The man that Israel couldn’t keep down
Thrice-jailed Palestinian activist Ghassan Najjar of the West Bank
village of Burin speaks to Jenny Kassman
about his unswerving commitment to the freedom of his people
When I met Ghassan Najjar, in the West Bank village of Burin, I gained the impression of speaking with a young man considerably older than the 27-year-old before me. As he pointed out during our conversation, children under Israeli occupation have to grow up fast.
It was in 2000 that Ghassan, aged 10, first came into contact with the Israeli occupiers.
He was helping his father Zidan and other members of his family in their apple orchard on a ridge overlooking the village when they were attacked by a group of armed men from the nearby Brakha settlement who wanted the land for themselves.
They shot Ghassan’s cousin in the leg while Israeli soldiers looked on.
Following a number of similar settler attacks the army prohibited Zidan from accessing his orchard, so he obtained a court ruling that confirmed his right to work on his land.
The army, however, promptly invalidated the ruling by declaring the land to be a closed military zone, following which the 1,500 apple trees and a well were destroyed.
Zidan and his family were permanently barred from entry to their land. It was during that time that the army also seized 16 acres of land belonging to Ghassan’s mother.
It was unsurprising then that, by the age of 15, Ghassan and other local boys would throw stones at the sight of soldiers for which he was arrested and charged.
He was sentenced to six months in the juvenile section of HaSharon Prison in northern Israel in a clear breach of article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention, which states that “protected persons accused of offences shall be detained in the occupied country and if convicted they shall serve their sentences therein.”
Four years later, Ghassan was charged again, this time accused of subversive activities against the Israeli state like organising community events, such as flying kites decorated with Palestinian flags and taking part in demonstrations to support local farmers experiencing settler attacks and land seizures.
He was sentenced to one year and eight months in Megiddo Prison, again in northern Israel.
So when Israeli soldiers, using tear gas and stun bombs, attacked Burin Boys’ School on August 26 2014, Ghassan, together with other villagers, did not hesitate to rally in support of the teachers and pupils. At 24, he was the youngest in the group.
The scene on their arrival was of Israeli soldiers surrounding the headmaster Ibrahim Amur and his senior staff while the terrified pupils were locked in their classrooms with their teachers.
Ibrahim, his senior teachers and the villagers told the soldiers to leave. They were ignored.
“One soldier shouted to me that I was a ‘son of a bitch’,” Ghassan told me, “but I ignored him. Then I saw him, together with some of the other soldiers, move in to arrest Ibrahim. Instinctively, I pushed the soldier away and then ran off. But the soldiers had no problems in identifying me.”
The wheels were thus set in motion for his third prison sentence.
That night, soldiers visited the homes of his brother Abdullah and his cousin Zaid, who were not accused of any offence. Both young men were badly beaten and brought to Ghassan at his home where he lived with his parents. There they were ordered never to see Ghassan again.
Next, the soldiers set about vandalising the family home while shouting threats and insults at Ghassan’s elderly parents and took him to a military post in nearby Huwwara.
There he was beaten so badly that he lost consciousness and was rushed to a hospital in Israel, near Tel Aviv, where he remained for two weeks. Because of laws prohibiting Palestinians living in the West Bank from freely entering Israel, his parents and other family members were not allowed to visit him.
“On being discharged from hospital,” continued Ghassan, “I was taken to an interrogation centre in Israel near Petah Tikva which is run by Shin Bet [the internal Israeli intelligence services] and it was here I received the worst treatment. They wanted to break me but didn’t succeed.”
For two months, he was kept in isolation in a windowless basement cell measuring about 2m x 1.5m. “There was an electric light on continuously. I lost all track of time, not knowing whether it was day or night.”
The interrogations started with the officials wanting to know names of friends and associates. He described how he was seated in a chair with his hands tied behind his back for one to two days, allowed to visit the bathroom for five minutes every six hours.
On other occasions he was laid handcuffed to a bed with his arms and legs outstretched and despite the stifling heat, he was often refused permission to shower.
Still in custody, Ghassan spent the next 14 months in Megiddo Prison where the prisoners were divided into groups of 120 according to their political affiliation. Ghassan’s block was for members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Every block contained cells, each holding 10 prisoners and was equipped with electric rings for cooking.
“The daily routine at Megiddo was crushing,” said Ghassan. “
Prisoners remained in their cells during the day except for two hours in the morning and evening when they walked up and down corridors. Ten prisoners a day from each group were allowed to play sport for an hour, which they took turns in doing.”
Prisoners received 400 shekels (£86) a month from the Palestinian Authority for food either from the canteen, run at a profit by the Israeli company Dadash, or from a shop for prisoners to prepare themselves.
Because the canteen was expensive and the food inadequate and of poor quality — “For breakfast we would be given a single egg and a packet of crisps which cost 10 shekels (£2.17)” — the prisoners chose to prepare their own meals.
