The Last Palestinian on Hunger Strike Defying Israel’s Detention Without Trial

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Ahmed Zahran's wife Karima, left, and mother Ruseila at the family home in the West Bank village of Deir Abu Mashal, December 2019.
Ahmed Zahran's wife Karima, left, and mother Ruseila at the family home in the West Bank village of Deir Abu Mashal, December 2019.Credit: Amira Hass

Members of the Zahran family gathered Monday in the large living room of Adel, the eldest brother of the family, waiting for a phone call from a lawyer. They had done this a number of times in the 10 months since their 42-year-old brother Ahmed was placed in administrative detention – arrest without trial – following his arrest at his home in the West Bank village of Deir Abu Mashal.

It was 97 days since Ahmed began a hunger strike in protest of his detention, deprived of his right to a defense. This was the second time he launched a strike since his arrest in February; the first was when the administrative detention order was renewed in June. He ended his first strike after 36 days, when he was told he would be released in October.

When it became clear that a third administrative order would be filed – without guarantee that there wouldn’t be a fourth, fifth or sixth, he resumed his hunger strike, where he remains to this day.

Whenever the phone rings, everybody jumps. Adel had been patiently informing callers that the closed-door hearing at the Ofer military court on his brother’s appeal of the latest order was imminent. Then he was informed by the lawyer that the military court judge had given the military prosecutor’s office a 48-hour extension to file charges against his brother, who otherwise would be released.

Ahmed’s wife, Karima, last visited him in mid-August, with their son Omar. Through the glass partition separating them she saw how weakened he was, as well as his rash, a result of the hunger strike. He hasn’t been seen since by anyone from his family.

One way the Israeli prison service punishes Palestinian hunger strikers is to deprive them of family visits. A lawyer from the Palestinian Commission for Detainee Affairs visits him about once a week in the hospital wing of Ma’asiyahu Prison in Ramle. The attorney also visited him at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot, where he had been rushed after his condition deteriorated, and where he was chained to his bed.

The lawyer keeps the family updated on Ahmed’s condition. He’s in pain all over his body and is particularly suffering headaches and joint pain, has lost 30 kilograms (66 pounds) and has felt weak but can’t sleep more than two hours at a time. And from the 45th day of the hunger strike he has needed a wheelchair because he can’t walk on his own.

If Ahmed’s wife and his mother, Ruseila, would like him to end his hunger strike, they aren’t saying so. “That’s his decision, and I respect it,” Karima told Haaretz. “Otherwise he could be detained without end.”

But she acknowledged that it’s a relief for her to know that when he loses consciousness, which happens occasionally, the doctors give him vitamins and minerals intravenously. In making the comment, a hint of embarrassment showed in a smile on her tired-looking face. “I can’t sleep,” she said.

The appeal filed by lawyers Mahmoud Halabi and Mahmoud Hassan over the continued detention without charges, evidence and trial had been scheduled for last Monday. The hearing had been deferred from Thursday of the previous week. It was then postponed from Monday to Wednesday. Each time, the military prosecution asked over and over for just a little more time.

Zahran’s relatives are well aware what that means. The Shin Bet security service hopes to extract any possible scrap of information about Ahmed from other Palestinian detainees whom it's currently interrogating. All this comes 10 months after the dawn of February 28, when dozens of soldiers raided his house and detained him without informing him of the suspicions against him, and depriving him of the presumption of innocence and the right to defend himself.

A sign reading "welcome" at the Ofer military court. Credit: Emil Salman

Illegal interrogation methods

Over the past three months, the Shin Bet has arrested dozens of Palestinians who are or were linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Some, including 69-year-old author and lecturer Ahmed Qatamesh, have been put immediately into administrative detention. Qatamesh was arrested this month at his home in El-Bireh. All told, he has been imprisoned without trial or the right to defend himself for more than 10 years of his life.

