The same society that was so upset by the fate of a single prisoner, Gilad Shalit, does not even begin to grasp the depth of distress the Palestinians feel over the thousands of their people who are in prison.
By Gideon Levy | Feb.28, 2013
That estimate could be a bit high; some say it’s “only” 600,000. After all, there is no exact number. But the general picture is clear and chilling: When people say that Israel imprisons the Palestinian people, this is what they mean: the physical, concrete, overcrowded and torturous imprisonment of people in jail. It’s not just the checkpoints, the separation fence and the psychological barriers, but the real ones as well.Eight hundred thousand. That is the number of Palestinian residents arrested and imprisoned in Israeli jails since the beginning of the occupation, according to The New York Times. Almost a million people.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live under the occupation have endured that experience, if only once in their lives. Among the approximately four million residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip today, hundreds of thousands of people bear physical and emotional scars and carry with them the memory of their imprisonment.
So do millions of others – the members of their families. About 4,500 Palestinians are in prison today. Almost every home in the territories has one family member who was arrested. Every family has a prisoner, or one who was released.
The jail term could be decades – there are still 123 prisoners from before the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords – or it could be a matter of only a few days. It usually starts with a brutal home invasion, almost always in the dead of night, in the presence of the wife, parents and children, shocked out of their sleep and anxious about the fate of their humiliated loved one.
It continues with the tough, jolting interrogation by the Shin Bet. Afterward come the days, months and years in difficult conditions with no telephone conversations, sometimes with no visitors for years on end. It is always a humiliating experience for the prisoners and their families.
There were years when appalling torture methods were also part of the menu of atrocities that Israel served the Palestinian people. Two hundred and three people died in prison, most of them under torture. Most of it stopped with the High Court of Justice’s ruling in 1999, which curbed the use of torture by security services, declaring many of its practices illegal.
But even today the methods of arrest, interrogation and imprisonment are unbearable. While some of the Palestinian prisoners were arrested for murderous acts of terror, most of them are in jail for political activity. Many of them were imprisoned without trial, sometimes for years.
The military justice system that decided the fate of hundreds of thousands of people does not deserve to have the word “justice” associated with it. Every brief visit to a military court and every protocol proves it as much as a thousand witnesses could. Short hearings, sometimes without appropriate translation; evidence that is no evidence at all; incriminating testimony from collaborators and informants of dubious character; judges not all of whom are jurists; cruel interrogations that lead to false confessions; immunity that prevents defendants from receiving an adequate defense, and draconian punishments.
Everything is there, between Jalame Prison in the north and the Etzion jail in the south – everything but justice. The disturbing number of prisoners proves it. After all, no reasonable person seriously thinks that an entire people deserves to be sent to prison. The contempt of Israelis for the lives of Palestinians also includes contempt for their liberty.
Israeli society has never understood the profound psychological significance of the issue of the prisoners in Palestinian society, nor has it even tried to do so. If there is still anyone in Israel who understands the distress inflicted by the checkpoints and the settlers’ lawbreaking, no interest has ever been expressed in the prisoners, and certainly no solidarity.
This is surprising in a society that was so upset by the fate of a single prisoner, Gilad Shalit, and expressed such strong solidarity with him. But the same society does not even begin to understand the depth of the Palestinians’ distress over the tens of thousands of their people who are in prison.
Dehumanization is at work here, too. An Israeli mother who is anxious about her son is treated differently from a Palestinian mother who is every bit as anxious. But that should not be surprising: if a child killed for nothing by a sniper generates no interest, why should a prisoner be of concern to us?
It’s enough for Israelis to watch the propaganda reports showing prisoners having a party, which causes an immediate scandal over the “Hilton-like” conditions in the prison. It’s enough for them to be told that all the prisoners are “abominable murderers,” all those hundreds of thousands, for them not to bother their consciences about them. Maybe at least the astounding statistic of 800,000 will make somebody think.
Since the publication of this article in the Israeli paper Haaretz, UNICEF has issued a stinging report on Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinian child prisoners.