There was a distinctly different ambience at the home of the Issawis this time around. It would be the first time that we were visiting expecting to meet Samer Issawi himself.
This visit was not about offering solidarity and support, an act we undertook repeatedly when Samer was in prison. This time the visit was not to participate in a demonstration calling for his release.
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This visit was a celebratory and congratulatory one.
Finally, a week after her son’s release, it was possible to look Leila, Samer Issawi’s mother, in the eye and smile incessantly, free from the anxiety and agitated hope that saddled our hearts when we met her previously. In Palestine, moments of collective joy and triumph are so rare that we feel like we snatch them from the jaws of our occupiers.
The release of Samer Issawi on 23 December 2013 was one of those moments of joy that will linger in the memories of all who witnessed it.
On the morning of his release, journalists and supporters of Samer Issawi began gathering at the family’s home. Israeli occupation forces had already raided the Issawis’ home at dawn and the previous night, warning the family not to hold celebrations.
“They raided the house while I was praying at dawn and ordered us to refrain from celebrating,” Samer’s mother told The Electronic Intifada. “But this was out of our hands. We could not control people and stop them from celebrating and we did not want to.”
Neither the intimidation nor the presence of Israeli military forces at the entrance to Issawiyeh could prevent the massive celebrations that accompanied Samer’s arrival.
A group of women of all ages marched from Samer’s house into the streets as Samer, his mother and his sister Shireen were making their way home after Samer was released from Israel’s Shatta prison.
The women and girls created a wedding-like atmosphere, chanting revolutionary slogans, banging on darbuka drums and singing traditional Palestinian songs adapted for the occasion. As soon as the bus carrying Samer and his family made it into Issawiyeh, the crowd erupted euphorically.
Celebratory gunshots were fired in the air, youth climbed atop fences to catch a glimpse of their hero and children kept chanting Samer’s name and the word “freedom.” It was a popular and festive protest, bringing together Palestinians of all ages and political affiliations, something that occupied Jerusalem has not seen in a long time.
Samer’s 16-year-old niece, Leila, had taken part in numerous demonstrations and clashes demanding her uncle’s release. She noted that the arrest of Samer in July 2012 — not long after he had been released as part of a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas — had politicized an entire generation in Issawiyeh.
The extent to which Samer’s arrest and hunger strike have influenced the village was visible. You would see children as young as five engaging in political discussions and leading chants in protests.
“I felt like I was flying”
A protest tent set up by local youth in support of Samer was demolished over twenty times by Israeli occupation forces who subjected the entire village to collective punishment.
That only bolstered Issawiyeh residents’ determination to stand behind Samer.
With Samer surrounded by so many supporters and journalists, it was very hard to greet him and interview him on the day of his release. So we met one week later at his house.
We could not avoid asking his mother the predictable question about what she felt when she hugged her son after his release. “I lost count of the number of times I’ve had to answer this question,” she said. “My feeling could not be described in words. I was so happy that Samer finally got to breathe the scent of freedom and Palestine. I felt like I was flying.”
Samer’s mother has endured a litany of painful experiences. Her son Fadi was shot dead by Israeli occupation forces in 1994 during protests in Jerusalem following the Ibrahimi mosque massacre in Hebron.
“Hardly a moment passes without remembering Fadi. It’s been almost twenty years since his martyrdom but I still remember everything about him: his clothes, his favourite dishes and his smile.”
Entire family jailed
All of Leila Issawi’s other children — five sons and one daughter — have spent time in jail. “At one point in 2010, all of them were in jail: Samer, Medhat, Raafat, Shadi, Firas and Shireen. That was the first time they were reunited in 13 years, but then the Israel Prison Service separated them, jailing each of them in a different prison.”
Before his arrest in 2012, Samer had been arrested four times. He was arrested on 15 April 2002 during what Israel called Operation Defensive Shield, a large-scale invasion of several cities in the occupied West Bank. Samer Issawi was sentenced to thirty years in jail on charges of possession of weapons and engaging in armed activities with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Samer Issawi was among over a thousand prisoners released in the October 2011 exchange deal. But like several other prisoners released then, he was soon re-arrested.
