A people-to-people solidarity delegation recently returned from Gaza to Vancouver. On Sunday, July 22, there was a community forum reporting back on their delegation's experiences and findings. This is the second of several eyewitness accounts from delegates which rabble.ca is publishing.
Being in the presence of so many people who collectively had sacrificed so much for Palestine was, indeed, breathtaking. Our delegation met with a number of former political prisoners in Israeli jails, who introduced themselves one by one around the room by giving their names, their sentences and the number of years they had served in the prisons of the occupation.
One by one, the numbers hit us with their magnitude. Life sentences, 19 years. Thirty-year sentence, 12 years served. Around a table of relatively young men, to hear them all rattle off the over a decade of time each had served within the prisons of the occupation, and just how long they had been taken from their communities, was striking. We were all filled with respect and gratitude for their all taking the time to share their experiences and their precious time in freedom with us.
Several of the former prisoners present had been released with the last large prisoner exchange, in October 2011. That exchange came following a major prisoner hunger strike, a precursor to the hunger strikes of Khader Adnan, Hana Shalabi, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh, and the mass prisoner hunger strike which began on April 17, Palestinian Prisoners' Day, of this year.
Allam Kaabi, one of the prisoners released in October 2011, addressed us. He had been displaced to Gaza following his release; his family lives in the West Bank. He grew up in Balata Refugee Camp -– himself already a refugee and displaced from historic Palestine (1948) by the occupation, before one more displacement to Gaza. He had been sentenced to nine life sentences by the occupation's military courts, following his seizure in 2003 by military forces. In the end, he served eight years of this sentence, but this comes in addition to years he spent repeatedly in administrative detention and other forms of imprisonment.
Kaabi spoke about the experiences of Palestinian prisoners, as well as the development of the movement inside the occupation jails, directing us to the experience of one of his fellow former prisoners, Imad, who had suffered from countless misdiagnoses and treatments that made him only more ill, an experience repeated by many sick Palestinian prisoners in Ramle prison hospital. The prisoners, Kaabi explained, knew of that hospital not as a place of health, but a place of despair.
He recounted that the prisoners were able to build collective unity as a prisoners' movement because, despite their political differences within the Palestinian movement outside the prison, they all suffered from the attacks of the occupation forces together inside.
He detailed the experience of the so-called "Shalit laws," the draconian restrictions put in place on Palestinian prisoners, allegedly in some sort of collective revenge for the Palestinian resistance's arrest of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in Gaza. The Shalit laws banned much media, family visits, ensured that family visits could not include any physical contact –- something that, he noted, was particularly wrenching for the married prisoners and especially the parents, denied touching and often even seeing their children.
Everything that had been won over long years of struggle by the prisoners' movement -– from rights to access and prepare their own food, to accessing media, to family visits, to communication with fellow prisoners –- was taken away. The use of isolation and solitary confinement –- including against Kaabi himself -– was increased and became common, particularly against prisoners seen as leaders. This environment, he described, provided the context for the renaissance of the Palestinian prisoners’ movement over the last year, and the unity that was developed inside the prisons despite the disunity outside.
Samer Abu Seir – released in October 2011 after 24 years in Israeli prisons and displaced to Gaza from his home in Jerusalem – talked about prisoners' initiatives outside prison, noting that many of the former prisoners, including himself, Allam Kaabi, Louay Odeh and others in the room, had been displaced from the West Bank to Gaza in the release, fragmenting community and economic ties.
Former prisoners need support –- while each displaced prisoner in Gaza was provided a home, they came to a place with 40 per cent unemployment, by official statistics, and often separated from the majority of their own families. The former prisoners were building their lives –- a number of them have been married, reuniting with women from whom they were separated for years, since their release, and bringing family members to Gaza -– but continue to need support that is not only economic but also community-based.
The experiences of struggle and resistance that the prisoners have, he said, is an important resource for the entire Palestinian movement and for the prisoners who remain behind bars. Samer emphasized that, on a political level, the voice of the prisoners was one that is respected, and seen as the conscience of the Palestinian national movement; that it was often the only voice that could cement the kind of unity seen during the prisoners' hunger strike and bring people to the streets in united support of the movement, and that it was important that the voice of current and former prisoners be heard loudly and clearly in the Palestinian national movement.
Raafat al-Arouqi, also released in the October 2011 prisoner exchange, looked at the issue of "division" in the Palestinian context, drawing the history of that division back to the Oslo agreements and the creation of the Palestinian Authority and the "peace process" as an alternative to the Palestinian national movement. Because, as Abu Seir noted, prisoners were engaged in a direct struggle and confrontation with the occupation, they were less vulnerable to political collaboration and the mythology of a "peace process" that had brought little freedom or respite to prisoners' lives.
Louay Odeh, another former prisoner (whose own hunger strike diaries have been translated) also displaced to Gaza in the October 2011 release from his home in Jerusalem, discussed the process of coordination that went into building prisoners' hunger strikes, including lengthy preparation and planning to make sure prisoners were prepared for the actions.
All of the former prisoners present emphasized the importance of not only continuing, but increasing international solidarity and attention to the prisoners' cause. Imad in particular called on the delegation to take responsibility to raise awareness about Palestinian prisoners in Canada, in light of the Harper government's notorious statements in support of Israel, its apartheid, racism and ethnic cleansing.
Everywhere we went in Gaza, we met people who were very familiar -– and deeply appalled and disturbed -– by the record of the Canadian government on Palestine. Though all recognized that the delegates were scarcely representatives of the government, they were equally forceful in calling upon us, as Canadians, to exercise our responsibility to end the Harper government's shameful record of attacking Palestinians and supporting every action of the Israeli government.
It is worth noting here that Palestine House, a Toronto-based immigrant settlement and Palestinian and Arab community organization, was defunded by the Canadian government for its services to newcomers because of its support for the release of the men we met that evening.
The call on us in Canada is indeed one that must touch our conscience and inspire action. Samidoun, the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, and many others across Canada are working to build solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners -– but more is needed.
It is critical that people here hear the voices of these men and their families -– the anguish of separation, the love for their people and their land, the agony of medical abuse, the commitment and hope for a better life -– and the thousands of Palestinians who remain inside the jails of the occupation, prisoners of their struggle for freedom.
Charlotte Kates was a delegate with 'Resistance, Refugees, Rights and Return, the Vancouver Delegation to Gaza 2012.'