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Reflections on life in Israeli prison


After 16 days in Israel’s Maasiyahu prison I think I’ve gained a better understanding of what it’s like to be Palestinian. Palestinians in the occupied territories live every day of their lives like prisoners under Israeli military rule that takes away freedom. The same tools of control and punishment used on prisoners are used by the Israeli government against the entire Palestinian population.

Although I lived in the occupied territories for four years, I’ve always been treated carefully by Israeli soldiers even as they were imposing harsh measures on Palestinians. It’s only now in prison that I’m getting a taste of what it’s like to be deprived of my rights and subject to the arbitrary whims of a military power – to have doors closing off my freedom, to be cut off from the outside world and to be dependant on others for basic needs.

To be clear, I am not comparing the extremely difficult experience of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails with my 16 days of prison under quite manageable conditions. The constraints on my freedom in prison are more similar to those that Palestinians experience daily in towns and villages under occupation.

Today in fact I saw that as prisoners we are actually better treated than Palestinians living in their homes. Today, all the cells in our section were searched for a missing pair of scissors that the guards lend out. When we returned to our cell after the search we found chaos. All our belongings were spread on the floor, on beds, ashes from an ashtray spilled all over, and our belongings mixed together. Though everyone was angry, all the Palestinian homes that I’ve seen after Israeli military searches have been in a far worse state, with many things destroyed, torn apart and spilled all over the place.

Rights to freedom of movement My freedom of movement has been taken away. I am locked inside 10 foot by 30 foot cell with barred windows along with 7 other prisoners. We are allowed into a yard outside our cell for a maximum of 4 hours a day. Like Palestinians waiting at gates in the wall to reach their land, or at checkpoint to go to work, my universe has been shrunken to a small space whose entrances and exits are controlled by Israeli guards.

When I look out my window, I see barbed wire, a prison fence and security cameras, a view which reminds me of the view that Palestinians see out their windows in tens of villages which are surrounded by Israel’s Apartheid Wall. The wall literally imprisons hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in their villages.

Isolation is central to imprisonment and to the Palestinian experience. We spend 24 hours a day with the same seven people and only few others during our four hours outside. We are allowed one visitor once a week. Visitors must pass through a long bureaucratic process that discourages visits. And while visits are wonderful, when visitors leave, I feel more strongly that I am cut off. We are not allowed radio or TV, only cell phones connect us to the outside world.

Israeli measures cut Palestinians off from the rest of the world. Israeli authorities greatly limit Palestinians’ right to travel to other countries. Successful travel requires overcoming multiple obstacles. Even Palestinians’ right to travel within the occupied territories is greatly restricted by checkpoints. Israel prevents foreigners who are suspected of supporting Palestinian rights from entering Israel and the occupied territories.

Creation of dependency Prison restriction greatly reduces prisoners’ self-sufficiency, rendering them dependent. Prisoners are no longer able to earn a living. So they depend on others for money for all their needs, like phone cards, sugar and cigarettes. When I see from my window that my shirt has fallen from the clothes in the yard from the wind, I can only hope that a sympathetic guard will be willing to pick it up. Are meals are passed to us through the bars of our cell every day.

As restrictions on their movement have increased, Palestinians have become less able to provide for themselves. They are far more dependant on aid. Handouts of food and other basic goods are delivered by aid trucks that pass through checkpoints to reach them. Dependency is humiliating and disempowering.

Right to property My right to my own property depends on the whim of the hostile prison authority. Like all prisoners a number of my belongings were taken from me as I entered prison. I was promised that a visiting friend could take some of my possessions from the locked room, but due to simple disinterest the staff failed to organize this before visiting hours ended.

Furthermore prisoners’ property can be searched and seized at anytime. Guards carryout surprise searches frequently. When my cell was searched, I was concerned that perhaps my cell phone and writing notebooks might be taken from me. Others fear for their medicine and books. It is destabilizing and degrading to know that your property can be taken at any time.

Palestinians’ land, one of their most basic possessions has been seized by the Israeli government on a large scale since 1948. Additionally, some Palestinians need Israeli permits to access their remaining land or to build homes.

As mentioned earlier, Palestinian homes are subject to searches by Israeli soldiers at any moment and with no need for a judge’s warrant. The Israeli government fails to respect Palestinians’ right to their own property. As prisoners, our property will probably be returned to us when we leave prison. Palestinians on the other hand are not likely to have seized or damaged property retuned or compensated by the Israeli army.

Right to privacy Prisoners and Palestinians are subject to constant surveillance as a means of control and manipulation. During our few hours outside, prison guards sometime come over and listen in on our conversation. It is common knowledge that there are collaborators amongst the prisoners who pass on information to guards because they are blackmailed or want to be in favor. No communication is private.

Inside the occupied territories Israel has built an expensive system of surveillance and a network of collaborators. Constant surveillance and covert effort at manipulation creates a climate of insecurity and lack of trust that makes normal life impossible.

Arbitrary exercise of power It is angering to have freedoms taken away. The arbitrariness, pettiness and hostility with which power is exercised over you are wearing. The effort to deport me before my hearing is one example of the hostile use of power by the prison authorities. Some prisoners resent most being woken up at 6:30 AM every morning and required to stand before the guards for a head count.

All are angered by the lack of humanity shown by the judge, the prison authorities and the entire system that is attempting to deport them. The acts that frustrates prisoners maybe large or petty, but lurking behind all of them is power and the threat of violence.

Palestinians are constantly forced to act at the barrel of a gun. The threats they endure range from death to humiliation. At any moment Palestinians may be shot, imprisoned or have their land seized. They may have their ID taken away for no reason, they maybe insulted at a checkpoint, or maybe the victim of a random beating.

Resistance People resist having their freedoms taken from them by force. I have been resisting by writing and exercising, an approach others here use. Others resist by breaking the rules in small and large ways, or by openly defying the authorities. Prison strikes for rights, for example as conducted by Palestinian prisoners this summer, are examples of large-scale organized, prison resistance. Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinians in their own towns and cities has lead to a spectrum of resistance strategies, from personal to collective, and from nonviolence to violence.

Imprisonment of any person is a terrible violation of their rights and the denial of their humanity. Israel effective imprisonment of an entire people is a crime. Collective punishment is a fundamental violation of international law. Imprisoning advocates of Palestinian is part of the effort to cover up that crime.

Imprisonment is humiliating, disempowering and angering. While it was not hard to adapt for a short period of a few weeks, it is clear from observing others that the impact build over time. Those who had been here for a number of months are depressed and angry.

Israel’s apartheid wall is a dramatic new step in the imprisonment of the Palestinian people. While some repressive Israeli measures are subtle, Israel has now brought the prison walls to the edges of Palestinian towns and cities, often within meters of their homes.

Attempting to repress another people and rob them of their resources is morally unacceptable and will fail in the long term. Imprisoning the Palestinian people simply breeds humiliation, anger and resistance. They will not stifle Palestinians’ desire to exercise their legitimate right. Everyone in my section at Maasiyahu is dreaming of and working for the day when they will leave this prison. The only real solution to the struggle for Palestinian rights is for Palestinians to live in freedom.

Pat O’Connor is a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement

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