New Palestinian campaign to support Druze conscientious objectors

Budour Hassan
Published in MiddleEastMonitor

israeli-soldiers-with-palestinian-protestors-at-the-back

The snow storm that hit Palestine was at its peak on 17 December 2013, but that did not prevent dozens of Palestinian youth from climbing up Carmel Mountain to protest in support of imprisoned Druze conscientious objectors.

While most Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship are exempt from serving in the Israeli occupation army, compulsory military service has been imposed on young Palestinian Druze men since 1956 following an agreement between a few un-elected leaders of the minority Druze community and the Zionist State.

The week leading up to the December action was exceptional, as four young Druze publicly announced their refusal to enlist in the Israeli army. Among them were musician Omar Saad, Mahmoud Saad, Seif Abu Seif, and Nizar Abu Hammoud, who were simultaneously imprisoned alongside other Druze refusers who chose to remain anonymous. Detained in Atlit military prison south of occupied Haifa, the refusers managed to hear the chants of the demonstrators who stood for hours in the freezing cold.

“Their presence and support give me strength and protection. I felt that I was not alone,” said 18-year-old Seif Abu Seif from the Galilee town of Shafa’Amr. At the time of the protest, Abu Seif was held in solitary confinement as punishment for refusing to cut his hair for religious reasons. He is not the first member of his family to be imprisoned for refusing to participate in the oppression of his own people – both his father and brother also spent time in jail.

The December 17 protest, like a plethora of other actions aimed at providing legal and moral support for conscientious objectors and their families, was organised by a group against military service that is made up by Palestinians from all sects, not just Druze. The group started meeting in 2010, and after over three years of discussing and organising, finally decided to start a new, public initiative to oppose compulsory military conscription and support the objectors. The initiative is called “Refuse and your people shall protect you!”

“The title choice was inspired by the words of Seif Abu Seif, who is a co-organiser of the initiative. He felt that our support gave him protection, and indeed we want Druze youth to know that we will stick by their side if they choose to refuse,” said political activist and media coordinator for the campaign, Maisan Hamdan. “While we cannot force anyone to make his refusal public, we want to encourage them to do so but regardless of their choice to go public or not, we will stand with them all the way.” Hamdan continued.

“Some also might refuse not for political reasons, but rather out of more practical motives, like they don’t want to waste three years of their lives in the army. We obviously prefer that youngsters refuse out of national and political motives, but we will not exclude others who refuse for different reasons. We will support them and make them feel part of this movement and this in turn will help make them more politically aware,” she said.

Several initiatives have sprung up since 1956 to demand an end to compulsory conscription such as the Free Druze Movement, founded in 1958, and the Druze Initiative Committee, established by the Israeli Communist Party in 1972. However, what distinguishes the new campaign “Orfod” (Arabic for refuse) from previous groups and initiatives is that it is an inclusive campaign that boasts participants from all sects, as well as from both inside the Green Line (present-day Israel) and the West Bank.

“As a movement we have two main goals: First, we want to encourage young Druze, including those who do not come from politicised families, to refuse service and providing those who do refuse with moral and legal support. We also try to provide scholarships for refusers to continue their studies as an alternative for the financial incentives that the army gives them,” said Hamdan.

“Our second goal is to re-unite the Palestinian people and bridge gaps between us and Palestinians from the West Bank. For many in the West Bank, the first thing that comes to mind when you say ‘Druze’ is that aggressive soldier who stands at the checkpoint to curtail their movement. We want to make clear there are many Druze who actually refuse to do this and consider themselves Palestinians.”

A preparation meeting to discuss the launch of “Orfod” was held in Ramallah and attended by activists from across the Occupied West Bank. During the second prison term of Omar Saad, solidarity protests with him were held both in Ramallah and in the Eastern part of occupied Jerusalem.

On 13 March, a documentary about Palestinian-Druze lawyer Yamen Zidan was screened in the African Community centre in Jerusalem. The film tells the story of Zidan, a Druze who turned from a prison guard into a lawyer for political prisoners after re-discovering his identity. The film-screening and discussion was attended by youth from Jerusalem.

These are indications of a change of attitude happening, and that the stereotypes about the Druze community are being challenged. The campaign “Orfod” will be officially launched on Friday 21 March, with a large protest in front of Atlit prison – but there are already many positives to be drawn from it. Not only does it challenge the Zionist attempts to fragment Palestinians along sectarian lines and strip the Druze youth of their Palestinian identity, it also promises to be a popular non-elitist movement that has the potential to grow and expand.

