Badia Dwaik is Deputy Coordinator of Youth Against Settlements, a grassroots Palestinian organization dedicated to the nonviolent struggle to resist the Israeli occupation of Hebron. This Friday I went to Youth Against Settlement’s headquarters, nestled, next to a 2,000 year old olive grove, in between 4 Israeli settlements. Throughout the interview, we observed on multiple occasions soldiers patrolling through the fields around us, a normal occurrence these days for the center of downtown Hebron, plagued now for 30 years by an illegal military and civilian occupying force.
With the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners due to the Gilad Schalit prisoner swap, and the end of the Palestinian prisoner hunger strike, still lingering in the air, I decided to ask Badia about his days as a prisoner inside the Israeli prison system. I particularly wanted to learn how the prisoners organized their own educational system within the prison walls, how they managed to learn together about politics, philosophy, history and literature while imprisoned, and how this knowledge strengthened their will to resist. On the way, we talked about everything from how he felt walking home from work at dark as a little boy, to ways of transmitting messages in and out of prison, to the hunger strike as a method of resistance, even to the nonexistence of God!
When I woke up in the morning, the sunlight tickled my golden-brown skin
My eyes burned from its rosy rays and moved at the gusts of air
The intensity of the winds undulated
By this remedy, hope for the hopeless was reborn
And it began to smile on me from afar, as if I have a promise to keep
So I took my pen and my paper as my mind fled
A strange feeling seized me
I began to scribble these words
Maybe I will find something in them to express the emotions of my heart and that which
turns in my mind
The golden sun whose rays began to shine came up in the morning
The rays penetrated through the small window, making me question and seek inspiration
My pen turning the pages of memory
Standing on the dews of the near and distant past
The sun became a roll of burning bread
Come, come slowly
Here and there, mocking laughter
Memories of the past awakened in beautiful aching reality
My heart poured forth
The arteries of my heart were jammed with emotion
My eyes flooded, soaking the furrows in my cheeks
My thoughts began to turn and turn in my mind
Between optimism and pessimism, in a bitter struggle of resistance
At last the sun appeared from far away, but in a new robe
After I had drunk cups of bitterness to the dregs
Then I began to breathe with new appetite
And the seas and rivers and trees whistled the melody of freedom
Thoughts from Hebron Prison, by Badia Dwaik
My father was arrested before me. My father was arrested in 1988 and I was around that time like fifteen or fourteen years old. I am the oldest one of my family, and I grew up in a poor family, so my parents decided to send me to work when I was 9 years old. So I didn’t have any childhood or young life because even when I became younger I was arrested, so I missed my childhood, and then the time of my youth I spent in jail.
Did you have education when you were 9 years old, or were you pulled out of education to work?
I was working on the side. My life was to work and study in the same day. So I used to go to the school, and when I finished my school I would have lunch at home and then go to work, until i finished work at 9 in the evening. I was alone, and it was dark on the way home, and I was very scared. I would hurry back home very quickly, running, because it was scary and I was a child at the time, and I felt uncomfortable to walk around. Especially when I had to work in the old town in Hebron, it was not lit up like it is now, it was dark, and it made it even more scary when I had to get home. And i had difficult experiences, there were bad people, trying to do bad things with me and abuse me.
So I grew up in this situation even after my father was arrested. When my father was arrested I was 15 and I was the oldest one in the family, and in our culture the oldest one usually takes responsibility for the family, so I had to take responsibility for everything in the family. My father was in jail for six months and then he was released, but when he was in jail i joined the First Intifada, as a reaction. Because I was angry, and I just wanted to express my feelings about what happened to my father, it was something personal. So I joined the First Intifada, and I was very young at that time, around 15 years old. My father was in jail, so I continued protesting, and I was very active, demonstrating, organizing demonstrations, and I was also part of the Fatah movement. This was the first of my political life, was the Fatah movement. When they started to negotiate about the Oslo agreement, after the First Intifada, I moved to PFLP because I did not like the Oslo agreement.
So by the time they signed the Oslo agreement you were already in PFLP.
