Al-Ahram interviews Abla Sa'adat: 'Conditions worsening for Palestinians in Israeli jails'
“I am Abla Saadat, wife of freedom fighter Ahmed Saadat, detained in the Zionist occupation prisons and sentenced to 30 years.” This is how Abla Sadaat, wife of one of the symbols of Palestinian resistance, introduces herself.
“Sadaat was kidnapped from Jericho Prison in 2006 where he was detained by the Palestinian Authority (PA),” says Saadat. He was accused of attempting to kill Israeli Tourism Minister Zeevi. “After interrogation, the accusations were dropped and the interrogation was focused on proving that he is secretary general of the PFLP (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine).”
The court case took two years and was steered by three judges. If found guilty, Saadat risked a prison sentence of over 10 years.
“But Saadat was given a 30-year sentence, only because he is the secretary general of the PFLP… There were no direct accusations that would legally warrant a 30-year sentence. The ruling was political … He rejected the court, he refused to stand in court or say his name out loud … For the first time ever a ruling was made without any accusations of killing or testimonies against him,” says Abla.
Two months after the ruling, Saadat was put in solitary confinement. According to Abla, he was moved based on the claim he had strong influence on detainees around him and on lawyers who visit him, and that he posed a danger to Israel’s security.
He remained in solitary confinement for three years until in 2011. His fellow prisoners went on hunger strike demanding he and others be no longer kept in isolation.
“At the time there were 22 … They were isolated from life, from other detainees, were not allowed family visits. No visits except through the Red Cross,” Abla recalls.
“We say isolation as if it is a person sitting in a room. No. Isolation is a form of punishment. It is psychological torture. He would be kept in a cell that is two metres wide and 2.5 metres long. He would stay in it for 23 hours a day and would be allowed to walk in the outdoors court for one hour with both hands and legs chained. Even outdoors there would be no one he could speak to or have a conversation with.”
The hunger strike for an end to solitary confinement, explains Abla, started in 2011 and lasted for 22 days. The Gilad Shalit prisoner swap deal, which involved exchanging 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for captured Israeli soldlier Shalit, followed and included provisions on ending solitary confinement and administrative detention (prolonged detention without charge). The hunger strike stopped but solitary confinement did not end. Neither did administrative detention.
In 2012, another hunger strike started and included this time not only PFLP members but also Hamas and Fatah-affiliated prisoners. Around 1500 went on hunger strike, managing to get international attention, explains Abla.
“Only then did solitary confinement practices really end. Ahmed was released from solitary and put in regular prisons. We can visit him now.”
Palestinians in Israeli prisons
The visits, however, are heavily regulated. Only her and her eldest son are able to visit, says Abla.
“Our younger children don’t at all … They haven’t seen their father in seven years. They are not allowed to visit because they have a Palestinian ID … My son and I have the ID of those born in Al-Quds (Jerusalem).”
“Because I’m Maqdeseyan (the Arabic for Jerusalemite), my first born took the identity before Israel realised that all Maqdeseyan women would pass on the ID to their children and in 10 or 20 years the Maqdesyans will be more than the Israelis … They want to limit the demographic expansion of Palestinians, especially in Al-Quds, so now the children can only obtain the ID (allowing residency in Al-Quds) if both parents have it.”
“I have two girls and two boys: three cannot go and only one can. The decision was made in 1984 to not allow mothers to pass on the ID. I was pregnant with my second child … before [Ahmed’s imprisonment] we did not care because Ahmed couldn’t reside in Al-Quds anyway.”
Now that Ahmed Saadat is in Hadarim Prison near Tel Aviv, and West Bank residents cannot reach it except with a permit, his children are no longer able to visit him.
According to Abla, West Bank residents who have family members in Israeli prisons can only visit transported by a Red Cross bus. The Red Cross bus transports families of prisoners accompanied by a police car and is not allowed to stop at all except at checkpoints.
Also any former prisoner cannot visit a prisoner; hence many of the families of the detained cannot visit at all. Some people have not seen their sons in over 10 years and in Abla Saadat’s case, her girls haven’t seen their father in seven years.
“Last year my younger son turned 22. When his father was first detained he was 14. He visited him a bit then was not allowed anymore because he reached 17. Before that he was considered a child. Last year I sent [Ahmed] his picture with friends, and Ahmed did not know which of those in the picture was Yassar, his son,, because he grew and his looks changed. If he didn’t know he played the trombone, he wouldn’t have known he was his son.”
“He missed so many stages in our life, like their graduation, wedding,” Abla says.
“For example, Ghasan [Saadat’s son] just had a baby girl and Ahmed had a trial so he sent us a message with the lawyer asking that Ghasan’s wife and daughter to come to court so that he could see them. We took them to court and the girl was two months old and yet we were not allowed to get her close to him or to say hello … We are only allowed see him from afar. So when he entered the court and I noticed there is a lot of media I told Ghasan’s wife to give me the girl and I took her and went to the cage where he was standing chained. I gave him the girl so that he could carry her thinking they would be embarrassed in front of the media, but they came in anyway and forbid us. You can find the picture all over the media with Ahmed looking at the girl smiling as I’m carrying her towards him.”