The crisis of solidarity: Using ‘’their plight” to score political points

It is not necessarily what we say, but rather, what we do with what we say that will determine our legitimacy as a liberation movement in the end. How we go about exposing anti-blackness, including Israel’s racism against African refugees and asylum seekers as well as our own, will serve such a case in point.

African asylum seekers in Israel are currently subjected to extreme bigotry and hate-mongering by both establishment and society. It is a racism that is state-sponsored, incited by state-appointed rabbis, cashed in on by high-ranking politicians, and espoused through legislation that is backed, in the final instance, by brute military and police force.

Thus, the work that those of us making up the Palestine solidarity movement do in exposing Israeli racism against African refugees is crucial, and all the more so when we consider the U.S. mainstream media’s complicit role in glossing over said racism and the systematic attempts by Israel to whitewash its abuses.

But while highlighting – and fighting – Israeli anti-blackness is both vital and mandatory, the approach currently taken by many Palestine solidarity activists in addressing this issue might prove in the end to be selfish and detrimental.

The current discourse on Israeli racism against African refugees suffers from at least three flaws that we urgently need to overcome. One, it overlooks Palestinian racism against black people in general and African refugees in particular. Two, it uses the plight of African refugees in Israel solely as tool to score political points in the propaganda battle against Zionists. Three, it gives the false impression that racism and xenophobia against black people, refugees, and migrant workers is somehow exceptional to the Zionist project.

The words that follow are a plea to all of us making up the Palestine solidarity movement. They are a plea to begin constructing the foundation for a struggle that is truly anti-racist rather than simply being anti-Zionist. These words are a plea, that is, that we begin the work of creating a political project that takes as a starting point the ethic, both in thought and in practice, that nobody’s liberation can and will ever come at the expense of anybody else’s.

ONE: On “airing out our dirty laundry”

Anti-blackness is manifested in Palestinian and broader Arab popular culture, semantics, discourse, and daily exchanges. By now, it seems to have become a requirement of the global community that all societies determine the measure of beauty and charm by the lightness of the skin, and ours is no exception. Black Palestinians are the subject of extreme prejudice and social profiling as children. As adults, they find it difficult to integrate into society and be treated with respect and equality by fellow Palestinians. Suffering the brunt of it are our Black Palestinian women who, under this racist framework, find it impossible to live up to such standards of beauty. They are often shunned and declared unfit for love or marriage because blackness has become akin to ugliness.

Important as it is, delving into the details of Palestinian anti-blackness – as well as the inspiring attempts by Black Palestinians to combat it – is beyond the scope of this short essay and will be saved for another occasion. For us to have that conversation in an honest, healing, and constructive manner, we will first need to attest to the complexities of self-critique without allowing this complexity to further paralyse us.

Discussing Palestinian anti-blackness in such an honest way is apt to present us with several anxieties. For one, it is never an easy decision to “air out one’s dirty laundry,” so to speak, particularly so when said laundry belongs to a people structurally stripped of their humanity and collectively labelled with prejudices and stigmas. We battle daily against the myths and stereotypes Zionists spread about us through propaganda: they tell the world that we are an inferior, monstrous people, and that Israelis are the civilised, tolerant, queer-friendly people that have made the “desert bloom” and created “a haven of democracy” in a region filled with tyrannies. Zionist propaganda even has the “chutzpah” to portray, to the Black Israeli and pro-Israel students it recruits to speak at U.S. universities and in hasbara tours, Israel as a State that treats Black people with equality.

But the anxieties filling the dilemma of self-critique are not exclusive to us. They are faced by all colonised people, immigrants, Black people, and other groups that have been stigmatized as inferior but are fighting the fight. We would do well to learn from their experiences on how we can collect our own courage to engage in self-critique honestly and constructively.

For example, Black and indigenous women have had much to contribute on this front, having taught us that fighting “external” battles against institutionalised racism must not mean abandoning “internal” struggles against patriarchy and violence at home. They have fully understood that raising one’s voice against gender violence of Black and indigenous women by their men must not translate into collaborating with the state and white supremacists (even if the latter might try to whitewash their own racism and misogyny by pointing fingers at Black and indigenous patriarchy). Such interventions, they teach us, must also be accompanied by analyses of how white and colonial supremacy structurally oppresses these communities, often creating the conditions of, and fanning the flames for, internal conflict and the perpetuation of gender subordination.