Yes. I was arrested three months after the Oslo agreement, but I joined PFLP before I was arrested. I got a scholarship to study in Baghdad before I was arrested. But after I was registered for the scholarship, while I was preparing my documents to go to Baghdad, I was arrested the next week. So the army and Shin Bet were at my home, it was like after 2 in the morning, they arrived, knocked on the door, and we opened the door. Then they were asking my father about the names of my family, my father named the names, and the man stopped him and said ‘We need Badia.’ So I woke up, my father came to wake me up because I was sleeping. I was young, I was 19 at the time. So my father woke me up, I was still in my pajamas. And then I saw sodliers and Shin Bet with them- its easy to recognize the Shin Bet because he speaks Arabic, and wears civilian clothing. He started talking to me, he asked me about the Quran text, about the Bakra sura, and how many lines were in the Bakra sura. I said I didn’t know, I didn’t care about religious issues. He said there were 286 lines in the Bakra sura. He surprised me with this question because he wants to convince you that he knows everything, even the Quran. That is the idea.
But you weren’t religious, you didnt care.
In the beginning of my life i was super religious! I was praying all the time in the mosque, before my father was arrested and even after he was arrested, I was praying all the time, but I did not have good knowledge about Islam, about the religion and about the life in general. So I wanted just to pray and to practice, so I didnt care if i knew what I was practicing or not, i just wanted to be with the culture. The change happened with me when I joined PFLP, and especially in the jail. Because even when I was in PFLP before I was arrested I was still praying. I continued praying for a year and a half in jail and then I stopped.
Why? Because PFLP is a secular movement?
Yes, PFLP is a secular movement. I was young at the time and it affected me. I grew up in a religious place, religion effects Hebron so strong, it is a very religious place, and a lot of tradition. Sometimes the tradition is even more powerful than the religion here. It took time for me to change what is in my mind, and PFLP is about communism. Communism is an ideology, and so to tell someone there is no god, when he grew up in a situation where there was god, it will be a shock for him, it will take time for him.
So the army and Shin Bet took you away that night?
When they came to my father’s home and arrested me, my mother asked ‘where are you taking him?’ They said they just needed me five minutes. Those five minutes took up three years of my life. My first holding cell was a tiny room 60 centimeters by 60 centimeters. They kept me there for two nights but those two nights felt like a year. I could not sleep, to sleep I had to put my head on the floor and move my legs up to the ceiling. I had to go to the toilet, I would knock on the door and say ‘please I have to go to the toilet!’ They pretended not to hear me, there were two soldiers outside but they did not listen to me. Eventually I went to the toilet in my cell, and then I had to sleep in it, I put my head next to it on the ground and my feet up to the ceiling.
In the First intifada there were 12,000 people in Israeli jails. In Al-Naqab prison there were 8,000 people. Al-Naqab jail is completely a desert. You cannot see any green thing around you, you cannot see any trees, you cannot see any homes, only desert and soldiers around you and the barbed wires. It is a big jail, there are many different small jails inside it. When you are there, you will see tents, and around the tents there are a lot of barbed wires. Behind the barbed wires there are long blocks, like the [separation] wall. And also there are dogs, and also there are many soldiers in military watchtowers, and the army is also driving by in jeeps with 250 caliber bullet guns. And the food is very miserable, very bad food. When they put you there, you are isolated, without anything you need for your life. When you are a prisoner, sometimes you will be happy just to see a bird! If you see a bird this is some luck coming to you! Really I wished to see a bird in the jail there, because you are already with your same prisoners such a long time. They want to break your psychology, and there is just sand around you, just tent and soldiers and sand. And it was a very big jail, even when your family wants to visit they get there at 5 in the morning, and they do not get to see you until 5 pm.
Was there a library in that jail?
It was very small. There are two types of jails- jails under the military and jails under the police administration. The police administration jails are better condition than the military. Naqab jail was a military jail, so it was not good. But eventually, through my three years in many jails, I started to read Communist Ideology, about Marx, Hegel, about all of these people who wrote about Communism and all about the dialectic.
How did you get access to those texts in jail?
