‘Lives gone’: Palestinians mark Prisoner’s Day

An estimated 4,500 Palestinians are languishing in jail, many for simply challenging Israel’s occupation.

Blindfolded boys play the role of prisoners during a rally marking Palestinian Prisoners' Day [File: Raneen Sawafta/Reuters]

Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – Mansour al-Shahatit was unable to recognise his mother and brothers following his release from an Israeli prison after 17 years.

He was in a deplorable state after being freed on April 8, suffering from memory loss as a result of torture and solitary confinement for many years in Israeli jails.

His family from Dura, near Hebron, was in tears as he was released and they witnessed his physical and mental condition.

“Mansour’s condition was much better at the time of his arrest, and I hold the Israeli occupation fully responsible for the health and mental deterioration,” said his mother Fayza al-Shahatit, 64.

She noted her son spent the last two-and-a-half years in solitary confinement.

“Mansour was punished twice – sentenced to 17 years in prison and the loss of his future because of his mental and psychological deterioration,” al-Shahatit said.

Struggle for freedom

On April 17 of each year, Palestinians commemorate Palestinian Prisoner’s Day to express their loyalty to those imprisoned for defying Israel’s occupation, and as a reminder to the international community of their legitimate struggle for freedom.

Israel detains about 4,500 Palestinians in its jails, among them 41 women and 140 children below 18 years. Since the beginning of 2021, Israeli authorities have arrested nearly 1,400 Palestinians.

Nearly 550 inmates suffer from various diseases and require close monitoring and healthcare. At least 10 inmates suffer from cancer of varying degrees, including Fouad al-Shobaki, 82, the oldest of the prisoners. So far, 368 jailed Palestinians have been infected with the coronavirus.

Some Palestinians have spent 40 years in captivity with 543 sentenced to several life sentences.

On Thursday, supporters lit a “torch of freedom” for the prisoners in front of the tomb of late President Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, marking the start of the annual commemoration.

“The prisoners have their presence in all Palestinian life and they deserve from us all loyalty and continuous work to relieve them and their families because they sacrificed years of their youth for the freedom of Palestine,” said Sabri Sidam, a Fatah Central Committee member, during the ceremony.

Khawla Tawil is the mother of an imprisoned student who has spent the last six months in jail [Mohammed Najib/Al Jazeera]

‘Helping colleagues’

An example of the prisoners held is that of Shatha Tawil, 21, a female computer student at Bir Zeit University who lives in Al-Bireh near Ramallah. On November 2, 2020, around midnight, Israeli security forces surrounded Tawil’s home and arrested her. Her crime: organising support the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (FPLP).

Her bedroom is elegantly arranged as she left it six months ago with teddy bears of different sizes, coloured pencils and notebooks alongside her laptop, and Arabic books and translated novels filling her small library.

Tawil spent most of her time before her arrest helping neighbourhood children and fellow students adapt to the online learning process imposed because of the COVID-19 crisis.

“She was involved in public work and helping her colleagues in the field of education. We miss and hope that she will be released soon,” her mother Khawla Tawil told Al Jazeera.

Tawil is still subject to court sessions for her student activity and her family has been unable to visit because of coronavirus restrictions. It is unclear when or if she will be released.

Qadoura Faris, the Palestinian Prisoners Club’s director and former detainee, told Al Jazeera the Israeli arrests are part of a systematic plan to deplete Palestinian communities of energy to resist the occupation and to create fear.

“Israel has arrested about a million Palestinians since its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in 1967, and no sun has risen since the beginning of the Israeli occupation to this day,” Faris said.

The Israeli security apparatus targets young Palestinians between the age of 19 and 25 to deter them from engaging in activism, officials say. The arrests also aim to impose exorbitant monetary fines ranging from $600-$70,000, with the total Israeli military court penalties against Palestinians at an estimated $9.2m a year.

Qadoura Faris, director of the Palestinian Prisoners Club and former detainee [Mohammed Nagib/Al Jazeera]

Systematic targeting

For some prisoners, fighting the occupation continues from behind bars.

