We meet with Randa Wahbe, the dedicated and articulate advocacy officer at Addameer, on the sixty-first day of the longest hunger strike by administrative detainees in Israeli jails. The strike is a political strike, I.e., not for improving prison conditions but for ending the Israeli policy of detaining people without charges or adequate access to a lawyer, sometimes for years; six years or more is not uncommon. At the time of our meeting, there had been no negotiations, but as I write this a week later, the strike has ended, some secret deal has been met, and there is mostly speculation: What was decided? Did the hunger strikers feel that this was not the right time when the public is obsessed by the three missing settlers and the World Cup and Ramadan? Who knows?
Whatever the outcome, prisoner issues are central to Palestinian liberation; eight hundred thousand Palestinians have been arrested since 1967, 40% of the male population. Thousands of Palestinians are held in this limbo land of administrative detention. The striking prisoners are put into isolation, cannot go outside or have family visits (they often do not see their families because of permitting and travel issues anyway). The prisoners receive monetary fines taken from their canteen account. Sometimes they have limited or no access to lawyers or they are transferred around to different prison hospitals so the lawyer cannot locate them. At the time of our visit, there were at least 130 hunger strikers, the movement was growing and may have reached 300. The hunger strikers are beaten, denied medical care, and are only treated by prison doctors (who clearly have lost their ethical compass), who are known to be abusive, dangle food or force-feeding tubes in their faces. Prisoners are shackled twelve hours per day and, as you can imagine, the conditions are pretty horrific.
The prisoners were drinking water and salt for fourteen days; Randa reports the Israeli authorities then denied them salt, some may be taking some unknown supplements that “barely keep them alive. As an organization, we are very concerned because of the lack of negotiation between the Israeli prison service and the prisoners, will there by martyrs?” A lot of administrative detainees are older than sixty and not striking, but other prisoners are striking in sympathy. There appears to be a trend to arrest Palestinians shortly after their eighteenth birthday as they can be tried as adults. The youngest hunger striker was arrested five days after his eighteenth birthday, “He is still a child, but he has been in prison for two years.” There have been over four hundred arrests since the 12th of June; seventy-seven are in administrative detention.
And then there is the heart-breaking issue of child arrests.
Although Israel technically changed its policy and has child courts, Randa reports that children are treated like adults. They are often arrested between midnight and five a.m., families don’t know where they are going. They are interrogated without a lawyer, not allowed to see their families. The military court judge is the same as for adults and Randa explains that the children are routinely tortured by their interrogators. This is mostly psychological torture, threats that they will be killed, sexual abuse; they are put into solitary confinement, have florescent lights on twenty-four hours per day, are placed in stress positions, and beaten. The forced confessions are then used to arrest adults in the community. So imagine you are an eighteen-year-old boy, you have seen your father and grandfather humiliated at checkpoints, you have watched settlers steal your land and water, and, very possibly, you have thrown stones at a passing Israeli jeep that has arrived to make your life a living hell. And then you crack in prison and are responsible for your own brother’s arrest.
Many children never return to school, develop bed-wetting and behavioral problems. With these brutal policies, we are witnessing the slow destruction of Palestinian society and the creation of environments that will create more angry, hopeless, militant men seeking revenge. In Silwan, there is a fourteen-year-old who has been arrested six times, mostly for throwing stones, according to IDF soldiers or settlers. So why are we doing this Mr. Netanyahu? Palestinian parents pay fines to release their children, and last year, Palestinians paid thirteen million shekels into the Israeli military court, in a bizarre sense, financing their own imprisonment.
And did I mention that prisons are increasingly privatized, sort of like the United States?
In general, Randa explains, administrative detention under international law is allowed if an individual is threatening the security of the state. This should be used rarely. But in Israel, the military claims the Shin Bet has “secret files” that show that this person is a threat to the state. “This is used arbitrarily, there are obviously no files. Let’s look at who gets arrested: prominent activists, academics, regular folks. Recently a political scientist was released, after two-and-a-half years without any charges. He has no idea why he was arrested this time, [suffice it to say that] he is an academic who writes about resistance, attends demonstrations, and has been in and out of prison for years. One of the hunger strikers is a prominent community member, part of an agricultural union who promotes farmers’ rights; he has been in and out of administrative detention for years and was rearrested in February.”
