The Fighting Family From East Jerusalem

Samer Issawi rose to international fame when he embarked on a prison hunger strike that lasted 278 days. Now a campaign is underway for the release of his jailed sister, Shireen.

Alex Levac

Tareq Issawi shows us a photograph – his daughter and two of his sons. It’s a rare shot. In recent years, the Issawi family has rarely been able to be all together: One of them is always in an Israeli prison. This photo was taken during a window of opportunity a year or so ago, one that lasted only a few weeks. Samer Issawi had been freed following his prolonged hunger strike, while Shireen and her brother Medhat had been released earlier. Now all three are again incarcerated.

Samer, 34, was freed in the 2011 Gilad Shalit exchange deal, but rearrested the following year for entering the West Bank, contrary to the terms of his release. He staged a nine-month hunger strike and was released again, only to be imprisoned anew under the auspices of June’s Operation Brother’s Keeper (to find the three kidnapped Jewish teens) and the summer war in Gaza.

Shireen and Medhat, 32 and 38 respectively, were imprisoned last March, and have been remanded until the completion of legal proceedings against them. They are accused of mediating and transferring funds between Hamas in Gaza and security prisoners in Israeli custody.

Each of the three is being held in a different facility: Samer in Gilboa Prison, in the north; Shireen in Sharon Prison, in the center of the country; Medhat in Ashkelon, in the south. Their aged parents have to make lengthy, grueling trips from their home in Isawiyah, East Jerusalem, to visit them once every two weeks.

Samer gained fame in Israel and internationally when, in August 2012, he went on a prison hunger strike, which lasted 278 days. Now an international campaign is underway for the release of his sister. The “Free Shireen Issawi Campaign” has a Facebook page and more than 4,000 likes. Samer is waiting for a military appeals court in Ofer Prison, near Ramallah, to decide whether his violation of the terms of his release means he will have to complete the full 26-year term to which he was sentenced more than a decade ago, for his involvement in attacks during the second intifada. The trial of Shireen and Medhat begins next Thursday in Jerusalem District Court.

Layla and Tareq, their long-suffering mother and smiling father, are waiting for them in their handsome home in Isawiyah. Layla, too, was arrested once, when she was a young nurse, for extending medical aid to a terrorist. That was 44 years ago, in 1970 – three years into the occupation. Tareq has never been arrested.

‘Black sheep’

The couple had eight children. Fadi was shot to death by soldiers in 1994, a week after his 16th birthday, during a protest demonstration held in his village against the massacre of Muslim worshippers perpetrated in the Ibrahimi Mosque [Tomb of the Patriarchs] in Hebron. The other children have been incarcerated for lengthy periods – all but Rasha, a housewife of 28, who is the “black sheep” of the family: the only sibling who has never been arrested.

Layla and Tareq, together with an uncle, Hani, try to reconstruct the family’s history. Medhat was the first to be arrested for security offenses, in the early 1990s, and has spent a total of almost 20 years in prison, off and on. He is now married and has a daughter, also named Layla, who turned two this week. Medhat was in prison when his daughter was born; the two lived under the same roof for only half a year before he was arrested again.

The second to be arrested was Rafat, then the late Fadi, fourth was Firas, then Shadi, Samer only afterward, and finally Shireen. The fighting family. They were active in the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a secular left-wing organization. Now the State of Israel is accusing Shireen and Medhat of being active on behalf of Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners.

Two-year-old Layla snuggles up to Grandma Layla and kisses a picture of her imprisoned father over and over. Once every three months, she is allowed a five-minute visit on the other side of the glass barrier that divides prisoners from visitors, so she can feel her father’s body and he can hug her.

Medhat ran the Al-Quds Office for Legal and Commercial Affairs, a private firm that provided services for security prisoners – especially those whose families were not allowed to visit them – and also served as liaison between prisoners and Israeli lawyers. Most of these prisoners are Hamas members from Gaza, whose families have a hard time visiting them.

According to Tareq, Medhat dealt with more than 250 prisoners from all the organizations, not necessarily from Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Medhat was a liaison between the families and lawyers who visited the prisoners, and was involved in the transfer of money to the latter, so they could buy items in the prison commissary. That is the family’s version.

Shireen studied law at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem and was licensed by the Israel Bar Association. She was already convicted of a similar offense, sentenced to a year in prison in a plea bargain, and had her law license temporarily suspended.

Now the state is accusing her and her brother of managing an extensive network, in which messages and money were transferred from Hamas in Gaza to prisoners in Israeli facilities.

Another four Israeli lawyers who visited prisoners on behalf of Medhat are also accused, but have been released on bail. One of them, Amjad Safadi, a 39-year-old father of two daughters, hanged himself last April, immediately after being released from interrogation, under circumstances that have not been fully clarified.

But Shireen and Medhat will stay in prison until the judicial process runs its course. The court will decide whether they were fulfilling the humanitarian needs of prisoners who are denied visitors, or engaged in dangerous terrorist activity.

In the meantime, Shireen has become a heroine in the eyes of liberal and pro-Palestinian circles internationally. In December, she will be the recipient of the Alkarama Award for Human Rights Defenders, from the Geneva-based human rights organization of the same name. Her parents hope she will be able to collect the award personally in the Swiss city. If not, they will make the trip to receive the award in her name, a possibility that sparks a mischievous glint in Tareq’s eyes.

Shireen is represented by two human rights attorneys, Smadar Ben-Natan and Michal Pomerantz. Ben-Natan says she is convinced that Shireen’s sympathies lie not with the positions of Hamas, but rather with the cause of the Palestinian prisoners.

Shireen is 32, single, and lives with her parents. Layla says she is proud of her children and convinced of their innocence. “I raised them and I know how I raised them,” she says. “Medhat is in and out of jail, and he’s not capable of even killing a bug. All they want is to live with dignity and in freedom in their country, just like the Jews. A person only lives once, and he has the right to be free and enjoy a life of dignity. He deserves to live like the Israelis. To live honorably on our land.”

She continues: “How do the mothers in Israel live with their children? That is exactly the way we want to live with our children. For 20 years, I haven’t seen my children together. Because of my crying and my wish to be with my children, I am going blind from diabetes. I have been sick since Fadi was killed. And why was Samer arrested again? He had nothing to do with the three boys who were kidnapped and murdered, or with the war in Gaza. I hope I will be able to see all of them together before I go blind.”

Layla’s face is furrowed with wrinkles; she is dressed in black. She is worried about Samer’s health – his kidneys were damaged during his long hunger strike, and he has been under medical supervision since then. She is equally worried about Shireen, who is being held in semi-isolation. By now, she seems to be taking Medhat’s frequent arrests in her stride.