Marwan Barghouthi is a Fatah party leader currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for leading in the second Palestinian Intifada from 2000 to 2004. While being held, he has spearheaded an education initiative for Palestinian prisoners.

“The most important battle in Marwan’s life is the battle for education, so he devotes most of his time inside prison to educating the rest of the prisoners,” his brother Muqbil, 54, told Al Jazeera.

“The whole family suffers because of Marwan’s presence in prison. Our mother died and he did not bid her farewell. His two children married and he did not share their joy. He has four grandchildren whom he has yet see.”

Some Palestinian prisoners have run on different party lists for legislative elections scheduled for May 22. Marwan Barghouthi, meanwhile, plans to run in the presidential election, to take place on July 31.

“The representation of Palestinian prisoners through the lists of candidates for the Palestinian legislative elections reflects the Palestinian public’s interest in being an integral part of these people enjoying the same citizenship rights – even if Israel wants to neutralize them. Arrests do not prevent participation in political and national life,” Faris said.

Another former prisoner, Ra’afat al-Qarawi, is celebrating his first Ramadan in 21 years outside jail after being released in March.

“At the age of 20, the struggle was militarily through the armed struggle. But now at age 40, I am required to struggle through the upbringing and education of my children,” he told Al Jazeera.

‘Wish them to die’

While the Palestinians and a large part of the world consider Palestinian political prisoners to be “freedom fighters”, many Israelis have a far different perspective.

“The Israeli public considers the Palestinian security prisoners as terrorists who tried to kill Israelis and were arrested,” said Yoni Ben Menachem, an Israeli political analyst. “They do not support their release but instead wish them to die in prison and believe that harsh punishment should be inflicted on them.”

He said jailing Palestinians is “a deterrent” to those who “plan and attempt to kill” Israelis.

Muqbil Barghouthi noted, however, his brother had nothing to do with violence against Israelis and was sentenced to life imprisonment regardless.

“Marwan is a freedom fighter and has not been convicted of murder, and his trial was a political rather than a military trial to criminalise the Palestinian people’s struggle against the occupation,” he said.

For many Palestinian prisoners and their families, the most important development is the election of US President Joe Biden, who is expected to try and kick-start the Israel-Palestine peace process.

Faris said prisoner releases will be a key issue in any restart of negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.

“The prisoner issue is an essential part of any future political process, and no progress can be made without being accompanied by progress in releasing prisoners,” he said.

Muqbil Barghouthi stands in front of a poster of his brother Marwan [Mohammed Najib/Al Jazeera]

Exchanging prisoners?

An Israeli source, who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera the Israeli government requested Germany and Norway a month ago to help Egyptian intelligence renew contacts with Hamas in order to complete a prisoner exchange. The deal includes four Israelis held in Gaza in exchange for several Palestinians.

Hamas has handed over a list of 400 prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment, among them leading figures, the source said.

But for Israel’s far-right politicians, inmate releases mark a red line. “It would be impossible for any Israeli right-wing government – whether headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennet, or Gideon Saar – to accept the release of Palestinian prisoners,” Ben Menachem said.

Another key development is the International Criminal Court’s recent move to investigate crimes committed in the occupied territories. The prisoner issue will be at the forefront of the probe, including allegations of torture in Israeli prisons.

While Palestinians continue to be detained and uncertainty of the two-state solution pervades, al-Qarawi from Ramallah is learning to readjust to life after more than 20 years in jail or on the run.

He called on Palestinian leaders to secure the freedom of fellow prisoners by whatever means necessary.

“The land will remain but the lives of the prisoners and their families are gone,” he said.

“Prisoners do not care about the means of releasing them – whether through political negotiations conducted by the PA [Palestinian Authority] or through an exchange deal. What is important is that they be released.”

Ra’afat al-Qarawi stands in front of his house after being released last month [Mohammed Najib/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera