Former prisoner, PFLP leader: hunger strike "made revolution in the prisons"
7 December 2011
Over the years he has written many books in Arabic on the mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners by the Israeli government. Ben Lorber, contributor to The Electronic Intifada, interviewed Abdel-Alim Da’na in his Hebron home on 8 November 2011.
Ben Lorber: How long were you in prison?
Abdel-Alim Da’na: I spent 17 years in Israeli prisons. In 1972 I spent more than one year, and in 1975, they gave me 17 and a half years. I was released by an exchange of prisoners between PLO and Israel in 1985. I spent ten years and two months in jail. Then they arrested me in the first intifada, the first uprising, and I spent four years without a trial, as an administrative detainee. Then I spent about one year or more, and then in 2004 I spent one and a half years.
BL: How were you treated inside prison?
AD: The Israeli management inside the prisons is very difficult, and they mistreated us inside the prisons. Dozens of people inside the prisons were absolutely crazy, I saw many go crazy because of the very bad conditions inside the prison. More than two hundred detainees died inside the prisons. I have written many books and essays about the prisoners inside the prison. I wrote a book about the 94 prisoners who died inside the prisons, and I am going to continue to speak about the other men who died inside the prisons because some of them were killed because of interrogations, and some of them were not given suitable treatment. In interrogations I spent more than a hundred days inside isolated cell without anybody, and they used all kinds of torture to take information from me. Not only me, but many persons, many detainees.
And you must believe me that the situation is very difficult, very hard. Because we are inside the prisons, everything is confiscated, including our freedom, and we haven’t enough food, our family can’t visit us inside the prison freely, and they mistreat our families when they visit us.
BL: How did prisoners resist the occupation from within the prison?
AD: We had many hunger strikes, and were used to struggling inside the prison to make our life possible. For example, the first hunger strike was in 1970 — this strike was to put an end to Israeli mistreatment of our prisoners. The guard or the policemen said “Issa, come in!” He beat him. Why? “Because I don’t like him!” And when you speak to the guard, you had to say “please sir, ok sir” and you had to bend your head. We saw that they are treating us in a very ugly, very inhumane way. This was the first hunger strike. And we succeeded in this hunger strike in 1970, to put an end to the guards’ mistreatment of prisoners.
And then we called to bring us newspapers. They at first brought us a newspaper called which was [written and published] by Israel intelligence, by Shabak [Shin Bet]. We wanted to change this. So Ashkelon prison had a big strike, they continued with this strike for forty eight days, so as to bring freely Arab magazines and Arab newspapers and Arab books inside the prisons. And the Israelis consented to bring in the books! We called this very important for the prisoners — it changed our lives.
We did not have radio transmitters. We were smuggling transistor radios, but the Israeli authority considered it very dangerous. In September 1985 we had an important hunger strike, we continued it for 13 days. The police minister discussed with us about this hunger strike. We had six representatives among the prisoners — I was one of them — and we discussed our demands and we forced them to permit us to bring a radio. And this made a revolution inside the prisons!
BL: How did you organize and educate yourselves inside the prison?
AD: Every political organization makes their systems and law. There were Fatah, PFLP, DFLP, and these were the three main organizations [in the 1980s]. All the organizations did their best to find books. At first, we hadn’t books, we hadn’t newspapers, we hadn’t papers or pens [with which] to write, but we smuggled many things like these. Also, once we smuggled books into prisons, we smuggled papers and pencils and we copied the books by hand to give to our friends.
Everyone, when they enter the prison, must learn to read and to study. When some people enter the prison, they cannot read or write, and we put an end to their illiteracy. Some of them are very famous journalists now, some are poets, some are writing in the newspapers and writing research. I have many names of these people who couldn’t read or write, and now they are very respectable members of Palestinian culture, men in the Palestinian Authority and writers of all sorts.
BL: What did you teach the prisoners?
AD: We had many educational programs inside the prison; for example, the leftist organizations like PFLP or DFLP had programs in philosophy, political economy, Lenin’s books, and all of the Marxist-Leninist texts. It is a part of our culture.
The education rate inside the prisons is very high. This is true for all the Palestinian people. We are a highly-educated people, and for this we are proud, and we do our efforts to put an end to illiteracy. Now, as the United Nations reports, Palestinian people are one of the highest-educated people. The rate of Palestinian people who are educated is 90 percent, which is more than any Arab country and many countries in Asia and Africa. This makes us proud of our people.
BL: What Marxist-Leninist books did PFLP teach the prisoners?
AD: Dialectical philosophy. All the Lenin books. Das Kapital.
BL: All of Das Kapital?
AD: Yes! It was large, and very difficult, but we studied it. Because we studied political economy, we were dependent on it. Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State: I explained this book more than ten times, I admire this book. It is very important. Also Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. And we read [Che] Guevara, and many Marxist-Leninist theoreticians.
We also had [internal] prison magazines we wrote by hand. For example, Fatah had one or two magazines inside the prison, and also PFLP had a magazine, al-Hadaf [The Goal]. We wrote these magazines by hand, with pencils, and some people put drawings in the magazines, and some prisoners wrote poems, some wrote tales and short stories.
