This is the first episode in our new podcast series “The World From Palestine.” In this series, JWE President Helena Cobban and Palestinian scholar Yousef AlJamal will be jointly exploring the intersections between Palestine’s liberation struggle and other anti-imperialist struggles throughout history, and until today. Today, Helena and Yousef discuss hunger striking and other forms of resistance to imperial efforts to isolate and punish intellectuals and freedom fighters.
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Helena Cobban: (00:45)
Hi there Yousef, how are you doing?
Not too bad. How about you, Helena?
The same, not too bad.
Yousef Aljamal: (00:51)
Helena and I both study world affairs from an anti-imperial perspective that is deeply informed by our concern for the rights of Palestinians, most of which were stolen from us in the late 1940s and in the exact same period. The peoples of major parts of the global South like India and China were finally throwing off the yoke of imperialism.
Helena Cobban: (01:22)
We believe that to understand Palestine, it's important to understand the centuries long history of Western settler colonialism. Also studying what's happening in Palestine today can help us understand the deeply racist roots of Western imperialism, which sadly is still a very powerful force that blights the lives of all the peoples of the global South. Today we're gonna discuss the role that hunger strikes and other protest actions taken by prisoners can play in strengthening National Liberation movements. But first Yousef, what are this week's main headlines from Palestine?
Yousef Aljamal: (02:06)
The death of Suleiman al-Hathalin was a major force in the popular resistance in the southern Hebron Hills against Israeli settlements. Was one of the most important headlines in Palestine where he lost his life after an Israeli settler hit him with his car. Of course this Israelis settler is still outside prison. And Israeli authorities have also continued their ethnic cleansing campaign in Jerusalem, evicting the house of Salhiya family and demolishing it under the cover of the night last night. At the same time, the Israeli authorities have opened their water dams, which block water from getting into Gaza when it goes to higher rates and levels, flooding Gaza, and this is not the first time they do it.
Helena Cobban: (03:10)
Wow. Meantime, in England, pro-Palestinian direct action succeeded in forcing the Israeli arms company Elbit to close its factory in Oldham, which was a major victory. And here in the United States, major media outlets have given broad coverage to the Israelis killing of 80 year old Palestinian American Omar Asad in his home village in the West Bank. Let's get back to the issue of hunger strikes. Yousef, you have recently co-authored a book called a Shared Struggle: Stories of Palestinian and Irish Hunger Strikers. What led you to work on this book?
Yousef Aljamal: (03:54)
As Palestinians, we have a deep connection with the struggle of the Irish people. I have met dozens of Irish people who came to the Gaza Strip to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people under siege, and this is not new if you go back to the PLO in Lebanon. Irish delegations and people used to come to Palestinian refugee camps to exhibit solidarity with the Palestinian people. So we have a deep and strong connection throughout history and this strong connection is best manifested in the issue of hunger strikers, both from Palestine and Ireland. We all know the iconic. Bobby Sands from Ireland who lost his life after 66 days of hunger strike. We too know dozens of Palestinian hunger strikers, like for example, Palestinian footballer Mahmood Sarsak who went on hunger strike for almost 100 days. These hunger strikes unite the Palestinians, and to connect Palestine with Ireland, the best way to highlight the issue, the plight of Palestine, hunger strikers, which is still going on up until today, is to connect it with Ireland again.
Helena Cobban: (5:21)
So I will just interject here and note that actually Ireland was the 1st place where English colonialism implanted colonial settlements back in the 1600s. So there's sort of the struggle of the Irish against English colonialism. In a sense, it's a direct line from them to the plight of the Palestinians. Since a Zionist project was implanted under the auspices of the English in the early 20th century.