Abla describes Palestinian suffering as complex and multi-layered. “We suffer colonialism plus detention, deprivation, poverty and a Palestinian Authority and a Palestinian split … and that all affects the status of Palestinians.”
Palestinian Hamas-Fatah division
There are no new movements, but there are factions within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that are neither with Fatah nor with Hamas, says Abla, giving the PFLP and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) as examples.
“The DFLP and PFLP are always trying to mediate, but unfortunately the division is not political or based on disagreement over what is the national interest. Its based on private interests of those from Fatah and Hamas. Its a struggle over power and the one most benefiting is the Zionist occupation. The US encourages this division. There are some who also benefit economically — those who trade with politics and sell the country.”
Popular movements erupt in reaction to big events, explains Abla.
“For example, when there was the attack on Gaza, when there is a hunger strike. But unfortunately, the division is stronger than all these movements. It has become like there are two states: one authority in Gaza and the other in the West Bank, and both are completely separated.”
“Since authority always wants to remain in control, neither camp wants unity or an end to the division, despite the prisoners’ continuous demands to end the division,” opines Abla.
Prisoners hunger strike
The last collective hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners was in April 2012. After that there were individual hunger strikes of prisoners in administrative detention, such as that held by Tarek Kadan, Samer El-Essawi, and others Abla Saadat says.
Talking of the wave of individual strikes now receiving unprecedented media and international attention, Abla appears critical, believing “They are on strike for their own personal issue.”
“Usually strikes are made over collective issues, for example, inhumane treatment inside prisons, or banning prisoners from education, or administrative detention or solitary confinement,” Abla explains.
“Unfortunately, private strikes, even though heroic, can be harmful to the interests of other prisoners, because they raise the threshold of strikes. In the past, they [the prisoners] used to strike one week and the prison administration would start listening to their demands. Now we hear of Samer El-Eissawi who has been on strike for seven months, even if its partial. Now two months can pass in a strike and Israelis would not pay attention or respond to demands … [Such long strikes held by individual prisoners] are a double-edged sword for prisoners.”
In Abla’s view, to solve the issue of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, action should be collective.
“We should always continue trying to put international pressure for the sake of prisoners, and pressuring rights organisation. Where is the Arab League, for example? Where is the Union of Arab Lawyers? This is their role, to pressure US and israel who don’t pay any attention to international conventions. Its not enough to keep expressing solidarity with Palestine and the prisoners. We want actual movements on the ground that could pressure Israel. They are prisoners of war and of freedom, and if you [Arab officials] keep negotiating, prisoners should be on the top of the agenda. Resolution 240 of the UN says resistance is legitimate because it is against occupation and that is internationally legitimate. So why would they arrest the secretary general of the PFLP, the second largest faction of the PLO? These are the things that we stress now — the importance of pressure, propagating against Israel, and highlighting the status of prisoners,” says Abla.
Negotiations with Israel
When asked about the John Kerry’s initiative for a peace deal between Israel and Palestine, also involving Egypt, Abla Saadat believes it has accomplished nothing and that nothing can come of it.
“Israeli settlements are expanding and (Palestinian) houses are [force] evacuated and destroyed. They are digging under Al-Aqsa for a while now. Men of a certain age are not even allowed to pray inside now. We reach the level that Al-Quds-born Palestinians are forced to destroy their own homes because they are not licensed, while they don’t give licenses and in addition there are fines.”
“We are forced to live in the streets with our children, without shelter. They (the Israelis) are cutting down olive trees by the thousands, especially in Nablus. Settlers used to be afraid, going through West Bank roads, fearing Palestinians will attack them with rocks. Now Palestinians are afraid of settlers who attack them and smash their cars.”
”All that is a result of the Oslo Accords which stripped Palestinians of their weapons and left them an unarmed nation unable to resist. Anyone attempting to resist Israel is now punished by the Palestinian Authority with imprisonment. They (the Palestinian Authority) have become defenders of Israel’s interest, unfortunately.”
Frustrated that negotiations have done nothing but worsen the situation of Palestinians, Abla Saadat further complains that the building of the Separation Wall dividing Palestinian lands is almost complete, taking large parts of Palestinian land and dividing many Palestinian families.
“One’s house can be in one part and the land in another. In Ramallah, there is a village called Beit Our. Its a small village with around 1000 inhabitants where the wall divides the village from the school. Children now have to walk long distances and are prone to attack by settlers. This is the case of most Palestinian villages.”
Abla Saadat fears that Israeli settlers will outnumber Palestinians in a few years, and will be able to force them to flee, “like in 1948, by killing, slaughtering, threatening their lives, their cattle and their land.” “[Israeli settlers will] force them (Palestinians) to migrate to Jordan and take all of Palestine while Jordan becomes the alternative homeland. Thats the plan of all Palestinian authorities,” believes Saadat.
According to Abla Saadat, Obama’s recent visit to the Palestinian territories, Israel and Jordan is part of a plan to reach a deal that will only worsen the situation of Palestinians even more. “The US and Hamas are now talking of an agreement with Israel. Hamas has not declared it yet, but everyone is sure that it is involved now in negotiations,” says Saadat.