Interview with Charlotte Kates on COVID-19 threat in Israeli jails, fight to free Palestinian political prisoners
Fight Back! interviewed Charlotte Kates, International Coordinator of the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, on the fight to free Palestinian political prisoners in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We ask that all of our readers to support this important effort.
Fight Back!: How has the pandemic impacted Palestinian political prisoners?
Charlotte Kates: One of the major concerns has been the fact that Palestinian prisoners are essentially cut off from the outside world. Israel claims that its ban on family visits and legal visits are attempts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but they are also doing everything possible to avoid providing alternative options for the prisoners, including the over 180 Palestinian child prisoners, such as phone calls.
There are strict conditions over which prisoners can have a video or phone call with a lawyer and there is no protection for the privacy of such calls. These isolation protocols are also not being applied for Israeli guards, jailers and interrogators. Palestinians are still being arrested on a daily basis in violent night raids and even once imprisoned, they are continuing to face repressive units ransacking their rooms. After weeks of protest, including returning meals, Israeli guards are finally counting prisoners outside the cells and wearing masks on at least some occasions, but these are insufficient protection for the prisoners.
One prisoner, Noureddine Sarsour, was discovered to have COVID-19 after his release. The Israel Prison Service is not providing testing nor even appropriate quarantine protocols. People are being ‘quarantined’ in filthy isolation cells. In the meantime, sanitary products and other items have been removed from the canteen, or prison store, where Palestinian prisoners are forced to purchase basic items. Again after prisoners' organized protest, some of the main halls are being cleaned, but still insufficiently, and prisoners are continuing to organize and protest. All of this is amid a context of clear Israeli medical negligence that has taken the lives of at least 67 Palestinian prisoners, as well as the knowledge-lockdown for the families of the prisoners.
If COVID-19 spreads within the prison from Israeli guards and jailers who continue to interact with society, the prisoners will be most at risk of swift transmission. They are held eight to a room, and many are elderly or have other serious medical conditions. This is why it is once again incredibly important to demand freedom for all Palestinian prisoners, especially the elderly, children, sick prisoners, women prisoners and those held in administrative detention without charge or trial.
Fight Back!: The Israelis are holding a number of high-profile political prisoners, such Ahmad Sa’adat of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). What can you say about their condition?
Kates: In many ways, these high-profile political prisoners like Ahmad Sa'adat share the tribulations of their fellow 5000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. They are also denied family visits, legal communication and access to basic protective measures and appropriate health care. It is important to note that the repressive mechanisms being justified here as an attempt to prevent the entry of COVID-19 into the prison system are also the sort of repressive measures that have been recommended and developed by the racist, colonial Israeli political structure as well.
The so-called ‘Erdan commission,’ headed by Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan, recommended doing everything possible to make prisoners' lives worse in an attempt to roll back basic rights that were won only through struggle by the prisoners, such as hunger strikes. Family visits are continually used as a weapon against the prisoners, and the prison administration has dragged its feet relentlessly on installing the public phones it agreed to install in order to end the 2019 mass hunger strike.
Gilad Erdan is, of course, not just one right-wing politician but reflective of the entire Zionist mechanism of racist repression and control. It is worthwhile to note, however, that he simultaneously holds another position in Netanyahu's government. He is the Minister of Strategic Affairs, the so-called ‘anti-BDS ministry’ that is attempting to smear, criminalize and harass Palestinian human rights defenders and organizations as well as Palestine solidarity groups around the world, especially those that work on the prisoners. He and the Israeli state he represents are attempting to impose the ‘terror’ label on support for Palestine and Palestinian liberation in the United States and Europe. This is another attempt to isolate the prisoners, especially those like Ahmad Sa'adat, who continue to play a leading political role and reminds us of how important it is to keep up the advocacy for Palestinian prisoners around the world.
Fight Back!: Would you comment on the case of Georges Abdallah and the fight to free him?
Kates: Palestinian prisoners are not only found in Israeli occupation prisons. Much like imperialist powers like the U.S. and France are fully complicit in the oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people as a whole, this also extends to the imprisonment of Palestinians and strugglers for Palestine. In the U.S., we see the case of the Holy Land Five, Palestinian charity workers sentenced up to 65 years for their work.
In France, there is the case of Georges Abdallah, a Lebanese Arab communist struggler for Palestine who has been held in French prisons for 35 years. He has been eligible for release since 1999 after being convicted of involvement in an armed action conducted by Lebanese resistance groups against U.S. and Israeli officials. His entire trial was marked by severe irregularities, and his lawyer was actually a spy for French intelligence. Even the French judiciary has agreed to release him to Lebanon on several occasions, and the U.S. has played a key role in keeping him behind bars. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton's released emails showed her contacting the French government to pressure them to override the judiciary and keep Georges imprisoned.
There is a growing movement in France and in Lebanon to demand his immediate release, but it is also important to publicize his case in the United States, given its role in depriving him of his freedom. Further, Georges is also a leader behind bars and actively participates as part of the Palestinian prisoners' movement. He returns food along with Palestinian collective hunger strikes and has organized Basque and Arab fellow prisoners to do the same, and Palestinian prisoners like Ahmad Sa'adat have expressed their commitment that Georges' freedom is also critical to them.
Fight Back!: Can you say a few words on the importance of the struggle to free Palestinian prisoners and how our readers can participate in this fight?
Kates: The Palestinian prisoners are locked up because Israel wants to isolate them from their communities, their people, the international and Arab movements and the world. They are true leaders of the Palestinian people and represent ongoing Palestinian resistance; this is why they face such severe attacks by Zionist colonialism. They have been violently ripped away from their people because they offer a vision and a commitment to the liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea. And, of course, the struggle for the freedom of the prisoners is an internationalist one. The fight to free the Palestinian prisoners comes hand in hand with that against the racist U.S. prison system, with fights for justice for the political prisoners of Egypt, the Philippines, Colombia, Turkey, India and elsewhere.
There are amazing organizations in Palestine and internationally working to free the prisoners. For example, Addameer provides legal support to Palestinian prisoners and their families inside occupied Palestine. Many Palestinian community and Palestine solidarity groups are working together on initiatives that recognize the connection between struggles against racism in the U.S. and in Palestine, including resisting the systems of mass incarceration targeting peoples and communities.
As Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, we are an international network of activists and organizers working to build the movement to free the prisoners and to free Palestine from the river to the sea by building internationalist solidarity, organizing demonstrations, call-ins and other actions, amplifying the voices of the Palestinian prisoners' movement and working to expand boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns to isolate Israel at an international level. We invite people to get involved and work together with us; you can find out more at our website, samidoun.net.
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