Beitunia, occupied West Bank – Mukaram Qurt, 58, has been on hunger strike for more than a week, protesting her son’s prolonged detention in a Palestinian Authority (PA) prison.
Despite her tough exterior, the toll of the strike is apparent from the constant tremble in her hands, and the creases under her dark grey eyes.
“Since the day Ahmad was imprisoned, I haven’t slept for more than five hours at a time. My mind races all night and I keep praying. I’m always exhausted,” Qurt, a soft-spoken mother-of-eight, told Al Jazeera.
Her son, 28-year-old Ahmad Hreish, has been languishing in a solitary cell without trial or charge in the PA’s notorious Jericho prison for more than 80 days since his arrest. The jail is dubbed the “slaughterhouse”, with rights groups and lawyers saying political detainees are tortured behind its walls.
Hreish’s case has made headlines in Palestinian media outlets after he claimed in court that he had been tortured, including with shabeh (strappado) and beatings with sticks and rubber ropes.
“There is no humanity in their treatment. What they [PA] are doing is a stain of shame on the history of Palestine,” his mother said.
“It’s just like unjust administrative detention – they keep extending his arrest without us, or even the lawyer, knowing what the charges are. This is the same thing,” said Qurt, in reference to Israel’s controversial policy of detaining Palestinians for months or years on end without trial or charge.
Hreish’s detention has come as part of one of the largest political arrest campaigns conducted by the Fatah-run PA in recent years and is officially related to a carpentry shop explosion in Beitunia, a town near Ramallah.
However, Hreish’s family say that his detention is political, and is because of his affiliation with Fatah’s rivals, Hamas.
On Tuesday, the mother of two brothers who were arrested as part of the same case as Hreish and currently held with him in Jericho prison also announced an open-ended hunger strike to raise attention for their plight.
‘We all love you’
Sitting in her son’s living room in the town of Beitunia, west of Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Qurt, a grandmother to 13 children, is unafraid to speak her mind.
To her and her family, her son’s arrest is purely political and is part of the PA’s attempt to secure its own interests.
“The PA engages in this oppression for its own goals along with the [Israeli] occupation and the United States, to work against the people of this country, to keep coordinating with the Israelis for financial goals and to remain in power,” she said.
For its part, the PA has said that the arrests are not politically motivated. The spokesperson for the Palestinian security services, Talal Dweikat, said in a Tuesday press conference that there were “no political arrests”, and added that the latest arrests had come “in the context of addressing law and order, and to preserve civil peace”.
Al Jazeera attempted to contact the PA to ask about the specifics of Hreish’s case, and the allegations of torture but did not get a response by the time of publication.
PA security forces are trained and provided with significant financial support from the United States and the European Union.
Established in 1993 as an interim governing body, the PA was meant to serve for five years before the creation of a Palestinian state in the 1967-occupied territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. That state was never created.
The PA has faced growing opposition in recent years, including over its controversial policy of “security coordination” in which it shares intelligence information on Palestinians wanted by Israel for their political activism. It also regularly arrests and mistreats detainees over their criticism and opposing political views.
“PA President Abbas and other officials give speeches about what the [Israeli] occupation is doing to us as a people. This is all just talk, for the media. Why don’t they do the opposite? Why don’t they release the political detainees they are holding?” said Qurt, sitting in front of a large pencil portrait of her son and his wife hanging on the wall.
In between blunt and bold statements, she breaks down in tears.
“What is happening is beyond my imagination,” she cried. “He’s been in a solitary cell for almost three months, how is his mental health supposed to be?”
In the two 15-minute visits she has had with her son since his detention, Qurt said she focused on lifting his spirits, despite the profound pain she is feeling.
“What can I tell my son in 15 minutes? I would support him mentally and encourage him – telling him ‘We all love you,’ and to stay strong.”
Sacrificing for her family
Qurt used to teach English at local primary schools but was eventually forced to stop working.
Her husband, Nouh Hreish, just like her three sons, was repeatedly imprisoned by Israel and the PA.
“They [Israel] would keep taking Abu Muhammad [Nouh] into administrative detention, sometimes from three months up to a year,” she recalled, noting that she had to take on more responsibilities in his absence.
“The first six years after I got married were very difficult, I focused on raising my children, which I was doing alone, and working with my mother-in-law in the small supermarket we owned,” said Qurt.
She takes pride in the fact that all eight of her children – five daughters and three sons – went to university, with some completing their masters. “I paid attention to my children, to their education.”
While the family had struggled financially, they now own and run a sizeable event supplies store in Beitunia. “Nobody gets to where they are without sacrificing and struggling,” she said.
‘Not our leadership’
The PA has long arrested members and supporters of its main rival political group, Hamas, which has been the de facto ruler in the besieged Gaza Strip since 2007 when it defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections. Fatah was driven out of the Strip as it attempted a preemptive takeover, which resulted in several weeks of fighting.
Hamas and Fatah have governed the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank respectively ever since, with internal divisions deeply plaguing Palestinian politics and both parties accused of clamping down on opponents.
“People like Ahmad are honourable men who were imprisoned by Israel,” said Qurt. “The PA is supposed to stand with them, help them, provide them with work. They should have a badge of honour – they sacrificed for their homeland – not be mistreated.”
Last week, Hreish’s wife Fatima gave birth to their first-born son, Karam, meaning generosity in Arabic.
The family said they repeatedly asked PA officials to release Hreish temporarily for the birth but they refused, casting a dark shadow on what was meant to be a celebratory moment.
“I told the officials after one of the hearings: ‘If you have any sense of humanity, he should be released to embrace his son. We are a people under occupation. You are pressuring your own people?’ They said: ‘Would you ask Israel to release a prisoner?’
“I said: ‘Those are Israelis – they are the enemy, I would not ask them.’”
To Qurt, and to many on the ground, the PA is not representative of the Palestinian people.
“We have misguided people that we do not believe in, that we do not take as our leadership,” she said.
“We must stand against them before we stand against the Israelis. For the Israelis to get out of here, these people must leave first, because they are Israel’s foothold and source of support.”