However, it is the prison guards that give Megiddo its bad reputation.
“We were subjected constantly to taunts, threats and beatings by prison guards. They would attack us at whim and pump tear gas into our cells, causing us virtually to suffocate in the crowded, enclosed space, then waiting for three minutes or so before providing oxygen.
“I was put into solitary confinement on about 14 occasions. I believe the prison authorities disliked me because I initiated classes for my cellmates in Palestinian history and literacy. For them education was a threat.”
About a month into his detention, Ghassan met his lawyer for the first time. Six months later, his mother received permission to visit her son assisted by the Red Cross.
From then on she could visit him quite regularly, although his father, aged over 70, who had also been imprisoned by the Israelis on a number of occasions, had to wait longer and subsequently was only permitted visits every six or seven months.
After Megiddo, Ghassan was transferred to punishment prison Hadarim, also in northern Israel, where he spent two weeks in isolation.
He believes it was because he threatened to go on hunger strike that he was moved quickly to Gilbo’a Prison (again in northern Israel) where he stayed for a year until his release.
It was while at Gilbo’a, 18 months after his arrest, that his trial finally took place at Salem military court.
“I was accused of attacking the soldier at the boys’ school and of subversive activity,” he explained.
The district army commander gave evidence, as did a security officer from Yitzhar religious settlement overlooking Burin, who had not been present at the school at the time of the incident but he alleged Ghassan had attacked him on a number of previous occasions.
Ghassan said it was on account of the security officer’s allegations that he was sentenced to 26 months and ordered to pay 7,000 shekels (approximately £1,520) to the soldier he pushed. The family paid the fine, against his wishes.
He described Gilbo’a as “a place of learning, a school for change rather than a place for becoming embittered.”
Prisoners of all political persuasions, except for Hamas, lived together in one unit. They set up a daily routine consisting of classes, two hours of reading, written tasks and sport in addition to preparing meals and watching TV.
There were courses in Palestinian history, culture and crafts, economics and the history of colonisation and liberation struggles of other countries.
Prisoners taught each other and Ghassan proudly showed me the certificate he was awarded for teaching Palestinian history. Similarly, students were awarded diplomas for courses they had attended.
“It was through the education I received in Gilbo’a that I learnt not all Jews were zionists,” he told me “and that my anger against our treatment by the Israelis and the occupation should not be directed against all Jews, many of whom oppose what is happening to us.”
It was also in Gilbo’a that he first went on hunger strike as an act of solidarity with Bilal Kayed, a Palestinian activist who, after spending 14 years in Israeli prisons, was rearrested and imprisoned again, without charge, on the day of his release.
Disobedience tactics accompanied the initial call for Bilal’s release. “In every cell during morning roll call, prisoners would give Bilal Kayed’s name instead of their own.”
The hunger strike started on July 17 2015. “The evening before, we had received the coded message ‘Freedom awaits you,’ meaning the strike would commence the following day,” Ghassan explained.
He said that, within days of starting the strike, he and another prisoner were put in isolation, a small windowless cell where the temperature often rose to 45°C which made his skin peel.
On the 16th day, the guards took away his underwear. He had no right to a shower during the 21-day strike.
Most of the hunger strikers at Gilbo’a ended their action at 8pm on August 7, following instructions from the unit organiser whom Israeli officials forbade from seeing Ghassan. He was given the news of the strike’s end by a prison guard and therefore refused to stop, adding that he would stop drinking water too.
The strike organiser was called promptly to his cell.
Recovery following the strike was hard — the prison authorities did not provide salt and the prisoners were given cold water to drink, which they could not digest. Ghassan described how they resorted to drinking warm water from the bathroom.
He was released in September 2016 and returned home to a big celebration, but there were restrictions.
For six months, he could only to walk in the streets around his house in the outskirts of Burin, but this did not deter him from resuming his role as a community worker and activist.
The Bilal Al-Najjar community centre which he had founded in 2007 was vandalised by Israeli soldiers in 2009 and 2010 and then totally trashed in July 2013 when 10 volunteers were beaten and 20 arrested.
Ghassan has had to start afresh and has formed the Target Association for Rural Development-Burin which holds classes, meetings and lectures mainly for young people.
With friends, he has also created a permaculture centre and, despite personal threats, last July, he resurrected the kite festival which was attended by crowds of children and young people from the village and elsewhere.
During the afternoon, soldiers and settlers appeared on a nearby hillside, exploding grenades.
“Aren’t you worried about being arrested again?” I asked him. He replied in his customary defiant manner.
“I’m not afraid of arrest. Nothing will stop me from dedicating my life to fighting for a free Palestine. If I’m sent to prison again, so be it.”
n Jenny Kassman is a member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a signatory of Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
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