The following remarks were given by Palestinian author and activist Susan Abulhawa during a Workers World Party webinar,“Free Them All: COVID-19 and Racist Mass Incarceration,” on April 9. The videotaped webinar is available for viewing at workers.org/videos/.
Today is the anniversary of the Deir Yasin massacre, which took place on April 9, 1948, when Zionist gangs (the Irgun, Haganah and Stern Gang) went house-to-house in a small Palestinian village, lined people against the wall and sprayed them with bullets, gutted pregnant women and smashed the skulls of children. The Irgun and Haganah gangs were the precursors to Israel’s current state military. I want to acknowledge that moment in Palestinian history.
Today, there are roughly 5,500 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, approximately 200 are children and about 500 are held in something called administrative detention — arrested as a preventive measure and held indefinitely without even being charged with a crime. Many spend years languishing in detention because Israel can renew the orders indefinitely, without ever bringing evidence or charges against the detainee.
Conditions worsen for Palestinian prisoners
The situation for Palestinian political prisoners is quite dire in normal circumstances, but rights activists fear the worst now. So-called emergency regulations have banned Palestinians from meeting their lawyers or receiving family visitations. Prisoners, often denied the right to use phones in prison, can only consult with their attorneys over the phone in the event of an upcoming court hearing. However, court hearings have been canceled. In effect, Palestinian political prisoners are completely cut off from the outside world.
They are under a total blackout at the moment. They are being denied the basic needs to curb the spread of the virus. All they have are bars of soap. They’re being refused even basic food needs. Prisoners typically have to buy necessities, but now the amount of vegetables, as well as meat and fish they can buy, is cut. They are even banned from buying cleaning products to sanitize bathrooms and cells.
In response to prisoners’ demands for protective kits, including masks, gloves and disinfectant, Israel’s Prison Service told them to use their socks to make masks and soap to disinfect. Following that response, the prison authorities then banned soap and socks in a clear move to provoke the prisoners while the world is distracted by the coronavirus.
Political prisoners are held in crowded, unsanitary conditions, with a high level of contact among them and no real way to protect themselves from infection. On April 1, Israel released a Palestinian from prison who tested positive for COVID-19. It is clear that prisoners are indeed infected.
However, Israel has released its own criminals in order to reduce infections among Jewish prisoners. Human rights groups are calling on Israel to do the same for Palestinian political prisoners, particularly for vulnerable Palestinians who are older or have underlying medical conditions. Most of these are in administrative detention who have not even been charged with anything.
There are currently 180 Palestinian children in Israel’s prisons, some as young as 12 years old. None have been able to speak with their parents, advocates or lawyers. Under normal circumstances, their conditions are dire, but the level of their bewilderment is surely intensified now that they are not allowed contact with the outside world.
The scale of the problem remains unknown as Israel has not tested any of the 5,500 Palestinians in its jails, even those who were known to be in contact with infected guards.
Weaponizing the virus
Additionally, Israel continues to raid Palestinian homes and conduct arbitrary arrests of Palestinians who are trying to self-isolate and protect their families. Israel also demolished a pop-up hospital set up to treat cases of the virus. Palestinian prisoner rights groups are appealing to international bodies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, for help.
Israel is actually exacerbating the problem by weaponizing the virus. A case in point is Mahmoud Atta. He was arrested in his home on March 22 and sent to Megiddo prison — on suspicion that he had been in contact with someone who tested positive. Israel extended his detention twice and postponed a hearing for his appeal.
Right now there is a hunger strike among Palestinian prisoners demanding to be tested and given adequate protective gear. They are refusing to allow new detainees into their wing. They are also demanding that authorities conduct head counts through the camera system and that guards, who are the source of the infection being brought into isolated populations, also wear masks.
‘My dad going to prison every few months was our normal’
I want to close with a post from the daughter of Khalida Jarrar, a high-profile Palestinian political prisoner and an elected leader and member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Palestinian Marxist-Leninist organization founded by George Habash in 1967. Jarrar is currently in administrative detention, languishing without charge or trial.
Here’s what her daughter Suha Ghassan wrote:
“We were raised with my dad getting locked up every few months. … That means that we were raised with the military busting into our home every few months, destroying our belongings and taking our father away. I first met my father when I was 4 years old, and it took me a while to figure out this man suddenly living with us. I used to hold onto this picture, but when I met him, he looked nothing like that picture and I couldn’t understand that it was the same person.
“The years passed and we got used to our dad going to prison every few months. We thought it was just a normal thing. It was our normal. We understood that every Palestinian had to go to prison and had to get tortured. When I was 10 years old, I began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to withstand torture when my turn came.
“Today, I’m much older than 10 years, but when Israel took my mother away the first time, I was once again that terrified little girl. I didn’t want them to take her, to the point that I thought about throwing her from the balcony when they came to our home to arrest her in 2015. It has been five years, and we don’t know if she’s with us or not, when will they come back for her when she’s home, is she alive when she’s in prison?
“My mother is in prison now, and we don’t know how to reach her during this pandemic and we know nothing about her condition. We don’t know if she has the virus, if she’s able to breathe. She’s already sick and has a weakened immune system. This coronavirus has immense political dimensions.”