April 17 officially marks Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, a day when the Palestinian people collectively remember the more than five thousand prisoners currently incarcerated in Israeli jails, many of them minors and many held without charge or trial.
Few have been as tireless in advocating for these forgotten souls as Palestinian intellectual powerhouse and author Ramzy Baroud. Baroud recently penned “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons.”
The book consists of twenty stories narrated or written by Palestinian prisoners and offers a unique insight into the struggles they, and their families, face. MintPress is proud to partner with the book’s author to publish its introduction in its entirety.
“FOR MY OPINIONS,” wrote Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci, “I am willing to lose my life, not only to stay in prison. And this is why I am calm and at peace with myself.” Gramsci spent 11 years in prison during the fascist reign over Italy, a brutal regime that crushed every form of political dissent between 1922 and 1943. He died only six days after he was released.
Gramsci’s revolutionary life and untimely death at the age of 46 reflected his own definition of the “organic intellectual,” someone who is not a mere “mover of feelings and passions” but an “active participant in practical life, as constructor and organizer—a ‘permanent persuader,’ not just a simple orator.”
This definition qualifies all men and women to be intellectuals, as per Gramsci’s thinking, even if they do not possess that function in society, simply because “there is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded,” particularly those activities that are guided by “a conscious line of moral conduct.”
All the people whose stories are being told in this book, every single one of them, possess a claim to true, organic intellect. They all fought for an idea, an opinion, were—and are—willing to lose their lives to defend these ideas. In the case of Faris Baroud (“I See You in My Heart”), and many other Palestinian prisoners, they have, indeed, done so.
These are the stories of Palestine’s true intellectuals, women and men, mothers and fathers, children and teens, teachers, fighters and human rights advocates, united by a single motive that transcends region, religion and ideology: resistance, that is, taking a brave moral stance against injustice in all of its forms.
It would be utterly unfair to box Palestinian prisoners into convenient categories of victims or terrorists, because both classifications render an entire nation either victim or terrorist, a notion that does not reflect the true nature of the decades-long Palestinian struggle against colonialism, military occupation and the entrenched Israeli apartheid.
According to United Nations and Palestinian sources, between 750,000 and 800,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned since the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in June 1967. They include 23,000 women and 25,000 children. Currently, there are 5,250 Palestinian political prisoners in Israel, a number that is constantly growing, not only because Israel insists on maintaining its military occupation, but also because Palestinians insist on their right to resist it. Expectedly, Israel dubs any form of Palestinian resistance an act of “terrorism,” a misleading depiction of the reality of Palestinian political dissent which ultimately aims at their dehumanization, and thus justifying the subjugation of an entire nation. But Palestinians are not passive victims, either.
“In the end, we did more than fashion hope out of despair,” wrote Khalida Jarrar, a Palestinian leader and prisoner, in her story, “The Cohort of Defiance”:
We also evolved in our narrative, in the way we perceive ourselves, the prison and the prison guards. We defeated any lingering sense of inferiority and turned the walls of prison into an opportunity. When I saw the beautiful smiles on the faces of my students who completed their high school education in prison, I felt that my mission has been accomplished.
Jarrar, who also wrote the Foreword to this book, is Gramsci’s true organic intellectual in its most ideal manifestation. She has been more than a “mover of feelings and passions,” and has defiantly and tirelessly challenged her tormentors, educated a generation of women who were denied such opportunities in prison, and has never deviated from her strong, revolutionary discourse. It is no surprise that she was imprisoned repeatedly by Israel. Each time, she emerged stronger, more defiant and determined.
Dima al-Wawi is Khalida Jarrar in the making. At the age of 12, she was arrested, tried and imprisoned on the basis of the ever-convenient charges of attempting to stab a fully armed Israeli settler, near the settlement of Karmei Tzur, which was built illegally on Palestinian land that belongs to her town of Halhul, north of Al-Khalil (Hebron).
“After I was released I returned to the Halhul Martyrs School,” she wrote:
It was wonderful to be back, and I cannot wait to finish my education and become a journalist, carrying the message of the prisoners and their suffering to the world. I want to show the world how the children of Palestine are mistreated every day by the occupation.
In prison, many Palestinian female prisoners protected young Dima, serving the role of mother and older sister, in itself an act of solidarity that defines Palestinian society. Israa Ja’abis is one of these prisoners who assumed the role of family; her story inside prison is conveyed through her sister, Mona.
“The harshness of the occupier scarred her face and body, amputated her fingers and is relentlessly trying to break her spirit,” wrote Mona. The fact that Israa embraced Dima during her short stay in the Ofer Prison is proof that the young mother’s spirit was never broken, although severe burns have covered most of her body.
Whether Khalida, Dima, Israa, Ali, Dareen, Faris and all others have met in prison, in court or anywhere else, matters little. Their lives are connected at their very core. The struggle is one and the same. Their stories are elaborations on the same narrative, that of engaged resisters, organic intellectuals who are serving a higher cause than their own freedom: the freedom of their people.
And because Palestinian resistance is a collective experience, the writing of this book has also been a collective effort. It is our attempt to reclaim the narrative of our people, to liberate it from the suffocating confines of political, media and academic discourse and take it into the heart of the resistance. These Chains Will Be Broken is a collection of the stories of Palestinian resisters, either conveyed by them, or through close family members, in an intimate setting that is free from the typical representation and misrepresentation of Palestine and her people. Here, the prisoners will not be defending themselves as if in an Israeli military court, or trying to directly address media reporting about their presumed “guilt.” Nor will the issue of violent vs. non-violent resistance be dealt with. Such a “debate” may satisfy the theoretical preoccupations of western audiences in far-away academic circles, but none of these prisoners—whether accused of killing Israeli soldiers or of writing a poem—have sought to classify their muqawama—resistance—in any way.
