People celebrate Loai Odeh’s freedom in October 18 and welcome him in Gaza
Loai Odeh is a former prisoner and my best friend, whom I am very proud to have met after his release. He joined the campaign of disobedience, the 22-day mass hunger strike, launched at the end of September 2011 to protest cruel conditions and an escalating series of punitive measures against Palestinian prisoners, until the swap deal by Israel and Hamas on 18 October. He was released after ten years of imprisonment and expelled from Jerusalem to Gaza, where we met at a festival. Since his release, his main concern has been the fellow prisoners he left behind. He always attends events in solidarity with them. He has been my main resource every time I had a question or needed to enrich my knowledge about prisoners’ conditions.
While following his updates on Facebook, I noticed that he had written new statuses taking the form of a hunger striker’s diary recalling his experience. This surprised me, as he has seldom posted since opening his account. His diaries are touching and vivid, giving a clear vision of the great challenge and determination that our prisoners enjoy amidst hunger and the fascist repression of the Israeli Prison Service.
The following is my translation of Loai’s day-by-day diaries from the first to eighth days:
On April 17, Loai wrote:
Today is the first day of the battle to defend our dignity. The battle’s leaders are our homeland’s heroes who are resisting with their empty stomachs for the sake of our dignity.
The first day of a hunger strike is the hardest. Abstaining from food or drinks has a great impact on strikers during the first three days. But what distinguishes the first day is the measures that the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) takes against our prisoners, attempting to repress them. The jailers confiscate all their possessions, but are generous enough to leave them only the clothes they’re wearing. Moreover, they remove everything the cells contain in a very provocative way, damaging a lot of valuable items our prisoners have collected throughout their precious years in jail to ease the pain of their daily lives. On top of that, IPS conducts misinformation campaigns between rooms and prisons, so that no one knows whether he will be separated from his circle of friends and the environment to which he has adapted.
The journey of steadfastness and determination begins when the strikers manage to control themselves and overcome their desires and physical needs, armed with their desperate desire for freedom and victory which will bring them dignified lives.
We are all with you, as you’re our conscience.
On April 18, Loai wrote:
Today is the second day of the journey of respect and pride. Today is one of the hardest days of hunger strike as the body still isn’t used to not receiving its necessities from food and drinks, especially coffee. This causes lasting headaches. The pain of hunger is also at its peak.
The biggest challenge is for the smokers among our prisoners. For them, quitting cigarettes is more difficult than abstaining from food. It makes them lose their temper. But this condition simply vanishes once their will reminds them of their goal of defeating the jailers. Therefore, during these days, there is no place for irritation despite the constant harassments our prisoners endure at the jailers’ hands. Our prisoners prefer to not waste their energy responding to the provocations of IPS. Before the strike starts, all prisoners agree that strikers shouldn’t respond to any of the harassments and provocations they face, and that they shouldn’t exert any effort, to spare their energy for the days ahead. This battle is different from other clashes that happen on normal days between jailers and detainees. When there is no hunger strike, it’s not allowed to any detainee to accept insults, and if one is humiliated by a jailer and doesn’t reclaim his rights immediately, he faces punishment by the national committee inside the prisons.
The strong will that our friends behind bars enjoy turns all their sufferings into fuel that lights their flame of victory. Their faith in the just cause they have fought for makes them solid rocks that shatter the fascism of IPS.
On April 19th, Loai wrote:
The battle of the empty stomachs still continues. It’s the third day of the strike. The hardest stage ends here as the body starts using the muscles’ reserves of food to produce energy. It stops sending signs and pains of hunger. Here, strikers feel that things are getting better, not realizing that they have begun losing around 1 kg of weight per day. Actually, by now, it has become harder for them to move.
According to law, strikers have the right to stop standing for the daily counting procedure starting from the third day, as standing causes them dizziness, and sometimes unconsciousness. Though Israel’s oppressive administration, compelled by law, exempts them from standing for counting, they overstrain our prisoners with endless searches and announcements, which are very exhausting.
Despite everything, our heroes become more steadfast from these attempts to enslave them. The more inhumane treatment they endure, the more strength and resistance they have.
As the living martyrs are the leading defenders for our dignity, we will always remain loyal to their just cause.
