This week I attended a demonstration outside Ramle prison, inside ’48 Israel, in support of those on hunger strike. Around 150 Palestinian political prisoners have been refusing food, some entering their 5th week, surviving on nothing but water and salt. The mass strike is in protest of Israel’s practice of administrative detention, whereby, detainees are imprisoned under the guise of ‘secret evidence’.
The state has the power to bar access to a lawyer for up to 90 days and even with access the lawyer will still not be allowed to see the secret evidence, making it impossible to provide a defence. Administrative detention orders last for a maximum of 6 months but can be renewed indefinitely. In theory, family visits are allowed twice a month, but if the detainee is held inside Israel special permits are required for family members which are often denied without reason. Holding Palestinian prisoners from the occupied West Bank inside ’48 Israel is yet another violation of international law. In some cases, prisoners are told a few days before the order has finished that they will be released, giving them time to prepare to see their family, however, on the day of their release they are given another 6 month detention order. The method is employed as a form of psychological torture, not only being imprisoned without knowing when you will be released, but to give false hope only to issue another term of detention. The routine use of administrative detention is yet another injustice in Israel’s apartheid regime.
Three bus loads left from Jerusalem for the 1 hour journey to Ramle, everyone on the bus wearing black t-shirts with the slogan “The prisoners are not alone”. Those living in the West Bank are not given permission to travel to occupied Jerusalem so those who joined the demonstration were those living in ’48 Israel. Palestinians living in Israel make up around 20% of the population and face discrimination across the board.
As the buses pulled up outside the prison people poured out making as much noise as possible, forming a block as they marched to the front gate. The majority of demonstrators were men aged around 18 and above, which felt like it had an impact on the way the Israeli police stood back the entire time.
Prison guards filmed the protesters from the watch tower above, whilst others stood from a distance in relatively small numbers in comparison to other demonstrations. Soon a PA system had been setup and the deafening chants began ringing out. I asked someone whether the prisoners would be able to hear us and the person replied definitively ‘yes, even those in solitary confinement will hear us’. Automatically, I started thinking about women outside the Maze banging bin lids against the concrete, just another way to let the prisoners know they are not alone. Another person once held under administrative detention for 3 years before his victorious 97 day hunger strike was Palestinian national footballer Mahmoud Sarsak. He played a charity football match in Glasgow with the Green Brigade and after spoke about his detention. One thing that stood out was how he explained the psychological torment that was inflicted. He mentioned that to reach your cell you are taken through around 19 mechanically locked doors with the system designed so that the door behind you must be locked before the one in front is opened. He explained the feeling of being so dethatched from the rest of human society as if you had be wiped of the face of the earth and no one would remember you. As the chants turned to song, getting louder and louder and with more and more venom, you couldn’t help but feel connected to those on the other side of the barbed wire.The protest lulled for Friday prayers and speakers began as the deafening noise turned to peaceful reflection.
After the final speaker the music and chants resumed, even louder and more passionately than before. Families holding picture of relatives on hunger strike, pointing to the sky and mustering every gasp of air to make sure the prisoners could hear them.
Nearing the end of the demonstration a few bottles and stones were thrown at the Police but they stood back knowing it wouldn’t be possible to attempt any arrest. The older men shouted ‘enough’, reinforcing that today was about being as one with those on hunger strike, not confrontation. As the buses began pulling away we sat listening to one of the organisers speak over the microphone on the bus. He began dialling his phone and the whole bus fell silent. One of those on hunger strike inside Ramle began speaking on loudspeaker, the phone pressed against the mic to make the sound travel. Everyone listened intently to every word until the man holding the phone put his hand to his ear and the whole bus erupted in support, shouting and cheering. Afterwards, I was told the political prisoner on hunger strike was on his 27th day without food. He repeatedly mentioned how loud the protesters were and the lift it had given everyone refusing food as a last resort to fight against this incredibly unjust form of internment. His father sat beside me listening without showing any sadness or resentment, but a look of pride for his son’s unbelievable courage and resilience. It was an overwhelming feeling to see the support for those risking their lives in a collective fight for justice and the response behind the prison wall.
“The prisoners are not alone”.