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Israel: Family's agony as Palestinian detainee continues hunger strike

Mother and sister of Ghandanfar Abu Atwan tell MEE of their suffering as he becomes 'a ghost of himself'
“We never thought that this current hunger strike would last as long as it has." Majdoleen and Warde Abu Atwan, Ghandanfar Abu Atwan's mother and sister, on 1 July, 2021 (MEE/Akram al-Waara)
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Occupied West Bank

It has been weeks since Majdoleen Abu Atwan has eaten a proper meal or enjoyed a day at home with her family. These days, the mother of seven spends her time glued to her phone and the television, anxiously awaiting updates on her son, 28-year-old Ghadanfar Abu Atwan. 

Ghandanfar, an officer with the Palestinian Authority customs police and Majdoleen’s oldest son, is on an open-ended hunger strike in Israeli prison in protest of his administrative detention - a policy used by Israel to imprison Palestinians without charge or trial. 

Ghadanfar began his hunger strike on 5 May, and since then he has refused all forms of food, including vitamins and supplements. 

“For 58 days he has only drunk water, nothing else,” Majdoleen told Middle East Eye from the living room of her home in the Hebron-area town of Dura, in the southern occupied West Bank. 

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“Now he looks like a ghost of himself,” she said, recalling the sight of her weak and frail son, whom she was able to visit just a few days ago, for the first time since he was arrested 10 months ago.

The video of Majdoleen calmly sitting by her son’s hospital bed, reading verses from the Quran as he slowly stroked her hand went viral on social media this week, as Palestinians expressed their outrage over Abu Atwan’s ongoing detention. 

“When I saw him, I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Majdoleen said, as she described the condition of her son, who is known by friends and family for his height and strapping build.

“His cheeks are hollow, his body is so frail, he can barely speak, he can’t walk or even move,” she said. 

“I tried to remain strong, because I didn’t want to weaken his resolve, or make him worry about me,” Majdoleen said. “But when I saw him, I felt like my heart was on fire.”

A youth spent in prison

Almost every wall of Abu Atwan’s modest home is covered with photos of Ghadanfar. At the front of the family home is a large tent, which was erected to welcome visitors over the past few weeks. It is adorned with Palestinian flags, and large political posters calling for the release of Ghadanfar and all other Palestinian political prisoners. 

While many of the posters and photos were printed by the family or brought over by friends in the past few weeks, much of the memorabilia inside the home has been collected over the past nine years, during which Ghadanfar has spent multiple stints in Israeli prison. 

Since Ghadanfar was 19-years-old, he has been arrested and imprisoned by Israel four times for a total of nearly seven years in detention. Three of his four detentions, including the latest imprisonment, were administrative detention sentences and amount to nearly five years in prison. 

'His cheeks are hollow, his body is so frail, he can barely speak, he can’t walk or even move'

- Majdoleen, mother of Ghadanfar Abu Atwan

“The first time he was arrested, he was sentenced to two years in prison,” Majdoleen said. “That was the only time he was actually formally charged and sentenced.”

Less than two years after he completed his first prison sentence, Ghadanfar was rearrested by Israeli forces from his home in the middle of the night. 

“With every arrest, the soldiers started getting more and more aggressive,” Majdoleen said, adding that the soldiers routinely overturn furniture and break things in the house when they come to arrest her son. 

“One time they broke through our windows and started coming from all directions and into our rooms while we were sleeping,” she said. 

During his second stint in prison, Ghadanfar spent one and a half years under administrative detention. He had barely been out for a few months when he was re-arrested and put into administrative detention again for another two years.

A short while after he was released from his third detention, he was arrested again in August 2020, and has been in administrative detention since. 

“Ghadanfar has spent most of his youth, what is supposed to be the best years of his life, in and out of Israeli prison,” she said. “Over the past 10 years, I barely get to spend time with my son, and then the Israelis arrest him again.”

to come
"No to the policy of administrative detention, solidarity with the hunger striking prisoner Ghadanfar Abu Atwan" reads a banner outside the family home, on 1 July, 2021 (MEE/Akram al-Waara)

‘A cruel policy’

Human rights groups have widely condemned Israel’s policy of administrative detention, which they say is used to target Palestinian political activists who are deemed as “security threats” by Israel, but have no evidence against them to actually be convicted of a crime. 

