By Fayha Shalash & Ramzy Baroud
One of the many ways in which Israel seeks to oppress and control the Palestinian population is by imprisoning those who lead the resistance to its occupation and settler colonialist project.
In Palestine, a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail is referred to as “aseer”, or captive, because he or she is not a criminal. What lands Palestinians in Israeli prisons are acts of resistance – from writing a poem about the struggle against the occupation to carrying out an attack against Israeli soldiers in the occupied Palestinian land. For the Israeli occupation, however, every act of Palestinian resistance or defiance is either classified as a form of “terrorism” or “incitement” that cannot be tolerated.
Currently, there are 5,450 prisoners in Israeli jails, 205 of whom are minors and 48 women. According to some estimates, since the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967, over 800,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned in Israeli jails.
Needless to say, just as Israel seeks to keep the general Palestinian population in constant distress and oppression, it does so with Palestinian prisoners as well.
In recent months, the already horrific conditions in these jails deteriorated even further after the Israeli government announced that it was adopting rigid measures in prisons as a “deterrence” technique – a move that was seen as election PR in Israel.
“Every so often, infuriating pictures appear of cooking in the terrorist wings. This party is coming to an end,” Israel’s Public Security Minister, Gilad Erdan said in early January. His plans included placing limits on prisoners’ use of water, banning food preparation in cells, and installing jamming devices to block the alleged use of smuggled mobile phones.
The last measure, in particular, caused outrage among prisoners, as such devices have been linked to severe headaches, fainting, and long-term ailments.
In late January, the Israel Prison Service (IPS) raided cells in Ofer Military Prison near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, which resulted in the injury of more than 140 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom were wounded by live ammunition.
In late March, Naqab, Ramon, Gilboa, Nafha and Eshel prisons were also raided, which led to many Palestinian prisoners being injured. Anger boiled over and on April 7, hundreds of Palestinian jailed in Israeli prisons launched a mass hunger strike which ended eight days later following a deal between the Palestinian prisoners and IPS.
Amid the pre-election noise in Israel, this news was widely ignored by international media, which focused instead on US President Donald Trump’s Golan Heights declaration and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to annex the West Bank.
And yet, for Palestinians, most of whom know the pain of having a relative in an Israeli prison, kept under conditions that violate the minimum requirements of international and humanitarian law, this was a major cause of concern and even anger. Palestinians know that behind the numbers and the Israeli propaganda labelling these men, women, and children as “terrorists”, there are tragic human stories of suffering and perseverance.
One such story is that of Palestinian journalist Mohammed al-Qiq and husband of the coauthor of this article, Fayha Shalash.
Al-Qiq worked as a correspondent with the Saudi news network Al-Majd, covering the West Bank. His TV reports regarding the Israeli army’s execution of alleged Palestinian attackers during what is known as Al-Quds Uprising received much attention throughout the Middle East and earned him much admiration among Palestinians.
Because of his work, he was deemed a “threat” by the Israeli state and was arrested in November 2015. This is his story.
‘Bury me in my mother’s grave’
On Saturday, November 21, 2015, a month and a half after the start of the Al-Quds Uprising, Israeli soldiers raided our house. They blasted through the front door of our humble home and rushed inside. It was the most terrifying scene one could ever imagine. Our one-year-old daughter, Lour, woke up and started crying. As Mohammed was being blindfolded and handcuffed, Lour kept hugging him and touching his cheeks.
Thankfully, Islam, who was three-years-old at the time, was still asleep. I am grateful for that because I didn’t want him to see his father being taken away by soldiers in such a violent manner.
In the morning, I had to tell him his father had been taken away; as I tried to explain, his lips quivered and his face contorted in fear and a sadness that no child should ever experience.
This was the fourth time that Mohammed was arrested. His first arrest was in 2003 when he was held for a month; then in 2004, he was arrested again and held for 13 months and in 2008, he was sentenced by an Israeli court to 16 months in prison for his political activities and for his involvement in the Birzeit University Student Council.
Mohammed was then taken to the infamous Al-Jalameh Detention Center for interrogation. He was not allowed to see a lawyer until the 20th day of his detention. He was mentally and physically tortured and repeatedly asked to sign a false confession that he engaged in “media incitement”, which he refused to do.
We learned that his detention was extended several times but had no other news from him whatsoever. Our requests for a family visit had been denied and the only thing we could do was wait and pray.
In early December, I came across an online media report that my husband had gone on a hunger strike. I immediately phoned the Prisoners Club, an NGO that was established in 1993 to support Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons, and by mere chance managed to reach a lawyer called Saleh Ayoub who had seen Mohammed in court. He told me that my husband was tried in a closed court session, meaning that neither his family nor his legal counsel had been informed of the trial.
As Mohammed was taken back to his cell, he ran to Ayoub and managed to shout these words: “I am prisoner Mohammed al-Qiq. Tell my family and the media that I am on an open hunger strike. I am currently held at Al-Jalemeh.”
When I heard this, I got very scared. We had never experienced this as a family. I didn’t fully fathom the effect of such a decision, but I decided to support my husband in it.
For months, I pursued every human rights group that could help me obtain any information about Mohammed’s mental and physical health. The Israelis had no evidence against him but continued to keep him, despite his deteriorating health. When he began throwing up blood and could no longer stand on his own, he was transferred to the Ramleh Prison Hospital.
