Letter from Beirut

Fighting for dignity

Print edition : July 11, 2014

Abdel-Razeq Farraj with his wife Lamis, and sons Wadea, and Basil Farraj. Photo: Vijay Prashad

A Palestinian protester in the West Bank city of Hebron uses a sling to hurl a stone at Israeli troops during clashes following a rally on May 16 to show solidarity with Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. Photo: REUTERS

Around 300 Palestinians are on hunger strike in occupied Palestine protesting against the inhuman provision that allows the Israeli authorities to arrest people without giving reasons or framing charges.

Abdel-Razeq Farraj is 51. He has spent 14 of those years in Israeli prisons. His first arrest was in 1985. Only 22 then, he spent six years in prison. He has since been in and out of prison—1994-96, 2002-06, 2009, 2011-12—each time under Israel’s draconian “administrative detention” statute. Most recently, the Israelis arrested him on February 25, 2014. He has been in prison since then. Once more, the Israelis arrested him under the same statute. Along with almost 300 other Palestinians under administrative detention, Farraj went on a hunger strike. He has not eaten since April 30. He has no plan to eat before he is to be released on August 24.

Administrative Detention

United Nations officials and human rights agencies have filled up shelves with documentary evidence and condemnatory statements against the Israeli policy of “administrative detention”. On June 6, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that he was concerned about the health of the hunger strikers and reiterated his “long-standing position that administrative detainees should be charged or released without delay”. A U.N. Special Committee that monitors Israeli practices that affect the human rights of Palestinians released a statement that pointed to the grave violations of international law buried behind the bureaucratic term “administrative detention”. “International humanitarian law only exceptionally allows for the use of administrative detention,” said the Committee, “yet the Israeli authorities have detained a large number of Palestinians for reasons not explicitly indicated. Initial administrative detention orders of six-month periods can be renewed an indefinite number of times without producing charges.”

On the basis of the inputs from its intelligence apparatus, Israel picks up “dangerous” Palestinians. It does not bother to tell the Palestinians what they are being arrested for, nor does it charge them with a crime. The authorities take these arrested Palestinians before a military court, where the intelligence agency’s intelligence is presented in a “secret file” to the judge. The prisoner and the lawyers for the prisoner are not privy to the “secret file”. A military judge decides whether to authorise the detention or not. As the Palestinian non-governmental organisation (NGO) Addameer notes, “The intelligence [agencies] provide the information contained in the secret file, which is accepted without reservation by the military judge.”

Article 78 of the Fourth Geneva Convention allows an Occupying Power to intern “protected persons” for six-month periods but only “for imperative reasons of security”. This is an emergency provision. As in the case of Farraj, who has suffered because of it since 1985, this has been the norm in Israeli practice, not an occasional application of an emergency provision.

In a hearing on March 3 at the Ofer Military Court, Farraj was accused of being a “senior member in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP]”. He was told that “his connections and impact on society indicate that he is dangerous”. There is no evidence to suggest that Farraj is a leader in the PLFP, nor even that he is a member. Is membership in the left-wing PFLP sufficient reason to be interned? The PFLP is a major faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). After the Oslo Accords of 1994, the PFLP, as part of the PLO, accepted Israel’s right to exist. Its military operations fizzled out after 2004. Yet, Israel retains the PFLP on its terrorists list and arrests anyone associated with the party under administrative detention.

Farraj is the Director of Finance and Administration at the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, where he champions the rights of Palestinian farmers. The Union, substantially funded by the European Union, reclaims and rehabilitates land in Occupied Palestine. Farmers pay a quarter of the cost and work on the land in Area C, which is under full Israeli control. It is a political act as much as an agricultural one. The Union supports the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement, a thorn in the side of Israel. Israel says that the Union is a front organisation of the PFLP. It is the reason why an employee of the Union might be arrested and held in administrative detention. The only problem is that the Union is independent of the PFLP.

One of the reasons why Israel is vexed about the PFLP is that it was one of the main Palestinian factions to oppose the 2007 Fatah-Hamas conflict. It believes that neither the Fatah-dominated government in the West Bank nor the Hamas-dominated government in Gaza is legitimate since they have overstayed their mandate and that fresh elections are necessary.

Hamas, the PFLP said in December 2013, “is a vital part of the Palestinian national movement”. The recent unity between the Fatah and Hamas, which the PFLP has long advised, is another reason for Israel to fret about the role of the PFLP. Political reasons abound for the incarceration of those assumed to be part of that party. Farraj, however, has little to do with all this. He seems to be a pawn in Israel’s game.

‘My heart beats because of you’

Farraj is not an innocent man. His crime is grave. He believes that Palestinians must be free to decide their future. Born in the Al-Jalazone refugee camp in Ramallah, Farraj has lived his life alongside his occupied people. “He likes to read and write,” says his son Basil. “He is known for his silence and for what is hidden behind that silence.” What does he hide? “Determination, love for justice, passion, compassion.” Farraj, in the portrait that his son paints of him, is not belligerent or violent. He is simply resolute.

While in prison in 2012, Farraj went on a hunger strike for 24 days. At that time, thanks to the intercession of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Farraj sent a letter to his family. He wrote: “I am facing my body’s weakness with a determination and strength that reaches the furthest point of the sky.” The 2012 hunger strike was instrumental in gaining international attention for the plight of Palestinian prisoners. Islamic Jihad members Tha’er Halahleh and Bilal Diab went without food for 77 days, while Khader Adnan, another Islamic Jihad member, starved for 66 days. “The hunger strikers’ courage is magnificently inspiring,” said the Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi, “and their selflessness deeply humbling.”

Over the course of his life, Farraj has been more than a director at the Union of Agricultural Work Committees. He has been an advocate for the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. In 2002, during his own arrest, he wrote two articles for the Arabic press on the illegality of administrative detention.

In October 2011, when the detainees were on a hunger strike, he wrote an article called “It’s the prisoners’ month”, calling Palestinians to support their brethren in prison. It was because of the sustained work of people like Farraj that shops in Ramallah and Hebron went on a solidarity strike on June 8; “Chains must be broken,” read a sign above a shop.

Hunger Strike

Seventy of the close to 300 Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike need serious medical care. Among them is Farraj, who has gone back and forth between Meir Hospital (Kfar Saba) and Ayalon Prison. Basil Farraj told me that the conditions in the hospital were “horrific, as they were shackled to the hospital beds, not allowed regular access to bathrooms, no clean water, and soldiers were present around them all the time. The prisoners report that being in the isolation cell is much better than in the hospital.”

Jawad Bolus, a Palestinian lawyer, reports that the prisoners have lost an average of 16 kilograms. Israeli prison authorities did not respond to my questions about the condition of the detainees. U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, Navi Pillay, worried about the conditions of the prisons, cautioned Israel not to amend its laws to permit force-feeding against the prisoners’ will. This is against international standards. The World Medical Association calls force-feeding “unethical”.

The Israeli authorities are trying to break the will of the strikers. The prisoners are held in isolation. They cannot communicate with one another. They are not allowed to see their families. According to Basil, the Israeli authorities told all those who joined the hunger strike that they would not be allowed to see their families. Farraj’s family—his 75-year-old mother, his wife Lamis, who lives in Jerusalem, and his two sons, Basil and Wadea—is cut off from him. The prisoners’ will remains strong, as does the will of their families. Basil wrote an open letter to his father recently. “We love life despite the occupation’s continuous attempts to have us hate it,” he wrote. “We love life because we deserve life. We love life because we will get life. To my father and his empty stomach.”