My friend AS, a professor at Bir Zeit university, responded immediately to my email informing him I was going to be in his town. I had hoped to see him that first evening when my friend and her sisters took me to the Swiss Family Robinson-style outdoors Snow Bar – an old and popular haunt apparently – where we all got to know each other over Palestinian beer and sheesha as the night thickened with smoke and laughter of fashionable Ramallah-ites old and young, including the foreign-aid workers who are plentiful in the region that their countries’ aid helps to keep destabilised in the name of “development.”
AS couldn’t make it there, but the next morning, a bright and sunny one, he comes by to pick me up from my hotel in downtown Ramallah, a town that is officially under the jurisdiction of the PA (Palestinian Authority), but which everyone knows is under the boot of the Israelis – who often conduct post-midnight raids on local homes and shops to pick up anyone they find “undesirable.” The incongruity of walking through the colourful fruit and vegetable market and buying fresh-pressed juice at a local vendor’s on one side of a busy street, while across it in a makeshift tent, at that early hour, an old woman sits with a leathery face, wearing a dark-colored skirt and a peasant scarf around her head wrapped like a bandana, shakes me: she is holding aloft – her lined face expressionless save for her watery eyes – a placard with a young man’s photo, who is sitting on a wheelchair with his legs cut off. “That is where the relatives of the prisoners who are on strike sit everyday”, AS tells me matter-of-factly. That afternoon, when two other colleagues make it in from my university to join us in Ramallah and my other Palestinian friend also joins us, we five perambulate the streets again and see the tent now filled up with people. We go to sit with them, in solidarity and silence surrounded by posters of the Al Aqsa martyrs and of Ahmed Sa’adat (also known as Abu Ghussan): a Marxist who has been in prison since 2004 when he was picked up by Israelis from a Palestinian prison. So much for the “independence” of the PA! Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine(PFLP), he is in prison for a sentence of 30 years.
But it is the old woman who is now surrounded by other women who draws us in, signaling us to come to their group, and a young woman who speaks English welcomes us “Ahlan Wa Sehlun” when she learns we are visitors from abroad. She explains that the man in the old woman’s placard is her son who has been in jail for the past decade, and that because the Israeli wardens are negligent in the care they give their Palestinian prisoners, they did not treat him for his diabetes and consequently, he developed gangrene – hence, no more legs. “And why is that man sitting here?” asks our writing instructor colleague hesitantly, still absorbing the sadness and cruelty of the previous story, as she points to a middle aged man sitting near the women, gazing listlessly into space through his shades. The young woman’s reply – “His son just passed his one year anniversary in the prison; he turned 13, and that man there,” pointing to another, “well, his son was only 9 when he was thrown into prison by the Israelis” – shakes us all.
And why are the prisoners on hunger strike? Here are some facts from the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association:
An estimated 1,500 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention centers have declared the beginning of an open hunger strike on 17 April 2017. The call for hunger strike came amidst resentment of Israeli’s cruel policies towards political prisoners and detainees. The hunger striking prisoners’ demands include: family visits, proper medical care, an end to Israel’s practice of detaining Palestinians without charge or trial in so-called administrative detention and stopping the use of isolation
Despite the hot sun, as we get up and walk out of the tent, I feel a cold shiver as I think how not just these prisoners, but their families – and almost every Palestinian family has someone in jail – live in a vast, open-air prison, their jailers the ones who should be in jail for committing crimes against humanity. This hunger strike we’ve walked in on is only the latest in a series of similar strikes that Palestinian prisoners and detainees have been resorting to since 1968 – the only way left to them to reclaim a bodily integrity and resistance against an implacable foe. The writing instructor sums up our feelings perfectly when she says, shaking her head, “The imprisonment of nine-year-old boys held in adult prisons is appalling and shocking! I had not realised that the human rights abuses extended to children. We just don’t get to know the extent of human rights abuses by the Israeli state outside do we?”
I can feel a vein throbbing on the left side of my forehead and hope it won’t develop into a full blown headache. The world is truly upside down here in ways impossible to ignore.
“His son just passed his one year anniversary in the prison; he turned 13, and that man there, well, his son was only 9 when he was thrown into prison by the Israelis”
We see the Apartheid Wall that snakes through Palestinian lands carving up one village after another in disconnected, impassable parcels of land, dispossessing the families who’ve owned the land and farmed it for centuries. We are en route to what’s left of AS’s ancestral lands and he points out the checkpoints and nice settler roads that are made for Israelis to bypass these…he takes us to see the Al Jeeb roadblock preventing Palestinians getting to their villages that are near the greater Jerusalem area such as his own village. Sometimes he and others from the OT take their chances riding in cars with Israeli license plates on these settler roads trying to bypass the checkpoints; if they get caught, they get fined or detention or both. And if they ignore the warnings, and are caught repeatedly, then it could be prison for many months. AS is jumpy and angry as is our other native Palestinian friend; their rapid-fire commentary pointing to the endless examples of settler-occupation is symptomatic of those we are told who suffer from PTSD. AS drives fast – in a very nice beamer he laughingly reveals is an acquisition enabled by easy high-interest loans that have recently become available to the residents of Ramallah. He isn’t joking when he tells us he will be paying off the loan over the next 30 years.
Fawzia Afzal-Khan is Professor of English and Director of the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program at Montclair State University in NJ, USA. She was Visiting Professor of the Arts at NYU Abu Dhabi for the spring term of 2017