Interview with Charlotte Kates, of the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network
_ “Defending Palestinian struggle and the right to resist occupation by any means necessary must, by necessity, also prioritize the struggle to free all political prisoners.”_
Fight Back! interviewed Charlotte Kates, International Coordinator of the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, on the fight to free Palestinian political prisoners. We encourage all of our readers to support this effort.
Fight Back!: Why is the issue of political prisoners so important to the fight to liberate Palestine?
Charlotte Kates: From the earliest days of the Palestinian national liberation movement, imprisonment has always been a weapon used by the colonizer – and it has always been an inspiration for Palestinian resistance. This is true from the revolts against British colonialism in the 1920s and 1930s to the present day. In fact, administrative detention – the imprisonment of Palestinians without charge or trial by the Israeli occupation – was a policy first introduced in Palestine by British colonizers and then adapted by Zionist colonialism.
Imprisonment is a reality that affects nearly every Palestinian family – everyone has a mother, father, brother, sister, uncle, cousin, niece or nephew in prison. They are children and elders, workers and farmers, teachers and students. 40% of Palestinian men in the West Bank and Jerusalem have spent time inside Israeli prison. Of course, it should be noted that the working and popular classes of Palestine, just as they have always been the basis for the resistance, also form the bulk of Palestinian prisoners. Palestinian prisoners include all sectors of the Palestinian population – from the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, '48 Palestine and even Palestinian exiles and refugees. There are currently nearly 6000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, but there have been approximately 850,000 since 1967 and 1 million since 1948, according to Palestinian statistics.
Imprisonment is used as a colonial method of control and domination – to attack the Palestinian resistance and attempt to dismantle its leadership, targeting key activists in all movements – the labor movement, student movement, women's movement, youth movement – for arrest and isolation. Defending Palestinian struggle and the right to resist occupation by any means necessary must, by necessity, also prioritize the struggle to free all political prisoners. Conversely, the struggle to free the prisoners is an important way to defend Palestinian resistance. Furthermore, Palestinian prisoners are not simply victims of the occupier – they are also leaders, organizers and fighters. They organize behind bars and turn prisons into “revolutionary schools” of the oppressed. Israel wants to isolate these Palestinians because they are central to the liberation movement – and that is why we must work to free them and isolate Israel as a key part of the struggle to liberate Palestine.
Fight Back!: How has the movement to free the Palestinian prisoners been developing over the last few years?
Kates: The struggle inside occupation prisons has only escalated in recent years. There have been several mass hunger strikes involving hundreds and thousands of prisoners, while individual prisoners like Khader Adnan have carried out strikes for months on end. These strikes, long a mechanism of struggle for the Palestinian prisoners' movement, have also helped to galvanize Palestinian, Arab and international public attention toward the situation of the prisoners. Every improvement in conditions that the prisoners have achieved behind bars has come through constant struggle.
At the same time, the Israeli occupation has also ramped up its attacks on the prisoners. Gilad Erdan, the far-right Israeli minister also responsible for the anti-BDS movement campaigns around the world, is chairing a committee to roll back improvements in prison conditions that have been accomplished through struggle. Currently, women prisoners in HaSharon prison have refused to go to the recreation yards for nearly two months in protest of surveillance cameras imposed upon them, despite cuts in their food allotments and the denial of everything from books to family visits to hot water. There have been many important initiatives to highlight the struggles of Palestinian prisoners – Ahed Tamimi's case garnered a great deal of attention, especially toward the imprisonment and abuse of Palestinian children. But it is urgent that we escalate our international solidarity to meet the level of struggle engaged in by the prisoners on a daily basis.
Fight Back!: What kind of conditions are imprisoned leaders of the Palestinian resistance, such as Ahmad Sa’adat of the PFLP facing in Israeli jails?
Kates: Palestinian prisoners are immensely resourceful and always find ways to ensure that their voice reaches the Palestinian people and the world. They are behind bars because Israel wants to isolate them at all levels, yet they continue to exercise their intellectual and political leadership for the Palestinian liberation struggle and our international social justice movements as a whole. Ahmad Sa'adat, the imprisoned General Secretary of the PFLP, is an international leader. He is held behind Israeli bars now; from 2002 to 2006, he was jailed by the Palestinian Authority [PA] but held under U.S. and British guards; the involvement of these imperialist powers and the complicit PA in his detention well illustrates the forces facing the Palestinian people.
After an interview with Sa'adat was published in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm earlier in October, prisoners held with him in Ramon prison were subject to repeated raids, searches and transfers as a form of retaliation for his interview – with its clear and principled commitment to the liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea – reaching the public.
Fight Back!: Would you like to say a few words about the importance of the struggle to free Georges Abdallah?
Kates: As we know, Palestinians don't only face the Zionist movement and the Israeli state, but also U.S. imperialism and its European allies. The latter use ‘anti-terror’ laws to repress Palestinian community organizing and Palestine solidarity activism – infiltrating organizations and targeting leaders like Rasmea Odeh, imprisoning the Holy Land Foundation Five. But there's nothing new about this approach. Georges Ibrahim Abdallah has been imprisoned in France for over 34 years for his alleged role in an action in France in which an American military attaché and Israeli diplomat were killed, amid the invasion of Lebanon and the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. Despite being eligible for release since 1999, he remains behind bars due to the French state – and also due to intense pressure by U.S. officials, from Condoleeza Rice to Hillary Clinton. Like the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, Georges Abdallah has held fast to his political principles as a Lebanese communist. Most recently, he addressed the Great Return March in Gaza, urging that the way to “victory of the masses and the struggling people...is to overthrow imperialism and its agents.” This year, people in cities around the world again organized a week of action to demand his release. The U.S. is a partner in his imprisonment – and the campaign to win his freedom is an integral part of the campaign to free all Palestinian prisoners.
Fight Back!: What would you recommend that readers of Fight Back! can do to help the effort to free Palestinian prisoners?
Kates: The most important thing that Fight Back! readers can do to help the campaign for Palestinian prisoners' freedom is to join the struggle. This includes the struggle to free political prisoners in the United States, like those of the Black Liberation Movement who have been imprisoned for decades for their role in struggle. Every victory for prisoners' struggle in the U.S. is also a victory for the Palestinian prisoners and the Palestinian people.
We also invite people to get involved with Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network and to include Palestinian prisoners in their campaigns, demonstrations and actions. By raising the names, ideas and images of the prisoners, we can help to break the isolation that Israel seeks to impose. By building campaigns to boycott Israel and complicit corporations like G4S and HP, we can bring material force to our demands. And most importantly, by fighting back against U.S. imperialism at all levels, Fight Back! readers can make a major contribution to the Palestinian cause.