‘Love for a free life’: Why Palestinian prisoners hunger strike

Hisham Abu Hawwash with his wife Aisha and their two youngest children (Mosab Shawer - Al-Jazeera)

Aziza Nofal

Al-Jazeera  /  March 10, 2022

Al-Jazeera speaks to recently freed Palestinian hunger strikers Miqdad Qawasmi and Hisham Abu Hawwash about their ordeals in Israeli prison.

Hebron/Al-Khalil, Occupied West Bank  Eman Badr’s smile never leaves her face ever since her 25-year-old son Miqdad was released from Israeli prison following a 113-day, life-threatening hunger strike to secure his freedom.

Miqdad Qawasmi, who was freed on February 24, made international headlines over his struggle against imprisonment without trial or charge under Israel’s “administrative detention” order issued by regional military commanders in the occupied West Bank.

“My son died in my arms and came back to life again,” the 50-year-old mother told Al-Jazeera.

Donning her traditional Palestinian embroidered thobe, Badr stood in the kitchen preparing baqlawa (a Levantine layered pastry sweet) to serve before Qawasmi walked in, with the effects of the hunger strike apparent on his body.

“This is him in the best condition – when I saw him for the first time, which was during his hunger strike, he was skin and bones,” says Badr, pointing to her son recently back at their home.

Qawasmi was said to be one of the physically weakest among six Palestinian prisoners carrying out parallel hunger strikes against administrative detention. The policy allows Israel to indefinitely imprison Palestinians based on “secret evidence” that neither the detainee nor his lawyer is allowed to see.

Some 500 Palestinian prisoners are held in Israeli prisons under such orders.

A student at the design school of Al-Khadoori University in Hebron/Al-Khalil at the time, Qawasmi was arrested from his home in the city in January 2021.

During the strike, his weight dropped by half, and he was transferred into intensive care units at Israeli hospitals several times, facing imminent risk of death.

“I knew perfectly well that I had entered an irreversible battle,” Qawasmi told Al-Jazeera. “I had to be patient during the first period of the hunger strike as it was the most difficult – physically and psychologically.”

He began refusing food, only sustaining himself on water with salt, in July 2021. On November 11, Qawasmi ended his 16-week hunger strike after reaching an agreement with Israeli authorities in Ofer prison, near Ramallah where he was being held, to not extend his administrative detention beyond February 2022.

He and his family and supporters in Palestine and abroad considered it a victory.

‘Love for a free life’

Like many other young Palestinian men, Qawasmi had been targeted by the Israeli occupation long before his last arrest. He said his decision to undergo a hunger strike was the culmination of years of persecution.

He was first arrested in 2015, aged 18, and sentenced by Israeli military courts in the occupied West Bank on charges of participating in solidarity events with Palestinian prisoners.

Israel’s military courts are run exclusively by active-duty or reserve Israeli soldiers, including judges, prosecutors, clerks and translators. Israel says administrative detention is needed to prevent attacks or to imprison dangerous individuals without disclosing intelligence methods.

Qawasmi spent two years behind Israeli bars, and his family had to pay a fine of $26,000. He said during that arrest, “there were clear threats by occupation officers saying they would seek to keep me in prison as much as possible.”

After managing to pass high school matriculation exams in prison, Qawasmi went on to do his Bachelor of Arts degree, but was often distracted by summons from Israeli intelligence, and indirect threats, including the arrests of his friends.

The Israeli army re-arrested him in 2019 and military courts charged him with “incitement” on social media, for which he served eight months. Some 100 days after his release, Qawasmi was arrested again and served a five-month sentence.

Qawasmi said between every arrest, he tried to move forward with his life by completing university or getting married. But each arrest pushed him back to the starting point.

The charge against him during his most recent arrest that included his hunger strike was over his participation in welcome celebrations for the release of his cousin Saeed Qawasmi after 10 years in Israeli prisons.

