Palestinian student prisoners: Collectivizing the liberation struggle
by Thomas Hofland
Every day I think of the Palestinian student prisoners. The relatively short moments we shared together. The late-night talks, the trips to community work projects, Friday protests at the road to the Beit El settlement close to Jalazone camp… I want to free them all. With one operation, breaking the prison walls and reach out our hand to drag them out of the hell holes we know they are enduring torture in.
But is this not the false idea of exactly someone outside prison? Umm Saad reminds us that it is the prisoners who are most free. “They are the ones who know exactly what they want.” And it is often those outside prison who are actually caught in the prisons of the radio, tv, the eyes of the people and our age. We imagine we are free because we are not in prison; “but you were in prison your whole life, imagining that your prison bars are flowerpots.”
Often we hear that youth enter the prison as a cub, and they leave as a lion. Like Layan Kayed’s letter to her family said: we are yearning more to be with our comrades than with our family. Or like the story of Bilal Kayed, who during his fifteen years of imprisonment learned English, Hebrew, French and German while engaging in daily confrontation with the prison authorities. How can we even think that the prison walls are stopping the people from struggling and thus being free?! Is not the ability and engagement with the struggle what is the real measure of freedom, both collectively and individually? Is it not true, as cheesy as it sounds, that we know we are alive when we bleed?
The prison is a contradiction. It represses and strengthens us. While it takes us away from the normalized life of oppression, alienation and violence, it brings us to a place where the confrontation is even more acute and harsh. It is a training ground for the revolution, for without confrontation there will never be a revolution. And while we are engaging in confrontation outside of the prison cells, many of us have not yet broken through the prison bars of flowerpots (material comfort), media (ideological hegemony), and laws (bourgeois liberalism).
There is no need to romanticize imprisonment. Just like there is no need to dramatize it. Death and martyrdom are the same in this respect. In life and in the struggle, death, martyrdom, imprisonment and repression are a given. They are facts we cannot get around and we have to accept them. Not accept them in order to sit down and be passive, but accept them as the logical consequences of the biological and political limits that are imposed upon us. When we accept them, we can analyze them, study them, and ultimately, live through them and alter them in our favor.
A particularly important paper about the struggle behind bars is “Sumud: A Palestinian Philosophy of Confrontation in Colonial Prisons”, written by Lena Meari. Sumud translates into “steadfastness”. While the term is often used to describe any act of defiance, how ordinary these acts may seem to an outsider, it has a specific meaning in the prisoner struggle. I could copy the whole paper here, but that would be too much. So let me quote one part in which Meari cites Ahmad Qatamesh and reflects upon the practice of sumud and death:
“‘Death, is not as it seems when it is uttered, a simple term; the willingness to die involves a theoretical, political and psychical texture, as well as practical experiences, emotional and social relations. Through all this, in time the struggler becomes willing of the option of death, the death that protects the homeland and the just cause… Death is the highest stage and the last line that one can attain. When you are willing to die, you are definitely able to absorb all that is less than it.’ (Qatamesh)
On the discursive level, the texts written about sumud engage with death as a viable option, as an option that opens up possibilities of action, not forecloses them. On the practical level, and through the practice of sumud in the interrogation, Palestinians have lived and acted through death. The death of Palestinians has further enacted the sumud of others. Many Palestinians have died in the interrogation, either under harsh torture or as a planned execution of those Palestinians who have become symbols of sumud and whom the Shabak [secret police] does not know how to deal with.” (Meari)
So with that same spirit, of Layan Kayed, of Umm Saad, of Bilal Kayed and Ahmad Qatamesh, of the martyr Ibrahim El-Ra’ii, of all the political prisoners in the world, of Filipina prisoner Amanda Lacaba Echanis, we will continue our daily work for liberation. Not to achieve any big spectacular result within one day, that is nothing but petty bourgeois idealism, but to achieve total liberation over a long and protracted struggle that goes through deep valleys and over high mountains.