On April 20, Loai wrote:
Today is the fourth day of challenge and championship. Today, silence begins to spread all over. By now, the striker tends to be silent and stops talking. All the voices around him seem loud. He becomes unable to join discussions. As days pass, his ability to hear voices shrinks, expect for these which lift the spirit up and strengthen souls and hearts. These voices are mainly the ones that bring news about popular support for their battle. This news becomes the source of energy, the strongest motivation for them to remain steadfast.
Our enemy is fully aware of that. Israel spells their fascist generosity against our heroes. They set up speakers and raise the volume to its loudest, constantly playing Hebrew music and news that will depress their spirits. They also circulate special news about them, like claims about the declining number of hunger strikers and names of those who have broken their fasts. They also do their best to give hunger strikers the impression that life outside is moving on normally and no one there cares about them.
However, all these inhumane attempts fail once a prisoner returns from a visit with his lawyer to tell them about popular events held locally and internationally to support them and their just cause. So don’t ever underestimate any activity you do, as they have small, smuggled radios with which they follow the news. Even children’s protests increase their inner determination to achieve their aims, as they feel that their responsibilities have broadened to include children, the future generation, which have spiritually joined their battle.
We have faith in your ability to win and we are with you until victory!
Loai Odeh and his childhood friend Bilal Odeh whom he saddly left behind. This photo was taken in prison.
On April 21, Loai wrote:
Today is the fifth of the days of challenge. The battle of steadfastness goes on. What makes it more powerful is the strength of their leaders, which has a strong impact on the strikers’ spirit. The news which informs the strikers that their heroic leaders have joined the hunger strike fills them with unspeakable and incomparable energy. Ahmad Saadat has bravely joined their battle, despite his critical medical condition after participating in the previous, exhausting mass hunger strike, which lasted for 24 days. Receiving such news supports strikers morally, strengthening their determination even more.
We will unite soon as you win the battle.
On April 22, Loai wrote:
Today is the sixth day of the battle of championship, the hunger strike for the sake of dignity and freedom. Today, the strikers’ stomachs start to get used to hunger. Strikers make sure they lick some salt several times during the day to avoid the putrefaction of their stomachs. This annoys the tyrannical Israeli Prison Administration to the extent that they sometimes confiscate even the salt prisoners keep to survive their battle. However, our prisoners hide small quantities of salt in the cracks of walls or under their mattresses.
But IPS is very generous with the fascist practices they rain on our heroes. They pump water into their mattresses and walls so they salt melts. How can they accept our heroes finishing their strike without any permanent damage? Most of our prisoners who joined long hunger strikes have sustained ulcers and gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining) as a result.
But our prisoners have smart ways of hiding salt, small radios, and everything that helps them to survive and persist. Even if IPS stripped them of everything they own, it will never manage to break their will. Their indestructible spirit will lead them to victory, as they are starving for the sake of dignity.
Your steadfastness brings us honor!
On April 23, Loai wrote:
Today is the seventh day of the mass hunger strike, the battle of challenge. Strikers’ bodies get more accustomed to hunger than the first days of striking. However, joint pains start and a feeling of coldness pervades their bodies and increases as more days of hunger pass. Their stomachs adjust to the lack of food and stop producing the juice needed for digestion as there is no food to be digested in the first place. This avoids the negative side effects for this juice on their stomachs and helps the feeling of hunger to stop.
However, the fascist Zionist guards keep practicing their outrageous actions attempting to tempt the strikers. Inhumanely, they bring the cooking equipment in front of strikers’ cells and start frying and grilling food such as eggplants that arouses their empty stomachs to produce the digestive fluids. As a result, the hunger pangs begin anew, and having nothing for that juice to digest causes sores which accompanies strikers for many years after the hunger strike.
These fascist procedures, which we haven’t heard of even during Nazism, makes our heroes more determined to defeat the IPS with their empty stomachs.
With this battle of empty stomachs, you bring us honor. We trust in your ability to win.
Loai Odeh and his mother reunite in Gaza after his release.
On April 24, Loai wrote:
Today is the eighth day of the battle. In the eighth day of the hunger strike, the strikers’ movements start to decrease notably as the joint pain and the dizziness which result from moving prevents them from doing so. These consequences leave them stretched on their mattresses motionless, dreaming about the day the hunger strike ends with victory.
