Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Reading Palestinian prison diaries

Timed to appear on Palestinian Prisoners Day, a new collection of Palestinian prison diaries bears witness to a people’s ongoing struggle against occupation, writes Richard Falk

Al-Ahram Weekly

There are many moving passages that can be found in the excerpts from the Palestinian prison diaries collected in a recent volume, The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag, which contains the recollections of prison of 22 Palestinians. What is most compelling is how much the material expresses the shared concerns of these prisoners despite great variations in writing style and background.

A few keywords dominate the texts: pain, God or Allah, love, dream, homeland, steadfastness, tears, freedom, dream and prayer. My reading of these diaries exposed me to the distinct personal struggles of each prisoner to survive with as much dignity as possible in the dank and poorly lit circumstances of isolation, humiliation, and acute hostility on the part of the prison staff, including abusive neglect by the medical personnel. The diaries also confirmed that even prolonged captivity had not diluted the spirit of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, but on the contrary had intensified it.

A strong impression of the overall illegitimacy of Israel’s encroachment on the most fundamental rights of the Palestinian people is also present on virtually every page.

Although not professional writers, the sentiments expressed have a special kind of eloquence arising from their authenticity and passion. A female prisoner, Sanaa Shihada, on learning that her family had been spared the demolition of their family home, for example, describes the ordeal of her interrogation in a poetic idiom: “the anger of the interrogators was like snow and peace to me [an Arabic saying that conveys a sense of soothing]. I felt the pride of the Palestinians, the glory of Muslims, and the brightness of honesty. I knelt to Allah, thankfully. My tears fell on the floor of the cell, and I am sure they dug a path which those later imprisoned will be able to see.”

Another example can be found in the words of Iyad Obayat, a prisoner facing three lifetime sentences for his role in killing several Israeli soldiers: “among us prisoners, the unity of love for our homeland was precious above all other things.” Another, Avina Sarahna, asks poignantly, “is resisting occupation a crime? Let me be a witness to the truth, and let me stay here.” Speaking of the pain of being separated from her four children, whom she discovered were living in an orphanage, Kahera Alsaadi writes, “I couldn’t keep myself from bursting into tears. Was my loving family scattered like this? Was fate against us because of our love for our homeland? After that visit, I felt like a slaughtered sheep.”

These randomly selected quotations could be multiplied many times over, but hopefully the overall tone and coherent message are conveyed by these few examples.

What I found most valuable about the publication was its success in turning the abstraction of Palestinian prisoners into a series of human stories most of which exhibit agonised feelings of regret resulting from prolonged estrangement from those they most love in the world. Particularly moving were the sorrows expressed by men missing their mothers and daughters. These are the written words of prisoners who have been convicted of various major crimes by Israeli military courts, some of whom face cruel confinement for the remainder of their lives on earth, and who have been further punished by being deprived of ever seeing those they love at all, or on rare occasions, just for brief tantalising visits under dehumanising conditions through fogged-up separation walls.

It is hard not to treat a prison population as an abstraction, which, if noticed at all by the outside world, is usually reduced to statistics that appear in reports of human rights NGOs. These autobiographical texts, in contrast, force us to commune with these prisoners as fellow human beings, persons like ourselves with loves, lovers, needs, aspirations, hopes, pious dreams, and unrelenting hardships and suffering.

There is also reference to the other side of the prison walls. These prisoners show concern for the suffering that imprisonment causes their families, especially young children and elderly parents. Given the closeness of Palestinian families, it is certain that those who are being held in prison would be terribly missed, especially as their confinement arises because of their engagement in a struggle sacred to virtually every Palestinian.

Such humanisation of Palestinian prisoners is undoubtedly superfluous for Palestinians living under occupation or in refugee camps where arrests, which resemble state-sanctioned kidnappings, are made daily by Israeli security forces. It is a tragic aspect of the occupation that after 45 years there is not a Palestinian family that has been left untouched by the Israeli criminalisation of all forms of resistance, including those that are nonviolent and symbolic.

We need a wider ethical, legal, and political perspective in order to grasp properly this phenomenon of Palestinian prisoners. The unlawful occupation policies of Israel are unpunished even when lethal and flagrantly in violation of international humanitarian law, and they are rarely even officially criticised in international arenas. In contrast, lawful forms of resistance by the Palestinian people are harshly punished, and the resulting victimisation of those brave enough to resist is overlooked almost everywhere.