We will continue in the spirit of Mahmoud Darwish, who vocalized the truth we have known since we woke up in this oppressive and destructive world that we have to “think of others”. We are not fighting for ourselves only. We are part of a global and historic collective that cannot be broken even with the heaviest of torture and violence. We span from the East to the West, and from the North to the South. Even though we come from different backgrounds, we have found each other in the struggle and acknowledge each other as complete equals.
But what does it mean to be “equal in the struggle”? We do not mean the liberal individualistic concept of colorblindness or disregarding anyone’s identity in the form of gender, nationality, sexuality etc. We mean that we are equal in the struggle when we are concretely part of the same struggle. We want to do away with any distinction between the strugglers based on identity, geography, and material conditions. Whether we are in Palestine or in the Netherlands, in the camp or in the city, we have to merge together in the struggle. This is what we mean when we chant “we are all Palestinians” or when Leila Khaled announces that “you are a Palestinian”. It is not a badge of honour. It is not a description of your geographical origin or location. It is an acknowledgement of equality in the struggle.
When we merge, we are presented with the dangers and the consequences of the struggle. In this sense Europe has been no different from Palestine. Think of Georges Abdallah, imprisoned in France for already 37 (!) years. Think of the dozens of Irish Republican prisoners. Think of the prisoners of the past like Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, who were martyred in Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart in the 1970s.
And here we have to be self-critical. Because why is it that so many of us are constantly afraid? Why do we let ourselves be imprisoned by the flowerpots, the media, and the law? Why are we afraid to speak really what we think? Why do we seem so eager to engage in self-censorship? We are afraid of the police, of the Zionist media – so we only advocate for “nice” and “fun” actions. We are even afraid of the people – so we do not speak about the LGBTQ communities and the reactionary Arab regimes. We are so afraid to lose opportunities that we shy away from actualizing our potential to fight. And this strengthens the enemy while it weakens our movement.
In order to be completely equal, we have to fight for everyone. We have to take into account all the demands of the people based around the principal contradiction that is facing the people’s of the world today: between globalized capitalism and the people’s struggle to (re-)establish their revolutionary organizations. In order to accomplish this task, we have to reevaluate and analyze the past decades of struggle. We have to keep the good parts of the previous generations and do away with their failures.
And here lays the primary task of the youth today. To break out of the oppressive and limiting system of the previous generation, both the oppressor generation (the imperialists and Zionists who we reject completely) and the struggling generation (of whom we take the good, like Qatamesh, and reject the bad, like the PA).
For us in the Netherlands specifically, this also means revaluing the radical confrontations that have been fought by the resistance during the Nazi occupation and the actions of RARA in support of the South-African liberation struggle. But also, to familiarize ourselves more with the history of the Palestinian struggle in the Netherlands. Who knows about Wael Mohammed Hassan, the sixteen-year-old Palestinian of the PFLP who threw a hand grenade at the Israeli embassy in The Hague on 8 September 1969? Who knows about the Japanese Red Army operation in the French embassy in 1974, during which they achieved freeing their comrade from a French prison in exchange for the French ambassador whom they had taken hostage?
To return to the beginning. Yes, we want to free our comrades from prison, just like we want to liberate the people and the land. And the most chance we have of realizing this is when we struggle hand-in-hand with all of the strugglers around the world. On this 3rd of December, the International Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners, we not only think about the student prisoners, we have to go further. We prepare our mind and will for the confrontations that will happen over the course of the struggle for liberation. We collectivize our fears and our courage, we give support when our comrades need it and we get supported when we need it.
Together, with all of our actions in all realms of life, the social, cultural, political, economic and military, we march forward on the path of liberation. For we know that we are the people, bound together through the liberation struggle. From the Netherlands to Palestine, from the Philippines to Turkey, from Brazil to the Western Sahara, we will act as a clenched fist smashing the foundations of the rotting system. We will (re-)build the revolutionary organizations necessary to fulfill this historic task. And however big this task may seem, it is through the collective will of the people that we will, eventually, be able to move the mountain, free the people, free the prisoners, and liberate humanity.
Thomas Hofland organizes with Samidoun Netherlands.