During these difficult times, our prisoners try their best to stop thinking about their families but all attempts fail. Instead, their families constantly dominate their thoughts, especially their mothers. Mothers become their central concern as strikers realize that their mothers bear more pain than they themselves do. Despite the fact that our heroes think of their mothers more than themselves, they keep looking forward to a breaking dawn when their strike will end with a satisfactory victory that befits them, a victory that makes them proud. All respect for the mother that gave birth to and raised these heroes. Palestinian mothers are the source and root of revolution that never complain giving.
It’s our duty to tenderly embrace our prisoners’ mothers with all possible care till we celebrate the victory and the freedom of their sons.
Khader Adnan took the heavy weight of 320 prisoner held in administrative detention, without any charge, on his shoulders. He hunger struck for a record 66 days to protest this unjust policy. His battle of an empty stomach wasn’t only a reminder to free souls around the world that we are real people who deserve freed and dignified lives, but also a message to those who share his suffering and injustice that they have a weapon stronger than the jailers’ arms: determination. Hana’ Shalabi followed his steps and starved herself for 44 days. After defeating Israel’s inhumane policies, Khader and Hana’ have become symbols of defiance and sources of inspiration and strength for our political prisoners to continue resisting injustice.
The mother of the detainees Bilal and Azzam Diab holding Bilal’s picture who is on hunger strike for 55 days
More heroes have arisen behind bars to break all chains with their empty stomachs. Bilal Diab, a 27-year-old man from Jenin, is one of them. He was detained for 80 months in 2003. After completing his sentence, before his first year out of prison, he was re-arrested aggressively after midnight, causing panic among neighbors. Then he received an administrative detention order for six months on 25 August 2011, based on “secret information” available to neither Bilal nor his lawyer, leaving him no other lawful means to defend himself. According to his detention order, he was supposed to be released on 25 February. But it was renewed, leading Bilal to rebel and defend himself by launching an open hunger strike. Azzam Diab, Bilal’s brother who was sentenced for a life time, is on the 23rd day of his hunger strike in solidarity with his brother Bilal. It just hard to imagine how their mother manages to remain strong while two of her sons are inside Israel’s prisons and both are dying to live.
Thaer Halahla, 34 years old, from H’rsan, near Hebron, is another hunger striker who joined Bilal on the same day, February 29, to protest the renewal of an administrative detention order against him. Thaer was re-arrested after two weeks of his marriage. He had previously been held under administrative detention four times. His imprisonment forced him to leave his pregnant wife and baby girl behind. His 22-month-old daughter was born while he was in prison and since birth, she has never had a chance to meet her father. At the beginning of January 2012, his administrative detention order was extended a third consecutive time for an additional six months. Desperate to be free, re-unite with his family, and hug his daughter for the first time, he has hunger struck 55 days so far.
Addameer reported that on 21 March, Bilal and Thaer were transferred to Ramleh prison medical center after their health began to deteriorate. Both are currently being held in isolated cells, suffer from medical neglect under difficult conditions. Thaer’s lawyer stated that he saw him vomiting blood from his nose and mouth and that he suffers a difficulty in speaking. As for Bilal, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel) noted that “after losing consciousness a number of times, Mr. Diab was hospitalized twice at Assaf Harofeh Hospital, but was subsequently returned to [Ramleh prison medical center].”
Eight other prisoners have reached dangerous stages of their hunger strikes, including Haddan Safadi (49 days), Omar Abu Shalal (47 days), Jaafar Azzedine (32 days), and Ahmad Saqer, the longest-held administrative detainee (36 days). Resistance against the administrative detention policy inside prisons has also taken other forms. Mohammed Suleiman, a thalassemia patient, is refusing medical treatment to protest his administrative detention that has been renewed three times. He also refuses to take blood tests.
Three other administrative detainees have also been moved to Ramleh prison medical center: Hassan Safadi, Omar Abu Shalal and Jaafar Azzedine, on their 45th, 43rd, and 28th days of hunger strike respectively. Ahmad Saqer, the longest-held current administrative detainee, is on the 32nd day of his hunger strike.