This is a story of the resistance of prisoners inside the jail. Each thing we have in jail, we do not get it by nothing, we do alot of resistance until we acheive points through our resistance. There are many things we have now in jail which we did not used to have. But because we are here, because we need these things in our life, the Israelis refused to give it to us in an easy way, so we decided to do resistance. Part of this resistance is to open a hunger strike. We wrote our needs down in a list, and then we tried to negotiate with the Israelis about our needs. These negotiations took many different steps and stages, it took long negotiations and conversations, and we put our efforts into trying to convince them that these things are very important for us to survive. But the occupation policy is to control you however they can. They do not care if you are kept alive in dignity or not in dignity. But we are in jail, we lost everything in our lives, so what do we have to be scared from them?
So after that they refused the list of requests, so we started our resistance. Part of our resistance was to pass messages outside of the jail to parents, to families and relatives, to human rights organizations to tell them the situation, and update about the negotiations, and tell them about the future, the next steps. And we asked them to stand behind us and to support us in our resistance, if we decide to do a hunger strike. And we asked them to build advocacy outside of the jail, all over the world. And after that we started to negotiate between each other, we had inside conversations, about who would like to join with us in the hunger strike, and if there is anyone who would not like to join, it is better for him to tell us before we start the strike. And we asked the ill people not to join us in our hunger strike, even if they wanted to join us, because we were concerned about their health. A hunger strike is not easy. You cannot have anything except water and salt, no smoking even! No coffee, no tea, no food, no fruit, no anything.
Were you a smoker at the time?
I used to be a smoker. I am not anymore, but sometimes socially.
So you did a hunger strike to gain the right to education.
Yes, this was one of our requests, to allow us to receive books from outside, from our parents, from our visitors and from the radicals. So we succeeded-
Yes, it worked. There were many things that were acheived in the jail. For example, in Hebron prison, before the Palestinian Authority, there was a library for us, with 4,000 books. Before the PA, it was an Israeli jail- I think the PA started here in 1996, and I was in jail until 1995. There were around 1,200 prisoners, and the library had 4,000 books. But it started with a very complicated hunger strike, before we were allowed to read books. And they checked the books for messages before they came in- when they received books from the Red Cross, or from lawyers, or parents, or organizations. To see if there are hidden messages or something, or information. But we had different ways to exchange information!
We called it a capsule. It’s a very small, thin paper, and we wrote in very small writing, but you can read it. We rolled it up, but carefully, it takes careful and well organized work. And then all this big paper- like 40 centimeters- you make it into 1 and a half centimeters. Then you eat it. But before that you bring nylon, and wrap it with plastic nylon, and after that you burn the side to seal it, and make sure there’s not even a very small hole, even a pinhole. And then some of the people who were going to be released soon, we give him not just one, maybe 30 or 40 capsules. When I used to visit my parents, I was like the Colonel of my party in the Hebron jail, because we had good connections with organizations of people here, and when we needed to exchange information i sent them information with this capsule. We would exchange it by kissing, during visiting. And you can keep it in your stomach for two days. You swallow it completely.
And then how do you get it up again?
Through the toilet! Then you clean it, and after that you open the papers, but the papers wil be ok. It’s very careful and well organized! (laughter) This is the way we exchange information.
So what books did you read?
Different books talking about ideological things, like Communism for example, about history like Vietnam, Cuba, Soviet states. Poetry, books about languages, French, English, Arabic literature…and also many philosophers, Aristotle, Plato, Heraclitus, and modern Western thinkers like Malthuse, and Hegel, Marx, Engels, Faeurbach, and also Arabic philosophy like Ibn Rushd, and Fukuyama- we studied about all these things, it’s not limited.
How did the Communism help you?
There used to be people who were in jail for a long time, and people who had been in and out of jail five times, they had alot of time in jail. Some of them used to study in Soviet states, for example, and some of them were in many different courses, and they explained for us about Communism and about the dialectic.
Did learning about Communist theory help you as prisoners to gain resolve and understand your situation?
For me not all the Communism helped me. Communism was a stage in my life. I am not a Communist right now, i would maybe say a Socialist. If you ask me is there god or no god, I will not deny that god exists, but it is not very important to waste my time with these stupid questions, to ask if god exists or not, or which is first, the material or the god before. I live in the land, so I discuss my life in this land, not something outside of my power. So this is not my ideology, so it was good for me be a member of PFLP because there were people who cared very much about this culture. They pushed and encouraged their members to study, and to learn as much as they could. For example I was one who was part of the Culture Committee. If I moved from jail to jail they sent with me a note- put Badia in the Culture Committee. So for example I was reading four of six books a month, I was reading regularly. I am not reading as much now, because I can not find the time. But I was in jail, I had the time, and more than that I had the determination to educate myself.
