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Kafka in the Desert: Palestinian Detainees Struggle

Imagine, if you will, an isolated prison in the desert. Surrounding the one conventional prison building is a large compound, divided into barbed wire enclosures, each holding several dozen prisoners in tents. The compound is walled in, and guarded by military police. The prisoners, however, are civilians. They have not been charged with a crime. Nor have they received a trial. They are imprisoned under half-year detention orders issued by the military which are capable of indefinite renewal and which contain no charges beyond the assertion that "this person constitutes a danger to security." Such an order can be issued based merely upon a person's expression of political views critical of the army or the government.

There is no need to imagine any of this. Not for the nearly 300 Palestinian "Administrative Detainees" imprisoned at Megiddo, an Israeli military prison located in a desolate corner of northern Israel. For those Palestinians, Megiddo is reality.

Some of the nearly 300 detainees have already served three or four years, with no idea how long their imprisonment will continue. Under "Emergency Regulations" which Israel inherited from the British colonial regime, no evidence is required to prove the that the detainees constitute a danger to security.

In 1988, the Supreme Court in Jerusalem ruled that such detainees, held without trial, should receive prison conditions far better than those of ordinary prisoners and "comparable to the conditions of Prisoners of War" -- as then Supreme Court President Meir Shagmar put it. But these stipulations are all but ignored by the Megiddo prison administration.

In 1996, a single Israeli extreme nationalist was imprisoned at Megiddo under the same set of "Emergency Regulations". At the time, an impressive lobby of right-wing Knesset Members issued the demand that the authorities must either bring charges against the man or release him. (The second possibility was what eventually took place). None of these KM's could be persuaded to apply the same logic to hundreds of Palestinian detainees.

The Oslo-2 Agreement explicitly mandated the release of all Palestinian women prisoners. With obvious reluctance, Prime Minister Netanyahu carried out this obligation in February 1997, a year and a half after the date originally stipulated; he seems in no hurry to carry out the clauses relating to male prisoners in general and administrative detainees in particular.

Meanwhile, long-simmering frustrations at Megiddo have boiled over. Whether or not by design, the fateful day of March 18, 1997, when Israeli bulldozers started work at Jebl Abu Ghnein/Har Homa, was also the day when several of the longest-held administrative detainees at Megiddo were informed that their incarceration was being extended by still another half-year.

On the night of March 19, the Palestinian detainees staged what were initially extensive non-violent protests. Their representatives met with prison officials, emphasizing that their protest was not about prison conditions but about the institution of administrative detention itself. Accordingly, they demanded an immediate meeting with a senior Israeli government representative, empowered to talk on this basic issue.

Short fruitless negotiations were followed with the invasion of the prisoner enclosures by a company of soldiers. The prisoners reacted by throwing any object which came to hand, from lumps of soap to tin can; the soldiers shot dozens of tear gas canisters, many of which were thrown back by the prisoners; the prisoners then set seven of the tents on fire. An enterprising Israeli TV reporter was able to climb and direct his camera over the prison wall, getting the Israeli public some dramatic footage of "Megiddo Prison on Fire". Dozens of prisoners were wounded during suppression of the mutiny, some being severely beaten by soldiers.

Shortly afterwards, however, prisoner representatives were invited to talk with Brigadier General Herzl Goetz, the army's Chief Security Liaison Officer with the Palestinian Authority, who agreed to convey their grievances to his superiors. A deal was made (or so it seemed) on one concrete issue: the authorities were henceforth to give some advance warning to the prisoners whose terms of detention would be extended, instead of giving such bad news at the very last moment -- which has the effect of letting the prisoner and his family entertain false hopes.

As often in Israeli-Palestinian relations, all this quite soon proved worthless. For two months, the prisoners heard nothing from the authorities except for dire threats of what would happen if "disturbances" occurred again in the prison. In May, Goetz came again empty handed, telling the detainees that "the problem was very complicated" and that they would have to "wait patiently"; and notices of detention extension continued to arrive, as usual, on the very last day of a prisoner's previous term.

For good measure, a new kind of prisoner began arriving at Megiddo: Palestinian prisoners who had once been sentenced by a military court for offenses against Israeli rule and who, at the end of their prison term, were presented with administrative detention orders instead of being released.

