As thousands of Palestinian prisoners are engaged in the painful self-sacrifice of a hunger strike, the recent draconian move by Israel’s Defense Minister declaring the Palestinian National Fund a terrorist organization deserves attention. This fund is the conduit by which financial support is provided to thousands of Palestinian families who had or have loved ones in Israeli jails. We should mention that it is estimated that more than one million Palestinians have been imprisoned by Israel since 1967 alone and Palestinians are considered the most incarcerated nation in the world. All of this a result of Israeli policy of arresting political activists, leaders, intellectuals and fighters and lumping them into a single category of “terrorists.”
There is a process by which prisoners and former prisoners are provided financial support and the closure of this fund will choke their families’ only means of survival. The claim made by Israel is that the funds supports terrorism. This is much like the claims made upon the closure of the Holy Land Foundation in the United States in 2001. The US government claimed that by providing for the families of Palestinian prisoners, the Holy Land Foundation was supporting, and even encouraging terrorism.
The Palestinian National Fund also provides, or provided, the salaries, meagre as they may be for the army of lawyers who work tirelessly to defend and fight in the Israeli courts for the rights of the Palestinian prisoners. The lawyers are there to deal with a huge array of issues like health care that the Israeli authorities regularly deny the prisoners and for which lawyers must fight. There are special needs which would seem obvious to anyone on the outside, like proper nutrition, visitation rights, beds and blankets and medication but they all require that the lawyers put in endless hours for which, at the end of the day, they need to be paid.
The ruling by the Defense Minister also implicates the lawyers themselves with supporting terrorism because they are engaged of getting the money to the families of prisoners that Israel sees as terrorists. One Palestinian attorney told me the following story: The Fund provides stipends for former prisoners, veterans of the Israeli jails. The lawyers need access to documents from the Israeli police and courts to prove exactly what a prisoner needs to receive from the Fund. They need to show, for example, how long a prisoner spent in prison, the exact dates of the encarceration, and with what he or she was charged. The attorney needs to make the case to the Fund to determine how much should be paid. There is a pay scale that determines all of this and so documents are crucial. My friend who works part time for the prisoners told me he needs to negotiate with the Israeli authorities to gain access to these documents and the Israeli authorities have been as of late warning him and other lawyers to “be careful.” He was told that the authorities know what he are trying to do, which is helping former prisoners and the families of current prisoners access funds.
Stopping payment for the prisoners and their families will have catastrophic results on people who have already paid a heavy price and who have, at the end of the day committed no crime. Many former prisoners are unable to work because of disabilities they incurred while in jail. After years of imprisonment that always involve torture and harsh conditions there are often permanent and in some cases irreversible ailments that require ongoing medical treatment and so medical bill need to paid. The family may have lost their home and so a new one must be found. Palestinians are burdened with restrictions upon restrictions which in turn require permits upon permits. This is a lucrative business for the Israeli authorities, becasue these permits cost thousands of dollars – yet another burden on families and particularly ones that already at a disadvantage. But for Israel the only concern that matters is that providing the prisoners and their families much needed financial support gives legitimacy to the prisoners’ cause. After all, if they are terrorists they deserve what they received and should be given nothing. It stems from the rationale, if one can call it that, that no legitimacy can be given to the Palestinian struggle and that the people who resist, as well as their families must be punished for all eternity.
As we see yet again, the Palestinian prisoners are unrelenting fighters who will never stop fighting until justice and freedom are achieved. Exactly four years ago, in April 2013, I was taken to pay my respects at the grave of Bobby Sands, an IRA volunteer who died in prison as a result of a hunger strike. I was asked to read a message that was published that day by another hunger striker, Samer Issawi. Samer was close to death but thankfully defied death and survived 266 days without food. I read Samer’s message in front of Bobby Sands’ grave not knowing whether he will live or die. We must all stand with the Palestinian prisoners to see that their demands are met soon and every effort must be made to reverse the draconian move by Israel to financial choke the prisoners and their families.