On 19 December, the second and last group of Palestinian prisoners to be exchanged for a captured Israeli soldier is expected to be released. The 550 men slated for release will at long last taste freedom after years — for some, decades — behind bars. Their stories will likely be similar to the 447 freed in October.
While imprisoned Israeli authorities did virtually everything to obliterate the detainees’ moorings to reality and their connections to their culture, families and fellow prisoners — from prohibiting visits for months at a time, to forcing repeated moves to disrupt any new-found friendships, to imposing solitary confinement, sometimes for years at a time. Some prisoners crack. One freed prisoner I met during my recent trip to Gaza had been isolated for 15 years; he seemed unable to sustain a conversation with anyone else, instead muttering softly to himself virtually nonstop.
But what also stands out despite these unimaginable hardships is prisoners’ tenacity in finding small, yet powerful ways to resist and hold on to their sense of identity and purpose. This is the story of Samer Abu Seir and Loai Odeh — two men who met in prison and have remained friends ever since — but they speak for so many others.
Abu Seir grew up in East Jerusalem, in the midst of the turmoil of the first intifada. The enduring symbol of the 1980s uprising is one of young men and boys throwing stones at Israeli troops advancing in tanks, and Abu Seir was one of them. He joined the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) when he was 16.
“The movement wasn’t very well organized then,” Abu Seir recalled on 1 December through an interpreter, while sitting in a temporary apartment in the Gaza Strip, before moving to his new home provided by the Hamas government. “We were grouped into cells, and we weren’t as savvy then as people are now about how to work ‘invisibly.’ Our names were well-known.”
When he was 22, his PFLP cell killed two Israeli soldiers from a unit invading his neighborhood; Abu Seir wasn’t personally involved, but he was caught up in the dragnet. In the dead of night, troops suddenly appeared at his home, breaking in and hitting and kicking him before dragging him away. His mother — who had raised her three sons and two daughters alone since her husband died when the children were small — was away in Jordan at the time. When she heard the news of her son’s capture, she came rushing home and waited for hours outside the interrogation center where Abu Seir was being held.
She never got to see him, however. Abu Seir was interrogated for 15 days, and held another three months before a trial was held.
“They wanted names of other people I was involved with, so the treatment was very harsh,” he recalled. “They made me take off all of my clothes except my underwear, and then forced me to lie on the cold floor, or outside in the snow. It was winter.”
When it wasn’t naturally freezing outside, the Israelis resorted to what Abu Seir called “the fridge” — a small room with the air-conditioning blowing at full blast. When one is left there for days, with no clothing or blankets, it is a form of torture, he said. The cold seeps into a prisoner’s bones and seems to settle in permanently.
“You suffer an internal conflict,” he explained. “I was very young, and the interrogators told me that some of my best friends, who had been imprisoned before me, had already told them everything about me … So why not say whatever they wanted? But I just kept thinking of my family. I didn’t want them to be in my place.”
In the end, Abu Seir signed a paper “confessing” to the facts of the cell’s actions, sticking to what the Israelis had already known. He was sentenced to lifetime imprisonment. “Just one lifetime,” he said with a slight smile. So many of his fellow prisoners received sentences of multiple lifetimes.
In the 24 years that followed, Abu Seir figured he was moved to every one of Israel’s prisons. The longest time he spent in any one place, he said, was three or four years. And at one point, he was kept in solitary confinement for three and a half years.
Although family visits were supposed to be permitted every three months, that “privilege” was often revoked as punishment for any sign of disobedience. In one instance, Abu Seir waited for ten months before a visit was allowed.
Even when visits were permitted, however, the process was humiliating. His mother and siblings had to pass through many checkpoints to get to the prison, followed by hours of waiting and intrusive body searches before they were allowed to see their son and brother. (It’s worth a reminder: Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits forcible transfers of people from an occupied territory. But Israel has been doing just that since 1967.)
None of the prison guards with whom Abu Seir came into contact over the years showed any real sympathy — not surprising, he thinks, since the most right-leaning of Israeli citizens are chosen for that job. But the worst of the lot seemed to always be transplanted Americans, he said with a twinkle in his eye as he looked at me.
