Abdel-Alim Da’na is a PFLP leader who is also a professor at Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron, teaching Palestinian history, human rights, and the Hebrew Language. He has been imprisoned by Israel for 17 years since the 1970s. Myself and fellow ISMer ‘Alistair George’ went to interview him in his beautiful home in Hebron. Here he is posing with what he affectionately refers to as his ‘Freedom Flotilla’, which he made over a 3 week period while behind bars!
Abdel-Alim Da’ana with a model ship he built while in Israeli prison.
He is a man with decades of revolutionary experience organizing and resisting, who spent four years in the same prison cell with Ahmad Sa’adat. He told us about Marxist-Leninist education in prison, PFLP’s philosophy and views on Hamas’s Gilad Shalit deal and the Arab Spring, the collaboration between PFLP, the Black Panthers and Neturei Karta in the 1970s (though he couldnt say much about that), and much more.
How long were you in prison?
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, an administrative detainee. Then I spent about one year or more, and then in 2004 I spent one and a half years.
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. I wrote about more than two hundred detainees who died inside the prisons. And I wrote in 1989 about the social situations and political situations about the Intifada detainees, and this is research I did inside the prison. And now I want to publish another book, but I haven’t the money. But I will publish it if I get enough money! And I have written many 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.
And you must believe me that the situation is very difficult, very hard and we see that, 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.
We organized ourselves inside the prison. Every political organization makes their systems and law. There were Fatah, PFLP, DFLP, and these were the three main organizations. All the organizations do their best so as to find books. At first we hadn’t books, we hadn’t newspapers, we hadn’t papers or pens so as 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.
The first thing we did when we entered the prison was put an end to illiteracy. Everyone when they enter the prison must learn to read and to study. Some people when they enter the prison 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. For example, Fadel Unis (sp?) wrote many tales, he is a very famous author! For example, Mohayed Abdeh Samad (sp?), he wrote three books! Faheed Al Haj, he wrote five researches about the prison, and when he entered the prison he could not read or write at all! Now he is a famous researcher. Hundreds of people who entered the prisons are now working with the Palestinian Authority.
About 70% of Palestinian writers and cultural people were once in prison. You must know that from 1967 to now, more than 800,000 people entered Israeli jail! Now in the West Bank there are about 3 million people, and 1 and a half million in Gaza. You can see that in any house or home, in any family, they have a prisoner. More than 90% of our people, their son or their neighbor or their relative entered the Israeli prisons.
We have many educational programs inside the prison, for example the leftist organization, like PFLP or DFLP, has a program in philosophy, political economy, Lenin’s books, and all of the Marxist-Leninist texts. It is a part of our culture.
So you took illiterate prisoners and started to teach them Marx and Lenin and philosophy and economic theory inside the prison?
Yes. All of the books we have inside the prison we smuggled them, and we gave money to the guards and police so as to bring the books for us.
What happens if they find items that have been smuggled in?
They confiscate it, but we have many copies, the prisoners have many branches. We have a book in every branch. If they confiscate one, we have others inside other sections. And we have many hunger strikes, and are 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 very ugly, very inhumane. 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 ‘It Al Anbar’, it was reported by Israel intelligence, by Shabak. We wanted to change this. Another time in 1956 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. Then we made other hunger strikes and other struggles against Israel. Everthing we have taken from Israel is not given to us by the authorities, it is by our own strikes.
We have also inside the prisons magazines, very simple magazines we wrote by hand. For example Fatah has one or two magazines inside the prison, and also PFLP has a magazine. Sometimes we call it 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.
Did you also write about political theory and philosophy inside the magazines?
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 our relationship with other organizations.
Did you write about news inside these magazines?
We did not have radio transmitters, we were smuggling transistor radios but the Israeli authority considered it very dangerous. We put them inside the cells, and they discovered some of these, but some they did not. In September 1985 we had a hunger strike in Ijnaid [sp?] jail, we continued it for 13 days. The police minister discussed with us about this hunger strike. I and Jibrin Al-Joob [sp?] and Salam Eid Dawardat [sp?], we had six representatives of the prisoners, we discussed our demands and we forced them to permit us to bring a radio. And this made a revolution inside the prisons!
