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Salah Hammouri: 'I’m living the Nakba on my own skin'

'I am not free if I am in exile': Salah Hammouri talks exclusively on being silenced, solidarity and how Palestinian unity is as strong as ever
8 min read
West Bank
23 May, 2023
In an exclusive interview, Palestinian-French human rights lawyer Salah Hammouri speaks to The New Arab about his life in forced exile, the conditions of his new activism, and his perspectives on Palestine's future.
Salah Hammouri has been subject to several attempts to censor him, including a physical attack on him last week, in Toulouse, France [Qassam Muaddi /TNA]

Last Tuesday, Palestinian-French human rights lawyer, Salah Hammouri, was subject to a physical attack while giving a talk about the 75th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, in Toulouse, France.

Hammouri was attacked by an individual from the audience, while other individuals flipped a table at the event’s hall and disrupted his speech with slurs and insults.

This was just the latest in a series of attempts to censor Hammouri from speaking at public events, which he attributes to the pro-Israeli lobby, and the Israeli government itself.

Hammouri was deported to France by Israel in December, following a year-long legal battle that started with the revocation of his residency rights in Jerusalem in October 2021, after which he was arrested and placed under administrative detention in March of last year.

In December, Hammouri was transferred to France on an Israeli plane, with his hands and feet cuffed.

Since then, the Jerusalemite lawyer and activist has been making public appearances, talking about the status of Palestinians in Jerusalem, Palestinian prisoners and detainees, and Israeli occupation practices in general, often subject to attempts of censorship.

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Two days before the attack on Hamouri in Toulouse, he spoke to The New Arab in Paris, where he also gave a talk about the continuity of the Palestinian Nakba.

He described his new life in forced exile, the conditions of his new activism, and his perspectives on his personal and the broader Palestinian future.

Israeli persecution continues in exile

"There is no doubt that there is a sense of a physical immediate freedom in being away from Israeli control," Salah Hammouri begins when asked if he feels freer since his arrival in France, five months ago.

"But then there comes the fact that I have been forcibly sent away from my country, not allowed back, and it takes that sense of freedom away. I am not free if I am in exile," he exclaims.

For Hammouri, "the continuous attempts of harassment by some French politicians and pro-Israeli groups, here in France, make it clear that the Israeli persecution against me hasn’t stopped, but it has followed me all the way to exile."

Hammouri believes that "there is a decision by Israel and some French politicians to silence me, and to stop me from continuing to advocate for Palestinian rights."

Last March, the Palestinian-French lawyer was banned from speaking at an event in the French city of Nancy, after pro-Israeli groups pressured the city's prefect. The ban came under the clause of 'preventing disturbance to public order'. But Hammouri and his supporters pushed back.

"We went to the appeal court and obtained an important ruling against the prefect’s ban, allowing me to speak," he revealed. "In general, there is a wide solidarity with my case and with Palestine — friends and sympathisers try to create a counter-pressure to defend my freedom of speech, and that of the Palestine solidarity movement, and to continue our advocacy."

Hammouri's story became a central theme for the French Palestine-solidarity movement since he was serving a seven-year-long sentence for anti-Israeli militancy during the second Intifada.

Although he completed his sentence before being released in 2011, Israeli authorities continued to arrest him through on-and-off administrative detention orders, holding him without charges.

Given that he is a French citizen, solidarity activists highlighted the contrast between the French government's treatment of his case, and that of the French-Israeli soldier, then captive in Gaza by Palestinian groups, Gilad Shalit. The then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy mentioned Shalit more than once in his speeches. But never Hammouri.

Later, following his release, Hammouri became the most popular public speaker at the Palestine-solidarity events in France, gathering thousands of attendants at public events.

'It's never only about Salah Hammouri'

"Although many times the attention is given to my personal case, my story is not unique," Hammouri continues. "I speak for Palestinian prisoners, for the Palestinian right to residency, for the Palestinians’ expulsion and the Palestinian right to return.

"Even when advocacy concentrates on my personal case, it is never only about Salah Hammouri, and friends and supporters are conscious of that."

Hammouri says that he maintains himself "in daily contact with the families of prisoners, back in Palestine" while also "making sure to illustrate the general picture of the human rights situation in Palestine, whenever I speak of myself."

Although critical of the general atmosphere surrounding the Palestine solidarity movement in Europe Hammouri asserts that "there is a growing awareness about Palestinian rights in general, in France and in Europe, especially among the solidarity movement. He points out that "the message of Palestinian prisoners and detainees in particular is always present in a dynamic way, and we are working on building a larger public opinion around it".

However, he doesn't fail to note that "in France, raising awareness is becoming more difficult, especially with the insistence of some politicians to consider opposition to Zionism as a form of antisemitism. He considers that this "imposes more limitations and risks to advocacy and campaigning, but we continue to challenge these obstacles".

Reflecting on his own experience, from his arrest to his deportation, Hammouri says that he expected to be deported from the moment his residency right in Jerusalem was revoked in October 2021. "I had some doubts because the only reason for revoking my residency rights was the so-called ‘lack of allegiance to the state of Israel’, which had never led to deportation before. However, the events then proved that occupation authorities are capable of anything."

Living the Nakba "on my own skin"

During his arrest, Hammouri sent a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron on the occasion of Bastille Day, demanding his intervention. Israeli authorities then placed Hammouri under solitary confinement following the publication of the letter.

Later, Hammouri sent a call to the International Criminal Court, urging it to accelerate its investigation into possible Israeli crimes of war.

"Some people thought that I was trying to make a last stand before being deported," he explains. "But I wasn't. In fact, I was actively trying to push back against my possible deportation by creating pressure on occupation authorities. I also was trying to shed light on the Palestinian human rights situation through my personal case."

When recalling his last moments before leaving his country, Salah Hammouri struggles to contain his tears. "The moment I was sitting in the police car on my way to the airport to be deported was the most difficult one in all of the detention period. I decided not to look out of the window because I didn’t want my last sight of Palestine to be through the window of a police vehicle during deportation. I decided that when I return, I’ll look at the country as I wish."

As Palestinians commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, Hammouri believes that being deported out of his country and forced into exile at the age of 38 is the clearest example of the ongoing Nakba. "I’m living the Nakba on my own skin."


However, he also confesses to a renewed sense of optimism, despite his forced exile: "Since the May uprising in 2021, I believe that Israeli efforts to split apart Palestinian people have failed. Palestinians are recovering their unity across their different geographical and political contexts.

"This is the most important response by Palestinians to the unfair conditions that have been imposed on them since the Oslo Accords, and we are overcoming them," says Hammouri.

"The continuation of the Nakba has to be seen, in my opinion, in parallel to the continuation of the will to resist it. This is why I’m rather optimistic regarding the future," he adds. 

"I am confident that Palestine will be free, and that I will surely return to my country."

Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's correspondent in the West Bank. He is a Palestinian journalist and writer who has covered Palestinian social, political and cultural developments in Arabic, French and English since 2014. He has co-published two books in French 'Terre Sainte, Guerre Sainte?' and  'Taybeh: Dernier village Chrétien de Palestine'. In 2021, he started the '7ara 36' blog in Arabic, featuring human stories from Palestine.

Follow him on Twitter: @QassaMMuaddi