Palestine: Inside the Home of Hana Shalabi
Burqin, Occupied West Bank – A tent, decorated with the flags of Palestinian political factions and posters of 29-year-old Hana, adorns the front yard of the Shalabi family home. On the eve of Mother’s Day, the tent had received a steady stream of visitors since the morning. Teachers and students from Burqin’s secondary school, members from the village’s women and farmers’ societies, and mothers of Palestinian martyrs gave the family long-stemmed roses and flowers, enough to form a huge bouquet.
Hana’s elderly mother Badia spends most of her days sitting inside the tent. She can’t stand being inside the house – it reminds her too much of Hana’s presence.
For the past 40 days, Hana Shalabi has been on hunger strike, consuming only water. Being held under so-called administrative detention, an outdated policy that Israel uses frequently to arrest and hold Palestinians for an indefinite period of time under the pretense of security threats based on “secret evidence,” Hana hasn’t been formally charged with any crime. Her health is deteriorating rapidly and according to the last inspection carried out by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel last week she is at risk of “imminent death.”
Zahra Shalabi leads the way into the small but immaculate house. Zahra begins talking earnestly about her sister Hana, who despite being nine years her junior is the closest to her.
“Everything Hana did in this house now feels like a dream,” Zahra says, adding that “she would wake up in the morning and make tea or coffee for us both. Sometimes I can’t believe she is not here anymore.”
Hana is one of five Palestinians who have been rearrested by Israel after being released in the October prisoners’ release between Hamas and Israel, in violation of the deal’s conditions. Prior to her release in October, Hana had spent 25 months in prison under administrative detention, which can be renewed every six months.
During the last family visit, Hana informed her mother that she would begin a hunger strike if her detention was renewed for the sixth time. When the prisoners’ deal came out, it was a welcome and joyous surprise.
“We were all filled with immeasurable happiness,” recounts Zahra. “Hana couldn’t believe she was out of prison. We stayed up past midnight on the day she was released, just chatting and laughing so much. She told me stories about life in prison, the types of dinners she’d cook with the other female prisoners, the sanitary conditions of the cells, all in a joking way.”
The four months between October and February were trouble-free days, bursting with dreams and ambitions. Hana loved to socialize and meet with people. She was busy with getting her papers in order to register for university, with her eyes set on enrolling at the American University in Jenin. She wanted to get her driver’s license, and later buy a car. She went on a shopping spree, buying new carpets and curtains for her bedroom, as well as new clothes since she couldn’t stand to wear the ones she owned before her imprisonment. Also she dreamed of getting married and of finding the perfect man to spend the rest of her life with.
On February 16, at 2:30am, Zahra woke up to the sound of unusual noises outside the house. At first, she thought it was a few stray dogs, but then came the unmistakable rumble of an Israeli army jeep. Hana woke up in a frenzy, gasping “The Israelis, the Israelis!” She confusedly thought that the occupation soldiers had come for her brother Ammar, who spent two weeks in prison after the Palestinian Authority arrested him in 2009 on the baseless accusation of weapon possession. The thought of getting rearrested did not cross her mind until the Israeli commander called her name.
“She began jumping around like a caged bird,” Zahra says. “She was panicking, and kept repeating over and over again that she was not going to go with the soldiers because she didn’t do anything.”
The soldiers raided the house, making the inhabitants sit on the floor. One soldier grabbed Hana, who tried to push him away. He began beating her. Another unit went upstairs to her brother Ammar’s house, and scared the children by charging in with police dogs.
Clad only in light pajamas and prevented from dressing more moderately, Hana was taken outside in the cold by “Officer Shalom,” who interrogated her for five minutes. Shortly afterward, she was taken away and almost immediately began her hunger strike after being subjected to more beatings and forced to undergo a humiliating strip search in the presence of a male soldier.
Posters of Hana are plastered inside the house. On one wall is a large framed picture of her martyred brother Samer, who was shot by Israeli soldiers in September 2005. The picture had a Fatah subheading denoting his membership of Fatah’s armed military wing, Al-Quds Brigades.
When asked about Hana’s Islamic Jihad affiliation Zahra gives a small smile. “She’s not really Islamic Jihad. She doesn’t belong to any faction. When Israel imprisons you, their security services ask which political faction you belong to. Hana chose Islamic Jihad on a whim.”
Israel offered Hana a reduced sentence of four months on March 3 after 17 days of her hunger strike but she was adamant that she would only break her strike if she was released immediately. Again, it should be noted that no one knows why she is being held or what the evidence against her is.
“Is Hana Israel? Is she the US?” Zahra asks angrily.
“Does she have missiles or rockets? Where is the threat to Israel? Why can’t we visit her? I know Hana, we grew up together. She has done nothing. It’s the biggest injustice for Hana to die in prison, because she is innocent. I am sure my sister will not make it through another seven days. My sister is dying,” Zahra says as she begins to cry.
She continues by saying, “I would never place my enemy in my sister’s position. We remain steadfast despite the pain exploding within us. I would not wish this on anyone.”
The Shalabis appreciate the moral support that has come from not just Palestine, but all over the world. However, they want that support to turn into action, to secure the immediate release of Hana, as she languishes in the Israeli Me’ir Hospital in Kfar Saba, where she was transferred to on March 20. Every time there is a court hearing to assess Hana’s appeals the family’s nerves are stretched thin in a psychological tug of war, only to have their hopes plummeted after every trial postponement.
On Monday, March 19, Hana’s parents met with the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas at the PA compound al-Muqataa in Ramallah. They asked him to secure the release of their daughter. Abbas replied that he would do his best, but Zahra dismisses his claims.
“Why does he call himself a president if he can’t use his diplomatic powers to release my sister? I don’t believe he is even trying. When Hana was arrested for the first time in 2009, ‘Captain Faisal’ the Israeli officer waved some papers in our direction when we demanded to know why she was getting arrested. He told us the PA gave him the secret file they had on her.”
Zahra is a thin woman who has grown old before her time. Her eyes are pits of sadness and she unexpectedly breaks down into tears in the middle of talking levelly for long uninterrupted stretches. She has trouble sleeping at night, often dreaming of her sister coming toward her with her hands cuffed, imploring Zahra to get them off of her. She wakes up fitfully, and says that she feels her sister’s pain.
“Her weakening heartbeat is my weakening heartbeat. Her stomach pangs are my own stomach pangs. If she dies, I hope she haunts the dreams of everyone who is responsible for her life, everyone who could have done something to secure her release but didn’t. The reality is that the world has failed Hana. What can we do other than put our faith and trust in God?”