On 14 December, a 23 year-old Palestinian named Abu-Sakha was returning from his family home in Jenin to his work place near Ramallah. His taxi was stopped, he was asked to step out and he was taken to a detention centre, without charge. No-one knows what happened next because no-one has had contact with him since. Given Israel’s record of human rights abuses, his family fear the worst. On 22 December, he was sentenced to administrative detention, still without charge.
Administrative detention is a procedure which allows the Israeli military to hold prisoners indefinitely on secret information, without charging them or allowing them to stand trial. On 23 December, an Avaaz campaign was launched, calling for Abu-Sakha’s release.
On 25 December, having arrived at my uncle’s house for the Christmas festivities, I manage to wait a while before changing the mood. Tentatively introducing it as a project of mine, I show them a video I made about Abu Sakha. My young cousin, Sam, has a lot of questions: “but why is he in prison?” “How can they do that?” “That’s not nice”.
How do you tell a seven year-old about the realities of Israeli defence policy without shattering their innocence? I guess if he’s young enough to still believe in Santa, he deserves to still believe that the world is a safe and just place. Abu-Sakha’s young sister unfortunately doesn’t have such a luxury.
It wasn’t much easier explaining it to his father, my 50-year-old uncle.
“But how can they hold people without charge? Why is there not an international outcry about this? I don’t understand”.
The Israeli practice of administrative detention has been condemned on numerous occasions by the UN Human Rights Office and the Human Rights Committee that oversees implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Israel has ratified. However, six hundred Palestinians are currently being held in administrative detention by Israel. One of them is Abu-Sakha.
Abu-Sakha has been teaching at the Palestinian Circus School since 2011. Over a year, he typically teaches about 340 students and works with thousands as a performer. In previous interviews, he has talked about how circus can be used as a peaceful means of channelling young Palestinians’ frustrations into something productive.
He gives hope and joy to young Palestinians who might otherwise have been on the path to becoming disillusioned and angry. He has also taken a special interest in working with children with physical disabilities. One child who has cerebral palsy had been unable to walk until he met Abu Sakha. With Abu Sakha’s patience and dedication, he learnt to take two steps. He has not walked since Abu Sakha was detained.
Every hour or so, I try to sneak away, trying not to ruin the mood for everyone else, to look on my computer to see how many people have signed the petition. To see if anyone else I know has shared it on Facebook. My cousin notices me leaving and follows me. “You really care about him don’t you?” The concern of this 7-year old surprises me. We manage to turn it into a bit of a game as we watch the signatures add up in real time on the Avaaz page. He waits in anticipation for another name to appear, with the same anticipation with which he last night tracked Santa’s progress across the world on his ‘Santa-tracker’ app.
Later he is given a globe for a Christmas present. As he looks up the countries that Santa visited last night, I ask him if he can find Palestine. With a little help, he finds it, a tiny blob on the map: “ISRAEL (Palestine)”.
“At least Palestine is on there” says my uncle.
Should they be happy for this small victory? Maybe. Just as Abu-Sakha will be happy if this international pressure leads to his release; happy, but uncomfortably aware that if it wasn’t for his international connections, he wouldn’t have been so lucky. In Palestine, happiness always comes with clauses.
As I leave my uncle’s house, I look back to wave at my family. Sam is poised with a nerf gun. His eyes are focused on my forehead. He shouts ‘pow’ and pulls the trigger.
Abu Sakha is still in prison. On 5 January he started a six-month sentence, which can be renewed indefinitely. The petition now has thousands of signatures, pressure is mounting. So often we feel paralysed in the face of the injustices that are happening in this world. But here we have a small chance to make a massive difference to one person’s life. And that’s a good start. Please sign the petition.