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Building Solidarity with Palestinian Prisoners, Resisting Israel’s Criminalization of Life

Kole Kilibarda
Date Published: 
August 01, 2005
    Kole Kilibarda of the Toronto-based Palestinian political prisoner solidarity group Sumuod discusses the importance of building a cross-border movement linking prisoner struggles in North America to those of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

Umm and Abu Hussein’s two sons, Sami and Yasser, are being held in Jelboa and Nakab prisons. Physical reminders of their presence come in the form of two pictures that Umm Hussein has hung on the walls of the family reception room. Similar pictures hang from the walls of many neighboring homes in Nablus’ old city and the surrounding refugee camps of Askar, Balata and El-Ein – as they do throughout Palestine. They are pictures of brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, mothers or fathers that have been imprisoned by the Israeli authorities. The faces that stare down from the walls are a reminder of one of the most pervasive means of control that Israel has deployed in order to disrupt the lives of Palestinians. Every so often these pictures are taken down by friends or relatives and brought into the streets, in front of local television cameras, in front of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) offices, or flashed in the face of Israeli soldiers brandishing M16s. The demand is always the same: Free our Prisoners! It might be hard for some in North America to comprehend the centrality of political prisoner issues in Palestinian political consciousness or to identify with the countless ways in which awareness of prison issues makes its way into the daily lives of people. For others however – especially to people from racialized or targeted communities – the consciousness of prison bars imposing themselves on and disrupting close personal, social or family networks is all too familiar. In some sense – given the centrality of prisons in maintaining prevailing hierarchies of power and privilege – every prisoner, be it here at home, in Palestine, or any number of other contexts, is a political prisoner. Viewed from this perspective the abolition of prisons is central to any comprehensive anti-imperialist struggle for liberation. Sumoud’s recent tour of Palestinian political prisoners was an attempt to bridge the gap between the global and the local, between movements for political prisoner solidarity and wider prison abolition struggles. This was done by demonstrating the centrality of prisoner solidarity work to Palestine solidarity activism and the commensurate need for Palestine solidarity activists to build concrete links with local prisoner solidarity movements here in North America. Administrative detainees Currently there are 7500 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons, of which 750 are so-called ‘administrative detainees’ held without charge for renewable periods of six months, 344 are youth under 18-years-old, and 115 are women. Since 1967, over 600,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israeli security forces. The impact on Palestinian men has been most significant, with Israeli forces routinely targeting males between the ages of 16 to 45. Roughly half of the adult male population has been incarcerated at one point or another in the past 28 years of Israeli occupation. This comprehensive system of incarceration is central to the institutionalization of Israeli apartheid over the occupied territories. The carceral logics of the occupation – as in all colonial contexts – contribute to a climate in which the entire Palestinian population is criminalized as a means of denying self-determination. In Palestine this is accomplished through a system of 1500 military regulations for the West Bank and 1400 military regulations for the Gaza Strip that regulate almost every aspect of Palestinian life. This criminalization is further perpetuated through a system of closures, curfews, walls, fences, checkpoints, closed military areas, settler roads, ditches, earth-mounds, road-blocks, etc. that serve to physically constrain the movements of Palestinian civilians. In his March 2005 report to the UN Committee on Human Rights, UN Special Raporteur for the Occupied Territories John Dugard made this link explicit: “Gaza at present is a prison, with walls, fences and soldiers to control its external borders, and with prison guards in the form of IDF soldiers who impose severe restrictions on the internal movement of Palestinian civilians and police the conduct of Palestinians within Gaza.” With the construction of Israel’s apartheid separation barrier – a complex of walls, ditches, fences, gates and watchtowers that are encroaching on Palestinian communities – not to mention the aforementioned mechanisms of control, populations in the West Bank are also increasingly feeling imprisoned. Hunger strikes In Palestine, prisoners and their families have organized to challenge the entire structure of Israeli incarceration and to pressure international organizations, such as the ICRC, that have failed in their duty to protect prisoners. Organizing takes many forms both within and outside the prison walls. Inside prisons, prisoners have organized uprisings, hunger strikes, and mass-disobedience and non-cooperation campaigns. On the outside, prisoners’ committees have been formed with the backing of political factions, including the cross-faction Prisoners’ Society ( and the more grassroots network of Prisoners’ Families Committees that have sprung up in every major Palestinian urban center ( While agendas and objectives vary, the Palestinian prisoner solidarity movement has been remarkable for the diversity of tactics it has employed and its general steadfastness. Its major success has been to keep the issue of prisoners at the forefront of political negotiations, despite concerted attempts by Israeli and US policy makers to deemphasize or discredit this central aspect of the Palestinian struggle. The intensity of the prisoner issue was amply demonstrated on August 15, 2004, when nearly 4000 political prisoners went on hunger strike throughout the Israeli prison system. The strikers were supported from the outside by all Palestinian prisoner organizations, which showed their solidarity by setting up “hunger-strikers’ tents” in the center of almost all Palestinian cities, towns and villages. In Nablus, prisoners’ and their families’ struggles are particularly salient. At the time of the hunger strike, families had not been able to visit their imprisoned loved ones since ‘closure’ was imposed on the city during the notorious Israeli military offensive in the spring of 2002. Among the strikers in Nablus was 55-year-old Aisha Azabin, whose