Yesterday, 5 May, my country -the Netherlands- celebrated Liberation Day, the annual commemorating of the end of the Nazi occupation and second World War. Across the country cities hosted music concerts, veteran marches and literary events. For most of the Dutch however, concepts of freedom and peace are as normal as having breakfast or talking on the phone.
Within a five hour flight from Amsterdam, in Palestine, approximately 2,000 prisoners are starving themselves to death: an open-ended hunger strike being the last means of resistance against inhumane treatment, oppression and political imprisonment by an occupying power. The hunger striking protest has spread outside the prison walls with at least 75 people in Gaza joining in support of the prisoners. Prisoners are demanding their basic rights: family visits, human treatment, education, and an end to the use of solitary confinement and administrative detention.
Naam Abu Keinas and Fatma Maqadma sit on a bed in one of the protesters’ tents set up in the main square of Gaza city. They are two of the 23 women in Gaza who joined the hunger strike in support of the prisoners’ demands. They know each other from participating in the weekly sit ins in front of the ICRC Office in Gaza City.
Fatma has a message for the Dutch people on their national Liberation Day: “To the Dutch people I would like to say: you have a free country and I ask you to sympathize with the Palestinian people. Don’t allow the inhumane treatment of Palestinian prisoners to take place. During your liberation day you should remember our prisoners in the Israeli occupation jails,” she says.
Her reason for participating in the hunger strike is clear: “I am the mother of six boys and two girls. My son, Abdel Rahman al Maqadma, was detained on 25 August 2007, and I have not seen him since. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Two months ago he called us, using the one phone call he is allowed to make per year. If we are not at home when he makes the, we simply miss our chance to speak to him.” The only remaining form of communication she has letter is pen and paper: “I can send him only one letter per month, via the ICRC, but sometimes it takes about 4 months for the letter to arrive there. He is not allowed to write us letters.”
Along with over 2,000 prisoners Abdel Rahman has been on hunger strike since 17 April, the annual Palestinian Prisoners’ Day. It is difficult for Fatma to know how her son is doing. Sometimes she receives news via relatives of other prisoners. But even when Abdel Rahman is able to make a phone call he will not talk about his conditions in jail and health. “He does not complain about anything because he does not want me to worry,” says Fatma.
The stress of not being able to visit her son has taken its tole on Fatma’s health: “Since he is in prison I have developed health problems which affect my heart, my legs, and my eyes.” This doesn’t stop her from joining the hunger strike. Fatma continues: “This is the first time I join in a hunger strike. We want a solution for the Palestinian prisoners, their bad conditions in jail and the prohibition on family visits.”
Fatma appeals to mothers and all free people around the world: “A mother remembers her child in every second, during every meal. The free people in Europe and the U.S. want and support freedom and democracy. They are against violence and racism so why do they allow this to happen? Where are our rights? They should feel like the mothers whose sons are in jail.”
Her friend Naam has joined in the hunger strike in the hope to achieve the basic human right of her fellow Palestinians who are suffering in Israeli jails: “The prisoners are part of us. We are all Palestinians. My brother was detained in Israeli jails several times. I also joined in the hunger strike last September, which lasted for 21 days. The success of that hunger strike was the prisoner exchange. I hope that we will achieve all the demands of our people in jail.”
Naam hopes that the grassroots movement of the prisoners and their relatives will be noticed and supported internationally, such as “people gathering and protesting in front of the Israeli embassies in their countries.” Encouraging news reached her from Tunisia: “Three days ago 1,000 people in Tunisia started fasting in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners and their number has grown to 3,000 already. I ask everyone to wake up and become more active for the Palestinian prisoners, also within our society. If only 1% of the world would wake up and create pressure, it would already be a big difference.”
Despite repeated disappointments Naam hopes double standards will one day be replaced by universal human rights: “When soldier Gilad Shalit was captured the entire world paid attention and made efforts for his release. Why? Is there a difference between us? When Ban Ki Moon came to visit Gaza he even refused to meet the representatives of our prisoners and their families.”
The hunger strike of prisoners and their relatives and supporters is open-ended, which implicates grave risks for the protesters’ health. “In our solidarity hunger strike we depend on water with salt, and yoghurt,” explains Naam. “Until now I feel okay. God is giving me patience. But this is still nothing compared to the strength that the prisoners have already shown. Our hunger strike is open-ended. Our demand is for the prison authorities to respect our humanity.”