We had many other demands and we forced Israel to give us these demands. Some were big strikes, some were only one prison or a few prisons, but we had some strikes for all the Israeli prisons. We forced Israel to give us many things, for example Hebrew newspapers and Hebrew magazines- they brought the Jerusalem Post from 1970 onwards. We used this to learn the Hebrew language! And everyday we translated the Hebrew magazines. I myself had already graduated from the university in 1971, but I read very very much, and studied hundreds of books in many branches of culture inside the prison, and I taught the Hebrew language to other prisoners. Now I teach this language inside PPU and Hebron University! And I improved my English language inside prison.
The education rates inside the prisons is very high. This is true for all the Palestinian people. It is like France and like Germany, we are literate people and people of culture. The rate of the girls until grade 11 who study is more than boys, in all of Palestine! 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%, more than any Arab country and many countries in Asia and Africa! This makes us proud about our people.
I was wondering about the education committees in prison. Are they organized by parties? Does PFLP only educate prisoners inside the PFLP? Are different parties exposed to other’s political ideas?
We do some lectures with everyone listening and discussing. Some from Fatah make a lecture about their situation, and some from PFLP- we do many things with each other. But sometimes, because we have a leftist wing, we also have our own left culture. And some Fatah members have also their programs about national culture.
Does everyone read the magazines?
Yes, but everyone prefers to write in their own magazine. But inside Tulkarm prison, we had one magazine, and we all wrote in it, it was a very good magazine.
What Marxist-Leninist books did PFLP teach the prisoners?
Philosophy. All the Lenin books. Das Kapital.
All of Das Kapital?
Yes! It was large, and very difficult, but we studied it. Engels- ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’. I explained this book more than ten times, I am very admired of this book, it is very important. We also read Das Capital- because we studied political economy, we were dependent on it. Also Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. And we read Guevara, and many Marxist Leninist theoreticians.
What is the value for the PFLP of teaching that to prisoners?
Philosophy is explaining about the world, all the world, philosophy gave us all the ideology about the world and about how ideologies have been born. And philosophy explains the truth of life. For this reason it is important.
And to teach the prisoners about resistance and revolution in the past and in other countries, does this help the prisoners understand how the Palestinian resistance is part of the revolution all over the world?
Yes, we consider ourselves a part of the international revolution. We did not have relations with the world revolution because we are 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.
How much of an inspiration is the Arab spring for the Palestinian people?
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. I do not look on us as Palestinians in one sense, I look on us as Arabs. We are all speaking Arabic, from Morocco to Amman, we are all speaking Arabic 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. And dividing us gives imperialism the opportunity to exploit these divided countries. All of the Arabs are with us as Palestinians, because we know we are under occupation. Our catastrophe is that the world believes in Israel and Israel lies.
Historically, if you want to know, Israel established a state 1000 years before Christ, and this state continued about two hundred years, about two percent of Palestinian history! Because of this they say they have a historical right to establish their own state. They haven’t any kind of historical right! If they have rights, we have as Arabs a right to establish our own state in Spain because we stayed there seven hundred years, or Sicily because we had an authority in Sicily more than four centuries! And then we have the authority as Arabs to establish dozens of states, until we reach to China, because we stayed there hundreds of years!
But the interests of the Jews and the interest of imperialism were very close to establish a state in Palestine. Palestine is between Africa and Asia, and when they put a state in Palestine they divided the Arab countries who live in Africa and the Arab countries who live in West Asia. It is very strategic for imperialism to control the Suez Canal. But when the Jews established the state hundreds of years before Christ, they established it on 10% of Palestine. Now they have occupied all of Palestine! Even if they have historical rights to have a state here, why did they take all of it? They have no historical right. Our catastrophe is that the West believes Israel’s lies, and the Arabs and Palestinians do not have the propaganda to persuade the world that this land is ours! But the West is not looking for the truth, they look only for their interests in Palestine or in the East.
