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'Israel doesn't want us to be happy': Hunger strikers' family finds hope in Bethlehem sit-in

Aug. 2, 2016 7:18 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 4, 2017 6:59 P.M.)
Posters of the hunger-striking Balboul brothers pasted around Manger Square in Bethlehem on Aug. 2, 2016 (MaanImages/Jaclynn Ashly)
By: Jaclynn Ashly

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- In the center of Manger Square, more than a dozen Palestinians sat under a makeshift tent decorated with the portraits of hunger-striking Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

Families of imprisoned Palestinians and their supporters conversed in between sips of Arabic coffee under a bright green tarp shading them from Bethlehem’s scorching sun, attracting curious glances from tourists passing through to the adjacent Nativity Church.

Among the group was Sanaa Balboul, the mother of hunger strikers Muhammad and Mahmoud Balboul, who were detained on June 9 and sentenced by Israel to six months of administrative detention.

Israel’s widely condemned policy of administrative detention, used almost exclusively against Palestinians, permits sentencing for up to six-month renewable intervals without charge or trial based on undisclosed evidence which even a detainee’s lawyer is barred from viewing.

Palestinians have long accused Israel of using the policy in part to erode political and family life in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, by detaining scores of Palestinians without proof of wrongdoing, and targeting families of political prisoners.

Local activists first assembled sit-in tents two weeks ago in Bethlehem, the neighboring al-Duheisha refugee camp, and Ramallah, in hopes of bringing attention to Israel’s arbitrary use of administrative detention and showing support for the hunger strikers.

A group of demonstrators converse under a solidarity sit-in tent in Bethlehem to support hunger-striking prisoners on Aug. 2, 2016. (MaanImages/Jaclynn Ashly)

‘Israel doesn’t want to give us freedom’

“They didn’t provide any evidence against my sons,” Sanaa told Ma’an at the sit-in, as surrounding demonstrators quieted down to listen. “Israel just wants to destroy my family. They took my husband, and then they came for my children.”

Her husband, Ahmad Balboul, was the leader of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the armed wing of the group. He was killed by undercover Israeli forces in 2008.

After her husband’s death, Sanaa studied to become a teacher and built her life around ensuring that her children had access to education and opportunities.

Her son Muhammad, 26, went to school for dentistry and opened up a local clinic in Bethlehem, while Mahmoud, 23, was working on a Master’s degree in psychology at al-Quds University when he was detained.

“I watched my sons grow up to be very good people,” Sanaa said. “Muhammad used to always make free appointments for poor people. He would tell me: ‘Mom, he’s a poor man,’ or ‘Mom, this boy has no father, I cannot take money from him.’”

“I was hoping my happiness would continue. But Israel didn’t want us to be happy,” she added.

In April, Israeli forces detained her 15-year-old daughter Nuran at the 300 Checkpoint in Bethlehem, accusing her of possessing a knife, an allegation which Sanaa and others vehemently denied.

Some two months later, on the third day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Israeli forces raided Sanaa’s home and detained Muhammad and Mahmoud.

Sanaa was forced to spend the holiest month of the year alone in her home in Bethlehem, while all three of her children were locked inside Israeli prisons.

“When they first arrested my sons, Mahmoud told me: ‘Mom it’s OK. Be strong. We have done nothing wrong so we will be back very soon,’” she recalled.

As her thoughts focused on memories of her children, a grin took shape across Sanaa’s face.

“Mahmoud is a joker,” she said with a wide smile. “You know, when my sons were detained by the (Israeli) soldiers, I demanded to go with them. And as Mahmoud was being dragged away by a soldier, he told me: ‘Quickly Mom, lock the doors, come with us. We can take a selfie with the soldiers.'”

Sanaa quietly chuckled as tears began lining her eyes. “Even when the soldiers began beating him, he made jokes so I wouldn’t feel so upset. He told the soldiers: ‘What happened to you to make you so angry all the time? Take it easy. Why are you so nervous?’”

Sanaa told Ma’an she thought her sons would be freed after a day or two.

“When I heard about the (administrative detention) order, I began shaking. I couldn’t believe it. My children are good people. How can Israel take my children without even giving us a reason?”

“If they had done something wrong, I would accept Israel’s prison order. But they can’t even tell me why they took them,” she said.