Yousef Aljamal: (6:04)
Exactly what happened in Ireland is happening in Palestine and it all started by the British and in North Ireland and Ireland. Balfour, Arthur Balfour, who gave the Zionist movement. The declaration to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine for Jews. Is known as Bloody Balfour because of his bloody rule in Ireland and killing Irish protesters in Cork. Again, when we talk about the plantation of settlers. Up until today, where these settlers still make a majority, you would always see an Israeli flag flying in these areas and they too these settlers feel connected to to the Israeli settler colonial project, where in other areas where
Catholics have the majority you would always find a Palestinian flag. And again if you want to talk about the boycott movement and the emergence of the term itself, it emerged in Ireland because there was this British landlord known as Captain Boycott who used to evict Irish tenants and farmers who were not able to pay rent. As he was requested to do so by his British Masters, people started warning each other not to deal with him, to boycott him. And since we have the word boycott that came into the English Dictionary and he is doing or he was doing what Israel is doing today to the Palestinians, evicting them as they did to the Salhiya family in Jerusalem last night and the family did their best not to be evicted from their house, they even brought old gas lines in in the house and they put it in one area and they threatened that if Israeli settlers and forces break into the house and forcibly get them out, they will explode everything. But what Israeli forces did, instead, they came under the cover of the night last night, and. They when there was no media, no people to help them and they got them out of the house. And not only this they were supposed to evict them out of the house, they also demolished the house.
Helena Cobban: (08:37)
Wow, I mean that just goes on day after day in Palestine. I know and it's always really troubling. So you as a Palestinian movement. Obviously, you have, uh, a recent partial victory in the victory of the prisoner Hisham Abu Hawash in his hunger strike. So can you quickly talk a little bit about him and what has happened. I heard that you had some sad news about him.
Yousef Aljamal: (9:09)
So Hisham Abu Hawash, like hundreds of Palestinian detainees, have been held under administrative detention, which is also a British law that is still being by Israel. Today for two years without a charge or trial, so this law allows Israel authorities to detain Palestinians without charge or trial indefinitely. And he spent two years there. He served two years in prison under this law, and you can imagine the psychological pressure of being held without being, you know, brought to court or charged. So he decided to go on hunger strike and he went on an open-ended hunger strike for 141 days and he almost lost his life. We have seen his photos. I think his weight ended up something like 39 kilos or something, so he almost died. But somehow he managed to survive and Israel decided to release him on the 26th of February. But unfortunately now he's in a prison, he's in the hospital and he's still receiving treatment to recover from the hunger strike. He contracted COVID-19.
Helena Cobban: (10:35)
Yousef, Hisham Abu Hawash was just one of many politically active Palestinian detainees, but the detainees and the prisoners seem to play a special role in the movement. Can you explain to me how that works and what it means?
Yousef Aljamal: (10:54)
You're totally right, Helena, these are not normal people. They are the intellectuals of the Palestinian people. They are university professors, political leaders who have been put in jail. Some of them served 42 years in Israeli jails such as Nael Barghouti. So these people have a political role and if we remember in 2006, Palestinian division took a place between Hamas and Fatah, it was these political prisoners who issued document urging Hamas and Fatah, it's called the unity document to unite and reconcile. So they do play a political role and Israel is more worried. you know, of actions of some of these prisoners, then it's worried it of some Palestinians who are outside prison and an example of this is actually Marwan Barghouti who nominated himself for the Palestinian elections that Mahmoud Abbas decided to call off in May last year, so they know the impact and the influence of these prisoners politically, socially, economically, despite the fact that they're still in jail. They have a lot of respect.
Helena Cobban: (12:06)
That's interesting, you know. It reminds me of Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom when he's talking about the time he spent. I believe 28 years in prison, most of it on the prison island of Robben Island, which I've had the honor to visit. And I learned so much from the little museum that they have there. So one of the things that Nelson Mandela wrote, and it was very similar. You know, they took the intellectual leaders of the anti apartheid movement and imprisoned them for long periods of time and the prisoners once they were in prison on Robben Island, there were a number of different political trends. He was obviously in the leadership of the African National Congress. In fact, people in the West don't understand much. He was so similar to Marwan Barghouti whom you just mentioned because Nelson Mandela was actually imprisoned for his work. As the founding leader of the ANC's military wing. People now in the West like to think that he was just, you know, a nonviolent activist. No, he was actually imprisoned for his work in the military, but while they were there in Robben Island, they were forced by the apartheid authorities to work at breaking up stones, they had to sit there in these very hot quarries and break up stones you know in the in the hot sun, day after day after day. And they organized a strike. You know, he said in his autobiography. As I recall, you know, it didn't really make any difference to the economy of the South African regime that these prisoners were refusing to break up the stones, but it did a lot for the internal unity amongst all the prisoners that they were working together on this so it sounds very similar to what's been happening in your prisons, not your prisons, but Israel prisons for you.