Similarly, we should be concerned that self-critique could be exploited by Zionists to oil their propaganda machine, serve their agenda of demonising Palestinians, and use it as a guise to rationalise Palestinian oppression. But we should be similarly unyielding in our refusal to be paralysed by the possibility that they might exploit these conversations. Many Palestinians have had the courage to condemn the anti-Semitism of some supposed “pro-Palestinian” figures. Many Palestinians have also rightfully spoken up against the support that some Palestinian and pro-Palestinian figures and groups lend to the Syrian regime, even though this has caused internal divisions within the various Palestine solidarity movements. In a similar way, we should not shy away from talking about, condemning, and actively dismantling anti-blackness within Palestinian society in both in Palestine and among the diaspora.

TWO: Exceptionalising both Israel and Ourselves

When we expose Israel’s crimes and abuses, the predictable response we often hear from Zionists is that we “single out” Israel; that there are many evils much worse than Israel; and that we disproportionately focus on Israel. To be sure, these responses come from a place that seeks to shut-down any discussion whatsoever of Israel’s atrocities and inherent illegitimacy.

First, and needless to say, if other states exist that are more visibly brutal than Israel, it does not by any means de-legitimise any criticism of Israel’s brutality.

Israel indeed deserves to be singled-out in many instances, but only for its contextual specificities rather than for any ostensible “uniqueness.” Israel is a settler-colonial state that was founded on and continues to thrive on the ethnic cleansing, displacement, annihilation and exploitation of an entire people; and it does all of this while receiving unconditional and unparalleled financial, military, and political backing of the United States.

So indeed, we should be weary of singling Israel out as unique. It did not invent an exceptional brand of anti-blackness and xenophobia against African refugees and immigrants. It is important to remember that anti-blackness was not invented by Israel; it is part and parcel of the global white supremacist system. That is, anti-blackness is and has always been white supremacy’s complimentary pole. We cannot expect the United States to change its foreign policy on Israel because of its racism against African people when the United States itself is among the biggest perpetrators of anti-black racism, violence, and xenophobia.

Moreover, Israel’s mistreatment of African refugees is not unique to the region. On their way to Israel, refugees from Sudan and Eritrea face the imminent threat of human trafficking, rape, and torture in Sinai with the complicity of the Egyptian state. The record of Arab states in migrant rights issues is atrocious, particularly so in Lebanon and in the Gulf States. So while we are exposing Israel precisely for all that it is, we should not forget to speak with the same fervour and indignation against the abuses that Black people, refugees, and immigrants face everywhere, including our own backyard.

Finally, we must also refrain from continuously stating how Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is worse than what Blacks in the United States or in apartheid South Africa have ever experienced. Each case of oppression is specific and none of them need be put in superlative forms to be understood as abhorent. When we speak with such a frame, we can easily fall prey to Zionist counter-claims that other States are “worse” than Israel, opening the door for them to provide arguments in support of such claims. And when we continue insisting that what Palestinians face at Israel’s hands is worse than what Black people faced in the United Sates and what Black people faced under apartheid South Africa, we belittle the struggle of those very people whose support we not only seek but will eventually come to find as absolutely necessary.

THREE: Political points

Another recurring problem in our discourse today on Israel’s mistreatment of African refugees is that it ends up using the plight of African refugees solely as a means to point to Israel’s brutality. African refugees are human beings, not pawns in our liberation struggle. Each refugee who has fled genocide, ethnic cleansing, military dictatorship or persecution has a personal story that deserves to be heard and respected. They deserve nothing less than us orienting and broadening our struggle against whatever processes forced them to flee their own homes, breaking up their lives, families, and communities. They deserve genuine solidarity from us rather than our using their plight as an advertising campaign for our cause. We must realise how we further dehumanise African refugees when we exploit their suffering to serve our own agenda. Indeed, we fully disregard their own stories and never think to ask what their ideas are for the struggle. Indeed, we cannot think to ask them what they think about things because we do not engage them as dignified people; we see them and treat them only as victims.

Instead, we could strive to connect with each other through an analysis of how Zionism and white supremacy share a common logic that oppresses us all in our specific yet interrelated contexts. An important way to begin is by studying and taking seriously the Black Radical Tradition, an entire school of liberatory philosophies and practices devised over centuries of struggle against colonialism, oppression and exploitation. As Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa has recently pointed out, we have far more in common with Black people worldwide than we do with white Europeans and white Americans. So rather than engaging Black people as victims, we should study and learn from the long history of the Black struggle against slavery, including their struggle against the shameful history of slave trade here in the Arab world.

