Walid Daqqah: the story of a nation

Mariam Barghouti

Mondoweiss  /  June 9, 2023

Walid Daqqah broke free during his nearly four-decade imprisonment through his writings, his resistance, and the birth of his daughter, Milad. His lifetime of refusing the prison’s walls has brought us all closer to freedom.

In 1986, a team of Israeli police officers, intelligence officials, and army soldiers raided a gas station near Petah Tikva. They were there to arrest 25-year-old Walid Daqqah, who worked at the station. He was accused of being part of a “terrorist” cell that killed an Israeli soldier on active duty. Daqqah was later sentenced to 37 years in prison.

“That was the last time I saw Walid outside of prison,” As’ad Daqqah, Walid’s younger brother, told Mondoweiss. “The next time I would see him would be when I was also arrested four years later.”

As’ad Daqqah was the only person in the family who was able to hug and hold Walid in the flesh during that period in prison. He met his older brother in October 1989, when he was sentenced to three years. Both brothers are from the Palestinian town of Baqa al-Gharbiyyeh, which lies within the borders of the Israeli state. That also makes them nominal Israeli citizens, meaning they were part of the small demographic of the Palestinian prison population who were both political prisoners and Israeli citizens — most other political prisoners in Israeli jails hold only West Bank or Jerusalem IDs. 

“The night I finished my sentence [at Ashkelon Prison], Walid said to me, ‘tonight you are leaving me, but what helps is knowing you are going to be out.’” As’ad recalled.  

Refusing the prison walls

Walid completed his 37-year sentence this year, but he still remains behind bars. In 2018, Israel added an extra two years to his sentence. The additional time was for aiding former Knesset member Bassel Ghattas in smuggling cell phones into Israeli prisons. During that period, Walid discovered that he has a rare form of bone marrow cancer, for which he has not received adequate treatment. Today, Walid’s health is in serious decline, and despite a growing campaign to free him, Israel has so far denied his appeals for an early release. He is being held in the Ramleh Prison clinic, a place notorious for deliberate medical negligence towards imprisoned patients, as in the case of Khader Adnan last May.

Ghattas, who was convicted in 2017, spent time in prison with Walid until his release in 2019. Ghattas was denied early release because he showed no remorse during his parole hearing in November 2018. As a member of the Knesset between 2015 and 2017, Ghattas used his diplomatic privileges to smuggle cell phones to Palestinian detainees in order to allow them to speak with their families and loved ones. 

Ghattas published his prison diaries, From the Knesset to the Jails of the Occupation, last May. In the book, Ghattas emphasized why people like Walid would even want to smuggle phones into prison in the first place. “There aren’t many Palestinians [with Israeli citizenship] inside Israeli prisons,” he explained during the book launch. “People aren’t very aware of the experience in captivity.” 

“In 2021, when Palestinians [with Israeli citizenship] were arrested in the thousands, they became more aware and exposed to life in captivity,” Ghattas continued to explain, highlighting the reality that those Palestinians faced and contrasting it with the experience of Palestinians with West Bank IDs, who have a far longer history of and familiarity with Israeli prison. 

In publishing his diaries, Ghattas captures how the Israeli prison system works in breaking Palestinian political detainees, isolating them from their families, denying them proper legal representation, and forcing them to endure torture tactics known to cause permanent physical and mental harm. In January, Israel’s National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, passed a new law limiting the rights of MKs to visit “terror inmates” with Israeli citizenship. While Palestinian MKs are imprisoned for helping Palestinian political detainees speak to their families, Israeli prisoners in civilian prisons are afforded regular contact with family members, including one phone call a day.

In 2020, rights groups filed a petition on behalf of Palestinian detainees to allow them phone calls after Israeli Prison Services had banned them in the same year, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Israeli High Court of Justice ruled in favor of the prisoners, but Israeli authorities imposed restrictions, allowing detainees only one short phone call with a first-degree relative. 

For detainees like Walid Daqqah, who have spent a lifetime in prison, smuggled cell phones are the only window to the outside world and necessary if detainees want to maintain their sanity and belief in the existence of a world worth fighting for. 

Living free

As an intellectual, novelist, and political writer who has spent almost two-thirds of his life in prison, Walid’s way of freeing himself has been through his writings and acquiring a Master’s degree in political science in prison.

“Walid was not a leader at the time,” As’ad explained, referring to his brother’s early years in prison“As Walid gained experience, he found his voice. He wrote many books, and his awareness drove him to write about the engineering of torture inside prison, about the dynamics of the occupation, and about the division among Palestinians — not only politically, but also socially and culturally.” 

In 2006, he wrote Parallel Time, which was adapted by Bashar Murkus and performed in Haifa almost ten years later. “This play created lots of noise, because it was performed in Haifa at a cultural center that was funded by the Israeli Ministry of Culture,” As’ad said. This drove then Minister Miri Regev to defund the theater that hosted the play. Walid also wrote Dissolving Consciousness, or: Redefining Torture, which examines the psyche of the detainee and the impact of Israeli practices on Palestinians, whether within the prison’s walls or in the larger prison of Palestine. In 2018, he published his first children’s novel, The Tale of the Oil’s Secret, which won the 2018 Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in the Young Adult category.

A short story for children whose parents are imprisoned in Israeli jails, Oil’s Secret focuses on supporting children and explaining a harsh reality they may not fully understand. In this attempt to provide solace to children deprived of their parents, “Daqqa has succeeded in creating a story of freedom and hope within prison,” literary analyst Ahlam Basharat wrote in 2018. 

This was how Daqqah chose to break free from his chains, “in the hopes of freeing the prison from within me,” as he once said of Oil’s Secret.

Birthing life, birthing Milad

“[Walid] used to always say, we create life and Israel is creating death,” As’ad said. For Walid, those words weren’t slogans. In the years after writing Oil’s Secret, Walid managed to smuggle his sperm out of prison to his wife, Sana’ Salameh, after years of being denied the right to conjugal visits like other Israeli citizens. 

It allowed for the birth of their daughter Milad, now three years old. Her name means “birth” in Arabic.

Despite only knowing prison walls and Israeli abuses, Daqqah insisted on pursuing life. In 1999, he got engaged to Sana’, and in 2020, two years after his sentence was extended, Daqqah and his wife decided to have a child. 

“There is a letter written to his daughter Milad, before she was conceived,” As’ad recalled to Mondoweiss. In the letter, Walid addressed his words to a child not yet part of the world. 

“Do you know that you now have a file with the Shabak [Israeli intelligence]?” Walid had written, asking of his unborn child. “This nuclear state, which has 200 nuclear weapons, is afraid of a child not yet born.” 

And in a move stranger than fiction, when Milad was born she became the youngest Palestinian to have a file on her with the Israeli intelligence services. 

For his younger brother, the story of Walid, as the story of an entire nation, should not elicit sympathy — especially not from the West. 

“The West must respect us, not sympathize with us,” As’ad told Mondoweiss. “What’s sympathy? Look at the region, we have the sympathy of the Arab world, and what has that gotten us?” 

Instead, As’ad says emphatically, “the West must be made to respect us. It should understand the value of our lives and what we represent to the globe by still believing in the fight for justice.” 

“And the struggle of detainees, whether inside or outside of prisons, is what has brought us closer to freedom,” he said. 

Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss