Prisoners have the rights to see parents and read books

I knew, separately, Suheir Ismael and Najeeb Farraj before they became a couple. I knew Najeeb as a colleague working with AFP and Al Quds daily, and an avid reader of the political scene in Palestine. I worked with Suheir when we produced the documentary Palestinian Diaries during the first Intifada. In it, Suheir talks about the day her brother was killed by Israelis while he was trying to help a neighbour in Al Khader village, near Bethlehem.

With her brother gone and her father killed in Lebanon, Suheir grew up a strong woman fighting for her rights in a male-dominated society.

I will never forget the day she interviewed her mother for the documentary, asking her a tough question: Why didn’t you follow dad into exile? She later told me that the camera gave her the courage to ask a question she had not dared ask face-to-face.

Another documentary I co-produced documents her wedding day and includes a segment in which distant male relatives try to take advantage of her men-less family, only to be put down by Najeeb’s brother Hamdi, a leading Palestinian columnist.

Suheir moved to Najeeb’s home in Dheisheh camp and continued to work in filmmaking, set up a media NGO that trains women filmmakers. She and Najeeb have also produced a lovely family.

When they were gifted with a son, they called him Ismael, in memory of Suheir’s dead brother. The name has given the young boy some trouble, as it matches the name of the deputy head of the Palestinian intelligence service, Ismael Farraj (who is Najeeb’s older brother).

The young Ismael, however, seems to have adopted points of view a little to the left of those of his pro-Fateh uncle. His leftist ideology has also incurred the wrath of the Israelis.

Described by friends and family as smart, clever and charismatic, the young Ismael Farraj became a supporter of the PLO’s left-wing faction Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. At Al Quds University, where Ismael is a second-year law student, he became involved in the PFLP’s student movement. As any active student, he would help with public events on and off campus.

Last October, Israeli soldiers sneaked into areas under Palestinian security rule and broke into the Farrajs’ home, in Dheisheh camp and arrested young Ismael. He was charged with belonging to an illegal organisation.

Although the PFLP is part of the PLO, which has signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel in 1993, Israel has not removed the organisation from their long list of organisations it considers terrorist.

Ismael is also accused of having prepared chairs for public events and inciting people to throw stones. He, himself, is not accused of any violent act.

Since October 10, Ismael has been held at the Ofra detention facility near Ramallah. This is the first time Ismael was detained. His parents are banned from seeing him. No official explanation is given for this ban. Only his siblings, Lamis 17 and Ruba 14, are allowed to see him.

What is most upsetting to Ismael and his family is the relatively new Israeli policy (under Premier Benjamin Netanyahu) that bans books from prisons or detention centres. Israelis are allowing only three books per year, and of those, only textbooks.

This week, Ismael, who was brought to a hearing, told his family that he wishes they could get him a world atlas, which apparently is allowed under this weird textbook policy.

Palestinians are also prevented from pursuing education in prison, including the ability to apply for the Tawjihi matriculation test and for college education.

Palestinian prisoners have declared a prison-wide hunger strike. It began with 1,200 prisoners demanding basic rights, such as family visits (those with family in Gaza have not seen relatives since 2007), the ability to touch and hug children and family members and to apply for high school and college degrees, as well as have regular books brought in. They are also calling for an end to administrative detentions.

Israel violated international law when it transferred Gaza prisoners to Israel and has continued to flaunt international humanitarian law by preventing prisoners, since June 2007, to see their families. Barring parents also seems to be used as an unauthorised punishment, as in Ismael’s case.

It might help if international celebrities like George Clooney, Angolina Jolie and Richard Gere who have championed world issues would also champion these basic rights of Palestinians including that of family visits and the right of a parent even in prison to hug their children during visits.

It would be commendable to see Nobel Literature laureates sign a statement calling on Israel to stop the policy of banning books for Palestinian prisoners.

It would be great if universities around the world and academics would push Israel to allow prisoners to take the high school examination and enroll in distance college education.

It would be great if Jewish religious and secular leaders whose history and culture highlight the importance of books and being a light unto nations would protest denial of books to Palestinian prisoners.

One might disagree with the cause of the conflict or the reasons for jailing people, but even prisoners have their rights protected and safeguarded by international law and basic common sense.

Ismael’s father expects his son to be sentenced to about two years. The big question, however, for Ismael and all other prisoners, is what will happen once they end their prison term and what will they think of how the world acted when they were being punished.