The stories in this book were written directly or conveyed in person, through interviews or audio recordings, by those who have lived them. The initial research questions that prisoners or their families were asked to address sought to elicit an understanding of the prison experience and its impact on the individual, the family and the community. The end result provided here expresses the individually unique experience of each prisoner, while highlighting a recurring theme—a thread in the narrative that represents the collective story of Palestinian resistance.
While conducting interviews related to the book with several freed Palestinian prisoners in Istanbul, Turkey in April 2019, I was astonished by the clarity of their political discourse. Of the three prisoners we interviewed, one was associated with the political movement Fatah, another with Hamas, and a third with Islamic Jihad. Despite the seemingly great ideological divides among the three groups, I was struck by the degree of unity and cohesion in their individual narratives when it came to the subject of resistance, whether in or outside prison. As the book demonstrates, muqawama is the common denominator among all prisoners; in fact, among all Palestinians.
The above truth explains, in part, why we have chosen this form of narrative to tell the story of Palestinian prisoners and, by extension, the story of Palestinian resistance as a whole. As in all my previous books, I am compelled by this imperative to relocate the centrality of the Palestine narrative from an Israeli perspective to a Palestinian one, especially one that overlooks the typical, elitist angle and focuses, instead, on retelling the story from the viewpoint of ordinary, poor, underprivileged and working-class Palestinians.
Undoubtedly, however, this work is not mine alone. I and those who have dedicated to putting this book together, are mere conveyors of ideas, notions and the intelligence of Palestine’s true organic intellectuals, even if they are not accorded such a role in society. On the other hand, these are also our stories, for all the Palestinian contributors who helped facilitate and assemble the content of this book have also experienced Israeli imprisonment in various forms. I lived in a Gaza refugee camp for much of my life and was held, along with thousands of my fellow refugees, under protracted military curfews, some lasting months at a time. It is this “positionality” that allowed me, together with other Palestinian researchers, to be able to relate to the text in an entirely different way. This is not a detached journalistic or academic text. It is our own collective story, as well.
Indeed, the “prison” in this book is a metaphor for the collective Palestinian prison experience. All Palestinians are prisoners—those held in besieged Gaza or those trapped behind walls, fences and checkpoints in the West Bank. All experience some manifestation of prison every day of their lives. Even those trapped in their seemingly endless exiles, unable to reunite with their families or visit their Palestinian homes, are also enduring that prison experience in one way or another.
One would dare to claim that Israelis, too, are prisoners, though of a different kind. “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness,” wrote the late iconic anti-Apartheid hero and long-time prisoner, Nelson Mandela. “The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”
I believe that this book needed to be written. This stems from my insistence that only “people’s history” or “history from below” is capable of unearthing and fairly conveying reality in the most egalitarian and democratic way. Specifically, people’s history directly defies two, dominant narratives concerning Palestine: the elitist rationalization of Palestinian political reality (which sees history as an outcome of the workings of an individual or a faction/group), and the reductionist approach to any subject concerning Palestinians, a discourse that teeters between the extremist view, which denies their very existence, and that which presents their struggle and national aspirations as a “problem” to be quickly—if not haphazardly—remedied.
The story of Palestine cannot be truly appreciated through the understanding of the counter-claims on this precious piece of land: those made by the original inhabitants of Palestine, the Palestinian people, and those by mostly European colonialists, who began arriving in Palestine in the late 19th century. The Palestinian story is also that of emotions, of resistance and sacrifice, of defiance and sumoud, steadfastness. Though it is a Palestinian story, it is also the story of every nation that has fought against injustice, regardless of when and how it expressed itself.
Antonio Gramsci could have easily been a Palestinian prisoner, as Faris Baroud could have been an Italian partisan, fighting fascism. The former wrote to his mother from prison; the latter never received his mother’s letters to him.
“Dearest mum,” wrote Gramsci:
I would love to hug you tight to show you how much I love you and to relieve some of the pain that I caused you, but I couldn’t do otherwise. That’s life, it is very hard, and sometimes children must deeply hurt their own mother, to preserve their honor and their dignity as human beings.
“Oh, how I cried for you, Faris,” wrote Ria Baroud:
My eyes can only tell day from night, but nothing else. But thanks to God, thanks to God, I am content with my fate, for this is what Allah has decided for me. It is you that I am concerned about. So, I pray all day, every day. I make supplications to God so that you come back, and that I may choose your bride for you. We will throw a big party and all the neighbors and friends, all the Barouds and all the freed prisoners and their families will come and celebrate with us.
Antonio Gramsci died on April 27, 1937 from a cerebral hemorrhage, only six days after he was released.
Faris Baroud died on February 6, 2019, from a kidney disease, in Nafha Prison in the Naqab Desert.
They were both organic intellectuals of the highest caliber.
Feature photo | A man passes a mural supporting Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Nasser Nasser | AP
Dr. Ramzy Baroud is a widely published and translated author, an internationally syndicated columnist and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter (2015), and was a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB. Visit his website at www.ramzybaroud.net.