Empty Stomach Warriors (III): Omar Abu Shalal Sets His Mind

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A Palestinian youth sits in side a mock cage with his hands tied in chains during a protest after Friday prayer to call for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails in Gaza City on 27 April 2012. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed Abed)

By: Linah Alsaafin

Published Monday, April 30, 2012

On 15 August 2011, Omar Abu Shalal was attempting to cross the Allenby Bridge – one of the crossings between the West Bank and Jordan – with his sister Samira, when Israeli authorities promptly arrested him.

Omar was immediately sent to Ofer prison just west of Ramallah. A few hours later he was handed a six-month administrative detention order, without knowing why he was imprisoned or what the charges against him were.

He was travelling to Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage when he was arrested. It was in the middle of the month of Ramadan. While his sister continued on the journey, Omar found himself transferred to Megiddo prison near Haifa.

Omar has lived under an occupation regime where adhering to a certain political rhetoric is ample excuse to be arrested for years, or even imprisoned for life. What makes his story unique is that he was wanted by and imprisoned by the Israeli army and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Politically affiliated with Hamas, Omar was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to 36 months in prison. During that period Omar’s mother passed away without seeing her incarcerated son, which as Samira recounted, devastated him.

Following infighting between members of Hamas and Fatah in 2007, Omar fled to Jenin to keep a low profile as he was wanted by the PA for one year. Following June 2007, the month which saw the highest number of casualties in the fighting, 4000 followers of Hamas were arrested as part of the PA’s systematic clampdown on Hamas supporters. Three months later, the PA arrested Omar and he was sentenced to one year and a half in the Jneid prison in Nablus, a facility that was known for human rights abuses and for torturing Hamas affiliates. According to an AP report, these measures have desisted since the year 2010.

Fifty-four-year-old Omar is divorced with no children, and lives in one of Nablus’ three refugee camps, al-Ain. He has a two-year diploma in electrical maintenance and works as a porter in the city center, off-loading trucks, and transporting goods on foot. According to Samira, he had no plans to remarry.

On 15 February 2012, Omar’s detention was further extended by six months. Inspired by the hunger strikes of Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi, and by the solidarity strikes of Bilal Thiab and Thaer Halahleh, Omar began his open-ended hunger strike on March 7.

In the solidarity tent set up in the middle of Nablus’ bustling city center, several posters of Omar Abu Shalal have been put up with small papers taped on top marking the number of days he’s been on hunger strike. On Monday April 30, Omar entered his 56th day without food.

“When I first heard of his strike, I welcomed it,” Samira confessed. “At the same time, I was scared for him, since I know that when my brother sets his mind to something he won’t back down until he’s achieved whatever it is he wanted. He always had strong faith in undertaking big decisions like this.”

The lawyer representing Omar, Mohammad al-Abed, reported that when he saw Omar on April 22, he was complaining of severe pain in his stomach and head. His blood pressure was low, and his diabetes symptoms were severe. Despite this, Abed insisted Omar’s morale was very high, and that he was unwavering in continuing his strike.

“I’ve requested an appeal for Omar’s case in the Israeli High court,” Abed said. “I’m waiting to hear whether the appeal will be accepted or rejected. Given the dangerous level his health is at, every day that passes without receiving an answer from the court is extremely risky.”

An appeal for an administrative detainee revolves around the misuse of administrative detention, thus challenging the prisoner’s imprisonment on that basis. Abed plans to use Omar’s sharply deteriorating health as a pretext for challenging his detention, but the lawyer admits that it’s a long shot that it will be even taken into consideration by the Israeli prosecutor and judge.

Samira is critical of the PA’s silence over the prisoners in Ramleh prison hospital who have refused food for two months, and over the mass hunger strike that began on April 17 with an estimated 2000 prisoners participating.

“I demand that Abu Mazen take a stance on this issue, which is one of the pillars of our cause. He’s been negotiating with Israel for years now and our situation has just gotten worse. He should be negotiating to release prisoners, something that is worthy. I suppose the PA is scared that the current hunger strike movement might hurt its relations with Israel, so that is why they have kept quiet. What does that say about our ‘leadership?’”

Her eyes momentarily glisten over when asked about facing her brother’s impending death. “We hope Omar will come back home to us alive and well. Whatever is written by God will happen. Our faith in Him is enormous.”

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