On Prisoners’ Day, 17 April, Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons launched a mass hunger strike after a wave of individual hunger strikes over the past few months. This collective hunger strike follows the 22-day campaign of disobedienceand mass hunger strike, launched at the end of September 2011 to protest cruel conditions and an escalating series of punitive measures against Palestinian prisoners such as solitary confinement, a ban of family and lawyers’ visits, and confiscations of prisoners’ possessions. The Israeli Prison Service promised to meet prisoners’ demands within three months if they ended their hunger strike. Six months have passed without any change. So prisoners have re-launched their hunger strike to demand their most basic rights.
Loai Odeh, a former prisoner and my best friend, whom I am very proud to have met after his release, joined that campaign of disobedience until the swap deal by Israel and Hamas on 18 October. Then he was released, and deported from Jerusalem to Gaza after ten years of imprisonment. Since his release, prisoners he left behind have been his main concern. He always attends events in solidarity with them. He has been my main resource every time I had a question or needed to enrich my knowledge about prisoners’ conditions.
While following his updates on Facebook, I noticed that he had written new statuses taking the form of a striker’s diaries while recalling his experience. This surprised me, as it has seldom happened since he opened his account. The diary of the fourth day was the most touching and important for everyone to read that I want to share them with my readers as a strong call for action.
“Today is the fourth day of challenge and championship,” Loai wrote. “Today, silence begins to spread all over. By now, the striker tends to be silent and stop talking. All the voices around him seem loud. He becomes unable to join their discussions. As days pass, his ability to hear voices shrinks, expect for these which lift the spirit up and strengthens souls and hearts. These voices are mainly the ones that bring news about popular support for their battle. This news becomes the source of energy, the strongest motivation for them to remain steadfast.”
Regarding Israeli Prison Service response, he stated, “Our enemy is fully aware of that. Israel spells their fascist generosity against our heroes. They set up speakers and raise the volume to its loudest, constantly playing Hebrew music and news that will depress their spirits. They also distribute special news about them, like claims about the declining number of hunger strikers and names of those who have broken their fasts. They also do their best to give hunger strikers the impression that life outside is moving on normally and no one there cares about them.”
“However, all these inhumane attempts fail once a prisoner returns from a visit with his lawyer to tell them about popular events held locally and internationally to support them and their just cause, ” he said. “So don’t ever underestimate any activity you do, as they have small, smuggled radios with which they follow the news. Even children’s protests increase their inner determination to achieve their goals, as they feel that their responsibilities have broadened to include children, the future generation, who have spiritually joined their battle.”
He ended by saying, “We have faith in your ability to win and we are with you until victory!”
Several thousands of Palestinians joined the marches on Prisoners’ Day in Gaza. (Joe Catron)
Last Monday, I couldn’t wait for my class to end at 10:00am. My dad doesn’t know how to send a text message, but somehow, while inside the lecture, I received one from him, urging me to come to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As soon as students were allowed to leave, I was the first one out the door. I walked as quickly as I could from school to the ICRC. I stopped a taxi, even though it was a ten-minute walk. I wanted to be there in time so I would not miss any of the weekly protest for Palestinian political prisoners. I expected that it would be a unique protest, especially since the following day was Prisoners’ Day. I was right.
It wasn’t the usual protest that I always see. The street was closed. No cars could pass. The hall inside the ICRC, as well as the sit-in tent in front of it, were filled with people. Artistic touches of anger, steadfastness, and hope were added.
As I arrived, I found Dad chatting cheerfully with a man I had never seen in the ICRC before. His story was worth hearing. His name is Zuhdy al-Adawi. My father and Zuhdy were both released in the 1985 swap deal after spending 15 years in Israeli jails. Dad was released to Gaza but Zuhdy, unfortunately, was deported to Syria. Since then, Dad had never met his friend. However, Zuhdy managed to return for the first time to his birth place about two weeks ago. “After 27 years of separation, we’re meeting here again,” Dad said happily with his arm on Zuhdy’s shoulder.
I could see people crowded around stands on paintings across the street. Dad grabbed my drawing book, which I had carried there to show my friends a new picture, and opened it while saying, “Shahd is an artist, too.” Zuhdy smiled at me and pointed at the exhibition saying humbly, “Awesome! Then you should look at those paintings and tell me what you think.”