Sanaa Balboul holds up a T-shirt displaying an image of her sons at a Bethlehem sit-in for Palestinian prisoners and hunger strikers on Aug. 2, 2016. (MaanImages/Jaclynn Ashly)

‘They decided to choose death over Israel’s prisons’

The Balboul brothers declared an open hunger strike on July 5 to protest being placed in administrative detention, joining an ongoing mass hunger strike among prisoners first launched in solidarity with Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) member Bilal Kayid, now entering his 50th day without food.

PFLP-affiliated prisoners have launched solidarity strikes on a rolling basis to support Kayid and demand an end to Israel’s use of administrative detention. The hunger strikes quickly spread across Israeli prisons, with more than a hundred Palestinian prisoners joining from various political parties.

Israel Prison Service (IPS) officials have raided the cells of hunger-striking prisoners, confiscated personal property, and transferred prisoners to other prisons across Israel in order to quell the unrest.

“My sons were against their sentences because Israel didn’t tell them why they were being imprisoned,” Sanaa said. “So they decided to choose death over Israel’s prisons.”

Nuran returned home on July 12 after serving three months in Israeli custody, only to find out that both her brothers were imprisoned and already a week into a hunger strike.

She periodically visits the sit-ins in Manger Square and al-Duheisha to show support for her brothers and other Palestinian prisoners.

“My brothers didn’t do anything wrong. When I was in prison, I thought I would come home and hug them," Nuran said, as she stood in front of a poster displaying her brothers’ faces. "But Israel doesn’t want to give us freedom. Even though they released me, I can never be free until my brothers are.”

Sanaa emphasized Nuran’s sadness, saying that Nuran had lost weight since being released from prison. “She’s too sad to eat. She tells me: ‘Mom, how can we eat when Muhammad and Mahmoud are suffering in prison?’”

“My heart is very sad and I cannot even lift my hands to cook,” Sanaa continued. “Nuran and I buy food here and there, like a sandwich, chocolate, or juice. But I cannot bring myself to cook knowing that my children are alone in a cell only drinking water.”

The two brothers were transferred to solitary confinement in Israel’s Ofer prison after declaring their strikes, a common tactic used by IPS to attempt to break the spirits of Palestinian hunger strikers.

“Now Mahmoud’s health is very bad,” Sanaa continued. “The lawyer told me after visiting him that he is very thin and can hardly walk anymore.”

Like Kayid, the Balboul brothers, now entering the 30th day of their hunger strike, have refused vitamins, only consuming water. Both prisoners have reportedly lost more than 20 kilograms and have started suffering from exhaustion, fatigue, severe headaches, and arthritis.

Mahmoud and Muhammad have both recently been transferred to Israel’s Ramla hospital after their conditions took a turn for the worst.

Nuran Balboul stands next to portraits of her hunger-striking brothers at a Bethlehem sit-in to support Palestinian prisoners on Aug. 2, 2016. (MaanImages/Jaclynn Ashly)

‘If the prisoners ever lose hope, then the Palestinian cause will die’

“We are showing the prisoners that we are supporting their families and continuing to have hope for their cause,” Muhammad Hameeda, a former prisoner who spent more than eight years in Israeli prisons, told Ma’an at the sit-in.

“I remember when I saw demonstrations like this during my prison sentence, I would feel like I was flying with happiness. These demonstrators would restore my hope.”

Hameeda explained that helping Palestinian prisoners maintain hope was a central focus for the demonstrators. “If the prisoners ever lose hope, then the Palestinian cause will die.”

He added that the demonstrators would continue the sit-in until the hunger strikers’ demands were met by Israeli authorities, or until they decided to stop their strikes.

As of May, Palestinian prisoners' rights group Addameer reported that 7,000 Palestinians were held in Israeli prisons, 715 of whom were being held in administrative detention.

As she sat underneath the green tarp, surrounded by protesters, Sanaa expressed hope. “Maybe these demonstrators can help create miracles for our people,” she said.

“I hope this tent can carry our voices to other people and countries that can help us, because I don’t know what I will do if I lose my children,” she continued.

“Soon, if no one helps us, I will begin to refuse food with my daughter and only drink water like my sons,” Sanaa said, as she gestured to the posters of her sons around her. “I will be with my sons wherever they end up, whether it be in freedom or death.”
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