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Palestinian Political Prisoners

Israeli prisons are in many respects a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As places of detention and physical and psychological suffering, they represent in starkest terms the violent essence of occupation. On the other hand, Palestinian prisoners have turned them into fronts of struggle and steadfastness. Thus in the face of often brutally harsh conditions, Palestinian prisoners strive not only to survive but to live in dignity.

There are 30 Israeli prisons, military detention centers and major police lock-ups in the occupied territories for holding Palestinian political prisoners. They are notorious for their lack of basic facilities, such as water and shelter to protect detainees from extreme temperatures. There are also five major police lock-ups which should only hold detainees for short periods of time, but are often used to incarcerate prisoners for months at a time. Although it is forbidden under international law to transfer a detainee from occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power, the authorities routinely imprison Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza in detention facilities inside Israel.

The Palestinian Human Rights Information Center (PHRIC) reported that at least 120,000 Palestinians, including children as young as 10 years of age, have been detained for a period of more than 24 hours in the first four years and four months of the intifada. Of these, over 15,000 were held without charge or trial in administrative detention. At the time of its April 1992 Update, PHRIC reported more than 13,000 Palestinians in detention. In addition, there are at least 20 detainees from Lebanon and elsewhere being held hostage by Israel, some of them years after having completed their sentences. They are currently being held in administrative detention.

Under military law, Palestinian detainees from the West Bank and Gaza can be held incommunicado for up to 14 days, after which time the Red Cross must be allowed to visit them. Palestinians are not required to be brought before a military judge until 18 days after their arrest. Access to a lawyer is usually denied for 20 to 30 days after arrest, although detainees can be prevented from seeing their legal counsel for up to 90 days by a series of maneuvers in Israeli military law.

It is during this period of being held completely isolated from the outside world and interrogated that the worst abuse and torture of Palestinian prisoners occurs.

Torture is defined under international law as: "Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiesces of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity." U.N. Convention against Torture, Article 1.

In 1991, PHRIC "noted an increase in both the number of Palestinian detainees abused and in the kinds of mistreatment to which they were subjected. In many cases this abuse reached the level of torture." (From the Field, February 1992.) The most common types of torture include beatings, particularly on the sensitive parts of the body; handcuffing in contorted positions for hours or sometimes days at a time; sleep and food deprivation; exposure to extreme cold and/or heat; confinement in small cells and isolation. In many cases, detainees are subjected to several different types of torture.

Notably, there has also been a documented increase in the use of electric shock torture against Palestinian detainees, according to Palestinian and Israeli reports. PHRIC documented eight cases of electric shock torture used against young men, aged 14 to 23, in Hebron military headquarters. An Israeli journalist subsequently confirmed PHRIC's findings, and the report was even cited by the U.S. State Department in its annual human rights report.

The use of torture is prohibited without exception by international law in treaties which are binding on Israel. Israeli law also prohibits the use of force during interrogation. Despite these prohibitions, torture is widely used during interrogation of Palestinian detainees. Such practices are justified by the Israeli authorities as falling within the guidelines of the Landau Commission report, issued in October 1987. This report, the outcome of an official investigation into the interrogation methods of the General Security Service (GSS), stated that "moderate physical pressure" could be used against those suspected of "security" offenses. The report lists the "acceptable" types of physical pressure in a secret appendix. That this is effectively an official stamp of approval to the use of torture is borne out by the fact that despite several deaths during interrogation of Palestinian detainees, there has been almost no action taken against security officers.

Indeed, PHRIC reported that a military judge at the Dhahriyeh detention center in Hebron responded to a lawyer's complaint about the use of electric shock against her client by saying it was permitted under the Landau Commission guidelines, as it constituted "moderate physical pressure" and would not kill the detainee. (From the Field, February 1992.) The use of torture is obviously well known to the military judges who remand Palestinians in custody for interrogation, and who use their coerced confessions to convict and sentence them.

In addition to judges, prison doctors act complicitly in the mistreatment of Palestinian detainees. Sometimes serving as medical stamps of approval to allow interrogations to continue, they also participate in the abuse of detainees by withholding care altogether. The denial of medical care can in itself be a type of torture and is in violation of international law as well as medical ethics.

