in Israeli prisons that lasted a total of 14 years. Abushawish was arrested seven times by the Israeli military; at his first arrest, he was only six years old.
VIDEO: Palestine Prisoner’s Day: Palestinian women haunted by abuse in jail
Abushawish’s wish was to bring his jailers and interrogators to account before it was too late. He wrote a novel in Arabic documenting his torture in Israeli prisons titled Before My Tormentor Is Dead. However, he passed away before he could confront his and other Palestinian political prisoners’ tormentors – the least of his tortures involved lighting a match under his genitals.
The story of Abushawish is not different from that of Ahmad Alhaaj, now 87 years old, who was arrested in 1967 by the Israeli military and imprisoned for nearly three years.
The story of Abushawish is not different from that of Ahmad Alhaaj, now 87 years old, who was arrested in 1967 by the Israeli military and imprisoned for nearly three years. While in jail, he was subjected to hanging and torture that made him lose his consciousness. Jokingly, his jailers used to offer him a pair of left socks to use because he was a leftist. Today, Alhaaj is as determined as when he first left to return to his village of Al-Sawafir in what is today Israel – imprisonment has not made him change his mind.
As of March 2021, according to Addameer, a Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association, there are 4,450 Palestinian political prisoners detained by Israel. Of these prisoners, 33 have spent more than 25 years in jail, 543 are serving life sentences, 300 are from Jerusalem, 250 are from the Gaza Strip, 70 hold Israeli citizenship, 140 are child prisoners, 37 are women, and 440 are administrative detainees.
The incarceration of Palestinian women in Israeli jails is one of the most sensitive issues for Palestinian society. Of the 37 Palestinian female prisoners, Israa al-Jabis, 34 years old and a mother, is one of the most known.
Al-Jabis was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 11 years in jail. She suffers from third degree burns and is the victim of medical negligence according to her family. Nearly 60% of her body is covered in burns and she has lost two of her fingers. Israel accuses her of attempting to carry out a vehicle-ramming attack.
However, al-Jabis denies the accusation, stating that her car caught fire and when she attempted to get out, Israeli forces at a nearby checkpoint locked the door and prevented her from doing so, causing her serious burns. Along with the issue of female prisoners, administrative detention is one of the most challenging forms of arrest for Palestinians.
Administrative detention is one of the most unjust systems used by Israel against Palestinian prisoners.
Administrative detention is one of the most unjust systems used by Israel against Palestinian prisoners. Having its legal roots in the practices of British colonial rule in Palestine, the Israeli authorities use this law to detain Palestinians without charge or trial for indefinite periods of time. Their detention can be renewed every six months, they are never charged or convicted, and are detained based on “secret evidence.” Some Palestinians have been held in administrative detention for up to 15 years without a single charge.
Palestinian children have not been spared Israeli detention either. The torment of Palestinian children in Israeli jails might sound shocking to many. Malak al-Khatib was only 14 years old when she was arrested in 2015 by Israeli forces as she unknowingly entered a closed Israeli military zone while attempting to pick a wildflower on her way back from school. She served two months in prison before being released.
According to Israeli law, which does not apply to Israelis who live in the West Bank, Palestinians under the age of 16 are considered children. Palestinian children are tried before a kind of military court where they are handed down harsher sentences. These children, just like adults, are detained outside the Palestinian Territories in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Some of them are placed under house arrest by Israeli courts, where their families become their own jailers, fearing having to pay fines if their children leave the house.
In 2015, Ayman Abbasi, a former Palestinian child prisoner, was shot dead in Jerusalem during a peaceful protest against Israeli policies. The Israeli army tried to kidnap his body to use it in future swap deals with the Palestinians. This policy, which has been in place for years, amounts to collective punishment. Mourners tried to smuggle Abbasi’s body, jumping from one wall to another, and managed to bury him before the Israeli forces were able to succeed in their plans. Yet, this meant that his family was not able to bid him a final farewell.
Despite the existence of many tragic stories, some Palestinian prisoners were able to turn their prison cells into schools. There are several examples of Palestinian prisoners who were able to finish their bachelor and master’s degrees while incarcerated. However, several years after its launching, the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) suspended all access to education for Palestinian prisoners. Palestinian prisoner Hilal Jaradat from the West Bank city of Jenin, who was deported to Gaza upon release in 2011, managed to learn 16 different languages while in prison.
Palestinian prisoners keep abreast of Palestinian political affairs and in 2006, they issued a document which still serves as a basis for the dialogue among Palestinian political factions to end the ongoing political rift. As Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip get ready for the legislative and presidential elections in May and July of this year, Palestinian factions have listed Palestinian prisoners as their candidates in a move that reflects the popularity these poisoners enjoy in Palestinian society.
Today, all eyes are on Palestinian political leader Marwan Barghouti, who supported an electoral list which emerged from the Fatah movement but ran independently. Many people today call Barghouti the “Palestinian Mandela.” He has served a total of 19 years in Israeli prisons and could play an important role in future Palestinian politics. Nael Bargouti, another Palestinian veteran prisoner who has spent 41 years in Israeli prisons, making him the longest serving Palestinian prisoner, is also running in the Palestinian elections.
This year, Palestinian Prisoners’ Day is marked by the many challenges facing Palestinians as they prepare to hold legislative and presidential elections. Will the next Palestinian president emerge from an Israeli jail? The involvement of Palestinian prisoners in Palestinian politics in the past says this is possible. The truth is that Palestinian prisoners will continue to serve as a cornerstone in Palestinian politics and without finding a solution to this issue, the conflict between Palestinians and Israel will never be resolved.