The Addameer prisoner support group held a press conference last week where it reported that about 40 of the detainees suffered illegal interrogation methods. Due to a sweeping gag order, it had not been possible to report in the Israeli media on the wave of arrests and the suspicions of torture under interrogation – other than the case of Samer Arbid, a suspect in the murder of 17-year-old Israeli Rina Shnerb at the Ein Bubin spring in the West Bank in August. Arbid was hospitalized unconscious early in his interrogation.

After the Shin Bet disclosed some of the details covered by its own gag order and reported about a week ago that several indictments had been filed, Addameer released a statement on the types of torture the Israeli security agency has allegedly employed. In the interrogations, investigators try to gather statements (though not necessarily correct ones) on people identified with the Popular Front, rather than simply obtaining confessions related to the lethal attack at the spring – one of a number of springs on Palestinian land that settlers have seized in the past 20 years.

Over the past 25 years, Zahran was put on trial four times for his membership in the Popular Front, and was sentenced each time to several years for a total of about 15 years in Israeli prisons.

“Before we got married, after we got married, after our two eldest daughters were born and after our two eldest sons were born” is how his wife remembers the dates of his imprisonments. In late 2017, he was put into administrative detention for the first time and released four months later.

“The children associate his detention with rain, which to them has become something negative,” she said. “They hadn’t yet recovered from the previous arrests and when there was a new one. They've had almost no time to enjoy time with him in their lives, because between imprisonments and detentions he works hard to support us.”

He has a truck that he uses to transport vegetables. His older brother Adel owns a butcher shop in their village northwest of Ramallah.

Another brother is serving 20 years for activities during the second intifada, and is due to be released in three years. “His imprisonment, with its release date, is much easier for me than Ahmed’s administrative detention,” said Ruseila as she, her daughters and sister all sat in the living room Monday waiting with racked nerves for the lawyer’s phone call.

The little children were running around. Ahmed’s sons couldn’t go to school because of the tension; his daughters had trouble concentrating on their end-of-term exams.

Israeli troops arrest Palestinians suspected of carrying out the terror attack that claimed the life of 17-year-old Israeli teenager Rina Shnerb, September 2019. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Hunger strikers on their own

Mohammed al-Qiq, who went on a hunger strike in 2016 before he was released, told the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar that due to the weakness of both public and official Palestinian support for the detainees, they had to launch on their own this most difficult protest tactic against the violation of their rights.

This year, more than 10 Palestinian administrative detainees have launched hunger strikes to protest their detention without trial. Unlike the first individual strikes nine years ago, and unlike the periodic hunger strikes in which dozens or even hundreds of Palestinians jailed in Israel participate, the recent strikes haven’t gotten much press in Israel or abroad.

The detainees stopped them in exchange for verbal promises that they would be freed within a certain period, but administrative detention orders have been reissued against all of them (aside from one Jordanian citizen, Heba al-Labadi, who was released after her hunger strike).

Zahran is the last of the prisoners still on strike. His attorney, Mahmoud Halaby of the Palestinian Commission for Detainee Affairs, said that at a hearing Wednesday he was told Zahran would be transferred to the police station in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound neighborhood for interrogation by the Shin Bet. But because of his serious medical condition, this is impossible, the lawyer said.

His other attorney, Mahmoud Hassan of Addameer, said a prison service official had asked him to convince Zahran to end his strike so he could be transferred for interrogation. Hassan said he could do so only if they received a written promise from the military prosecution that if Zahran is interrogated, he won’t be returned to administrative detention afterward. If there is evidence against him, then try him, Hassan said. If not, he should be freed. But so far the prosecution has refused to make such a promise, the lawyers said.

If there was still a faint hope Monday that Ahmed would soon be released, it vanished after another two days of tension and racked nerves. To avoid disappointment, Karima tried not to imagine his release.

Her sister-in-law, Umm Mustafa, was the least succinct in describing the family’s situation: “Our heart is on fire. We’re always going in circles, worried and frustrated. At every moment we’re waiting for new information. When we eat, every bite is painful. When we go to sleep and when we get up, we’re only thinking of Ahmed.”

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