In exposing Israel’s vile treatment of Black asylum seekers, we should be careful that we do not treat them as objects that help the Palestinian cause expose Israel’s racism. As already emphasised above, each and every asylum seeker has a name, has a story. She or he had to flee genocide, and/or experience concentration camps, and/or human trafficking in Sinai. If they were white, we undoubtedly would make every effort to personify them. Zionists do and will continue to point to Palestinian anti-blackness as a way to suggest we are undeserving of full membership as political actors in the world. We, of course, will and must continue doing the same about them. But what we also must do on our side is to finally ask, “What are we going to do about dismantling our own anti-blackness?”

But here again, we will need to be careful. Acknowledging anti-blackness should not be done simply to claim the moral ground or to sound more righteous than the other side. It should not be done because we want to score political points and further expose to the world Israel’s immorality. We should not reject racism simply in an attempt to show the world that we are “good” and “deserving” of solidarity. We should reject it because we as Palestinians are convinced that racism has no place in any genuine liberation struggle. Speaking out against it and raising awareness to its existence is but a first step in going about dismantling it. But it is only a first step. In order to truly begin, we must create a political project that is deliberately not anti-black, one which can finally make a place for Black Palestinians right here next to us as our dignified brothers and sisters; one which can ally with African refugees and immigrants in Palestine; and one which can connect to Black struggles worldwide in a way where we finally plan out a liberation project that will not end up with our liberation coming at the expense of theirs.

It is a question of fashioning our struggle in a way that will truly work toward dismantling a world that depends on racism in order to continue functioning. It is a question of not seeking a comfortable place within such a world it as Zionism tragically chose to do. It is a question of creating ourselves anew rather than becoming somebody else’s Israelis the day after. Without a doubt, we can and need to do far better than that.

Oday Tayem: Hijo de Dos Intifadas

Oday picture

Budour Hassan
Traducido por Mariana Morena

El 29 de agosto de 2013, las fuerzas de seguridad sirias arrestaron al activista palestino-sirio Oday Tayem después de asaltar su casa en Jaramana, un suburbio al sudeste de Damasco controlado por el régimen.

En los cinco meses siguientes a su detención en calidad de incomunicado, han fallado los intentos de sus familiares y amigos para conocer la rama de seguridad específica donde se encuentra recluido.Nacido el 12 de mayo 1993 al sur de la capital siria en el campo de refugiados de al-Yarmouk, Oday es el mayor de tres hermanos. Su padre es un refugiado de la aldea limpiada étnicamente de al- Shajar, cerca de Tiberías, y la familia de su madre fue desplazada desde Kafr Kanna, un pueblo cerca de Nazaret, en la Nakba de 1948.

Cuando estalló la Segunda Intifada en Palestina, un grupo de palestinos y sirios establecieron una carpa de protesta en la plaza Arnous en el centro de Damasco para expresar solidaridad con sus hermanos en la Palestina ocupada.

Oday solo tenía siete años en ese momento, pero participó regularmente en las manifestaciones contra la ocupación israelí, memorizando las canciones revolucionarias palestinas, y asistió a las sentadas junto con su madre, que estaba entre los organizadores.

Once años más tarde, Siria tendría su propia Intifada, una Intifada contra un ocupante crecido en su seno. Y Oday, que estaba estudiando ciencias políticas en el Líbano cuando comenzó el levantamiento de Siria por libertad y dignidad, sabía exactamente de qué lado estaba. El joven refugiado, siempre sonriente, que había exigido la libertad para Palestina a la edad de siete años, once años después exigía la libertad tanto para Palestina como para Siria, subrayando que ambas demandas iban de la mano.

Muchos revolucionarios palestinos ahora retirados, junto con la mayor parte de los intelectuales de izquierda, apoyarían sin vergüenza al régimen sirio o demonizarían a la revolución siria, ocultando sus posiciones tras el manto de la neutralidad y la objetividad. En agudo contraste, Oday, al igual que toda una generación de jóvenes en los campamentos palestinos de Siria, renunciaron a la seguridad del silencio, hablaron la verdad al poder y recuperaron la Causa Palestina explotada y apropiada durante tanto tiempo por el régimen sirio y sus apologistas.