BL: Did you also write about political theory and philosophy inside the magazines?
AD: Yes of course, we wrote about political theory and philosophy inside the magazines, and political economy, many Marxist-Leninist essays inside these magazines. And we also had essays where we discussed our situations inside the prisons, and news, and our relationship with other organizations.
BL: Israel’s policy of mass imprisonment and torture attempts to break the political resistance and will of the Palestinian people, but prison life only increases political resistance and revolutionary will …
AD: Israel can arrest hundreds of people, thousands of people, but in spite of that Israel cannot put an end to the revolution and Palestinian resistance. Since 1967, Israel has been arresting people, but it cannot end the resistance. Israel has mistreated all the prisoners and detainees, but we have a soul. We do not enter prison because we rob or rape or anything, but because we resist the occupation authority, because we resist Israel’s procedures against our people.
And the Palestinian people support the prisoners in demonstrations, in protesting, and support them by money, and by visiting the families of prisoners — these prisoners are the heroes of our people. And the prisoners who enter these prisons live in a nationalist atmosphere and a resistance atmosphere.
BL: When prisoners learn about resistance and revolution in the past and in other countries, does this help them understand how the Palestinian resistance is part of the revolution all over the world?
AD: Yes, we consider ourselves a part of the international revolution. We did not have relations with the world revolution because we were inside the prison, but we are with any movement that struggles for its freedom, for its liberty, and we support all the movements all over the world who want to determine themselves and their own people.
BL: Speaking of world revolution, how does the Arab Spring relate to the Palestinian struggle?
AD: I say it is a very good revolution and a very civilized revolution, and this reflects that the Arab people want to live in a democracy like other people all over the world, to elect their governors and dismiss them! We are proving ourselves as Arabs.
In one sense, I do not [see] us as Palestinians, I [see] us as Arabs. We are all speaking Arabic, from Morocco to Amman, and Islam is our culture, and we have cooperated with each other on many many things. We have the same culture, the same happiness. Imperialism divided us, because when we are divided it can exploit us, and exploit our wealth. All of the Arabs are with us as Palestinians, because they know we are under occupation … all their revolutions call to dismiss Israeli occupation from the occupied territories, and the uprising people believe in Palestine.
And they know that Israel was not established against Palestinians, it was established to weaken the Arab world, so that imperialism and capitalism can exploit all the wealth in the Arab world. The Arabs who are torn and not united will see that their interest is to make a union between them.
BL: But in the struggle against imperialism, religion has become very influential since the 1990s. In the Palestinian resistance now you have many people turning to Hamas’s fundamentalism instead of PFLP’s secular leftism. Why?
AD: You see, the Marxist-Leninist theory failed. Not because it is wrong, but because its applications failed. For example, the Soviet Union failed to apply this theory, and this affected many leftist organizations. The people want to search for other ideologies to explain the world and to struggle against imperialism and colonialism, and of course Israel. And for them, the religious ideology serves to explain all the difficulties that they face.
BL: How does the PFLP feel about Hamas?
AD: It considers Hamas as a nationalist organization that struggles against occupation. But we have many differences with it, because it explains the world and situations not like us, you see. And it is not considered a historical resistance organization. It began in 1987, but we have leftist national organizations that began a half century ago.
BL: What do you think of Hamas’ prisoner deal?
AD: We appreciated this bargain, yes.
BL: But the PFLP was holding a large hunger strike at the same time.
AD: When we began the hunger strike we did not know that there would be a bargain between Hamas and the Israel authority, and it is not in the interest [of the hunger strikers]. If they knew there was going to be an agreement, they would not have begun the strike. But in spite of this the strike was not bad, it ended solitary confinement.
BL: Why were you arrested?
AD: Because I resisted the occupation, and in 1972 I organized the students in the West Bank to resist the occupation. And I made contact between an Arabic and Israeli organization to resist the occupation authority, and some of them have been arrested from the Israeli side, and some escaped outside the country.
BL: Do you mean the socialist anti-Zionist political organization Matzpen?
AD: Not Matzpen, with the Israeli Black Panthers. We helped each other organize and cooperate with many things against the occupation. Also with some Haredim, some very religious men who believe that establishing a Jewish state is against God’s will. They consider Zionism as against Judaism and against God’s will — Neturei Karta and other organizations. To prove they were with us, for example, they brought weapons for us! I did not use it, but they smuggled weapons to us to prove they were with us to resist against the Israeli occupation. We cooperated with them in many branches of struggle. Also, they brought us instruments to press magazines.
The Black Panthers sang many songs — one of their songs went “I went to the labor office, so as to work. They asked me, ‘where are you from?’ I said, ‘From Morocco!’ They said ‘get out!’ I went to the labor office, so as to work. They asked me ‘where are you from?’ I said ‘From Poland!’ They said ‘Ah yes! Bring him a cold drink!’”
Ben Lorber is an activist with the International Solidarity Movement in Nablus. He is also a journalist with the Alternative Information Center in Bethlehem. He blogs at freepaly.wordpress.com.