Yousef Aljamal: (14:18)
Yes, I agree with you and we have actually some more examples of this where colonial authorities try to cage the bodies of intellectuals in particular in order to separate them from the rest of the society, which in many cases actually backfired. So in the case of Palestinian prisoners. I know dozens of prisoners who wrote books while in jail, who taught courses. I know a prisoner who learnt 16 languages. Hilal Jaradat while in jail. There are also dozens of prisoners who managed to smuggle their sperm and now they have babies, so they try to resist the colonial authorities. The Israeli authorities in many different ways. And I mean Palestine is not an exception. If we look at, as you mentioned, South Africa as well as Algeria. We have also similar examples where the leaders of the FLN were also caged and tortured, and some of them lost their lives and the French colonial authorities tried to separate them from the society. But what happened at the end? They achieved victory. They went victorious.
Helena Cobban: (15:34)
Yeah, that was actually almost exactly 60 years ago this year.
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Yousef. You work with the testimonies of some of the Irish prisoners. What were some of the most interesting or important stories that you learned from them?
Yousef Aljamal: (16:19)
So I think the struggle of Irish prisoners is similar to that of the Palestinian prisoners. Sometimes it's different, for example. Irish hunger strikers mostly went on hunger strike to achieve a political status that was denied to them by the British authorities. In the case of Palestinian prisoners, there are different reasons why they went on mass hunger strikes sometimes to get access to education, family visits. Hunger strikers also protested their imprisonment conditions also applied to Ireland, family visits were also an issue in Ireland. But there is a story that struck me about a Palestinian prisoner named Mohammed Hassan, who kept a bird as a pet in a prison. And this bird was killed by mistake when another inmate stepped on it. And he felt so sorry about it. And it's ironic that he kept a bird granting him freedom. The very thing that he lacks in a prison every day and this bird would go back to his nest that was built, you know, by the prisoner. And this is similar actually to the poem written by Bobby Sands, the Lark and the Freedom Fighter, which was written on the walls of the prisons. So the symbolism of birds and you know, prisoners need to be free. And seeing you know this freedom through birds flying over their heads. It is very striking to me.
Helena Cobban: (18:10)
Actually, that reminds me of our friend Mohammad Saba'aneh latest book, which is a comic book, a graphic novel about a prisoner who has a bird, and you know, for him to you know the bird represents 'cause the bird can probably fly in and out through the bars of the high prison window and and the prisoner can see nothing except a little bit of sky through the window, and every so often the bird will come. So yeah, very potent. So Yousef, if you've been talking about individual prisoners by and large, you know whether in Palestine or in the north of Ireland, political prisoners protesting, but in a sense also many people think that Gaza is a massive open air prison, into which 2.3 million Palestinians are caged. Do you think there are sort of parallels there with the situation of individual prisoners versus the situation of the whole population in Gaza.
Yousef Aljamal: (19:24)
I agree with you. I think that there was this Israeli general who once said that the purpose of the Israeli Government is to keep Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on diets. And actually this is what they do. They calculate the number of calories that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in this open air prison can have every day so that they do not starve. But at the same time they would still need, you know, the help of Israel or the Israeli Government to survive. There are a lot of similarities. We, all Palestinians, I think, in the occupied territories live in cages and prisons, but these prisons, some prisons are larger than the others. The Gaza Strip is the largest open air prison in the world. I spent 23 years of my life there, and it feels like a prison. Because you cannot travel, you have not. Any sort of freedom to move in and out as you wish. I have my family in the West Bank and it took me 15 years to see them not in the West Bank but elsewhere in Jordan and in Turkey. So yes, it feels like an open air prison. And now with the population increase, we have two more million Palestinians in Gaza. Not only this, I do believe that from the very beginning when Israel was created in the Gaza Strip, the way it was designed, it was meant to absorb the huge number of refugees. 200,000 Palestinians became refugees and because and this adds to the indigenous inhabitants of Gaza, natives of Gaza, 300,000 people in total, 1948 and today we're talking about 2.3 million. It's a huge increase. So this is how Israel has always viewed Gaza as a place to absorb and accept refugees, and today it's literally an open air prison.