Oday decidió dejar sus estudios en Líbano para regresar a Siria poco después del estallido de la revolución. Combinando la disidencia civil y pacífica con diligentes tareas de ayuda, trató de asistir a los civiles y a los desplazados que quedaron atrapados bajo el estado de sitio del régimen en lugares como Yarmuk, trayéndoles alimentos y suministros médicos.

En la actual coyuntura, donde muchos siguen predicando neutralidad e insisten en un discurso exclusivamente humanitario sobre el drama de Yarmuk, es esencial para nosotros aprender más acerca de Oday y de los cientos de palestinos refugiados en Siria que han sido arrestados, asesinados o torturados hasta la muerte en las cárceles del régimen sirio por intentar romper el cerco de Yarmouk. Mientras que para el discurso de neutralidad puede ser conveniente sugerir que “ambas partes” son igualmente culpables de la catástrofe humanitaria en Yarmouk, este argumento apolítico, por el contrario, condona los castigos colectivos y la inanición sistemática, de-contextualiz a el sufrimiento de los civiles sitiados, y pasa por alto el hecho de que miles de sirios, incluyendo a muchos palestinos, han pagado con sus vidas el intento de romper el cerco del campo y de otras zonas sitiadas.

Podríamos preguntarnos: ¿cómo se puede expresar una forma genuina de solidaridad con el pueblo de Yarmouk sin sostener inequívocamente la responsabilidad del régimen que impone el asedio de Yarmouk? ¿Cómo se puede exigir “Salven a Yarmouk” mientras se permanece en silencio frente a los que fueron arrestados, apuntados y torturados por el régimen precisamente porque trataban de salvar a Yarmouk con acciones que no toman la forma de súplicas? ¿Cómo puede ser tan selectiva nuestra indignación moral como para mostrar solidaridad con Yarmouk sin pronunciar una palabra sobre otras áreas sitiadasa en
Siria?

Tomó varias muertes por inanición para que los llamados activistas “pro- palestinos” lanzaran tímidas campañas de solidaridad con Yarmouk, pero incluso cuando finalmente se hicieron, abrazaron un discurso similar al que es propagado constantemente por los sionistas liberales y los organismos humanitarios. Este discurso condena el asedio sin condenar explícitamente al ejército que lo sostiene y utiliza la presencia de fuerzas armadas de la oposición dentro del campamento para justificar el asfixiante asedio por parte del régimen.

Recordar a Yarmouk les tomó a los llamados activistas “pro-palestinos”, más de seis meses de asedio completo por el régimen. Pero, ¿qué haría falta para que lanzaran campañas para pedir la liberación de los presos palestinos dentro de las cárceles sirias, o esto violaría el principio de neutralidad sagrado que ostensiblemente sostienen? En un informe publicado recientemente, el Centro de Estudios Democrático-Rep ublicanos ha documentado la muerte bajo la tortura de 119 palestinos detenidos en cárceles del régimen en Siria desde el inicio de la revolución. 46 más que los palestinos que murieron bajo tortura en las cárceles israelíes de la Ocupación desde 1967. Sin embargo, el horroroso destino de los palestinos presos en las cárceles del régimen sirio no ha garantizado la indignación justificada -mucho menos una campaña activa- por parte de aquellos que alegan defender a Palestina.

Las lágrimas que derrama la madre de Oday al escuchar una de las canciones favoritas de su hijo no son diferentes de las lágrimas derramadas por las madres palestinas por sus hijos encarcelados por Israel. La fortaleza con que la madre de Oday recibió la noticia de la detención de su hijo no es diferente de la fortaleza de las madres cuyos hijos están encarcelados en Israel. Lo que es diferente, sin embargo, es que la madre de Oday no puede contratar un abogado para él, y ni siquiera sabe dónde está encarcelado porque en la Siria de Assad, preguntar por un preso se ha convertido en una cuestión de vida o muerte.

El caso de los palestinos detenidos en Siria debe ser una prioridad para cualquier persona que apoye la Causa Palestina. Oday Tayem, el palestino-sirio cuya identidad fue muy influenciada y moldeada tanto por la Intifada Palestina como por la Intifada Siria, es uno entre miles de palestinos y sirios encarcelados por el régimen sirio. Dejemos que aquellos que se atrevan, discutan con ellos y sólo con ellos, que la lucha por la libertad de los presos palestinos en Israel está separada de la lucha de los presos palestinos en Siria.