son Amar had been imprisoned by the occupation authority since 1998 and whose other son was killed by the Israeli military in 1994. On August 30, she was buried after passing away on the fourteenth day of the hunger strike. Her quiet martyrdom wasn’t forgotten in Palestine, although it went largely ignored in the outside world. Israeli Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi set the tone for the Israeli response on the first day of the strike. He declared at a press-conference that, “The prisoners can strike for a day, a month, even starve to death as far as I’m concerned.” Despite the hard-line response by the Israeli prison authorities the strike lasted for 20-days, gaining a number of concessions – none of which were as important as the sense of collective solidarity that was, once again, reinforced between prisoners and their allies. Current campaigns It is important to recognize that the strike was only a small portion of a larger current of organizing in Palestine that emphasizes solidarity with prisoners and their families. A number of prison solidarity organizations have sprung up around Palestine to undertake various aspects of prisoner solidarity work and to meet the differing needs of prisoners and their communities. These activities have ranged from concrete forms of support tailored to the specific needs of families that lose a member, including financial, psychological, and social support to counseling services for former prisoners and political actions like marches, rallies, direct actions, vigils, and hunger strikes. Some of the main campaigns include those to free prominent political prisoners, including the Committee to Free Marwan Barghouti ( and the Popular Committee in Solidarity with Hussam Khader and Palestinian Prisoners ( There are also campaigns targeting the imprisonment of local activists by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and groups that monitor the conditions inside PA institutions. One of the main campaigns on this front is the campaign to release Ahmad Saadat, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Secretary-General currently being held in the PA’s Jericho detention facility, which is overseen by British and US intelligence services ( Other campaigns focus on humanitarian considerations. The Ramallah-based Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association has chosen to focus its latest campaign on Manal Ghanem and her one and a half-year old son Nour – who are both locked up in Israel’s Telmond prison ( In addition to being imprisoned while trying to raise a newborn child, Manal is suffering from thalassemia – an inherited disease of the red blood cells similar to sickle cell anemia – and is unable to get the treatment she needs for her ailment in prison. According to Manal, conditions in the prison are very difficult, “I worry for the life of Nour because the prison guards sometimes use gas or water against the female prisoners [to put down protests]. He needs the sunlight and fresh air, toys, etc and none of this is allowed. When he is provided with diapers, they are always too small and upset Nour.” The case has been used by Addameer to highlight one of the most immediate frustrations that confront prisoners and their families. Family visits have been made difficult by an institutionalized system of permits that serves as an additional element of control over Palestinian life. Even if families obtain such permits, family members are separated by wire mesh and glass barriers that do not allow any physical contact between prisoners and their families. The demand for the removal of such barriers was central to the prisoners’ hunger strike last summer. Unfortunately, this demand was never achieved and continues to be a central short-term goal of prisoner groups. This and other demands are part of the broader campaign that the Prisoners’ Families Committees have launched against the ICRC. Prisoners’ families have been staging weekly demonstrations in front of local ICRC offices around a set of very specific demands ( The campaign’s demands are nearly identical to the basic demands that prisoners have repeatedly asked the ICRC to address when dealing with Israeli prison authorities. Solidarity actions This April, Sumoud worked with a number of prisoner and Palestine solidarity groups in New York city, Washington D.C., Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal to bring Palestinian lawyer Sahar Francis, an Addameer activist, and former political prisoner Akram Al-Ayasa on a speaking tour of North America. The tour was meant to build awareness of solidarity campaigns being developed by both Sumoud and Addameer and it culminated with an international day of action targeting ICRC offices on April 18 that included actions in San Francisco, Chicago, and Toronto. The actions at the ICRC offices are designed to support the work of the Prisoners’ Families Committees in Palestine and already seem to have had an affect on the ICRC’s actions in Palestine. Political prisoners in one prison have informed their lawyers that ICRC officials recently asked to examine the entire prison facility – an unprecedented step given that ICRC staff traditionally acquiesce to limited inspection parameters dictated by Israeli prison authorities. Besides the opportunities the tour created for deepening Palestine solidarity activism and building cross-border coalitions between various prison solidarity movements, the tour also served to highlight points of interest that may be used to further develop prisoner solidarity work here in North America. In particular, the tour served to emphasize the need to work more closely with those most affected by the prison experience in organizing an effective prisoner solidarity movement. Locally in Toronto, this has meant that Sumoud activists have begun working on the Prisoners’ Justice Action Collective’s (PJAC) “81-Reasons Campaign” designed to stop the construction of a new youth super-jail in nearby Brampton. Additionally, Sumoud is organizing more closely with Palestinian prisoners’ families and former political prisoners that live in Canada. The tour has also led to the development of closer links with other international prisoner solidarity struggles, including those of prisoners in Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines. These cross-border linkages will be increasingly important in the years to come, as we struggle to confront what prisoner justice activist Julia Sudbury has described as a ‘global lockdown’ spurred by the twin logics of neo-liberalism and Empire. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Kole Kilibarda is a member of Sumoud. He recently returned from 10 months in Palestine, where he worked as a coordinator in Nablus for the International Solidarity Movement (