Helena Cobban: (21:32)
So I mean actually in the West there's a whole discourse about concentration camps, and you know people. Say that a concentration camp is not the same as an extermination camp that the Nazis turned their concentration camps into, but it is a form of slow death and concentration camps were routinely used by all the colonial powers when they went and grabbed the land and resources of countries in the South. And sometimes, for example, the colonial settlers here in the United States Turtle Island, North America. If they, once they had vanquished, a local population, they would cage them all up, and then sometimes ship them out to work as enslaved labor in the Caribbean islands or the Dutch when they were in. Current present day Indonesia and they would round up a lot of the community leaders and the protesters and the activists from the indigenous population there. And they shipped them over to South Africa where they became what's known as Cape Malay's. And there's still a large population of them there and one of the interesting things I found. Learning about South Africa is that the Boers, the Dutch settlers there were, so they were just peasants and farmers and very uneducated. And the people that they had brought from Indonesia were so much better educated and literate that actually the first time that the Boer language as such was ever written down. It was written down in Arabic by these people, in Arabic script by these people from Indonesia. So your observation that you know, the Israelis are locking up the intellectual elite and you know, there's a long history of that having happened in different circumstances. How can Palestinians actually get out of this series of prisons? The large prisons and the small prisons? How do you see that happening?
Yousef Aljamal: (24:14)
I have seen, still, the trend of increasing solidarity with the Palestinian people and you just talked about the closure of Elbit Systems, and I know some of the people who were involved, some of them actually were from the Gaza Strip, such as my friend Chad Abusalem. So Palestinians are breaking their prisons in a way or another, increasing, you know, the level of solidarity with them all over the world. We have artists, Hollywood artists, and really influential people expressing their solidarity with the Palestinian people. If we look at the Sydney Festival recently, dozens of, you know bands and musicians and artists, withdrew from the festival because the Israeli embassy provided the financial, you know, support for it. So yes, the way to get out of this is to work hand in hand with other people who are conscious all over the world? Indigenous people, people of color, all people who are oppressed are our allies and we should work with them from Otarawa, New Zealand to Hawaii. Hand in hand because this is one struggle. Against settler colonialism. And there are a lot of similarities with other people. We can learn from them, we can teach them, and eventually wi our freedom by learning from the experiences of other people, South Africa is an example. Ireland is an example. Hawaii is an example, but again the struggle goes on. So we have to work harder.
And you know, as you said, the intellectuals play an important role. Palestinians are educated and this is very promising. So they can communicate and speak with the words and. A nation that is not educated will unlikely you know free itself as a Amilcar Cabral from Guinea Bissau who was the leader of the National Liberation movement. Education is the most important thing that he talks about ideology, but for him education is very important. By going back to the roots by understanding our history and reaching out to the web. We expose this apartheid regime, and I think this year will be very critical for Israel, especially that it continues its ethnic cleansing at unprecedented levels everywhere in Palestine.
Helena Cobban: (26:51)
Yes, from that point of view, I think that we are starting to see a little bit of change in the way the corporate media here is looking at at Palestinian issues and from your perspective, like when you were talking about Palestinians getting out of all the many little cages, different cages that that Israel has has put ill people into what happened last May was really quite. Important when you have solidarity, I think amongst Palestinians from inside Israel from Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank from Gaza, all at the same time, is that a trend that's going to continue?
Yousef Aljamal: (27:35)
Yes, so some of these cages, some of these cages are physical. We're talking about checkpoints and walls, but they're also other cages which made some Palestinians think that. Other Palestinians who are Palestinians are less Palestinians because of the different statuses Israel gives to Palestinians. Some have Israeli passports, some don't. Some have you know the Gaza ID, some have the West Bank ID. The blue ID of Jerusalem, which actually reminds of South Africa. But again, I had seen these. I would say not real like they are really unreal barriers that exist between Palestinians are being broken down. I've seen this happening in Naqab. In today's Israel, in Gaza, and the West Bank, Palestinians are protesting. And we've seen this again during Israel's offensive last year on the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians for the first time have taken to the streets together as they acted as one collective.
And taking to the streets of different cities in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip, in Jerusalem, and in Israel, everywhere, protesting these Israeli policies. So there is a hope that Palestinians will get rid of all these. You know, differences, real or not political. Social etc and that they will act as one collective in the future and this is very promising.
Helena Cobban: (29:18)
Well, I hope that we can continue this conversation, Yousef. It's just really always a huge pleasure to talk to you about what's going on given your extensive understanding and experience of anti colonial struggles all around the world. So thank you very much. Yousef, we have to wrap up this conversation now. Stay well.
Yousef Aljamal: (29:45)
Thank you Helena, for having me today, and you too, take care and stay well.