Dejemos que aquellos que se atrevan les nieguen a ellos y sólo a ellos, que el sitio de Yarmouk es impuesto por un régimen que ha castigado intencionalment e a activistas pacíficos y a socorristas en Yarmouk, a veces con la muerte. dejemos que aquellos que se atrevan les sugieran a ellos y solo a ellos, que los prisioneros palestinos en Siria se convertirán en meras figuras, figuras cuya libertad importa ahora solo para ser negociada.

Oday Tayem, Son of the Two Intifadas

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On 29 August 2013, Syrian security forces arrested Palestinian-Syrian activist Oday Tayem after raiding his house in Jaramana, a regime-controlled suburb southeast of Damascus. In the five months following his incommunicado detention, attempts by Oday’s family members and friends to know the specific security branch where he is being held have failed.

Born on 12 May 1993 south of the Syrian capital in al-Yarmouk Refugee Camp, Oday is the eldest of three brothers. His father is a refugee from the ethnically-cleansed village of al-Shajara, near Tiberias, and his mother’s family was displaced from Kafr Kanna, a town near Nazareth, in the 1948 nakba.

When the Second Palestinian Intifada broke out, a group of Palestinians and Syrians set up a protest tent in Arnous Square in central Damascus to express solidarity with their brethren in occupied Palestine. Oday was as young as seven at the time, but he regularly participated in the demonstrations against the Israeli occupation, memorised Palestinian revolutionary songs, and attended the sit-ins along with his mother who was among the organisers.

Eleven years later, Syria was to have its own intifada, an intifada against a home-grown occupier. And Oday, who was studying political science in Lebanon at the moment when Syria’s uprising for freedom and dignity began, would know exactly which side he was on. The ever-smiling young refugee who demanded freedom for Palestine at the age of seven would, eleven years later, demand freedom for both Palestine and Syria, stressing that both demands go hand-in-hand.

Many now-retired Palestinian revolutionaries, together with the bulk of left-wing intellectuals, would either unashamedly support the Syrian regime or demonise the Syrian revolution, shrouding their positions with the cloak of neutrality and objectivity. In sharp contrast, Oday, like an entire generation of the youth of Syria’s Palestinian camps, relinquished the safety of silence, spoke truth to power, and reclaimed the Palestinian cause exploited and appropriated for so long by the Syrian regime and its apologists.

Oday was to leave his studies in Lebanon and return to Syria shortly after the uprising’s outbreak. Combining peaceful and civil dissent and organising together with diligent relief work, he sought to help civilians and those displaced, who became trapped under the regime’s state of siege in places such as Yarmouk by bringing in food and medical supplies.

In the current situation, where too many continue preaching neutrality and insist on an exclusively humanitarian discourse regarding Yarmouk’s plight, it is essential for us to learn more about Oday and the hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Syria who have been arrested, killed, or tortured to death in Syrian regime jails for attempting to break the siege on Yarmouk. While for the neutrality discourse it may be convenient to suggest that “both sides” are equally culpable for the humanitarian catastrophe in Yarmouk, this apolitical argument is anything but: on the contrary, it condones collective punishment and systematic starvation, de-contextualises the suffering of besieged civilians, and overlooks the fact that thousands in Syria, including many Palestinians, have paid with their lives to break the siege on the Camp and other besieged areas.

We might ask ourselves: how one can express a genuine form of solidarity with the people of Yarmouk without unequivocally holding the regime that imposes the siege on Yarmouk responsible? How can one demand to “save Yarmouk” while remaining silent about those who were arrested, sniped, and tortured by the regime, precisely because they tried to save Yarmouk with actions that do not take the form of begging? How can our moral outrage be so selective as to show solidarity with Yarmouk without uttering a word about other besieged areas in Syria?

It took several deaths by starvation for the so-called “pro-Palestinian” activists to launch timid solidarity campaigns with Yarmouk, but even when they finally did, they embraced a similar discourse to the one consistently propagated by liberal Zionists and humanitarian agencies. This discourse condemns the siege without explicitly condemning the army maintaining it and uses the presence of armed opposition forces inside the camp to justify a suffocating siege by the regime.

It took the so-called pro-Palestinian activists more than six months of complete regime siege to remember Yarmouk. But what would it take for them to launch campaigns demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners inside Syrian jails — or would that violate the sacred neutrality principle they ostensibly uphold?

