Linah Alsaafin published the following profile of hunger striker Bilal Diab, who has been on hunger strike for 60 days, in Al-Akhbar English on Friday, April 27, 2012. Addameer has also released a profile of Diab: http://www.addameer.org/etemplate.php?id=462
Even as a young boy, Bilal Thiab despised authoritative oppression. He refused to listen to adults telling him off for innocent mistakes and later that personality trait solidified into one that openly challenged the men in uniform trampling on people’s freedom.
Thiab was just 18 years old and a high school senior when he was first arrested by the Israeli occupying army in October 2003 from his village of Kufr Rai. He was sentenced to prison for seven and a half years for what Israel called his “political activism in the Islamic Jihad group.”
When he was arrested, he defied the Israeli soldiers’ commands to look at the ground instead of at their faces, and when he refused they threatened to shoot him. Thiab was unshaken, and replied scathingly that either way, death is inevitable. These comments caused a significant amount of distress for his mother who was listening in on the exchange from the other room, confined there by the soldiers.
After his release in February 2010, life was never the same for Thiab. He was arrested for short periods of time and was repeatedly summoned by the Israeli intelligence for interrogations, which usually lasted for days. One interrogation in May lasted for seven days. Thiab was also arrested by the Palestinian Authority for 28 days, a subject his mother, 65-year-old Umm Hisham is not keen to discuss.
“There is no point in talking about this now,” she murmured, turning away with one hand on her face. “We need all the support we can get, from President Mahmoud Abbas and [Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad.” She looked up with a worn out smile. “He went on hunger strike for 14 days after the PA arrested him.”
Adjusting to “freedom” after prison was a hardship in itself, especially since Thiab found himself being constantly called for interrogations by Israel and intermittently, by the PA.
“He wanted to live his life the way he imagined, but couldn’t because the occupation stole any meaning of life from him,” Umm Hisham said. “He has such a strong respectable character, but he was denied leading a life any young man of his age should be able to, such as starting a family, going to wedding parties outside the village, and visiting other towns and cities.”
Thiab’s restricted freedom of movement was illustrated emphatically in January 2011, after he tried to go to Jenin to visit his sister-in-law after she had given birth to twin boys. A flying checkpoint was waiting for him just outside Kufr Rai, and he was subsequently strip-searched and detained for several hours before being sent home again. “He left prison for a bigger prison,” Umm Hisham underlined.
After apprenticing as a barber, Thiab opened a barbershop in his village. Barely 12 days later, he was taken away by Israeli forces yet again for interrogation, during which they goaded him and made fun of his profession. When he returned home, he never went back to his barbershop again.
On 17 August 2011, Thiab was hanging out with four of his neighbors on his brother’s roof. It was in the middle of the month of Ramadan, and the villagers have a habit of staying up late during the holy month. At 1am, sound bombs suddenly went off around the house, and the courtyard was rapidly swarming with a special unit of Israeli soldiers, all dressed in civilian clothes. Another group of soldiers, this time easily distinguishable from their uniforms, made their way up to the roof and detained all of the five young men. The soldiers then rounded up all the women and children into one room. Isam, one of Thiab’s brothers, was handcuffed in a different room, and the soldiers kept stomping on his body. The soldiers released the four men who were with Thiab, but handcuffed and blindfolded him and proceeded to drag Thiab on his knees to where the army jeep was standing, about 200m away.
Thiab went on 14 days of hunger strike in solidarity with Khader Adnan, and later for another 12 days in solidarity with Hana Shalabi. When the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) renewed his detention for another six months at the end of February 2012, Thiab immediately began his hunger strike with his friend and fellow inmate Thaer Halahleh. They were separated and placed in different cells, and when it became clear they were not going to end their hunger strike the IPS moved them both to solitary confinement. On March 28, Thiab and Halahleh were hospitalized, and are currently in the Ramle prison hospital.
Jamil Khatib, the lawyer for Thiab and Halahleh and other hunger strikers who have also been hospitalized, last visited them on Wednesday, April 25.
“On the 59th day of his hunger strike, Bilal’s health is at a very dangerous level,” Khatib stressed. “He has lost 25kg, has difficulty speaking, a low blood sugar level, and constant pain in his stomach. His hair is falling out, and suffers from frequent dizziness in addition to falling unconscious at times. He is very weak, and can’t move on his own.”
On Monday, April 23, the Israeli military court rejected Khatib’s appeal to release both Thiab and Halahleh. The next day, Khatib appealed to the High Israeli court in Jerusalem and demanded two things: to process the appeal as soon as possible, and to transfer Thiab and Halahleh to court in ambulances, not military jeeps.
Khatib says that a deal to exile both prisoners in return for an end to their hunger strike wasn’t officially presented to him by the Israeli intelligence, since he has made it clear to them that he will not negotiate on this condition. Furthermore, Thiab and Halahleh have made it clear that they refuse to be exiled anywhere outside their own villages.
“I expect them to continue with their hunger strike, on the path that Khader Adnan spearheaded,” Khatib said. “They are determined to hunger strike until freedom or martyrdom. This is their latest message to us. They also ask for more positive support and for a clear strategy from media and organizations in covering their case.”
Azzam, another of Thiab’s brothers, is on his 30th day of hunger strike in solidarity with his brother, regardless of the fact that he is carrying out a life sentence since 2001.
“Bilal is the youngest of my 13 children,” Umm Hisham said. “His father died when he was 8 months old, so he was always spoiled by his brothers and sisters. I ask everyone, anyone whose human rights means something to them, to help us, to release Bilal, to free Bilal.”