On the evening of May 15, the detainees held protest processions in their enclosures, carrying benches made to resemble coffins. They then stood for ten minutes with bandages covering their mouths, to signify that the detention was intended to prevent them from freely expressing their political opinions. Finally, prisoner representatives informed the prison administration that the detainees would not comply with prisoner regulations during the evening count.

One of the representatives was hauled off to solitary confinement. The warden, professing a personal sympathy for the detainees' grievances, told the other representatives that he had been ordered to take "tough steps". Shortly afterwards, soldiers began a heavy tear gas barrage, turning the prisoners' enclosures into virtual "white lakes". Prisoners who tried to climb up for fresh air were beaten. Dozens of detainees were subsequently in need of medical treatment, as well as two soldiers on whom gas was blown by the wind.

A few days later, Israeli television was invited to make a carefully supervised tour of Megiddo Prison "to see that everything is calm again". But immediately afterwards, more than half of the administrative detainees, said to be "ringleaders", were transferred from Megiddo to the Sharon and Damun Prisons, where they were housed in basement cells devoid of fresh air and sunlight, and subjected to a considerable worsening of their conditions regarding food, exercise, reading material and, last but not least, toilet paper.

Some of these deprivations were ameliorated after detainee protests, including in some cases hunger strikes; but as detainees told their lawyers, the strategy was clearly designed to force them to divert from their principled struggle against administrative detentions back to particular issues of daily prison conditions.

Meanwhile, however, the repeated unrest and mutinies helped gain more attention for the issue from journalists and human rights activists.

In the Israeli paper Ha'aretz , Gideon Levy published a whole series of articles -- concluding with the publication of photos, names, and brief descriptions of some sixty detainees -- in an effort to counter the Israeli media's tendency to portray Palestinians as a nameless, faceless horde.

On July 18, the news came of several administrative detainees starting a hunger strike, emphasizing that it was "not about prison conditions but about administrative detention as such". Hadash activists picketed the Prime Minister's Office, calling for the immediate release of all administrative detainees.

On the same evening, the Israeli TV's prestigious Friday Night Magazine gave ten minutes of coverage to the hitherto ignored cause. Several administrative detainees were interviewed through barbed wire fences, and TV crews visited the detainees' families.

The Israeli public, long accustomed to think of all imprisoned Palestinians as "terrorists", was confronted with such scenes as a little girl kissing her imprisoned father's photograph, and a woman crying bitterly in front of Hasharon Prisons, after being informed that because of a bureaucratic mistake she would not be allowed to visit her imprisoned brother.

Suha Bargouti of Ramallah -- wife of Ahmed Katamsheh, already under administrative detention for five years -- pulled out on camera a copy of an old document: the statement made from prison by five members of the Irgun (Jewish Underground headed by Menachem Begin) when they themselves had been placed under administrative detention by the Ben-Gurion Government during the first days of the state of Israel. The letter, setting out their reasons for starting a hunger strike, bore a strong resemblance to that issued by the present-day detainees.

The television located one of the five signatories on that 1948 letter, Betzal'el Amitzur. Asked for his opinion about the Palestinian detainees, the Irgun veteran said after some consideration: "Well, if they have no blood on their hands and nothing could be proven against them, then I really suppose they should be let go."

But the opinion of one old Israeli veteran notwithstanding, the administrative detainees continue their indefinite imprisonment. And their struggle is being taken up by other Palestinian prisoners.

According to the Bethlehem -based Prisoners' Association, 3,400 prisoners in Israeli jails staged a 24-hour hunger strike on September 15, 1997. The prisoners demanded an end to administrative detention.

In one example of such arbitrary arrests, Palestinian deputy Salah Tamari charged that the Israeli army had "arbitrarily arrested" eleven Palestinians near Bethlehem on September 15. Tamari charged that the youths, between 16 and 25 years old, were taken from their homes with no explanation or information about their detention.

The Prisoners' Association vowed that prisoners would heighten their campaign if their demands go unfulfilled.

[Editors Note: The bulk of this article was excerpted from the July-August 1997 issue of The Other Israel , the newsletter of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace; P.O.B. 2542 Holon; Israel 58125. The accompanying side-bar is based on an August 25, New York Times article. Additional material was excerpted from Workers World (Vol. 39, No. 39).]

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