Arab MK to raise issue of prison hunger strikes

Jamal Zahalka aims to use Obama visit as leverage for prisoners’ releases, sends letter to UN, Egypt's Morsi seeking help.

Palestinians protest for hunger strikers in e. Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
Palestinians protest for hunger strikers in e. Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad) is trying to internationalize the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by seeking help from the UN and other countries with regards to the release of four Palestinian prisoners on a hunger strike in Israeli jails, he told The Jerusalem Post this week.
Zahalka has written a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Last week he sent a letter to Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi via the Egyptian Embassy in Israel.
Zahalka said that the hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners are in critical condition and warned that “if someone dies, the West Bank will burn, I am quite sure.”
He said that he will use US President Barack Obama’s coming visit as an opportunity to get Israel to release the prisoners.
When asked by the Post if he has plans to meet with Obama, he replied that he does not, but that “he will hear our voice directly or indirectly. I am assuring you.”
“I am asking Israel the question, does it want this to continue up until Obama comes here?” Zahalka said.
He added, “He [Obama] should invite us [Israeli Arab MKs] to a meeting.”
On Saturday, Zahalka sent a letter to Ban with the title, “Immediate intervention to save the lives of Palestinian detainees on hunger strike.” He asked for the release of the four prisoners on the hunger strike, Samer Issawi, Ayman Sharawna, Jafar Ezzidin and Tareq Qaa’dan.
The letter states that their health is at risk because of the “arbitrary detention by Israeli authorities.”
Zahalka also asked for the formation of an international commission that will “investigate the violations of basic rights” of Palestinian prisoners.
Zahalka told the Post that the prisoners should be released immediately because they are under administrative detention without a trial.
“I went to the Egyptian Embassy and gave them a letter for President Morsi, asking him to intervene because of Egypt’s success in releasing prisoners in the Schalit deal,” Zahalka said.
He also said that Egypt is working on the matter, as there have been reports in the Egyptian press over the past few months about Egypt’s efforts.
Also, he said the Red Cross has demanded the release of the four men.
In addition, the Balad party, which Zahalka leads, holds continuous demonstrations for the prisoners.
One of the hunger-striking prisoners, Samer Essawi, was arrested by the IDF in Operation Defensive Shield during the second intifada in 2002. A member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Samer was sentenced to 30 years in prison for terrorism-related activity.
Samer served 10 years, and in October 2011 he was released along with 476 other Palestinian terrorists and criminals in the Egypt-brokered Schalit deal between Hamas and Israel.
However, in July 2012 he was rearrested as the IDF said he had violated the terms of his release.
He began a hunger strike shortly after his arrest in 2012.
Zahalka said that he has been unable to visit Samer, although he has recently received approval and plans to do so soon.
The failure to release the four prisoners could lead to confrontations in the West Bank so it is in Israel’s interest to release them, Zahalka said.
“Israel is finding a way to keep them alive, maybe by giving them infusions.”
MK Danny Danon (Likud) commented on Zahalka’s initiative saying, “We do not need to listen to these efforts because they are terrorists and it is an embarrassment that Knesset members who are supposed to follow the law are trying to release terrorists.
“It is not the first time that Jamal Zahalka and his friends have tried to make war against Israel, and there needs to be a new law passed that will prohibit Knesset members from making war against their own country.”
The Post also interviewed Samer Essawi’s sister, Shireen Essawi, who said that her brother has been on a hunger strike for 202 days as of Sunday.
She complained that neither she nor her family have been able to visit him. Only her mother was allowed to see him in court, but was not allowed to communicate with him.
Shireen said that since Samer’s rearrest, Israel now wants him to serve the rest of his original 30-year sentence, which means he would have to serve another 20 years.
“This is illegal and they don’t have this right to arrest him according to the swap agreement [Schalit deal],” she said.
She claimed that he went to Ramallah, which was supposedly prohibited to him, but that Samer did not know this.
“That is why he is on strike.
You go to Ramallah and you get 20 years? Settlers go to all the settlements they want to and when they go to ones that are prohibited to them, nothing happens to them and they are released without any problems,” Shireen said.
In any case, she said, Samer never went to Ramallah, but was within the Jerusalem Municipality. She said that her family has tried to convince Samer to end his hunger strike, but he has ignored their request.
The IDF responded to the Post’s request for comment on the case of Samer Essawi and the reason for his rearrest.
“The release of Samer Essawi stipulated that he would not commit any offense punishable by three months’ imprisonment or more, among other release conditions. During 2012, he was convicted, according to his confession, of violating a legal order and of coaching a witness. The court has not yet reached a verdict in his case.
“At the same time, the matter is pending before a committee that examines the violation of the terms of his release. The committee is empowered to order his return to prison in order to serve the remainder of his sentence,” the army said.
“During the legal process against him, Essawi was held in custody under an order from the court in Jerusalem and by the decision of the committee.
Essawi was convicted in the past of perpetrating terrorist attacks and sentenced to a long prison term. As part of the Schalit deal, Essawi was released about 16 years before the end of his sentence.
“In addition, he is being held in a detention facility of the Prisons Service, and therefore, all questions regarding the terms of imprisonment should be directed to it,” the IDF concluded.
A representative of the Prisons Service told the Post she did not have any details about this case.