The Palestinian Prisoners: Lessons of the Past and Present, Possibly for the Future

Prof. As’ad Abdul Rahman

The “captive movement” in Palestine began when the first Palestinian prisoner was held in a jail of the British colonial state which sought mandate over the country in 1922. The then colonial power set up prisons, detention centers and “special” courts issuing sentences against Palestinian freedom fighters. Later, the Israeli Zionist state inherited from the British colonizer the prisons, detention centers and arbitrary laws as well.

With the outbreak of the contemporary Palestinian revolution in 1965, the captive movement in Israeli prisons focused on raising awareness and educating the youth to enhance their potentials which allowed for building cadres capable of leadership and assuming responsibilities under the harshest imprisonment conditions, fostering their ability to stage constant confrontation with the prison management. Thus, the foundation of the Palestinian captive movement was laid out, yet in return for a heavy price with scores of men falling martyr and terrible suffering as a result of Israeli oppressive and racial measures that tantamount to fascist practices.

Sooner than later, the movement turned to become a leading party in the Palestinian struggle strengthened later by what came to be known as the Prisoners National Conciliation Document issued in May 2006 by members of all Palestinian factions. It was a unanimous initiative by the prisoners’ leaders reflecting their deep sense of national responsibility towards strengthening the Palestinian home front and protecting the national unity which was deeply threatened by the Fateh/ Hamas political, ideological and geographical schism.

          In the latest development, around 1600 Palestinian prisoners chose on April, 17th, 2017 (which marks the annual Prisoner Day) to stage their fight against their Israeli jailer announcing an open hunger strike in protest at policies of medical negligence, human rights violations, administrative detention, unjust courts and denial of family visits.  The strike came under unfavorable Arab, Palestinian and international conditions with the Palestinian cause falling back on the list of priorities. Still, the hunger strike went on for (41) very difficult days.

After these long days of suffering, Jamal Muhsen, Fatah Central Committee member and Chairman of the Higher Central Committee of prisoners announced at a press conference that the prisoners suspended their strike after Israel had agreed to meet some of their demands to improve their living conditions in the prisons. The conference was attended by Minister Issa Qaraqaa the head of the Commission for Prisoners and Ex-Detainees Affairs, Qaddourah Fares, President of the Prisoner Club and Laila Ghannam, governor of Ramallah and Al-Bireh. The hunger strike placed political and media pressures on the Israeli occupation authorities, bringing to life the case of 5600 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, according to a recent report issued by three specialized Palestinian institutions. The report indicated that “one million cases of arrest were reported over the years of occupation since 1967”.

Having been myself a witness, joining in an activity of solidarity with the prisoners in Ramallah by going on a  parallel three-day hunger strike, Israel rejected to negotiate with the Strike Committee within the prisons despite insistence by Palestinian leaders abroad (PLO and PNA officials) on the need for such negotiations with Marwan Barghouti, the jailed prisoners’ leader. Thus, the ‘nail biting’ situation continued between the two sides prolonging the strike and exposing the life of many prisoners to danger, with 170 moved to Israeli hospitals during the last week of their  strike after their health conditions (including some of the strike leaders) deteriorated.

In the end, Israel bowed to most demands of the prisoners after seeing that scores of them were about to die which greatly embarrassed the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The Prisoners’ cause was helped when the Palestinian Authority was also involved following the issue with world capitals, specifically the United States, asking for intervention by President Donald Trump envoy Jason Greenblatt to assist in resolving the issue, which he did.

The captive movement is today passing through a dangerous phase. Under the present most extreme Israeli government, the prisoners’ movement could be facing painful isolation by the Zionist state in the wake of the dangerous and miserable Hamas /Fatah division. However, the movement was able through its strike to impose a kind of unity of struggle forcing the Israeli occupation authorities to negotiate with the leadership of the strike, specifically Marwan Barghouti, thus, they foiled attempts to abort the strike.  It is therefore important that the role of the mass prisoner movement have its due consideration.

The Palestinian political leadership, factions, independent figures and civil society organizations have made a concerted effort in support of the captive movement. However, we must note with respect the outstanding efforts of Jamal Muhsen, Issa Qaraqaa and  Qaddourah  Fares  whom I personally saw their efforts which added to the value and importance of specialized institutions that have faith in the cause of the prisoners, carefully following it on a daily basis.