Palestinian Administrative Detainee Released From Israeli Custody After 65-day Hunger Strike

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Majdulin Abu Atwan sitting behind a picture of her son at their home in Dura on Thursday.
Majdulin Abu Atwan sitting behind a picture of her son at their home in Dura on Thursday.Credit: Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Ghadanfar Abu Atwan, a 27-year-old Palestinian who was detained in Israel without charges, went on a 65-day hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. Since June 16, he has been barely drinking water, only once every few days and after he passes out. About three weeks ago, he was transferred from an Israel Prison Service clinic in Ramle to Kaplan Hospital near Rehovot due to his deteriorating condition.

Abu Atwan is “in very bad physical shape, noticeably weak, almost unable to speak, appears to be in great pain" and is "reporting intense stomach and chest pain, mainly on his left side, which radiates to his back. [And he] doesn’t move lower limbs." This was Ghadanfar Abu Atwan's medical report from Wednesday.

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On Thursday, his lawyer, Jawad Boulos, visited him again in the hospital. He tried to convince Abu Atwan to drink water, as his family was waiting with anticipation at their home in the West Bank city of Dura, near Hebron. On Thursday evening, Boulos delivered a dramatic announcement.

First, he said Abu Atwan’s administrative detention was to be revoked. Then, around 8 P.M., he announced that the detention order had been officially revoked. At 9:15 P.M., Abu Atwan was in an ambulance on his way to the Rantis checkpoint. A Palestinian ambulance then transferred Abu Atwan to a Ramallah hospital. "A triumph over the occupation," Palestinian news sites hailed.

Abu Atwan consciously chose the painful and dangerous option of an indefinite hunger strike. This was his way of showing how precious his freedom is to him, his mother Majdoleen told Haaretz on Thursday morning at a meeting in their house.

“He is demanding that the Shin Bet revoke the administrative detention order that was issued in October 2020 [and was renewed six months later] or tell him what he's been charged with, press charges and put him on trial,” she said.

“He also says: If you have any proof that I did something against Israel’s laws, please lock me up. But don’t imprison me for an unlimited period for things you claim I might do in the future."

Administrative detention means that a person is imprisoned without charges, a trial, the right to defend oneself or a conviction. Under administrative detention, a person is placed in custody on suspicion of undisclosed evidence to substantiate the fear that he or she will commit an offense in the future.

The Shin Bet security service issues the order, which is signed by the commander of the region or another military commander in the West Bank. The order is valid for six months and can be extended repeatedly, indefinitely.

A tent outside the Abu Atwans' home in Hebron.Credit: Amira Hass

Six years in Israel prisons

On June 24, the High Court of Justice ruled to suspend Abu Atwan’s detention because of his deteriorating health and because “he does not pose any danger at the moment.” As soon as his condition improves, the justices wrote, “the respondents [the Shin Bet and the army] must not be denied of potentially renewing the administrative detention.”

In light of the court's decision, Abu Atwan decided to carry on with his hunger strike. His unusual status of being neither a prisoner nor a free man meant he wasn’t chained to the bed, had visitors, including journalists, and when he could still talk, he spoke to members of his family by phone. But they didn’t receive permits to leave the West Bank to visit him.

On Wednesday, the High Court of Justice ordered the state prosecution to disclose its position on Abu Atwan’s request of a transfer to a Palestinian hospital. In the meantime, however, his release was announced. Mahmoud al-Aloul, deputy chairman of the Fatah movement, delivered the news to the family.

This is his third administrative detention. His mother told Haaretz that when he was 19 he was sentenced to two years in prison after being convicted of hurling a firebomb at a military jeep. So far, he has spent six years in Israeli prisons. During the previous detentions, he also went on hunger strikes – once for 41 days and once for 20 days.

His younger brother was supposed to take his matriculation exams around now, but he couldn't concentrate. His five sisters and mother were having difficulty eating. Every sip of water reminded them of what the doctors and attorney Boulos told them: He hasn't drunk anything for a few days, he fainted, so they gave him liquids and sugar by infusion. When he regained consciousness, he again refused to drink, only drinking after very long intervals.

For more than two months, the whole family went to sleep with distress and woke up with it. One of his sisters, Warda, couldn’t even look at photos of him from the hospital. This is also why she didn’t submit a request to visit him.

“Every time Ghadanfar was arrested, the soldiers and Shin Bet came in the middle of the night and turned the house upside down,” his mother said. The last time, in October – they came twice, “entering through the window, straight into the room where the girls were sleeping.” But he wasn’t home, he was at work, on a shift at the Palestinian customs police. 

Ghandafar Abu Atwan's mother at home Thursday.Credit: Amira Hass

A Fatah family

His mother said a Shin Bet officer announced that her son would be killed unless he turned himself in. His father went to see him and persuaded him to turn himself in.

At first, they placed him under administrative detention in Ramon Prison. When he began his hunger strike, his sister Banan says, he was moved to Ohalei Keidar prison and placed in isolation. Then he was sent to the prison service clinic in Ramle and from there to the hospital. The whole family was torn between understanding his motives to continue the hunger strike and fearing for his life, knowing the anguish he was going through at any given moment.

“I’m afraid of the irrevocable damage that this might cause his health,” his mother said. The parents’ moral support for their son prevented them from saying openly that they preferred that he stop the hunger strike.

This isn’t only moral support, but political as well. The Abu Atwan family is proud of its decades-long affiliation with the Fatah movement and its tradition of resisting the Israeli occupation.

Grandfather Moussa headed a military detail during Jordanian rule, and upon the West Bank’s occupation in 1967, the Israeli army arrested him. He was put on trial, imprisoned for eight years in Israel and then deported to Jordan. He wasn’t permitted to return to his home in Dura and died in exile. One of his sons, Bajes, was a fugitive for several years and hid right by the military base at Adoraim, his brother, Ghadanfar’s father, says proudly. He was killed when someone gave him a crate of munitions that exploded. 

The family believed that the Shin Bet had sent a collaborator, and indeed, the brother says, the man fled to Jordan and was caught there, tried and sentenced to death. Other family members, including Ghadanfar’s father, were arrested by Israeli forces over the years and imprisoned. He was also imprisoned for a year and a half  for possession of a weapon. Later he worked in Israel for many years and still speaks Hebrew. His father Moussa named him Ikhman (as in Eichmann), apparently to reflect his hatred for Israel.

“Israeli journalists have already written about me and my name  when I worked in Israel,” he said, laughing. Clearly, he's indifferent to this name; either to what his father had in mind when he chose it, or to what it means to a Jewish journalist who writes about his son's struggle to be free.

“I have a clothing store in Dura and many of my customers are Jews,” he says in Hebrew. His son Ghadanfar ("lion" in Arabic) helps him run the store. He works intermittently, a week of double shifts in the customs police, then a week off, during which he works in the store. “He also sees the Jewish customers, talks to them and sells to them,” the father said.

Before working for the customs police, Ghadanfar worked for the Palestinian intelligence service. 

Working for one of the Palestinian Authority’s security agencies is typical for a member of a family affiliated with Fatah. It also means loyalty for the PA’s political position, said Munkez Abu Atwan, Ghadanfar’s uncle on his mother’s side. “I have a message to Israeli society: Don’t believe what the Shin Bet says about my sister’s son.”

Abu Atwan is also a Fatah member, a former prisoner and runs the Bethlehem branch of the PA’s Prisoner Affairs Ministry.

“Anyone who serves in the security agencies is also bound by their mission: to keep the peace between the two societies [Israeli and Palestinian] and to prevent conflict,” Uncle Abu Atwan said.

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