“How can doing a family duty turn out to be a charge – I don’t know,” said Qawasmi.

Israeli military officials sentenced him to five months, and on the day of his release at the end of May, he and his family were surprised by the decision to transfer him to administrative detention for six months, after which he announced his hunger strike.

“At this moment, I realized that what was happening was the implementation of what I was threatened with during the first arrest, of them keeping me in prison as much as possible,” he said.

On the 78th day of his strike, Qawasmi’s health had severely deteriorated. Israel froze his detention order but did not cancel it, and allowed his family to visit him for the first time since his arrest, also used as a form of pressure for him to end his hunger strike. He managed to go on for another 35 days, with supplements that would not be considered as breaking his strike.

“I wasn’t trying to kill myself – I underwent this strike out of love for a free life,” he said.

“No one understands the value of life except those who have been deprived of it, and I have been deprived of life and freedom. I sought it and will repeat this experience if I am robbed of my freedom without charge again.”

‘Paid 50kgs of my body’ 

Released on the same day as Qawasmi was another prisoner who underwent a parallel hunger strike – Hisham Abu Hawwash, from the village of Dura on the southwest outskirts of occupied Hebron/Al-Khalil city.

The 40-year-old father of five refused food and drink for 141 days, with his strike gaining wide international solidarity that pushed Egyptian officials to intervene and secure an agreement with Israel for him to end it.

During the last days of his hunger strike, Abu Hawwash, a construction worker, lived in a state between life and death. He suffered blurry vision, significant muscular atrophy, and the inability to move and talk.

At his home, solidarity posters lining the walls depicted a young man with a plump face. “I paid 50 kilos of my body and nerves for my freedom,” a now-skinny Abu Hawwash told Al-Jazeera.

His two youngest children, Qass, 3, and Saba, a year and a half, kept clinging to their mother. “They blame me for the hunger strike,” he said, explaining a week after his release his youngest were still afraid of him.

Arrested by the Israeli army in October 2020, Abu Hawwash announced his strike on August 17, 2021, setting a maximum ceiling of 70 days.

He said he developed a clear plan, waiting until the start of spring as “during the strike the body needs energy and the detainee is usually held in solitary cells that are very cold”. He would remain in bed all day so as not to waste energy, unless to use the washroom.

Aisha Hraibat’s first visit to her husband since his arrest coincided with his decision to undergo a hunger strike.

“I tried to persuade him to abandon the strike out of fear for him, but when I saw his determination, I told him I would support him,” the 31-year-old told Al-Jazeera.

‘How did I survive?’  

Israeli prison authorities kept Abu Hawwash in solitary confinement for the first 31 days of his strike. He was transferred to an Israeli hospital for treatment when his health deteriorated, but he refused to deal with doctors, whether for examinations or any support, so he was transferred to Ramle prison clinic.

On day 60, the oxygen level in his blood dropped. He kept refusing all kinds of supplements, but increased his water intake. He was able to continue for 90 days, but he became paralyzed.

“I could no longer feel the lower half of my body,” he said.

On the 70th day Israeli authorities “froze” his detention order, and on the 118th they renewed it for an additional four months.

 “How did I survive?” he says with a laugh, answering he does not know. Perhaps because he was no longer making an effort – he was falling in and out of a coma.

“In the last few days, I felt like a day was five minutes.”

On January 4, 12 days before the end of his hunger strike and with serious international concern over his life, Israeli authorities agreed to release Abu Hawwash by February 26.

To the question, “Didn’t you feel afraid that you would die?” Abu Hawwash responded: “Death was easier to me than being kept in administrative detention for years like other prisoners. What’s the point of me living if I am kept away from my family?”

For Abu Hawwash and Qawasmi, freedom is worth the suffering and pain of their hunger strikes.

“If I am administratively detained again, I would strike from day one. I would not spend a single day held unjustly and without a clear charge,” says Abu Hawwash.

Aziza NofalAl-Jazeera