So I was reading about all sorts of resistance over the world, Cuba, Vietnam, Ghandi, other kinds of resistance. And I did not just accept everything I read, I was critical. I examined everything I read, and I thought, I compared what I believed to what I was reading. I did not just accept everytihng I read. Now I have good information in my mind, I can analyse many things around all the world. But I have background about many things in the world now, so because of it I can analyse many things. I succeeded to educate myself, it gave me a way for another stage in my life when I got out of the jail, to continue with the people and with society. Also, the PFLP helped me with many things that are complicated for others to understand. For example this was the first time I started to make a distinction between Jews and Zionists. Before this everything was the same. But I started to educate myself, and also the PFLP cared about these things, we talked about these things at meetings.
We had in a day at least three meetings. The prisoners were like a government inside a government! There was the Israeli jail, which was run by the government, and then within that, our organizations and committees- we would divide ourselves into different committees. Some were in the security committee, some were in the culture committee, some were in the health committee, some in the organization committee, some in the financial committee. So everyone had a role-
How would you meet for these committees?
We used to meet, but at first it was not allowed. It came through resistance! Right before the Israeli occupation [of the West Bank] started in 1967 the revolution started in 1965. Israel occupied Palestine in 1948, and after that the movement for revolution started in 1965. After that they occupied the West Bank in 1967, and with the struggle against the Israeli occupation there were prisoners. So we tried to do meetings, many times the Israeli jail people were blocking and beating us. So there is a long resistance, and it started when Israel occupied the west bank. It was not allowed for the prisoners to have meetings together and talk about points and subjects- meeting itself was forbidden in the beginning, and it was a big challenge for the prisoners to break these laws, and we succeeded through a long resistance. Hunger striking was one strategy, it was a weapon of resistance in the jail. You cannot eat, until they will listen to your needs. This is the most difficult and dangerous strategy. Everything we get in jail, we did not get in a golden platter! We had to resist, and to deal with the resistance until we achieved these things.
We had three meetings in the day- political meetings, and organization meetings, and cultural meetings. The political meetings, we would discuss the political issues not only about Palestine, but all over the world. Because we are a part of the world, and we are affected by the world! We are one of the people most affected directly by the events of the world! Like the balance between America and the Soviet states used to be good for us, but after the Soviet states were over we got more pressure from Israelis. And after the Gulf War, we got more pressure from Israel. This was the beginning of the permit policy. Before the Iraq war we did not need a permit for Palestinians to come to Israel. After 1991 we needed a permit, we could not drive to Tel Aviv or Haifa with our car.
So when you learned about history and other resistance movements, did you also gain a consciousness of the fact that your resistance was connected to other resistance movements all around the world?
Yes, I believed and I still believe that our resistance struggle is part of humanity’s resistance struggle all over the world. Because maybe we are suffering from occupation, from losing our dignity and justice, but there are many people around the world suffering because of injustice. There are many people suffering from capitalism, capitalism effects the majority of people all around the world, which is an injustice. We here are also effected very directly and strongly by capitalism. This is why I believe that all of us are a part of the resistance struggle for justice all over the world. And this is one of the methods- we can work together. This is why there are internationals here, this is why there are people who come here because they believe that humanity is one, that we are not divided, so they take responsibility for what goes on here, and come to share with Palestinians the resistance, and to show solidarity.
In prison, were you reading about capitalism and other systems of oppression?
The people who were in jail were not stupid people. Some of them were teachers at university, medical doctors, some of them students. Israel would arrange the jail to be a place to kill you psychologically, they can kill you daily many times by making you see the same things all your life- when you see the same people, the same routine, the same food, it makes you feel disgusting inside and you feel very bad about it. That is the Israeli policy, to try to create death in the Palestinian heart and mind. We turned upside down this image and made the jails as schools and universities. Whereas the Israelis planned for the jails to be aplace to kill your soul and harm your psychology, we turned everything upside down and created jails to be like schools, to make educated people.