If we side with those who resist, as happened during World War II when many Europeans mounted militant forms of resistance against German occupation and criminal practices, we glorify their deeds and struggle. Yet if the occupier enjoys our primary solidarity, we tend to criminalise resistance without any show of empathy. To some extent, this book cuts through this ideological myopia, and lets us experience the torment of these prisoners as human beings rather than as Palestinian “soldiers” in the ongoing struggle against Israel.

In the past year, heroic Palestinian hunger strikers, initially Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi, did their best to call attention to the abusive character of Israel’s terrifyingly violent arrests in the middle of the night followed by imprisonment for lengthy periods without even bringing charges or holding trials. Israel’s recourse to administrative detention takes place even in circumstances where the person being confined has been engaged in no activities that could be remotely considered to pose a security threat.

It has been notable that despite the hunger strikers putting their own lives at severe risk to protest against such inhumane behaviour by Israel in its role as the occupying power, the world refuses to pay attention even to such hunger strikers. This is shocking, given the decades of lectures to the Palestinians to renounce armed resistance and engage instead in nonviolent forms of resistance, with the understanding that if they did so they would win political support for their grievances even from governments allied with Israel, including the United States. To date, the evidence suggests a far uglier pattern: when Palestinians resist by way of armed struggle, their actions are denounced and their grievances are ignored, while when they resist nonviolently, their actions and their grievances are ignored.

Even worse, while this shift in Palestinian tactics has taken place in recent years, the Israeli governing process has been moving steadily to the right, until now, in March 2013, the latest governing coalition in Tel Aviv is avowedly settler-oriented. The international background music has not changed, and Washington loses no opportunity to sound the trumpets while declaring its unconditional and undying loyalty to Israel, pretending not to notice violations of international law and the deliberate efforts to make the two-state solution yesterday’s dream and today’s nightmare.

The preoccupation of these prisoners with the fate of the singular Israeli prisoner of the time, Gilad Shalit, was something of a surprise to me, although it is understandable. Why, the Palestinians ask themselves, does the world make such a fuss about a single Israeli being held in Gaza after being captured during a military mission and ignore the fate of the many thousands of Palestinians detained for year after year because they fought for the freedom of their country?

Once considered, such a question is both natural, and once asked, the grotesque display of double standards seems self-evident. But there is also an opposite appreciation of the significance of Shalit that recognises that the October 2011 deal struck to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners would not have happened had Shalit not been captured. In this sense, the Palestinians, in recording their feelings, realise that their freedom has been made possible because Hamas succeeded in capturing and holding Shalit. This was no small achievement.

During the massive attacks by Israel on Gaza in 2008-09, dubbed Operation Cast Lead, Israeli Defence Force (IDF) commanders told their troops that this violence had been unleashed in order to gain the release of Shalit. Had Hamas allowed Shalit to go free, or had he been killed in the operation, then there would have been no negotiations for the release of Palestinian prisoners. It is as simple as that. But of course, it is not simple. Many of those released were soon rearrested by Israel, once more undermining even minimal trust between the two peoples and again showing that Israel can defy legal and moral obligations without facing any adverse consequences, a metaphor for the overall stranglehold of the occupation.

Above all, these texts on almost every page confirm that particularly prized Palestinian collective public/private virtue of sumud or steadfastness. Such exhibitions of courage indirectly shame those of us who suffer far less or not at all and yet find ourselves discouraged and dispirited by the ills of the world to an extent that we retreat from public engagement to the comfort zones of sanctuaries of escape. These prisoners have no such option, maintaining their commitment to the Palestinian struggle in the darkest of circumstances, consigned to spending their most energetic years behind bars or surrounded by dank prison walls.

We can ask ourselves: where does such courage come from? There is no definite answer. Yet what comes across from these diary pages is deep commitment, rooted in love of family and homeland and strengthened by religious faith and practice and sustained by prison camaraderie, or coming in embittered reaction to the dehumanising atmosphere of enduring prison life for year upon year.

We should not forget that there is a callous and manifest unlawfulness about the network of Israeli prisons, all but one of the 19 mentioned in the book being located in Israel in direct violation of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention governing belligerent occupation. “Protected persons accused of offences shall be detained in the occupied country, and if convicted they shall serve therein,” this article reads.

