ISSAWIYA, EAST JERUSALEM — As Palestinian prisoner Samer Issawi continues his hunger strike past the 210-day mark on Feb. 18, his family, friends and neighbors living in the East Jerusalem village of Issawiya have condemned what they say is an Israeli policy of collective punishment against them.
“My brother Shadi was arrested yesterday. We didn’t know anything about [his condition] at this moment because they didn’t allow anyone to visit him. They demolished my brother Rafat's house on Jan. 1 at 5 a.m. without an order from the court. They also cut the water to our house the same day. Still now, we don’t have any water. We take water from the neighbors,” Samer Issawi’s sister, Shireen, told Al-Monitor.
“Almost every day [the Israeli police] enter the village and start shooting, and arrest anyone they see in the street. They demolished the tent that we made to support Samer. They demolished it 30 times,” Shireen said.
A member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Samer Issawi was released from an Israeli jail as part of a prisoner-exchange deal in October 2011. He was re-arrested in July after Israeli authorities said he violated the conditions of his release.
His hunger strike began soon thereafter, in protest of being held without charge or trial under an Israeli administrative-detention order. Issawi has been refusing food intermittently, subsisting on water, salts and vitamins for over 210 days now.
His family says his health has greatly deteriorated, and he could die at any moment.
“We are very worried about him, about his life. We want him to come back home alive, but at the same time we are very proud of him, that he is going on hunger strike not just for his freedom, but also the freedom of all the prisoners,” Shireen said.
Solidarity brings growing Israeli pressure
Approximately 12,000 Palestinians currently live in Issawiya, a neighborhood located in northeast Jerusalem. Like the rest of east Jerusalem, Issawiya was illegally annexed to Israel in 1967.
Today, the village suffers from a widespread lack of services including paved roads, a working sewage system and regular garbage collection. It lacks classrooms and health facilities, and home demolitions are frequent.
Because of Issawiya’s strategic location between the Israeli settlement of French Hill, the Hebrew University and the E-1 corridor that links Jerusalem to the megasettlement of Ma’ale Adumim, Israel has regularly confiscated Issawiya lands.
This situation has made Issawiya a hotbed of tension. The village is a regular target of Israeli police violence, and night raids and arrests occur often, as do violent clashes between Palestinian youth and the Israeli authorities.
As the movement in solidarity with Issawi and other Palestinian prisoners grows and regular protests have been held in Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and in several international cities in recent weeks, this pressure has mounted.
“There has been an enhanced presence of police special forces — border police, riot police and undercover units — carrying out actions more appropriate for the battlefield than for a residential neighborhood,” wrote attorney Nisreen Alyan in a letter to Jerusalem police chief Yossi Pariente on Jan. 23.
In a six-week period between November 2012 and January 2013, some 100 residents of Issawiya, including 40 minors, were arrested as a result of the Israeli police’s pressure on the area. Residents described the period as “a village under siege.”
“All of that is to put pressure on Samer to stop his hunger strike,” explained Shireen Issawi, “but Samer is stronger than that. He told them, ‘whatever you do, I know that everyone is supporting me and I’ll continue my hunger strike until I have my freedom.’”
Palestinian youth clashed with Israeli police and army officers last Friday, Feb. 15, after a demonstration through the village. The violence came after Israeli police set up checkpoints at the entrance to Issawiya last week and impeded the movements of local residents.
According to Rami Saleh, Director of the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center’s Jerusalem office, the Israeli authorities regularly use a strategy of “collective punishment” throughout Palestine.
“Israel, all the time, is doing collective punishment for Palestinians. If stones are thrown on a settler vehicle in a village near Nablus, for example, the village will be closed,” Saleh told Al-Monitor.
“The message that the Israelis are looking to send is not only for Samer as a prisoner, but also for the village and for Jerusalem: ‘If you, as a Jerusalemite — not only Samer’s family or Samer’s village — are thinking to resist, we’ll be very, very harsh.’”
Hunger strike building unity
On Feb. 15, Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah traveled to Issawiya to show their support for Issawi. The visit quickly turned into an impromptu protest march, with local residents spontaneously joining the procession down Issawiya’s main road.
“I am in solidarity with all the prisoners, and especially with Samer Issawi. I consider him my son. I consider myself to be his second mother,” Fatmeh Khader, an East Jerusalemite who joined the demonstration, told Al-Monitor. “I’m the daughter of Jerusalem. I’m active in solidarity with all my people, be it in settlement issues or prisoners or child arrests.”
Fayrouz Sharqawi, the advocacy coordinator at Grassroots Al Quds, an organization that maps the needs of Jerusalem residents and communities, explained that the event was a milestone in that it brought together Palestinians from different parts of the city.
“It was really inspiring and energizing to see the people go from Sheikh Jarrah to Al-Issawiya to say that our struggles might be on different issues, but these are pieces of the puzzle of the whole Palestinian struggle,” Sharqawi told Al-Monitor.
She explained that, faced with mounting pressure in their communities, Palestinians in Jerusalem are often too busy dealing with their own pressing problems to pay attention to their neighbors’.
“Just seeing these people today walk together, Sheikh Jarrah residents along with the Issawiya people, you could see how they felt strong. They walked with their heads up high, chanting and just walking side by side,” Sharqawi said.
According to Shireen Issawi, the outpouring of support has helped sustain her family, and has kept Samer steadfast in his hunger strike.
“It makes us realize that Samer is not alone,” she said. “Everyone all around the world, not just Palestine, [shows us] that there is humanity in this world. We hope that it will put pressure on Israel to release Samer.”
Jillian Kestler-D'Amours is a Canadian journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. She is a regular contributor to Inter Press Service news agency, Al Jazeera English and Free Speech Radio News. Follow her on Twitter: @jilldamours.