By Gemma Ksenia La Guardia
Dheisheh Refugee Camp sits cramped and crowded between high fences at the southern end of Bethlehem in Palestine. Established after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, further waves of Palestinian refugees have arrived there after subsequent wars. Since 1948, it has grown in population, but hardly in size, and now houses around 16,000 people in an area of 1.5 square kilometres. The tall towers and narrow alleyways are coloured by relentless splashes of colour from graffiti of popular satire cartoons, chants and murals portraying the fresh faces of young men that have been killed by the Israeli Defence Forces. On the campus of Bethlehem University where I was studying, I became friends with another student, Saeeid, from Dheisheh, who in turn introduced me to his friends, one of whom was Bilal. Bilal is 29, of stocky build, short back and sides with slicked back hair, and a big beard. He dons a T-Shirt with a bearded man on the front of it which has an uncanny resemblance to himself. In any European setting, Bilal could be your average hipster. But his story does not follow the track of your average, boutique coffee sipping, Whole Foods shopping, “I was listening to Arctic Monkeys before they were cool” hipster. His family came to Dheisheh from Wala’ja village near Jerusalem, and since the age of fourteen, he has spent a total of seven years and four months in jail. He is a PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) activist, a revolutionary socialist party, founded by George Habbash, and has newly enrolled to become a law student. Over the course of an afternoon in his house in Dheisheh, between rounds of Coca Cola, Fanta and ice cream, he told me his stories of life in and out of jail, hunger strikes, and his hopes from the future. Thanks go to Saeeid who kindly helped me translate from Arabic on the spot.
What was it like to grow up in imprisonment?
“For my entire youth I was in the jail, and a lot of life has changed around me and has developed while I was in and out of jail. The first impression you get when you enter is that it is a patriarchal community – all males – and it is not something still, it is a community that moves. I first came to jail when I was 14 and a half, and spent three and a half years there. It was difficult for someone of my age, and I was obliged to learn things that were not for my age. I learned things earlier than I should have. In prison, I lived with the Leftist Party – there are different parties, like the Leftists, the Right, the Islamists – I am a communist so I lived with the communists. So I was encouraged to learn the basic things that communism teaches. And you learn the basic things about how to be a revolutionary and how to be a fighter. Prison is the most torturing thing to a human, or any creature, can face, I believe even for a bird.”
“The third time I was arrested and went to jail, I went into administrative detention for almost 20 months, for no reason. When I came out, the Israeli side collaborated with the Palestinian Authority and said I must not live in Bethlehem because I was dangerous, so they sent me to Ramallah. And I stayed there for some months and when I went back to Bethlehem they arrested me.”
Who arrested you? The Palestinians?
“No, the Israelis.”
How did they find out?
“Through the Palestinian Authority. I was in Ramallah and had to go every week to sign to an office to give my signature to show I was there. And when I moved back to Bethlehem I stopped going to give the signatures and they realised that I was absent, they informed the Israelis that I had moved back to Bethlehem.
What happened the fourth time you were arrested?
“When they arrested me the fourth time, the last, they sent me straight to administrative detention, with a secret file and no charge, just that I was part of the PFLP and was an activist and I broke the rules of security, and that I had to stay in jail. After they gave me 6 months of administrative detention, they kept me inside the cells, the individual cells [solitary confinement]. It was then that I started the hunger strike.”
How did you find out if you were in solitary confinement?
“Through someone who had entered the cell beside me in isolation. He told me that a hunger strike had been started to protest the administrative detention, and that the media knew about him and the other five men. When I heard this, I called the admin and told them that I wished to strike in unison with them.”
How did the authorities react to the hunger strike?
“Firstly, when you first inform them that you are going on a hunger strike, they immediately start moving you from isolation to isolation to try and tire you out. They moved me to Ramla isolation, then they moved me to Askalan isolation, then to Hermon isolation, the Tzalmon isolation, the Shata isolation, then Jalbu’a isolation, then back again. They also enter your cell almost every night to check if there is any food in it. Ramla isolation is an old place, like a place for the horses. You can’t even shower, you can’t shave your beard. And then they transfer you every 3-5 days to make you tired. And they try and isolate you from the news and the outside world or how people are listening to your case. There is just one hour every Saturday that you can go outside and walk in a field, but with your hands and feet chained.”
What were the effects of your hunger strike?
“There was a big problem for me because the administration was not replying to my requests to be released from solitary confinement, and therefore I decided to start eresh hunger strike [without water]. I did it for 6 days and almost died. This damaged something in my kidney and until today I have problems with my kidney. When I did the eresh hunger strike, they told me: ok, we will release you, but you will spend the rest of your sentence in isolation and not in the normal jail with the other prisoners. I said, this is the reason for which I am doing the hunger strike. When I started not to take water I started to collapse, and so they forced me to take injections to compensate, but whenever I woke up I would tear the IV drip out of my hand, so I was insisting to go back to the normal jail or to be released.”
What is the hardest part of a hunger strike?
“The hardest level of a hunger strike is the very beginning. Because I was not prepared. Normally, before the strike, prisoners take soup and milk and honey to make everything inside liquid and then you go to the bathroom and your stomach becomes clear. Otherwise things inside the stomach become tough and and they will hurt you. So I was not prepared for this because I suddenly found myself in isolation and not in the normal jail. It was horrible because I was not psychologically ready and I was scared that no one knew that I was on a hunger strike. It was a risk to do it like this, but it was what I had to do. After 2 weeks, I felt that I was dying. I wasn’t even expecting from myself that I could last that long, but the idea of freedom helped me keep going.”
How did it end?
“On the 48th day, I was almost about to die, so I was about to call the intelligence of the prison to tell them that I wanted to stop the strike. But in that moment, they came in and told me that they accepted my demands. When I went to the normal jail, I was tired and it took me long days to fit in with the new situation, and I was destroyed psychologically and physically. My brother was by chance the administrator of Fateh inside the jail, and noticed how much I was isolated and how I could not participate with the people and how I was thinking so much by myself, but it was good to be among people.”
So what do you do now?
“Now, I am working at the Shepherd’s Hotel as an Italian chef, and when I come home I am here and see friends and go out etc.. And this year I will start university again.”
Where do you want to be in 10 years?
“No, where do I want to be in 7 years and four months?”
Ok, where do you want to be in 7 years and four months?
“I want to have a lawyer’s card, a small house in al-Walaja, and a library and a small farm, with one animal from each kind, with two children, and a wife.”