At the time of our visit, a bill to allow forced feeding was to be voted on in the Israeli Knesset, although forced feeding is regarded as a form of torture, people have died during the procedure, and it is used to break the strikers. Even the Israeli Medical Association is against it. The bill did not pass, but today (June 30, 2014) the Knesset is voting on another bill that would permit doctors to do forced feeding without risk of punishment. Netanyahu has framed this as an issue of internal security: forced feeding is for the safety of Israeli citizens, because if a prisoner dies, “it will threaten security of Israelis in Judea and Samaria.” And then they play with words, artificial (not forced) feeding, moderate restraints (rather than the full shackling that is used), etc., etc. The doctor has to recommend forced feeding, “for the benefit of the prisoner”; this is signed off by a district court, which gives the whole process the air of legality.
In the last month, there have been other worrisome bills: one to deny amnesty to prisoners who are released in exchanges (Israel has released seventy prisoners arrested before Oslo in 1993); this perpetuates the definition of prisoner as automatic permanent terrorist. Pro-prisoner demonstrations were suppressed by the Palestinian Authority and the IDF, especially in Hebron, where there was a demonstration by mothers of prisoners. Since June 12, five Palestinians have been killed, and, in addition to the four hundred arrested, there have been eight hundred home incursions, lots of injuries and road closures. The Palestinian Authority has security coordination with Israel, which is facilitating the siege on Hebron. Two nights ago in Ramallah, PA officers shot demonstrators storming the police station. Currently this is the largest military operation since the Second Intifada, and for me, the strangeness is that it is largely happening under cover of darkness. By the time the sun comes up, most of the Israeli forces are out of the villages and homes and universities and everything looks deceptively normal unless you live in Hebron. The world community may not even notice, there are no tanks and no phosphorus bombs to catch anyone’s attention.
Randa talks about a host of other human rights concerns and the picture is grim. Children born to mothers in prison are kept in prison for two years with no extra space, food, or medical care; they are basically born with a prison record. Pregnant Palestinian women who are arrested get no prenatal care, no special food, etc., and give birth shackled. The prisons are dirty, prisoners have to purchase their needs from a canteen, there are often no family visits; it is an utterly dehumanizing climate. There is a case now that won’t allow a granddaughter to visit her grandfather, the courts say they have to prove their relation to each other, or mothers are asked to prove their relationship to their children in prison.
When people are released, there is some support from the ministry of prisoner affairs, dedicated to legal aid, financial and medical assistance, but not many resources available for rehabilitation. The prison experience is so normalized within the community, there is lots of community support, but not much treatment for PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), which just about everyone has.
Interestingly, there is no housing or employment discrimination; the community views these as largely political arrests.
If arrested, there is a higher rate of re-arrest, the IDF targets former prisoners, which basically destroys their lives. There are students who have been attending Birzeit University for eight years because they are repeatedly arrested around exam times, and their education just drags on, or students arrested during the final year of high school so they cannot take the exams critical for university admission.
So why do people get arrested? For starters, there are sixteen hundred military orders that govern life under occupation. (Yes Virginia, there is an occupation; the place is not administered or liberated or whatever euphemism you may hear.) Organizations like student unions and all political organizations are illegal, including technically the Palestinian Authority. This gives the IDF very broad discretionary powers. People get arrested because they are activists like those in Stop the Wall or because they do volunteer work to empower youth. Basically the charges are used to suppress Palestinian resistance in all forms. Randa notes that there have been three arrests of Addameer colleagues in the past year, charged with giving legal advice to youth about interrogation, which is after all part of their job description. “We are all in jeopardy? Going to a demonstration today we could be charged, this is the climate.”
Randa was studying at a university in the United States and was involved in their Students for Justice in Palestine. She moved to Jordan to learn Arabic, came for a conference; Addameer had an opening and she took the job. While her family is still in California (and it is often hard for Palestinians to get a visa), she believes that it is important for Diaspora Palestinians to come back and to do the challenging work of ending the occupation and its immense hardships.
You can read the Addameer website for further depressing details about the realities of military occupation. Think about how Palestinians are portrayed in our media (the boy with the sling shot, why exactly is he throwing that rock and why not portray university students arrested during exams? Doesn’t fit the stereotype?) Think about the meaning of resistance and the unchecked power of an occupying force. And the next time you pay your taxes, think about our US military industrial complex that provides the weaponry and machinery that makes this military power possible.