“Are you the artist?” I asked excitedly. Zuhdy pulled me close to the stands and answered proudly, “All these paintings are my work from my detention in Ashqelon Prison. It was important for me to exhibit them in Gaza so your generation and the coming generations keep learning about the Palestinian prisoners’ issue through art.” My eyes were captured by his talent and creativity. Every painting told a story full of suffering and challenge. They summed up the Palestinian struggle and the pains and the injustices that Palestinian people suffer, especially the humiliating conditions our political prisoners endure.
“Expressing myself with colors was banned inside prison,” Zuhdy said angrily. “I used to cut pillowcases and use them as my canvas. I managed to smuggle some pastel and wax colors. I used to paint under fear. How could I paint while jailers surrounded me? But with my persistence and my friends’ collaboration, I managed to make these and smuggle them out of jail.”
Zuhdy’s expressive, creative paintings left me speechless. He made me feel happy, happy that the heartless jailers failed to imprison his mind or imagination. He lived in prison, but his heart and mind were free. To see more of his drawings, see Joe Catron’s album here or watch this video.
“Be sure that our prisoners resist in many different ways,” Zuhdy said. “Many writers, intellectuals, and painters arose in prison, from the unspeakable love for Palestine, and from the daily suffering, oppression, and injustice. We have full confidence that can defeat the jailers’ inhumanity. We have a just cause for which we sacrifice and in which we believe, and we are ready to use any possible means to call for our freedom and justice.” With these strong words, he ended his inspiring conversation with me. It will be stamped in my mind for as long as I live to keep on my path, using pencils, words, and every other way to make my people’s voice heard. People like Zuhdy make my pride at being Palestinian grow every day.
That night, we returned to the ICRC to join hundreds of people who gathered to celebrate “the flame of freedom”. Who could be more worth than Hana al-Shalabi to light this flame? She was there with her beautiful, elderly mother, who had joined her daughter on hunger strike despite her age. My heart leaped when I saw them. Excitedly, we surrounded the flame and watched the champion of empty stomachs, Hana al-Shalabi, light it to mark Prisoners’ Day with a symbol of loyalty to those who are still locked behind Israeli bars and a promise that they will be never forgotten, and that we will always call for their freedom. I hope one day, we will light up this flame when Palestine is free and Israeli prisons have been emptied.
On April 17th, many popular events were held throughout Palestine. Prisoners’ Day was different this year. It had a sweet taste as the day Israel released Khader Adnan, another hero of empty stomachs who hunger struck for a record 66 days to protest being held in administrative detention without charge. His freedom put bright smiles of hope on the angry faces of prisoners’ families.
In Gaza, Palestine’s flags colored its blue sky. I left home early, eager to join the events. Marches came from every street of Gaza. All ages and genders, and many disabled people, joined the protest. It was a remarkable scene of unity and compassion between Palestinians in Gaza. Even schoolchildren participated, with their tender voices chanting, “Rise our moon, rise and light the whole universe. We weren’t born to live in humiliation, but to live in freedom.” Marches came from all directions to unite in front of the ICRC. I felt a revolution inside me when I saw thousands of people uniting their voice: “Free, free Palestine.”
Among the protesters, ten-year-old Haitham Al-Zariey, holding a picture and chanting loudly, attracted my attention. “Who is the person in the picture?” I asked him. “This is my uncle Hussien,” he said with a smile of pride. “He has been detained for eleven years. I was born when he was in jail. A few years ago, I learned that I have an uncle held captive by Israel. I have never met him.” When I asked him what he wished he could tell his uncle, he answered, “I wish I could tell him that I am here chanting for his freedom, and the freedom of all other Palestinians in Israel’s prisons. I hope I can witness his freedom soon. I wish Israel at least allow us to visit him.”
I was thrilled by the little boy’s awareness of the prisoners’ issue. Haitham is a small example of the rising revolutionary generation who will go on demanding justice and freedom for all Palestinians. On Prisoners’ Day, we renew our promise to never forget those who sacrificed precious years for the sake of our freedom and dignity. Someday all chains must break. Freedom for all Palestinian political prisoners.
Unlike Monday, Tuesday was a happy day. On Monday, I woke up with eyes full of tears after I fell asleep to a tragic story, a story that was not heard widely, but happened in Gaza. Three kids lit up a candle to escape the darkness that filled their house in Al-Bureej Refugee Camp in the central Gaza Strip and slept. As the candle burned out, the candle of their lives was extinguished, too.