No one was allowed to visit him in the prison hospital then, neither us nor the Red Cross. This is not unique to Mohammed’s case, as Israel ensures the complete isolation of any prisoner who stages a hunger strike.
Mohammed became even more determined to carry on with his hunger strike when the Israeli court sentenced him to six months of “administrative detention”, which meant that they could not support their accusations against my husband with any tangible evidence but still refused to free him. The administrative detention order was renewable for up to three years.
For me, it was a race against time. I had to make the world hear me, hear the story of my husband, so that enough pressure would be applied on Israel to release him. I feared that it might be too late, that Mohammed could die before that message resonated throughout Palestine and the world.
As his health continued to worsen, he was taken to the Afouleh Hospital where they tried to force-feed him. He refused. When they tried to feed him through an IV, he tore the needle out of his arm and threw it on the ground. I know my husband. For him, life without freedom is just not worth living.
A month into his hunger strike, Mohammed began throwing up yellow bile and blood. The pain in his gut and joints and the chronic headaches were unbearable. Despite all of this, they still tied him to his hospital bed. His right arm and both feet were secured to the various corners of the bed with heavy shackles. He was left like this the entire time.
I felt that Mohammed was going to die. I tried to explain to my son that his father refused food, to fight for his freedom. Islam kept saying, “When I grow up, I will hit the occupation.” Lour missed her dad but didn’t understand anything. As I fought for their dad’s freedom, I had no other option but to be away from them for long periods of time. Our family was broken up.
On February 4, 2016, Mohammed entered his 77th day of the hunger strike. Under popular and international pressure, but mainly because of Mohammed’s unbendable will, the Israeli occupation was forced to halt the “administrative detention” order. But for Mohammed that was just not enough.
With this move, The Israeli occupation wanted to send a message that the crisis has been averted in an attempt to mislead the media and the Palestinian people. But Mohammed would not have any of it. He wanted to be set free, so he carried on with his strike for weeks afterwards.
At that time, I was allowed to visit him but chose not to, as not to give the impression that everything was OK now, inadvertently playing into the hands of Israeli propaganda.
It was the most difficult decision I have ever had to make, staying away from the man I love, the father of my children. But I knew that if he saw me or the kids, he could become too emotional, or worse, he could physically break down even more. I remained committed to supporting him in his decision till the end.
At one point I thought to myself, Mohammed will never come back and he will die in prison.
He was so close to our children. He loved them with all of his heart and tried to spend as much time with them as he could. He would play with them, he would carry both, walking around the house or the neighbourhood. So as his death became a possibility, I wondered what I would say to them, how I would answer their questions as they grew up without a father, and how I would carry on without him.
As he reached the 80th day of his hunger strike, his body began to spasm. I learned later that these involuntary spasms were extremely painful. Every time they took place, he recited the Shahada – “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His Prophet” – in anticipation of his death.
Being aware of what seemed to be his inevitable death, Mohammed wrote a will of which I was unaware. The whole world collapsed before my eyes, as I heard the lines of his will being read on TV:
“I would like to see my wife and children, Islam and Lour before I die. I just want to be sure that they are OK. I also would like the final prayer on my body to be conducted inside the Durra Mosque. Please bury me in my mother’s grave, so that she can hold me the way she did when I was still a child. If that is not feasible, please bury me as close to her as possible.”
Throughout his hunger strike, the children’s photos remained by Mohammed’s hospital bed. “Do my kids remember me?” he used to ask whoever visited him.
In the end, his determination proved stronger than the injustice of his tormentors. On February 26, 2016, it was announced that an agreement had been reached between the Palestinian Prisoners Committee representing Mohammed and the Israeli prison administration. My husband was to be released on May 21 of the same year.
Mohammed received his freedom after 94 days on hunger strike. He proved to the world that he was not a terrorist as the Israelis claimed, and he was being punished for simply conveying the suffering of his people to the world. Because of his unrelenting resistance, Israeli military authorities were forced to withdraw all accusations against him.
Mohammed’s imprisonment remains a painful memory, but also a great victory for Palestinians everywhere. Mohammed entered prison weighing 99 kilogrammes; by the time he ended his hunger strike, he was only 45kgs. His body was reduced to skin and bones. His athletic build had collapsed upon itself, but his spirit continued to soar as if the weaker he felt physically, the stronger his will had become.
When I came to visit him with our children one week after the end of his strike, I couldn’t recognise him. I thought I had entered the wrong room, but when I drew closer, I saw his kind, loving eyes, so I held him and I cried.
Mohammed was released on the agreed upon date, but he was rearrested eight months later. He immediately began another hunger strike that lasted 33 days.
Today, Mohammed is free, but he still speaks about prison and our family still has not gotten over the trauma we have suffered. Islam is worried that his father could be arrested again at night. I tell him not to worry, but I am terrified of that possibility myself. I long for a day where I no longer worry that I may lose my husband.
I also revisit that harrowing experience every time a Palestinian prisoner stages another hunger strike. I know that it is not an easy decision to put your life on the line, to risk everything for what you believe in. The hunger strikes don’t just take a heavy toll on the bodies and minds of the prisoners. Their families and communities also shoulder much of that heavy burden.
I feel for them all, and I pray to God that all of our prisoners are set free someday soon.