Prisoners’ Day: ‘No one feels our pain’, Palestinian families say

Ramallah, West Bank – With a grin on her face, Samaher clutched onto the notebook.

Of the few gifts that her husband, Nabil Masalmeh, was able to send from behind bars in Israel, it remains the closest to her heart.

It took Nabil 22 days to ink his letters and compile them to his wife and two of their three children, Zaid, 21, and Beirut, 19. He wrote a page for each of them, Samaher told Al Jazeera.

Poems customised with drawings of the children’s favourite cartoon characters, burning candles, and broken hearts were illustrations among the book Nabil shared with his family over a decade ago.

In these heartfelt pages, none was dedicated to Karim, the couple’s youngest child born in 2014.

Karim was conceived through a combination of sperm-smuggling and in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

“Karim is the most precious gift Nabil gave me,” Samaher said.

I want them to remember me’

Three years into their marriage in 1996, Nabil was sentenced to 23 years in prison for his involvement in the killing of an Israeli soldier during the second Intifada. For the past 19 years, he has been pushing to remain a part of his children’s life.

Sitting in the yard of their home in Beit Awwa, a town in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, Samaher recalled how she used to pick up Zaid and Beirut from school to visit their father every two weeks.

“He used to buy them ridiculous amounts of candy from the prison canteen so they wouldn’t forget him,” Samaher said.

“He used to say, ‘I want them to remember me, to know they have a father’… this was his way to keep in touch with the children,” she continued.

But for five-year-old Karim, one-way visits were not enough.

‘Karim is the most precious gift Nabil gave me,’ Samaher said [Nida Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

“Karim often asks his father why he doesn’t visit us back,” Samaher explained.

“I’m tired of visiting, my legs hurt, Karim would say. Why don’t you come over? We have enough room for you to sleep,” Samaher said her son would say.

It is estimated that nearly one million Palestinians have been arrested at one point in their lives since the establishment of Israel and the subsequent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

According to the most recent figures from the Palestinian Prisoners Commission, there are 5,700 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, 56 of whom have spent more than 20 consecutive years behind bars.

About 560 are up against one or more life sentences.

Fakhri al-Barghouthi has been released after spending 33 years in prison following the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoners swap deal between Israel and Hamas.

In 1978, the 65-year-old was imprisoned for taking part in the killing of an Israeli soldier. Upon his detention, he left behind a nearly one-year-old baby and a pregnant wife.

The only time Fakhri had a chance to know his two children, Hadi and Shadi, was when they too served jail sentences alongside their father in 2004.

“They used to call me yaba [father], but I didn’t respond. I simply wasn’t used to it,” Fakhri told Al Jazeera.

Fakhri said he was treating his children as friends, but is trying to be more of a father figure to his grandchildren.

To remain present in the lives of their loved ones while being absent is an uphill battle for most prisoners, especially when Israel bans many of their family members from regularly visiting.

To remain present in public life is proving to be more difficult.

Incompetent leadership

Rashida al-Qubaisi from the West Bank village of Abwein in Ramallah city has been regularly attending a weekly sit-in.

Her protest, which she has been staging outside ICRC’s offices since 2002, is to demand her son Majdi’s release from an Israeli prison.

On Tuesday, she was one of the three prisoners’ mothers to show up.

“No one feels our pain. We’re on our own,” Rashida, whose son is serving a 19-year jail sentence, told Al Jazeera.

She speaks proudly of her son’s academic achievements. Despite not being able to continue his studies for a degree in computer science at Birzeit University, Majdi studied literature and has been teaching English to fellow prisoners.

“My heart gets heavy when I see his friends and their children moving on with their lives and think about him stuck [in prison] as time passes him by,” Rashida said.

“He is not wasting his life for me, he sacrificed for the [Palestinian] cause,” she added.

The number of Palestinians taking part in protests in solidarity with prisoners have dwindled over the past years, adding to the families’ feeling of abandonment.

Experts have attributed the decline to the structural change that came about after the signing of the Oslo accords in the early 1990s.

“Under Oslo, there was a shift from Palestinian struggle being a project centred around national liberation, towards a project that became more centred around state building,” Linda Tabar, director of the Center for Development Studies at Birzeit University in Ramallah, told Al Jazeera. 

As a consequence, prisoners no longer led the struggle.

“Prisoners’ families became objects of providing services and aid to, as opposed to being dealt with as a fundamental collective issue around which there was popular mobilisation and support,” Tabar said.

Dozens of protesters have been turning up in recent years to protests called for by PLO factions and prisoner support groups.

“But sometimes even prisoners’ families don’t show up to the protests,” Fakhri said.

This is because many have lost faith in the political establishment, and thus have lost hope for change to come about.

“The faces of officials at these protests remain the same, the slogans are the same and speeches are the same. People lost trust in their leadership,” Fakhri said.

The Palestinian intra-division lies at the heart of the despair, Fakhri explained. More than a decade since the Fatah-Hamas split and countless attempts to reconciliation, Fatah – the ruling party in the West Bank – and Hamas – the de facto authority in Gaza – seem further away to bridge the gap than ever.

This does not mean that people stopped caring about the national cause or that of the prisoners. There is a more individualistic approach, Tabar explained.

“The will is there, but we’re lacking structures,” she said.

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