Our living martyrs

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When I meet the mother of a Palestinian killed in this conflict, I don’t cry with her or ask her to show artificial pride and strength. Instead I say, “Your beloved is in God’s hands, where life is more just and fair than ours.” Many times, my words have been effective. But when I meet a mother of a Palestinian political prisoner, I don’t know what to say. I choke with the words dead in my throat.

A month ago, I went to Neve Tirza to stand in solidarity with a group of women political prisoners inside the jail who were on a hunger strike. There were only about 50 of us in the protest, a meager group compared to the massive crowds that usually follow the funeral of a martyr or the hundreds who line up outside universities to holler out their positions and announce a strike in protest.

Standing there looking at the meager showing, I imagined that some who might have joined us had been stopped at checkpoints. Certainly others had to make use of a day in which Israeli travel restrictions had relented to see what food they could find.

Perhaps some hurried to their offices in hopes of getting a little work done before the mid-afternoon rush hour, then racing to get home before a new closure took affect. But despite my efforts to make the best of things, the sight of the small group made me think of the sad words of Mahmoud Abu Al Sukkar, a Palestinian man who spent 26 years of his life in jail because he dared express dissent when Zionists came to take his land. “I used to think that if you call Palestinians to stand in solidarity with their prisoners, the streets would be full of the thousands. But that was my fantasy and imagination,” he lamented in his loneliness.

Abu Al Sukkar’s expression of isolation nudges me to remember how our Palestinian negotiators have neglected and disregarded the thousands of freedom fighters who spent and are still spending the best years of their lives behind bars. What if the greatest among us are in these prisons, waiting and holding out for their chance to lead?

I lament the lack of care we appear to express for these prisoners. Except for the prisoners’ own families who have longings and fears for their loved ones’ safety, few among us recreate the greatness of our prisoners outside the walls that encircle them.

Think, for example, how Nelson Mandela made prison his platform, supported by his community outside.

Israel is notorious for its political prisons – Neve Tirza, Abu Kbeir, Dimona, and others. While the government of Israel keeps captives as young as 14 in these jails, few Israeli human rights organizations speak out consistently against the inhuman conditions and physical and psychological torture endured by the captives. That no one in the Palestinian Authority moves to improve conditions in these prisons is proof of the current void between the Palestinian power structures and morally concerned people within and without Israel’s iron walls.

Palestinian and Israeli peace activists alike lament the situation. “Where,” wrote one concerned Israeli, “where in the world do you put 14-year-old girls in prison for being politically active? Only in Israel!” In South Africa, Nelson Mandela spent 28 years in prison. He was tough, refusing to capitulate to his captors’ demands, rejecting opportunities for freedom and waiting instead for the moment that he would gain freedom not only for himself, but for all his people. He had the strength of character to be a man of the people and the people were ready to engage the leadership he offered. Mandela never forgot his people and, they, in turn, did not forget him.

Standing outside Neve Tirza, I know the names of some of the prisoners. But there are so many. Whom have we forgotten? When our prisoners leave their cells, will we Palestinians be ready to embrace the sacrifices they made and open to them the avenues of leadership? Given that we are all virtually prisoners in our own homes, are we even able to see potential for leadership among ourselves? Could it be dormant,lying in front of our very eyes, unrecognized, but ready just the same?

Since the beginning of Intifada II more than one year ago, Israeli (and now Palestinian) prisons have swelled, occupied by those who would not follow the rules.

Given that half of the Palestinian population is under the age of l8, it isn’t surprising that many of the prisoners are in their prime: youthful, willful, wanting more from life. What do we say to the parents and grandparents of our young prisoners, especially when some of these have been captured by their own police and put away, out of sight and out of mind? We bend, abashed, like the animals in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” In Orwell’s satire, the leaders of the animals are pigs. It is a sad day when the lowly citizen-animals open the doors of their leaders’ inner sanctums and discover that those they trusted are eating ham.

Saddened, the animals take the ham and give it a decent burial. Will we gain freedom at last only to cringe in resentment for those who used our youth not to win our freedom, but to feed themselves? Or will we bow in reverence to those great and small who sacrificed themselves for our well-being? If any place on the globe has witnessed conflict as wearing as that in Palestine, it is Africa and yet, look at the men who have risen from the depths of African despair:Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu and, now, Kofi Anan, the new winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. For us, the young people of Palestine, the future is ours. Either we will succumb to self-pity or we can bury our dead, hold our heads high, turn away from our prison walls and lead.

While I felt that our protest in front of Neve Tirza was disappointingly small, I’m glad I stood with 50 people on that day. It was my way of remembering, and of sharing in initiative. Mother Teresa wrote, “Don’t wait for leaders, do it alone, person to person.” So, I and the 49 others who made our presence known gave credence and visibility to the women inside the Israeli government had hoped would slip into oblivion (along with the rest of us). We may not have a Nelson Mandela among us, but perhaps we have better. We have thousands of political prisoners willing to sacrifice freedom and happiness for Palestinian independence. Whether hidden inside Israeli or Palestinian prisons or locked away through house arrest or community bantustans, none of us are giving in. We stand broken but not bowed, troubled but not humiliated, by Israel’s expression of might. Mandela stands out as one leader whom prison could not quell. The other great rule-breaker of our time, Mahatma Gandhi, died in 1948, the same year Zionists occupied the first part of Palestine. But those were different times for those seeking independence. Now, governments of the “civilized” world manufacture conflicts that reverberate like the movie “Star Wars.” Here in dusty Palestine, we’re not thinking of Star Wars. We’ve seen the missiles come and go with flares and sprays of light. We’ve felt billy clubs on our heads, endured the kick of soldiers’ heavy boots and resisted the bullets of contempt. We need to stand tall, not dissolve in flames of hateful conflagration.

If we fail to honor our living as well as our dead, I worry that our national liberation will not be what we expect. I am troubled that we may succumb to the humiliation of our own silence and remain captives, unable to take control of our own destinies. I honor our prisoners of war; I pray that they will not be forgotten at the negotiation table and I await the day when we, the young people of Palestine, can show the world what leadership means.

(Samah Jabr is a freelance writer and medical student in Jerusalem. This article was written with the assistance of Elizabeth Mayfield.)

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