Khalida Jarrar is one of the leaders in the West Bank of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a party with a Marxist orientation and the main force on the Palestinian left. Just a few days ago, she was released from 20 months’ imprisonment without charge or trial in Israel. In a central neighborhood of Ramallah, Ghassan, her husband, opens the door for us.
“Khalida would need some rest, but many people want to meet with her, interview her and listen to her, so our house is always full,” he tells us as he leads us to the living room. Moments later, Jarrar joins us, clearly looking like she has gone through a lot.
Almost two years in prison without trial. How can one feel after an experience like that?
Bad… Prison is hard. And it’s even harder when they put you in a cell without even accusing you of anything. Knowing that you’re there just for your ideas, for your commitment to the aspirations of your people, this makes everything even more of a bitter experience. And there’s even more bitterness when you’re aware that administrative detention [as it is called under Israeli military law], which I suffered together with thousands of Palestinians since the occupation, is a blatant violation of international law. I’m strong and I’m recovering a little at a time, but the physical and mental stress has been very high. Not to mention the disappointment I felt when I was released, knowing that another 48 Palestinian women held for political reasons would remain in prison, while I would get my freedom back and be able to again hug my family and my companions in the struggle.
Israeli military leadership has said you were doing subversive activities on behalf of your party, the PFLP, which they describe as a “terrorist organization.”
It is the usual accusation that the Israelis heap upon any Palestinian who refuses the occupation. My arrest happened solely for political reasons, to stop my efforts as a leading figure of a party represented in the Palestinian Legislative Council. It is legitimate to fight for freedom when you are oppressed. I remember the night of my arrest. I was put in handcuffs by soldiers who broke into my house around 2 a.m. They put me in a Jeep and led me to Ofer [a prison west of Ramallah]. After many hours of waiting, I was transferred to Hasharon prison, where I arrived late in the evening. The next day, they took me before a military judge, just for a few minutes, who refused to tell me anything. My lawyer asked for the reasons for my arrest, the alleged crimes of which I was accused. Nothing, no answer. They only talked about the existence of a secret file about me that my lawyer has never been able to read. And on account of that alleged file, while I was never formally charged with anything, I have been in prison for almost two years.
In prison, you played a leading role in a protest, together with other prisoners.
There have been very many protests. I think the one that became particularly well-known was the one calling for respecting our privacy. In an Israeli prison, you are monitored through cameras placed almost everywhere. Even during our time in the yard, the most longed-for moment for anyone who is forced to live almost all the time in a prison cell. We asked them to turn the cameras off, because those camera lenses turned on us were confining for us, particularly when it comes to sports, when you sometimes reveal your body, you wear light clothing. Some Palestinian prisoners are religious women who are carefully guarding their privacy. For 63 days, we refused to go out of our cells. As punishment, we were transferred to Damon prison, where conditions are harsher. There as well, we were punished on several occasions because we didn’t follow orders that made no sense and were abusive. For a whole month, we could not receive any visits from our families. And they always spoke to us in Hebrew, a language that many of us did not know.
Has your presence in prison contributed to the political debate among the Palestinian detainees?
The Palestinians imprisoned for political reasons are discussing many topics. Of course, the events of the day, those outside the prison, those in the Occupied Territories, the arrests, the demolitions of homes, the killing of protesters, the situation in Gaza and other political issues take up a large part of the discussions. But my companions in prison also speak about their rights as women in Palestinian society.
The Palestinians have secured important laws and protections in the territories controlled by the PNA. However, there is still a very long way to go.
Alongside our efforts against the Israeli occupation, we must fight for our liberation. Too many laws and too many aspects of social and political conditioning are blocking the path we are advancing on. There is one particular point that most of the Palestinian political forces don’t want to touch: the rights within the family, which we call “family laws.” These laws concern fundamental rights for women, such as parental authority, divorce, and many other things. The parties are reluctant to touch this subject, because they know their decisions could be challenged and rejected by a part of society and by religious institutions, and they are afraid of losing votes. And thus, the implementation [by the Palestinian National Authority] of measures which were approved long ago [by the government] is at a standstill.
I am referring, for example, to the right of women to obtain a passport without restrictions, or to open a bank account for their children without waiting for the approval of the husband. The list is a long one, and I am asking President Mahmoud Abbas to sign as soon as possible the implementation decrees for these measures, which are at a standstill. Enough with the political, social and religious compromises which restrict or deny women their rights.
Let’s talk about the Palestinian left. Late last year, the PFLP and other progressive forces joined together in the Democratic Alliance (DA), a coalition that is an alternative to the two major parties, Fatah and Hamas, divided by a conflict that has gone on for 12 years. Since then, however, we have heard very little from the DA.
From prison, I could only follow part of the debate between the PFLP and the rest of the left. I can say that the discussions on the Democratic Alliance’s program are moving forward, and I feel optimistic about the role that this coalition will have. At the same time, I don’t think the DA should confine itself to finding the right compromise to end the conflict between Fatah and Hamas, something Palestinians want.
In the same way, it’s not enough just to fight the Israeli occupation. The Palestinian left has to go back to speaking like the left. It must fight for social justice by avoiding as much as possible any compromises with the programs of other political forces that are very different from it. We can no longer ask young people to accept decisions made at the top of the party, by leaders who are often very old. Instead, we need to involve young people in the analysis of capitalism and the devastating effects of neoliberalism, and in the fight against consumerism, which is also a result of the models offered by the dominant system. This is the only road to a revival: being left-wing, pure and simple.