The excuse given by Israel was that he had violated his release conditions, which banned him from travelling in the West Bank. The pretext is all the more ludicrous considering Issawi had only visited the nearby village of Kafr Aqab, which Israel considers to be within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries.
In protest at his arrest, Samer Issawi began returning meals in August 2012 in a partial hunger strike that lasted for 266 days. Samer saw refusing food as his only option as he was facing twenty years of imprisonment, yet he believes that hunger strikes can be a double-edged sword.
“Of course, hunger strikes are much more effective when they are mass hunger strikes,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “I think that, for instance, administrative detainees held without charge or trial should go on collective hunger strikes rather than individual hunger strikes.”
“In my case, I had to go on an individual hunger strike because it was in protest at Israel’s violation of the prisoner exchange deal, but I’m aware that there is a big difference between collective and individual hunger strikes. In individual hunger strikes, we can take vitamins and glucose to last longer while mass hunger strikers only drink water. Mass hunger strikes are usually much shorter than individual hunger strikes and garner much more attention and popular solidarity.”
Samer believes that factional divisions among political organizations restrict the scope for mass resistance.
“We have to be honest and not shy away from mentioning our problems. The division along factional lines, particularly between Fatah and Hamas, has damaged the prisoner movement and unless all prisoners unite, we will not be able to improve conditions in jail or achieve freedom for all prisoners.”
In Samer’s case, the popular support and media attention he received particularly in the latter stages of his hunger strike proved crucial to put pressure on Israel to release him.
Women played key role
Samer and his mother Leila emphasized the important role that his sister Shireen has played.
“Shireen was the one shedding light on her’s brother case, writing about him on Facebook, speaking to the media and rallying local and international support,” said Leila. “Samer would not have emerged victorious without her efforts.”
Shireen, a lawyer, humbly downplayed her role by claiming she had done nothing special.
But her niece Leila insisted: “The ones who led the campaign to release Uncle Samer were women. Shireen and my grandmother, and so many of those who participated in solidarity protests were women as well, even outnumbering the guys.”
Banishment offers rejected
Throughout his partial hunger strike, Samer Issawi received several Israeli offers to be banished to Gaza but he rejected all of them. “Gaza is definitely part of Palestine, but I felt that accepting a deal that would expel me from my hometown Jerusalem would set a dangerous precedent and would betray the sacrifices of martyrs and prisoners.”
“Issawiyeh is my hometown and I never for a moment thought about accepting such a deal. On the contrary, whenever I was given an offer to be banished, I escalated my hunger strikes by refusing vitamins, for example.”
Buoyed by solidarity
Demonstrations in support of Samer — albeit not always particularly large — took place across Palestine. They included vigils at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City that were violently dispersed by Israeli occupation forces, daily sit-ins in Jaffa’s Clock Square that lasted for over forty consecutive days and protests outside Ramle prison hospital when Samer was held there.
Protests and solidarity actions also took place in Ramallah and Gaza and in many cities around the world.
“My lawyers repeatedly told me about those demonstrations and this definitely buoyed me,” Samer said. “Even at the start when there was little attention I was determined to keep fighting, but of course the support I got from Palestinians in Palestine and the diaspora, as well as all the free people in the world gave me a lot of confidence.”
Yet, ironically, a number of PA politicians have celebrated Samer’s release.
“I know that there were many of them who did not support Samer and they know that, but when they called to congratulate I accepted their congratulations,” Samer’s mother Leila said. “At the end of the day, this is a victory for Samer and for the Palestinian people.”
Samer insisted that it was Palestinian people, not leading politicians, who made his release possible. Asked how he felt about being regarded by many as an icon Samer said: “I don’t care how people consider me, but I will always remain an ordinary man. Nothing will change in my life.”
“I will continue to enjoy spending time with the kids. I’m not an icon but simply a soldier in the fight for freedom and dignity in Palestine.”