Underlying such a legal provision is a humane impulse: compelling an individual to be imprisoned in the occupying country imposes a geographical separation from family and homeland, which in the Israeli case is accentuated by a permit system that as a practical matter makes family visits from occupied Palestine a virtual impossibility. With respect to prisoners from Gaza, virtually no prison visits are allowed even if sentences are for several decades or a lifetime. As is widely known, the people of Gaza have been subjected to a punitive blockade maintained ever since mid-2007 that involves a massive imposition of collective punishment on the civilian population, a war crime so specified in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Israel’s cruelty towards Palestinian prisoners is underscored by its recent practice of releasing West Bank hunger strikers at death’s door, then deporting them for a period of years to Gaza — that is, beyond access to their families and normal places of residence at a moment when their physical condition is so deteriorated that they could not possibly become a security threat and when they are most in need of nurture and familiar surroundings.

Hana Shalabi, who was particularly close to her family, was deported in this way to Gaza for three years and just days ago. Ayman Sharawneh was similarly deported for 10 years as part of a plea bargain. Such shocking practices are worthy of global condemnation. They involve another form of collective punishment inflicted both on the person so confined to Gaza and to his or her family, which is not allowed to travel from the West Bank to Gaza. There is also a triple perverseness about this practice of prisoner release: Gaza itself, an open-air prison, also serves Israel as a site of punitive internal exile and makes the distinction between “prison” and “freedom” almost disappear into surreal thin air. One can only imagine the global protest movement that would have ensued if Hamas had conditioned Gilad Shalit’s release on his confinement in a Salafist-controlled region of Egypt.

This pattern of unlawful imprisonment and unjust deportation also interferes with the preparation of adequate defense representation, as Palestinian lawyers experience routine difficulties in obtaining permits and visiting rights. Article 76 of the convention also requires that prison conditions for those living under occupation should under no condition be worse than those of Israeli prisoners in Israel, which makes the disallowance and obstruction of family visits for Palestinians unlawful, as well as cruel.

It is increasingly evident that international humanitarian law falls short when it comes to offering suitable protection to the Palestinian people who have been living under occupation since 1967 with no end in sight. It is not only occupation, but a continuous process of encroachment that cumulatively has assumed the character of de facto annexation via the massive phenomenon of settlements. Under these circumstances, and given the inalienable right of self-determination that belongs to the Palestinian people, some protection for the rights of resistance must be imposed. These rights need to be exercised in a manner that is respectful of civilians, but difficult issues of identification are posed in relation to armed and violent Israeli settlers.

True, those who act in resistance are not technically prisoners of war, who are protected by the Third Geneva Convention, but are acting to prevent fundamental rights being violated by those who occupy their land and sit in judgment when they act defensively. What is needed, beyond all doubt, is a code of conduct, if not an additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, that will fill this gap associated with resistance. Resisters should be treated with the same dignity under international humanitarian law as prisoners of war. Their acts, even if violent, are in keeping with prevailing societal and civilisational values, and perpetrators, even when confined for reasonable security reasons, should be treated with appropriate dignity.

Unlike murderers, rapists, and the like (and even they should be treated in accord with international standards), the acts of Palestinian prisoners are viewed as heroic by their own society and political culture, as well as by many people throughout the world. They deserve international recognition and protection. Their “crimes” will eventually be vindicated by history as part of a final chapter in the struggle against European colonial rule.

I believe it to be a moral obligation of all of us who care about human rights and freedom to read this book and share it with others. The Palestinians, whose rights and dignity have been long trampled upon, deserve our deepest empathy, as well as our solidarity in their struggle. Reading the words of these prisoners vividly discloses the nature of such a struggle in the form of bearing witness to those Palestinians who have put their lives at risk for the sake of recovering their stolen homeland.

We also owe a debt of gratitude to Norma Hashim, who has edited this collection as a work of devotion and an expression of solidarity with and reflection on the Palestinian struggle. Its publication in book form has been timed to coincide with Palestinian Prisoners Day on 17 April.


The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag, edited by Norma Hashim with the Centre for Political and Development Studies, Gaza, 2013.


The writer is Albert G. Milbank professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is currently serving the third year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

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