Palestinian anti-colonial struggle centres revolutionary remembrance

Palestinian demonstrators in Tulkarem carrying a photo of Nasser Abu Hmeid
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At the end of last year, Palestinians showed strength and power as they mourned Nasser Abu Hmeid. People came out to stand with his family as they demanded that occupation forces return his body.

Nasser had been held inside Israel’s colonial prison system for a total of more than 30 years, convicted for his key role in the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade – an armed group struggling against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. He passed away after a long struggle with cancer.

“Slow killing”

The Addameer prisoner support organisation accused the Israeli prison system of medical negligence. They wrote on 20 December:

Palestinian political prisoner Nasser Abu Hamid passed away at age 50 from advanced lung cancer while held captive in Ramleh Prison Clinica carceral clinic known for its systemic human rights abuses enacted toward sick and ill Palestinian prisoners. Abu Hamid’s passing is thus a direct consequence of the Israeli Prison Service’s ongoing and deliberate practice of medical negligence.

The Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network called Nasser’s death:

an assassination caused by the policy of slow killing.

And the Palestinian prisoners’ movement issued this statement:

Read on...

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We bid farewell to the beloved Nasser, known on the streets of the homeland as a fighter and a struggler, who rose as a martyr as a result of medical negligence and his continued imprisonment without liberation. The time has come now to liberate our children from captivity at the hands of a criminal enemy practicing all kinds of torture and medical neglect for our children….This policy of systematic killing has not and will not weaken our resolve for one day, and we will not stop our resistance inside and outside the prison but instead this increases our certainty of the correctness of the method and our goal.

Continuing collective punishment

Since then, the Israeli state has refused to return Nasser’s body, an act of collective punishment. The state is claiming that it will use the body as a bargaining tool in negotiations with Hamas. This is not the first time the Abu Hmeid family has been subjected to acts of collective punishment by the Israeli state. In fact, their family home has been demolished five times by Israeli forces.

The struggle of Nasser’s family mirrors the anguish endured by hundreds of families across Palestine. Families whose loved ones’ bodies have never been returned by the occupying forces. However, the collective will to remember Nasser as a martyr was striking.

General strike

Some comrades and I were visiting the West Bank last December as part of the Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement (ISM). All of us have been involved in supporting prisoners in the UK, and have lost friends along the way as part of our struggles. We were staying not far away from Ramallah’s Al-Amari refugee camp, where the Hmeid family live. Early on the morning of 20 December we were woken by a prayer broadcast from a nearby mosque. We were told by Palestinian friends that Nasser had died early in the morning. And that what we heard was most likely a lament for him. Later that morning, we heard shots from the direction of the camp. They were fired as salutes for Nasser.

A general strike and demonstrations across Palestine were held in honour of Nasser. We were invited to a demonstration in the northern West Bank city of Tulkarem outside the local headquarters of the Red Cross. The protest at the Red Cross is a regular vigil held by the families of Palestinian prisoners, but this week it was attended by thousands of people. As we arrived at the demonstration, more and more people were arriving. The schools had been closed for the day, and students – some of them under ten years old – were marching to the square as we arrived. The demonstration was also joined by university students, and even a group of uniformed boy scouts. The crowd was made up of men and women, young and old.

A culture of respect for martyrs

As we walked to Thabet Thabet square – itself named after another martyr of the Palestinian struggle – we passed a group of young boys who cracked a joke. Our comrade – an older Palestinian man – told them to show respect, as “today there is a shahid” (or martyr).

That night we returned to Ramallah, and were struck by the strength of the strike in that city. Restaurants, tea shops, and general stores were shuttered closed. This was doubly striking as Ramallah can feel like a more capitalist place than other cities of Palestine. The city is the seat of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority – money has been sloshing in from the European Union, and from non-governmental organisations, since 2006. This money has many strings attached, but the biggest one is that the recipients of aid should not support armed resistance. To see that a strike in honour of a martyr of that resistance can still take hold here is a testimony to the enduring spirit of the Palestinian rebellion.

Beyond Israel’s apartheid wall – and across another – Palestinians in Gaza held three days of mourning to remember Nasser.

Bodies held by the occupation

Nasser’s body is not the only body of a Palestinian martyr held by the occupation. According to Addameer:

Compounding their crimes of medical neglect, Israeli occupation forces continue to withhold the bodies of the now-eleven Palestinian prisoners who have been martyred. By withholding bodies, Israel inflicts severe psychological pain on the deceased person’s family. As such Nasser’s family does not know when his body will be released for proper burial—if at all.

In fact, the bodies of hundreds of Palestinians are held by the Israeli state, either in morgues or in the unmarked ‘cemeteries of numbers’.

Nasser’s family has refused to receive any public condolences for his death until his body is released, along with the bodies of the other martyrs.

Return our loved ones from “the freezers of the occupation”

My comrades and I attended a demonstration for the return of the bodies. The protest was held in a freezing cold Al-Menara square as temperatures dropped just before Christmas:

A week later, we watched as Israeli forces fire tear gas at demonstrators. They were taking part in what was dubbed a ‘March of Immortality’, demanding the return of the martyrs’ bodies:

Remembering the fallen is a revolutionary act

The system that is enabling these deaths to carry needs us not to remember. It needs us to close our eyes and to forget. That is why the act of remembering martyrs is so revolutionary.

The anger and rage across Palestine at the death of Nasser Abu Hmeid was a heartbreaking reminder of a lifetime of anti-colonial struggle. A lifetime that undoubtedly entailed much suffering. However, the collective act of remembering Nasser’s life brought with it a renewed sense of solidarity, strength, and resilience.

We must hang on fiercely to the memory of those killed by the state, and as a result of state policies. It is their memory that will help us to refuse the attempts to silence, co-opt, or assimilate us. It is their memory that reminds us that we will always carry with us the seeds of rebellion and revolution.

Featured image is of Palestinian demonstrators carrying a photo of Nasser Abu Hmeid, by the author

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