“Brother Murad, I want to say something to my brother in jail,” says a female voice.
“Go ahead,” Murad al-Sabi replies warmly.
“My dear brother Sameh, I'm sorry no one was able to come to see you. The Israelis didn’t give your brothers permission. I was supposed to see you today, but the Israelis turned me back at the Howara checkpoint. Don’t worry, I have already booked with the Red Cross for the next visit on April 8. Hope to see you then. Take care of yourself. My greetings to your friends, the heroes Ahmad, Ali and Louay and all of the brave men of Palestine. The chains will one day be shattered. Keep your heads up.”
“This is Um Qusai. I am the mother of the prisoner Ahmad Ali, and I want to wish him greetings on behalf of our entire family. We heard from our friends who visited Ofer prison that you were not feeling well. I hope you are better now. I want to tell you the latest on the wedding plans for Nisreen. We have booked a wedding hall for next Saturday for your sister’s wedding. Your brother Numan in Germany will not be able to come, but we expect a happy occasion.”
“Hello Abu Ahmad, this is Qassem. I want to send my greetings to my sister Ala’a and all the heroic Palestinian prisoners held in Hasharon prison. We are fine. Your sister just returned from Amman and she sends her greetings. Her son got a scholarship to study medicine at Jordan University.”
“Qassem,” asks the anchor of Raya Radio. “What about you, what are your plans? When are you getting married?”
“As I told you before, I will only agree to get married when my sister Ala’a is released,” he replies.
The excerpts above are a snapshot of a live broadcast from a Palestinian radio station on March 30. The program gives relatives of Palestinian prisoners a chance to communicate with their loved ones behind bars. Host Murad Sabi says that the Raya Radio Network reaches 11 out of the 13 Israeli prisons. Despite a general apathy toward politics and even the prisoner issue among Palestinians, the radio broadcasts help keep this humanitarian issue alive. Facebook and other social media platforms attract attention from as far away as Algeria, where supporters of Palestinian prisoners send them messages of solidarity.
The radio program is especially important to the many who are not allowed to visit the prisons because of security restrictions. Israeli prison authorities also forbid non-immediate relatives from family visits. Sabi told Al-Monitor that some sick and aged parents have given up on the long and difficult rides to prison, instead opting to speak over the radio. He said, “An older mother from Jenin whose son is in the Nafah prison in the Negev will leave home before dawn and return after midnight.”
Mohammad Abed Rabbo, a radio host in Bethlehem known by the nickname Zaghlool, spoke to Al-Monitor about his experience, saying that prisoners wait all week to hear the 90-minute Friday night program he hosts on Radio Bethlehem 2000. “Of the 5,000 Palestinian prisoners, there are about 500 from the Bethlehem area — among them 46 with life terms — and they are anxious to connect with family and friends outside.” Zaghlool says that radios are available in prison and there is nothing like hearing the voice of your loved ones to raise morale. “Many families are unable to visit their relatives and our radio program gives them a chance to communicate.”
Suhair Ismail, a filmmaker whose son was in Israeli detention for nearly two years, said that when he was in jail, her son didn’t want her to speak on the radio. She told Al-Monitor, “He felt that this one-way communication to which anyone can listen doesn’t allow for the privacy and intimacy of family contacts.”
Ismail's son was especially worried that at the end of a telephone conversation, when parents often send greetings to their son's cellmates, that his mother would forget one, leaving that prisoner with the feeling that no one outside cares about him. She said she made an exception to her sons’ wishes when the prisoners were on hunger strike.
“I called the radio station twice from the protest tent and I gave him and other inmates a description of what we were doing to support them in their just demands.” Prisoners went on strike to improve conditions and demand regular family visits. Their demands also included basic humanitarian needs, including the right to have books to read in jail.
The nearly 5,000 Palestinian detainees, most of whom are held illegally in prisons inside Israel proper, await these radio broadcasts to give them an emotional lift and a sense of what is happening outside prison and to keep up with family news.
While most Palestinian radio stations dedicate a weekly program to messages for prisoners, the most effective programs are those carried out on Palestine TV. Crews from the national station film the families of prisoners and usually invite two families to the studio to speak to their imprisoned loved ones, often allowing prisoners to see family members for the first time since their incarceration.
Still, radio has more reach and more time to give to families to communicate with their loved ones. Zaghlool says that he often hears heart-wrenching stories as families lay out everything on the air.
“Once, a mother called our station and told us a story of visiting with another mother, who had brought pictures of newborn children and family events. Her imprisoned son, who was only able to communicate by phone and through a glass window, pretended to be enjoying the photos, when in fact he had lost his eyesight in jail, but didn’t wish to tell his mother.”
Most callers are female, mothers and sisters, with the occasional father and brother. Ismail, who has produced a number of documentaries about prisoners, said that men refrain from participating in these programs because they don’t want to show emotion on the air.
“Conservative Arab men don’t want others to notice their feelings as they speak over the radio, addressing their loved ones. What they really fear is breaking down in tears as they communicate with their sons.”
As the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations continue to face trouble, the human element of the conflict looms large. For every prisoner held behind bars, dozens of relatives and friends, especially those not allowed to visit, are anxious to see them free. Until they do, radio and television communication with Palestinian prisoners provides a brief reprieve from the isolation of imprisonment.
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