What kind of state does the PFLP envisage or fight for now?
We believe in a Palestinian state in the occupied territories, in Gaza and the West Bank, with Jerusalem as its capital. But we have to return the Palestinians to their homes, to their villages! We have UN resolutions giving the Palestinians the right to return to their homes, but Israel refused. And ultimately we have to establish a secular state in all of Palestine, where everyone, every religion and every ethnic nation have rights to their literature and have rights to be elected and to elect, like every other democratic state!
What is PFLP’s belief about Abu Mazen’s (Mahmoud Abbas’s) call to statehood in the UN?
Yes, we support this. It is in the Palestinian’s interest for the US and the UN to accept a Palestinian state.
In the past there have been people like Nasser who believed that the whole Arab world can unite against imperialism. Do you think that with the Arab Spring that might happen today?
The Arab Spring revolutions are a kind of Gamal Abdel Nasser strategy, because all their revolutions call to dismiss Israeli occupation from the occupied territories, and the uprising people believe in Palestine. And they know that Israel is not established against Palestinians, it is 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. They begin to know now that Israel is not against the Palestinians, but against the Arabs, and also against world peace.
Israel’s policy of mass imprisonment attempts to break the political resistance and will of the Palestinian people, but prison life increases political resistance and revolutionary will…
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 imprisoned millions of people under the collective punishment of occupation, it has put many obstacles against Palestinian people in every branch of life, but our people resist, like any other people all over the world who are living under occupation and tyranny. 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 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 national atmosphere and a resistance atmosphere.
So it’s against Israel’s interests to send Palestinians to prison, because they are creating a culture of resistance! It’s backfiring!
Of course, it is very bad for Israel! But Israel can’t do anything! They are thinking that ‘when we put them inside the prison, we end the resistance’. Instead, this imprisonment created hundreds, thousands of resistant men and youth.
I want to ask about your life, how did you get involved in political activism when you were younger, and why did you join the PFLP?
It is my ideology, the ideology of the PFLP is suitable for me. It is rational thinking, it is logical thinking. I was in the university, and I was very affected by the students and our lecturers, and by the revolution atmosphere. This effected me and thousands like me, and I resisted the Israeli occupation authority.
And then you became a teacher, inside and outside of prison! Did you teach every day?
We had classes every day except Friday. But we had many lecturers inside the prison. Sometimes I taught philosophy, sometimes political economy.
From the 1990s onwards, religion became a large part of Palestinian resistance, and now you have many people turning to Hamas’s fundamentalism instead of PFLP secular leftism. Why?
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 effected 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.
How does the PFLP feel about Hamas?
It considers Hamas as a national 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!
What do you think of Hamas’ prisoner deal?
We appreciated this bargain, yes.
But PFLP was holding a large hunger strike at the same time!
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.
Do you think that the Palestinian people will have an Arab spring, or another intifada?
This is a difficult question! We are under the Palestinian Authority and under the occupation, and Israel interferes with everything in our life. But we are struggling democratically in the occupied territories. It is difficult to think about an intifada, because we have direct occupation. We are facing the Israeli soldiers only at the checkpoints. But if there is still a direct occupation, we must have the third and fourth intifadas until they are dismissed from the occupied territories.
Do you know Ahmad Sa’adat?
I spent four years with him in Tulkarim prison, inside the same cell! He is a friend of mine.
There is widespread torture by the Israelis in prison, were you subjected to any torture?
Yes of course, they used all kinds of torture. Of course it is illegal, but they are looking for their interests. More than 200 died inside the prisons. More than 50 of them died under hard interrogations. They use all kinds of torture, all kinds.
Did you spend time in solitary confinement, in isolation?
Yes, if you do anything they consider illegal in prison, they put you in isolated cells. In interrogations I spent more than 100 days inside isolated cell without anybody, and they used all kinds of torture to take information from me. Not only I, but many persons, many detainees.
Why were you arrested?
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.
Do you mean Matzpen?
Not Matzpen, with the 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. To press magazines, they brought us instruments.
The Black Panthers sung 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!’”