Today Palestinians remain foreigners in their own land. Faced with the apathy of the international community, the nearly two and half million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank, the million in the Israeli State and the more than three million Palestinians in the diaspora continue to demand their right to freely choose their own destiny.
If there is a point essential to the understanding of this in a permanent climate of seemingly fruitless negotiations, of "negotiations of renegotiations," it is the dramatic situation of the Palestinian political prisoners; they have become - as have political prisoners in so many other conflicts throughout the world - those most vulnerable, subject to all manner of pressures. The Israeli authorities have used the ploy of exchanging the freedom of prisoners in return for political profits: "prisoners in exchange for the abandonment of demands for sovereignty." It is, needless to say, a measure that generates severe tensions in the Palestinian community.
In February of 1991 the Israelis held 15,000 Palestinian citizens in thirteen prison centers. The most important of these, Ansar III, in the middle of the desert, is infamous for the harsh conditions and treatment given its approximately 8,000 detainees [see PLN, Mar 1998, "Kafka in the Desert"]. An indication of the Israeli government's repression is that, since 1967, 150 Palestinians have been killed in the prisons. Since 1989, another 17 have died either because of extreme prison conditions or the systematic denial of medical help.
Since 1985, according to a UN Human Rights Commission report, at least 5,000 Israeli and Palestinian citizens have suffered "administrative detention" (as a result of the application of a law dating from era of the British Mandate before 1947) and been imprisoned without charge for periods of six months, renewable by military authority. Of the 80 prisoners in "administrative detention," 11 have spent more than three years in prison without being charged. This same UN report states that 85 percent of the 1,000 to 1,500 Palestinians interrogated annually by the Israeli Intelligence Service have been subjected to some form of torture.
Today the number of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons is approximately 3,000. Among them, more than 1,000 are condemned for life, 200 have spent more than 10 years in prison and another 400 are condemned to more than 20 years.
The Israeli prison administration maintains a policy of collective punishment against Palestinian prisoners. Punitive actions range from denying family members the right to visit to denying food rations. An example was the transfer by the Shattah prison administration of 70 prisoners to a special unit. Kept in isolation cells, the detained Palestinians were beaten, their clothing and belongings burned and they were denied the right to see members of their families for more than six months. This kind of repression gave rise to a massive hunger strike and to denunciations by the prisoners demanding the punishment of those responsible. The same situation has been repeated in other penal centers.
The harsh measures imposed by the Israelis do not affect only prisoners; they also affect their relatives. The Israeli government permits visits only from first degree relatives (parents, children and spouses), however the Intelligence Service often intervenes directly so that even these relatives may not visit inmates "for reasons of security."
Forty Palestinian prisoners from Israel itself also find themselves imprisoned in Israeli penal centers. Their situation is not subject to any accord or to the possibility of future negotiation between the Palestinian National Authority and the Israeli government since the Barak government considers them "Israeli citizens." The Palestinian prisoners' movement, however, rejects this as it considers them integral members of the Palestinian community.
That Palestinians are kept in prison in a period considered to be one of peace shows an intent on the part of the Israelis to undermine the negotiations, to use prisoners as hostages. At the same time, every prisoner freed is received with great joy and massive celebrations in his or her honor in the Palestinian community.
The freeing of these prisoners presents a new problem: the social and professional integration of these individuals who have turned themselves over completely to the resistance. In addition to the inevitable psychological problems of recuperation other problems are no less important: the necessity to assume a role in society, and to acquire work and the economic means to maintain their respective families and the desire to contribute actively to the construction of a new Palestinian nation.
Source: Página Abierta, October, 1999. Translated and edited for space by PLN
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