In a recently-published report, The Democratic Republic Studies Centre documented the death of 119 Palestinian detainees under torture in Syrian regime jails since the start of the Syrian uprising. The number is 46, more than those Palestinians killed under torture in Israeli occupation jails since 1967. Nevertheless, the harrowing fate of Palestinian prisoners in regime jails has warranted no outrage —let alone active campaigning— by those who allege to champion Palestine. The tears that Oday’s mother sheds while listening to one of her son’s favourite songs are no different from the tears shed by Palestinian mothers over their children jailed by Israel. The steadfastness with which Oday’s mother received the news of Oday’s arrest is no different from the steadfastness of mothers whose sons are jailed in Israel. What is different, however, is that Oday’s mother cannot hire a lawyer for him, and does not even know where he is jailed, because, in Assad’s Syria, asking about a prisoner has become one of life’s gambles.

The case of Palestinian prisoners in Syria must be a priority for anyone who supports the Palestinian cause. Oday Tayem, the Palestinian-Syrian whose identity was greatly influenced and shaped by the Palestinian as well as the Syrian intifadas, is one among thousands of Palestinians and Syrians caged behind Syrian regime bars. Let those who dare argue with them and only with them that the freedom struggle of Palestinian prisoners in Israel is separate from the struggle of Palestinian prisoners in Syria. Let those who dare deny to them and only to them that the siege on Yarmouk is imposed by a regime that has purposefully punished peaceful activists and relief workers in Yarmouk, at times by death. Let those who dare throw at them and only at them suggestions that Palestinian prisoners in Syria are to become mere figures; figures whose freedoms are now to be up for mere negotiation.

“I did all that I could do for Palestine,” says freed prisoner Said Tamimi

Budour Hassan
Originally published on Electronic Intifada

Celebration of freed Palestinian prisoner, Nabi Saleh, West Bank

If one thing can still unite and mobilize all Palestinians, regardless of their political affiliations or where they live, it is the struggle of our political prisoners in Israeli jails.

The recent US-brokered deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to release prisoners, who were jailed before the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, has left many of us with conflicting emotions.

“Indefensible decision”

True, the release of any prisoner —let alone one who has spent over 20 years behind bars– is always a reason for celebration. Yet the announcement by the Israeli government that 104 prisoners will be released —a number that has now risen to 109— was part of a deal to start yet another round of futile negotiations between Israel and the PA.

As most Palestinians view these talks with suspicion and a sense of despair, the planned release of the long-serving prisoners was used by the PA to justify its indefensible decision to resume negotiations with Israel.

Furthermore, it was obvious from celebrations which the PA organized in Ramallah that it is seeking to exploit the prisoners’ issue to score political points and boost its low credibility among ordinary Palestinians.

Even worse, all three rounds of releases that have taken place so far have been accompanied by announcements from Israel that it will expand its settlements in the occupied West Bank. This underscores once again that Israel is using these negotiations to entrench the occupation.

Joy

Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the releases have brought joy to a number of families. One Palestinian activist who is related to a pre-Oslo political prisoner said: “Look, you might say I am selfish, but I support anything that brings about the release of those prisoners. You are talking about prisoners who have spent more than 20 years in jails, who have been forgotten by most of us and whose families are dying to see them free. And if negotiations are the only way to accomplish their release, then so be it.”

The activist, who asked to remain anonymous, added: “The Israelis are building new settlements and grabbing our land with or without negotiations. This is the first time that I support negotiations simply because it means the prisoners are going to be released.”

While such a position overlooks the dangerous consequences of the negotiations and is driven by emotions, it is easy to understand where it comes from, particularly when you meet some of the prisoners concerned.

Among the Palestinian prisoners released on 31 December was Said Tamimi from Nabi Saleh, a village near Ramallah renowned for holding regular protests against the Israeli occupation since 2009.

Said was arrested on 9 November 1993, along with Bassem Tamimi, who has played a prominent role in the protests over the past few years (As well as belonging to the same extended family, both men are close friends).

Torture

While Bassem was later released after enduring severe torture which caused partial paralysis, Said was convicted of killing an Israeli settler and sentenced to life imprisonment.

“The worst torture I suffered happened during the first few months of my arrest, especially in interrogations,” Said Tamimi told The Electronic Intifada. “Things got easier as years passed on, but the harassment continued. We were occasionally gassed, beaten or subjected to humiliating and violent searches by prison guards.”