According to Ramallah-based prisoners rights group Addameer, since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967, Israeli forces have arrested more than 800,000 Palestinians, constituting almost 20 percent of the total Palestinian population, and 40 percent of the male population in the occupied Palestinian territories. 

And while administrative detention has been used by Israel against the Palestinian population for decades, the policy became a more common practice in the wake of the Second Intifada in 2000. 

Since then, thousands of Palestinians have been arrested and put in administrative detention by Israeli military courts, which have a conviction rate of over 99 percent. In comparison, as of 2017, Addameer documented only nine cases in which administrative detention was used against Israeli citizens. 

There are currently 520 administrative detainees being held in Israeli prisons. 

The policy allows for Israeli authorities to imprison Palestinians based on “secret information” - information that in the vast majority of cases is not made privy to the detainee nor their lawyer, Addameer said.  

For many detainees like Ghadanfar, imprisonment under administrative detention is open-ended, with Israeli military judges often renewing their detention in periods of three to six months. It is common practice for detainees to be informed of the extension of their detention on the day that the former order expires. 

While the longest consecutive stint under administrative detention to be recorded was eight years, many Palestinian prisoners like Ghadanfar, are routinely released and re-arrested, spending years in prison under the policy.

Israel’s use of administrative detention against the occupied Palestinian population “violates international conventions and other international standards for the right to a fair trial,” Adameer said, adding that administrative detainees are routinely denied family visits and other rights that should be granted to them under the law.

“This is a cruel policy,” Majdoleen told MEE, adding that she believed her son was targeted not only for being a political activist, but for who he was as well. “Many of Ghadanfar's uncles and cousins have been prisoners, including his father and myself,” she said. 

“They have no reason to imprison him, except for the fact that he is Palestinian.”

Four years, three hunger strikes

When Ghadanfar announced that he would be going on hunger strike in protest at his detention, his family were not surprised. 

Over the past four years, he has been on three hunger strikes in protest at his detention. His first hunger strike was in 2017, when he joined hundreds of other Palestinian prisoners in the massive Dignity Strike, which lasted 41 days. 

A year later, during his second administrative detention, he went on hunger strike for 28 days before he was released. 

'For many administrative detainees whose detention is routinely renewed without reason, a hunger strike is the only way that they can see any sort of end to their imprisonment'

-  Mongith Abu Atwan

“We never thought that this current hunger strike would last as long as it has,” Warde Abu Atwan, Ghadanfar’s younger sister said, as she sat next to her mother, adding that this strike has taken a severe toll on his health.

“But Ghadanfar has willpower like no one else, and we know he won’t end his strike until he is released,” she said.

Shortly after he began his strike, Israeli prison authorities put Ghadanfar into solitary confinement for a number of days. Since then, he has been transferred between a number of Israeli prisons despite his worsening health condition.

His attorneys say that he was beaten up multiple times by prison guards during his strike, and was only transferred to the Ramle Prison Hospital after 35 days on strike.

There, his attorneys say he was not given proper treatment, and was repeatedly subject to harassment and interrogations by authorities with the Israeli Prison Services, which run the hospital. 

“The tactics that the occupation has subjected Ghadanfar to are common tactics that they use to try and break a prisoner’s strike,” said Mongith Abu Atwan, Ghadanfar’s uncle and the head of the Bethlehem office of the Palestinian Commission of Detainees' Affairs. 

“The prison authorities subject the hunger-striking prisoners to frequent transfers that tire them out, beatings, harassment, and threats against their family,” Mongith said. 

“Oftentimes the prison guards will even have barbecues right outside the prisoners cells as a form of psychological torture.”

According to Mongith, hunger striking is a popular form of protest used by administrative detainees to challenge their detention. 

While coordinated hunger strikes by other political prisoners, like the Dignity Strike in 2017, are typically used to achieve a list of demands centred around better treatment and conditions in prison, hunger strikes by administrative detainees like Ghadanfar are often launched with the goal of being released. 

