Interview with Ahmad Saadat: Leading from Prison, Ending Negotiations, and Rebuilding the Resistance
In the spring of 2002, at the height of the second intifada in the West Bank, during what Israel called Operation Defensive Shield, Israeli forces conducted large-scale arrest campaigns across the occupied territory, as well as full-scale invasions of numerous Palestinian cities. Ahmad Saadat and Marwan Barghouti, whose interviews we publish here, are two of the most prominent and well-known Palestinian political figures arrested in that campaign, in time also becoming leaders of the prisoners’ movement.
Ahmad Saadat is the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and a former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). He is the highest-ranking official of a Palestinian faction currently imprisoned by the Israeli occupation regime. Saadat’s imprisonment is not atypical for political leaders in Palestine, many of whom have been arrested and detained, with or without charge, by Israel. However, the circumstances surrounding both Saadat’s initial arrest and the first four years of his detention were unique.
One critical aspect of the 2002 arrests was the security collaboration between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israeli occupation forces. Owing to its high-profile nature and the PA’s level of involvement, Saadat’s arrest in particular stands out as one of the most telling examples of such close cooperation.
Approximately one year into the second intifada, on 27 August 2001, Israel assassinated Abu Ali Mustafa, Saadat’s predecessor as head of the PFLP. Mustafa was killed when Israeli Apache helicopters fired rockets into his Ramallah office. Less than two months later, Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi, who promoted the idea of forced expulsion of Palestinians and advocated the targeted assassination of Palestinian leaders, was himself assassinated at the Hyatt hotel in Jerusalem on 17 October 2001. His assassination was widely understood as retaliation for the killing of Abu Ali Mustafa.
By 3 November, less than three weeks after Ze’evi’s assassination, the PA had arrested over sixty PFLP members across the West Bank. Although the PA High Court insisted that there were no grounds on which to hold many of those who had been arrested, the Palestinian security forces ignored the court’s orders and continued to detain the PFLP men.
In the ensuing months, Saadat remained in hiding, and both PA and Israeli intelligence kept his family under close surveillance. On 15 January 2002, on the pretext of discussing the mass arrests of PFLP members with a view to resolving the issue, Tawfiq Tirawi, head of PA intelligence, arranged to meet with Saadat. Upon arrival at the hotel where the meeting was to be held, Saadat was immediately arrested and taken to the Muqata’a, the PA presidential compound in Ramallah.
Saadat, the four PFLP members who were suspected of carrying out Ze’evi’s assassination, and Fuad Shubaki (long-considered Arafat’s right hand man and accused by Israel of responsibility for the Karine A arms shipment; see Quarterly Update in JPS 123) were all held at the Muqata’a in the weeks leading up to the Israeli siege of the compound on 29 March 2002. After thirty-three days of siege and a curfew imposed on the entire town of Ramallah, Arafat gave in to Israeli pressure to formally charge and imprison the six men. On 1 May, Arafat agreed to a major concession to regain his freedom of movement: the transfer of Saadat, Shubaki, and the four PFLP members to the nominally PA-run Jericho prison.
The Jericho prison was under the watch of U.S. and UK observers, ostensibly overseeing the relatively newly minted PA security forces. On 14 March 2006, the international observers withdrew, and fifteen minutes later, the Israeli army laid siege to the prison, shelling the facility from morning until almost midnight during “Operation Bringing Home the Goods.” The PA guards laid down their weapons and surrendered almost immediately, but the prisoners, especially Saadat and his five companions from the 2002 Muqata’a siege, stood their ground. Israeli forces destroyed the prison room by room until, eventually, the prisoners were forced out. Ahmad Saadat never turned himself in, but was arrested after the Israeli army seized the prison.
Tried by an Israeli military court in 2006, Saadat was convicted of leading an illegal terrorist organization. While in Israeli custody, including three years in solitary confinement, Saadat has participated in numerous hunger strikes to improve the conditions of prisoners, and since 2011 he has been one of the most vocal leaders of the prisoners’ movement.
In Palestinian politics, Saadat has come to symbolize many things: steadfast militant (munadil), victim of PA betrayal, party leader, prisoner, and more. But Saadat is also a brother, husband, father, and now grandfather. Like so many prisoners, he too has suffered from restrictions placed not only on his political work, but also on his family’s ability to visit him in prison, and as an extension of Israeli punishment, on their ability to obtain permits for personal travel, and thus, their daily movement.
While his interview and the one with Marwan Barghouti that follows reflect the opinions and stances of two prominent leaders calling for collective action, they also provide a glimpse into the trajectories of two men who were cut off at the pass during a critical historical moment of resistance.
This interview was originally published in JPS’s Arabic-language sister publication Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filistiniyya. It was conducted via an intermediary who delivered the questions to Saadat in prison in January 2014. The original Arabic interview was translated into English by Anny Gaul.