Born in Nabi Saleh in March 1972, Said never met his father, who was murdered by the Israeli secret service Mossad in al-Baddawi refugee camp in Lebanon when Said was still an infant.

Said Tamimi’s involvement in Palestinian popular resistance began early in the first intifada that erupted in late 1987. Tamimi was studying at an orphanage in Jerusalem at the time.

His first arrest came when he was only 17. He was detained for almost a year.

Hiding

Shortly afterwards, Tamimi was forced to go into hiding as Israeli occupation forces began chasing him. His mother Fatima, now in her late seventies, said “They ran after him for almost two years before finally capturing him. I was thinking of him all the time, wondering where he was sleeping and if he was eating.

“On one rainy night I was sleeping and imagined hearing his footsteps and him shouting and calling my name. I opened the door and saw no-one outside. Apparently I was dreaming.

“Said’s two elder brothers were arrested too during the first intifada, and his sister was killed by militants from the Abu Nidal Organization,” a defunct armed splinter group that is believed to have been in the pay of several foreign governments.

“Said is the closest to my heart, perhaps because he’s the youngest and was deprived of seeing his father, but he is also the one who tormented me the most [through his involvement in resistance],” Fatima said.

For 16 of Said’s twenty years in jail, his mother —commonly known as Umm Said— was only allowed to see him through glass during visits. “The first time I was allowed to hug him because of my age, I passed out and lost consciousness,” she said.

“I could not believe that I finally hugged and kissed him. The prison guards were surprised at my reaction, and I remember telling them ‘You killed his father when he was a toddler and you are now imprisoning him for life.’”

“During one of my visits to Said I was ordered to take off my clothes to be allowed in. I had to do it because I wanted to see Said. There were other women with me who were visiting their imprisoned brothers. They refused to be strip-searched and since then they have been denied visits to their brothers.”

Anyone who attends the weekly demonstrations in Nabi Saleh knows Umm Said. She used to throw rocks at Israeli forces before her health deteriorated.

“Proud of my mother”

During one Friday protest, Israeli soldiers stormed into her house screaming that she was hiding one of the demonstrators. She responded by throwing shoes at the soldiers and kicking them out of her house. “I remember seeing her on television and I was incredibly proud of her, proud that she is my mother,” Said said.

Umm Said suffered a stroke on 1 June last year. Asked if he was afraid that his mother might die before his release, Said said: “My mother’s illness made me feel like I was inside two prisons. I wanted to get out to make up for all the suffering she has gone through during my absence, and also wanted her to compensate me for all the tenderness I have been denied. Yes, I was scared but my mother and I had made a pact when I was jailed that she would stay alive until my release.”

His mother said: “Perhaps the only thing that gave me power to survive was the hope of seeing Said soon … we knew that he would be released because his name was on the list, but we did not know in which round and that affected me greatly. Due to my condition of my health, I could not visit him for the last eight months.”

One particularly emotional moment came when the brothers Ahmad and Nizar Tamimi —two life-long friends of Said— were released as part of the prisoner exchange deal reached between Israel and Hamas in 2011.

“Nizar and Ahmad were crying for me because their happiness was not complete as Said was not released with them,” Umm Said said. “They bawled and embraced me, but I was happy for them. They were like my sons, they grew up with him. I told Said that now two of my sons have been released and the next is surely on the way.”

Said Tamimi, along with some other prisoners from the West Bank, arrived at the PA’s Ramallah compound, the Muqataa at 3am on 31 December. But his mother had to wait for two more hours to meet him in Nabi Saleh.

“I only believed that he was free when he entered the house and hugged me,” she said. “I actually still cannot believe that he is here. Even when he is sitting next to me, I still fear that this is a dream. I just hope that every mother can experience the feelings I had when I saw Said.”

No regrets

Now that he is finally free, his mother has talked to him about getting married. “She has already started looking for a wife for me,” Said said with a smile.

“But I think it’s still too early. Now I feel like a little child who is rediscovering life and getting to recognize all the new faces and places around him. Of course, I want to have a family and continue my studies but now I want to adapt to life outside prison and spend as much time with my mother as possible.”

Said Tamimi has no regrets. “I know that I paid a very heavy cost but I don’t regret taking the path of resistance because I believe in the cause and what comforts me is the knowledge that I did all that I could do for Palestine.”

Even for those of us who staunchly oppose the PA’s negotiations with Israel, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed with happiness for Said Tamimi and all the prisoners who are finally tasting freedom.