One shouldn’t underestimate the Israeli government’s public relations headache caused by one young Palestinian who is tightly incarcerated behind bars and who confronts the entire might of the state, its government and army and security services, his only weapon being – an empty stomach.
Samer Issawi, had already spent many years in prison, with no one in Israel hearing of him. In fact, even among Palestinians he was not very famous, except perhaps at his native Isawiyya in East Jerusalem. When the prisoner swap took place at the end of 2011, he was no more than one of many Palestinian prisoners being set free and getting an enthusiastic welcome and then dropping off the headlines.
He would have probably remained in obscurity, if not for somebody in Israel’s security services deciding to return him to prison some six months after having been released. This was on the basis of his having “violated the terms of his parole” – i.e., he had left Isawiyya, which is part of East Jerusalem and has been annexed to Israel in 1967, to have a car repaired at a garage in the town of A-Ram just outside the annexed territory. Therefore, he was to be returned to jail and serve a further 14 years. And yes, the security services told the media they were in possession of evidence that Issawi had "gone back to terrorist activity" and therefore must be imprisoned – such evidence being highly classified and therefore could not be presented in public and certainly not shown to Issawi himself.
It was at this point that Samer Issawi used his secret weapon and stopped eating and stated that he would not stop his hunger strike until the Israeli authorities agree to release him. And for two hundred and sixty five days Samer Issawi was walking on the precipice, balancing on the fine line between life and death. Nothing went into his mouth but some liquids and vitamins which just barely kept him alive while he was growing ever thinner, losing dozens of pounds and becoming a living skeleton on his bed at Kaplan Hospital, to which the security services insisted upon shackling his arms and legs, even when he was too weak to stand.
"An act of desperation" was how the well known Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua put it. In a letter which he sent to the imprisoned Issawi, co-signed by several other prominent intellectuals, Yehoshua wrote: "We read with great pain of your hunger strike. The accounts of your ever deteriorating situation terrify and shock us, We feel that the act of suicide you are about to commit will add yet another dimension to the tragic and desperate conflict between the two peoples" .
But this was a mistaken appreciation. It was not a desperate and hopeless man who lay on that bed, and futile suicide was not his purpose. It was a fighter who put his life on the line in a very special kind of battlefield, struggling for his own personal freedom and that of all his people, but certainly with the hope of coming out victorious. There in the hospital bed he knew that his hunger strike was becoming the focus of growing attention by Palestinians wherever they are and increasing the unrest and agitation on the West Bank - just at the time when Israel’s PM Netanyahu was making a special effort to present to the world a situation of calm and tranquility and economic prosperity in the territories occupied by the State of Israel 46 years ago.
In a message taken out of the prison Issawi sent a message to the Palestinian masses: “I draw my strength from my people, from all the free people in the world, from friends and prisoners’ families of those who go on, day and night, crying out for freedom and an end to the occupation. I say to my people: I'm stronger than the army of occupation and its racist laws. My struggle is not only for my individual freedom. My struggle and that of my heroic fellows Tariq, Ayman and Ja’affar is everybody’s struggle, the struggle of the Palestinian people against the occupation and its prisons. Our goal is to be free and sovereign in our liberated state and our blessed Jerusalem. The weak and strained beats of my heart derive their steadfastness from you, the great people. My darkening eyes draw light from your solidarity and support . My weak voice takes its strength from your voice, which flies higher than the prison walls”.
There came to his bedside the representatives of the security services of the State of Israel and made him a generous offer - to be released immediately if he agrees to be deported to the Gaza Strip. But ever since 1948, exile from home and hometown has been engraved in Palestinian consciousness as the most painful and traumatic of experiences, and Samer Issawi rejected any idea of a release which would not return him to his home at Issawiya in East Jerusalem.
And when representatives of the European Union expressed to their Israeli colleagues their growing concern for Issawi’s situation, someone in the government came up with the brilliant idea to offer that one of the Western democracies take Samer Issawi to its bosom and rid Israel of him – except that Issawi himself of course rejected this idea out of hand. And he further escalated and exacerbated his hunger strike, causing his health damages which might prove irreversible, and made an even deeper dangerous bend towards the abyss, and the security experts came to Netanyahu with nightmare scenarios of the huge conflagration which might break out among the Palestinian masses should he die in prison .
Then he did what no other Palestinian prisoner had done before him, and sent out another open letter. This time, it was not addressed to the Palestinians; he made a direct and painful appeal to Israelis everywhere.
“Israelis, I am Samer Al - Issawi, who is what your soldiers call disparagingly an Arabush, who is a Jerusalemite that you have put in prison for no more reason than that he went from Jerusalem to a suburb of Jerusalem. I have not heard one of you interfere to stop the loud wail of death, it’s as if each and every one of you has turned into a gravedigger, that everyone is wearing a military uniform: the judge, the writer, the intellectual, the journalist, the merchant, the academic, and the poet. I cannot believe that a whole society watches uncaring my death and my life, that you have turned into guardians over the settlers who chase after my dreams and my trees.
Israelis, I do not accept to be deported out of my homeland. Maybe now you will understand that the awareness of liberty is stronger than death. Do not listen to the generals and their dusty myths, for the defeated will not remain defeated, and the victor will not always be a victor. History is not measured only by battles, massacres and prisons, also by the extending of the hand of peace to the other - and to your own selves.