Despite all their efforts, however, the Israelis were ultimately defeated where it counts the most: Abu Seir and his fellow prisoners kept resisting.
“The purpose behind Israel’s imprisonment is to isolate us from our ethics and morals, to cause internal conflict, to make us think about surrendering to get better treatment,” he explained. “We lived in prison, yes. But the prison didn’t live within us.”
The prisoners — usually grouped eight to a section — elected a leader who found inventive ways to network with the other representatives throughout the jail. The various leaders made decisions for the entire prison population. When they chose to take a stand — whether it be through a petition or hunger strike — they did it as a group, with no exceptions.
Sometimes, it was over relatively small irritants — like the time when the Israeli guards ordered them not to watch TV during official inmate counts, a ritual conducted three times a day. It was petty, but just one more way for the Israelis to exert their domination. The prisoners chose to refuse, watching TV anyway. The response was swift — no family visits or daily exercise breaks. But, said Abu Seir, it was even more important that the prisoners proved they were still willing to stand up as a group.
Finding a new strength
“Life in prison just made us stronger,” he said. “When you go on a hunger strike, and go without food for days and days, you find abilities and a strength you didn’t know you had. When it comes to defending our very identity and culture, Israel will never be stronger than we are.”
Odeh was “radicalized” when he was arrested for the first time when he was just 11, for waving the Palestinian flag on the streets of East Jerusalem — an act declared illegal by the occupying forces. He was arrested two more times after that before he was imprisoned during the second intifada, with a sentence of 28 years. He recalls his mother attempting to shield him with her body when the Israelis came for him. However, she was forced to give him up when the soldiers used another relative as a shield.
Odeh met Abu Seir in the early stages of Odeh’s ten years of imprisonment, and then they were separated for the remainder of their sentences.
“You start feeling weak if you feel abandoned, and the Israelis did everything they could to make us feel that way,” Odeh said. The time he remembered feeling most like he was losing that sense of “connection” to the society beyond the bars was when he got news via Israeli radio of the split in the unity government between Hamas andFatah in 2007. “That made me wonder if everything I had struggled for would be lost in internal fighting,” he recalled.
“The biggest challenge is to be able to resist yourself, to defeat the longing for freedom and your family, which makes you weak and tempted to give up,” he said. “I looked for small ways to re-assert my own sense of identity and control. There is always a way, no matter how insignificant. Like, when the guards prohibited smoking while waiting for families to arrive on visit days, I decided to quit smoking. I quit that day, so my enemy would not win.”
Both Odeh and Abu Seir also used education as a form of resistance. Although a limited variety of books were made available to prisoners by the International Committee of the Red Cross, formal education was banned until 1996.
After that, Palestinian prisoners were allowed to pursue self-study in a narrow range of subjects through a distance-learning program. Odeh would have liked to study psychology, and Abu Seir wanted to learn mechanical engineering; however, sociology was the only program offered them. When an Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinian resistance fighters in 2007, that came to a halt as well.
Today, the two men are reunited in the Gaza Strip. Although the West Bank is their home, they were not allowed to return there under the exchange deal negotiated with the Israeli government. After a brief visit was allowed for their mothers, they are now alone, learning to fit into yet another new community.
What their future holds is not certain yet, and they acknowledged that it will not be an easy adjustment. They were welcomed along with the other 131 prisoners “deported” to Gaza, with party after party for the “returning heroes.” The Hamas administration in Gaza has helped the released prisoners by securing and paying for housing. But Abu Seir compares this early transition stage to a “festival.” Once the attention dies down, the hard work will begin.
“I want to finish my bachelor’s degree, find work, start a family,” said Abu Seir. “But my fellow inmates who remain in prison [of which there are still more than 5,000] will always be in my mind. I was basically raised by some of them, educated by them. We cannot rest until they are free as well.”
Odeh, who is struggling to be reunited with his fiancee, a Palestinian living in Haifa, added that he can never truly rest until he returns to his real home, in Jerusalem. For him and other Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and its population of fellow Palestinians are so close, and yet so far — divided by a barrier Israel has effectively used to separate brother from brother, wife from husband.
“Jerusalem will always be my ultimate dream,” said Odeh. “And I will never stop seeking my return.”