According to the Abu Atwan family, Ghadanfar’s demands are to be immediately released from administrative detention, and to be transferred to a Palestinian hospital where he can receive urgent medical treatment. 

“For many administrative detainees whose detention is routinely renewed without reason, a hunger strike is the only way that they can see any sort of end to their imprisonment,” Mongith said. 

Others on hunger strike

According to a report from the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society (PPS) in late June, Ghadanfar was one of at least three Palestinians on hunger strike in protest of administrative detention orders.

One of the hunger strikers, prisoner Jamal Al-Taweel, 59, was on strike against the continued administrative detention of his daughter, journalist Bushra al-Taweel. 

Since Ghadanfar began his strike, his maternal uncle, who is serving a life sentence in Israeli prison, also went on strike in protest of his nephew’s detention. 

Majdoleen Abu Atwan says she has received numerous calls over the past few weeks from Palestinian prisoners, primarily young men, telling her that they intend joining Ghandafar’s strike in solidarity, and in protest at the imprisonment of all administrative detainees. 

“When I hear that other people want to join Ghadanfar’s strike, I have mixed emotions,” Majdoleen told MEE. 

“On one hand, I feel better knowing that he is not alone, but at the same time, I think of all of their mothers, and I know that I don’t want them to experience the same pain that I am feeling.”

"Save the life of the hunger striker" read a banner behind Majdoleen Abu Atwam, 1 July, 2021 (AFP/Akram al-Waara)
"Save the life of the hunger striker" read a banner behind Majdoleen Abu Atwam, 1 July, 2021 (AFP/Akram al-Waara)

‘All he wants is freedom’

After more than 50 days on hunger strike, Ghadanfar was finally transferred to the Kaplan Medical Center, a hospital in central Israel, earlier this week. 

Despite being in the hospital, his family says he is still very much in prison. 

“When I saw his room I was shocked,” Majdoleen Abu Atwan said, adding that she and her oldest daughter had to travel into Israel "illegally" due to the fact that Israeli authorities have continued to deny their requests to enter Israel and visit Ghadanfar. 

“It was tiny, like a closet, and he was just stuffed in the corner,” she said, adding that for the first few days, there were a number of armed soldiers stationed inside the room and outside the door 24/7. 

'Even if this hunger strike is going to kill him, I would rather him come home to me as a martyr than break his strike, because it means that he died fighting for his cause'

Majdoleen Abu Atwan, mother of hunger striker

According to Majdoleen, the attempts by Israeli authorities to break her son's willpower have continued even inside the hospital, with soldiers and nurses constantly asking him if he wants to eat, despite his repeated refusal. 

She highlighted the fact that Ghadanfar was put into the ward with cancer patients and other terminally ill people, which she believes is part of the effort to “psychologically torture him.” 

“Every day there are people around him that are dying, so of course this is going to affect him.”

With every passing hour, the pressure that Ghadanfar’s family is under is only increasing. “The doctors told us that he is now at the point where he could go into organ failure, paralysis, or even die at any moment,” Warde Abu Atwan told MEE. 

“At this point it’s like we are just waiting for bad news,” she said, adding that the stress and anxiety have been overwhelming. 

“None of us can eat when we know that our brother is on hunger strike. It’s hard to work, or study, or focus on anything else right now,” she said, adding that she has lost several kilos as a result of anxiety over the past few weeks, and that her younger brother, a senior in high school, could not sit for his final tawjihi or matriculation exams, which are being held across Palestine right now. 

Despite this, Warde says that her family are standing strong, and are not backing down. “All he wants is his freedom, and we believe he will achieve it,” she said. 

“We will support Ghadanfar, even if it's until his dying breath,” Majdoleen said, adding that not once over the past 58 days has she told her son to break his strike. 

“Even if this hunger strike is going to kill him, I would rather him come home to me as a martyr than break his strike, because it means that he died fighting for his cause,” she said. 

“This is not just about Ghadanfar, this is about all the Palestinian prisoners,” she said. “He is not just my son, he is the son of Palestine.”