‘Prisoners are the Compass of Our Struggle’—Palestinian Prisoners Day amid Gaza Genocide

Palestinian women rally in Gaza to highlight the suffering of Palestinian prisoners. (Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour, The Palestine Chronicle)

By Benay Blend

Israel’s escalation of prisoner abuse replicates its broader assault against the Palestinian people, their land, property, and the ongoing genocide in Gaza.

In early September 2021, six Palestinian prisoners escaped from Gilboa Prison, a high security facility in Northern Israel. Over the previous few months they had dug a tunnel leading out from under the prison walls.

While then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called the break “a serious incident,” Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum hailed the escapees, saying “the escape proves the bravery of these prisoners, achieving freedom despite such strict security measures. It’s a heroic and impressive action.” Fatah spokesperson Munir al-Jaghoub applauded the escape, explaining that “the dream of freedom is shared by all prisoners… these six heroes managed to break this system”.

“Given that both Palestinians and our liberation are criminalised both across historic Palestine and in the diaspora,” the Palestinian Youth Movement says, “it is no surprise that Palestinians consider our prisoners to be a representation of a nation in captivity,” a “compass” on the path to liberation.

April 17 marks Palestinian Prisoner’s Day, established by the Palestinian National Council in 1974 as a day to honor the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli occupation prisons and to support their legitimate right to freedom. The date was chosen because it commemorates the release of prisoner Mahmoud Bakr Hijazi in the first prisoner exchange between the Palestinians and Israel. Accordingly, Palestinian Prisoner’s Day considers all those who have served time in prison as “icons of resistance,” thereby representing all Palestinians  who have been under brutal occupation for the past 76 years.

In an interview with the New Arab, Charlotte Kates, Samidoun’s coordinator, confirmed that “Palestinians deeply value and honour the tremendous sacrifices that political prisoners have made for the liberation of their land. Each of their lives is precious to them.” She added that Palestinian prisoners are leaders of the resistance who have been detained because Israel understands that they are a threat to the settler colonial system and therefore wants to isolate them away from the world.

“From the earliest days of the Palestinian national liberation movement, imprisonment has always been a weapon used by the colonizer,” Kates confirmed, “and it has always been an inspiration for Palestinian resistance.” More than just the colonizer’s victims, she explained that prisoners are also “leaders, organizers and fighters. They organize behind bars and turn prisons into ‘revolutionary schools’ of the oppressed.” Because they are “central to the liberation movement,” their right to freedom must be part of the liberation struggle along with the isolation of Israel.

Julie Norman’s The Palestinian Prisoner’s Movement: Resistance and Disobedience (2021) explains how Israeli prisons have served as “microcosms” of the broader occupation in which prisoners attempt to “take back the prison space for organizing and resistance.”

This explanation of the role of prisoners in the struggle lends insight into why the resistance is now placing such importance on prisoner exchange in their negotiations. Given Israel’s decades-long grip on Gaza, “it makes perfect sense,” writes Iqbal Jassat, for Hamas “not only [to] undertake creative means to break the crippling siege,” i.e. the prisoner trade, “but also to resist the occupiers incremental genocide.”

Sahar Francis, director of Ramallah-based prisoners’ rights group Addameer, explains that collective action within prison walls has long been a part of Palestinian prisoners’ life.

In a prophetic statement, Francis concluded that any political solution should include the release of all prisoners, since they have been held under Israel’s illegal military occupation. Indeed, on March 15, the Palestinian resistance group Hamas proposed a ceasefire agreement that would include release of Israeli captives in exchange for 700 to 1000 Palestinian prisoners, 100 of them serving life sentences.

As of March 22, 2024, more than 7,350 West Bank Palestinians have been arrested by Israel since October 7. From that date, Israeli prison authorities have unleashed “unprecedented brutality” against detainees,  including severe beatings, humiliation, and the deprivation of food, health care, and basic amenities, thus rolling back achievements made by prisoners in the areas of adequate nutrition, cleaning supplies, yard time, health care, family visitation, and access to personal belongings.

While all eyes are on Gaza, Israel is taking advantage of that situation to escalate the abuse of prisoners. In late February, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) accused the entity of deliberately starving detainees. It also noted that authorities prevent Palestinians from obtaining other items related to their health, including medication, clothing, and blankets.

Israel’s escalation of prisoner abuse replicates its broader assault against the Palestinian people, their land, property, and the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Israeli prisons have long been emblematic of its apartheid regime and unjust legal system. As such, it is also seen as the cradle of the resistance.

As Charlotte Kates has noted, “these prisoners are putting their bodies on the frontlines of resistance daily by directly confronting Israeli jailers and the colonial prison system” through hunger strikes, educational classes, and political organizing to obtain basic rights. From behind the bars, they continue to exert their leadership in the Palestinian struggle as well as the broader international movement as a whole.

According to anonymous testimony, “they kill us while we are alive, they try to rid us of all human and nationalist beliefs and qualities.” Despite efforts to break their resistance, the prisons have become like “underground cells,” where detainees remain committed to liberation, a desire that “controls the entire prisoners movement.”

Detailed in testimony from another anonymous source, prisoners “remain steadfast” in the face of unprecedented levels of abuse, partly because they are “imagining the approach of their liberation.” Refusing to be isolated from the larger struggle, these freedom fighters understand that no one can hinder their ability to think freely despite the terrible conditions.

“Prison—far from breaking our spirits—made us more determined to continue with this battle until victory was won,” Mandela wrote of his prison years. In her foreword to These Chains will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons (Ramzy Baroud, editor, 2020), Khalida Jarrar reiterates this idea. For her, prison is more than its walls; rather, it is a “moral position that must be made daily” that can never be left behind (p. xvii).

As author Rana Shubair notes, where there are stable countries, imprisonment typically occurs when a crime such as theft, murder, or rape is committed. Though there are exceptions, this is usually the case. Not so under Israeli occupation, where Palestinians are detained for exercising their legal right to resist the occupation, including being a member of an organization that calls for resistance.

Nevertheless, when Palestinian prisoners are released, they are not shunned as in the West; instead, they are honored with a hero’s welcome home back to their communities and families. On the day before another Prisoner’s Day, Shubair wrote: “Rest assured that the people of Palestine are unanimous in your support, because it is the issue of the whole nation. Nothing can compensate for your absence and we shall not rest until you are all united with your loved ones.”

On April 7, 2024, Palestinian detainee Walid Daqqa died from medical neglect after nearly 40 years in Israeli prisons. Revolutionary, writer, and high ranking member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Prisoner’s Movement, Daqqa was denied family visits with his wife Sanaa and daughter Malid, who was born from sperm smuggled out of prison.

In its statement, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad said that Daqqa’s martyrdom made him “a living embodiment” of the suffering experienced by Palestinian prisoners. Since October 7, there have been 15 martyrs among the more than 8000 Palestinian detainees now in Israeli jails.

Recalling his worst experiences on Robbin Island, Nelson Mandela said, “We drew strength and from the knowledge that we were part of a greater humanity than our jailers could claim.” On Palestinian Prisoners Day 2024, Mandela’s words extend to Walid Daqqa, who wrote: “love is my only victory over my jailer” (quoted on Resistance News Network), feelings that he held for his wife and daughter, as well as the Palestinian cause.

To his daughter he wrote: “You are the most beautiful escape…my message to the future.” In this statement, Daqqa illustrates that he is not only a victim of medical neglect, but also a fighter who values all forms of resistance to the state.

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
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