At least 27 Palestinian detainees have died in Israeli custody during the intifada. They were tortured to death during interrogation; six died after medical care was denied or inadequate; seven were shot to death; three died after being beaten or thrown from a vehicle while being transferred to a detention center; and one died on hunger strike in protest of prison conditions. The number of Palestinian prisoners who have suffered physical or mental injury is countless; abuse and torture are so routine and widespread that it is safe to say that virtually all Palestinians detained by the Israelis suffer some kind of injury during detention.

The response of Palestinian political prisoners to such conditions has been to bring their struggle inside the prison walls. While the exigencies of prison life necessitate struggle virtually every day, collective action, usually in the form of hunger strikes, has proven the most effective tool detainees have in confronting prison authorities. This was recently verified in the largest ever hunger strike, which began on September 27th and lasted two weeks, encompassed some 5,000 detainees in eight prisons in the West Bank, Gaza and 1948 occupied Palestine. The detainees' demands focused on improving prison conditions and changing the military justice system. Among the list of 28 demands were: investigating detention and interrogation procedures and the use of violence by the GSS; setting a time limit for life sentences; establishing an appeal system for long-term sentences; closing military confinement; releasing detainees under 18 years of age; giving prisoners a say in where they're incarcerated; allowing free movement among cell blocks; reducing overcrowding; improving food quality and quantity; improving medical care; increasing family visits and decreasing the number of searches.

The hunger strike sparked the biggest demonstrations in months to support the detainees. In response, the Israeli authorities opened Central Prison in Nablus to local and international media on October 11th, thus attempting to undermine the detainees' assertions of harsh conditions and thereby support their own claim that the strike was a politically motivated action against the peace process. This move was a clear reflection of the occupation authorities' fears that the strike would reignite the intifada and make their position more difficult in the negotiations and in the face of public opinion. Indeed, it is not surprising that as the intifada has waned and an increasing number of activists and leaders are imprisoned, more initiatives for confronting the occupation come from behind prison walls.

The hunger strike resulted in the authorities meeting several of the prisoners' demands vis-a-vis prison conditions. The Israelis agreed, among other things, to improve medical treatment and allow detainees to bring in a doctor of their choice to treat them; increase family visits and improve visiting conditions; allow television and radios; stop strip searches; halt collective punishment; allow food from outside to be brought in; provide warmer clothing; allow more educational opportunities for prisoners; and improve ventilation and replace carcinogenic asbestos with plastic in cells. Of course, there remains the question of implementation. While some steps were taken, the UNL in call no. 89, issued November 1st, found it necessary to "denounce the procrastination of the Zionist prison administration concerning implementation of some items in the agreement to end the strike." The UNL hailed the strike and the results attained by the detainees' struggle, but the success was not without its price. On October 14th, Jussein Asad Obeidat, 26, from Jerusalem, died in Sakalan prison as the strike was drawing to an end.

Despite the obvious restrictions of prison, Palestinian detainees assert an impressive amount of control over their lives by organizing their own unique prison society. As much a means of resistance as a means of survival, this society has its own rules, code of ethics, rewards and punishments.

Prisoners form their own committees on three levels (prison, section and cell) with each organization having its own committee in addition. Decisions about everyday life are made by these committees, from cleaning duty to meting out punishment to rule breakers, as well as decisions concerning relations with the prison authorities. The organizations' committees are elected by their respective members, and from these, representatives are appointed to the general committees. As one ex-prisoner who spent 15 years in Israeli jails commented, "Palestinian prison society is perhaps the most effective democracy in the Arab world."

Activists have termed Israeli prisons "Palestinian universities," because of the emphasis prisoners place on education, political and otherwise; and because the prison experience often strengthens their revolutionary resolve. Detainees spend several hours a day studying and teaching others everything from politics and philosophy to languages and literature. There are regular political lectures and structured discussions. In addition, some of the most famous Palestinian art has been created by prisoners. National and religious holidays are celebrated collectively by the detainees, while sports and games such as chess are the detainees' main recreation.

On both sides of the barbed wire, Palestinians have over the years developed various forms of resistance against the occupation. But it is often within the occupiers' own prisons that the most creative and effective means are found to express the collective national will to survive and flourish.

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