Posted on 17 April 2011

Today is Palestinian prisoners’ day. Statistics from Addameer, the prisoners’ support and human rights organisation, show that there are 5777 Palestinian political prisoners held by Israel (as of March 2011). In commemoration, detainees have called a day-long hunger strike.

I was shown photos of some prisoners a few weeks ago, they’d been posted on Facebook. I can now see how the amazing systems that had been nurtured and developed within the prisons by all the Palestinian political factions have been so successfully destroyed.

Before the second intifada, being in prison was for many Palestinians their education, their university. It was brutal and painful, but it was more than just that: it was fundamentally a rite of passage in the Palestinian experience. A very revealing account of prison life is in the recently-published book, The Hour of Sunlight, One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker. It is the story of Sami Al Jundi from a child to the man he is today. He spent ten years in jail. The prison chapters are just a part of the overall story but do demonstrate that far from being a negative experience, being in prison was something to be proud of.

There was a very strong framework created by the political groups that all prisoners were part of. Everyone had their role, everyone took part in political discussion, an education system was developed. Before the first intifada, which is when Al Jundi was in prison, the system was as sophisticated as any institution on the outside. They were allowed books (the reading list at the back of the book may surprise some) and other materials to support their lessons and instruction.

The first intifada changed a lot within the prisons. The structure and framework was still there, but the numbers of prisoners increased and Israel was less willing to allow such luxuries as pens, paper and books. This is the experience most of my friends had. The stories I’ve heard of how prisoners would painstakingly write out well known books on politics, philosophy and classical literature is incredible. Some prisoners made the most amazing works of art, seemingly out of almost nothing. And all done with smuggled materials.

Then came Oslo. Palestinians believed they were finally on the threshold of freedom. But nothing much changed. Educated Palestinians who could speak out at the injustices of the ongoing occupation, the increased theft of Palestinian land and who could inspire others to do the same are more dangerous to Israel than a Palestinian with a gun. The leaders of civil society were continually targeted, as were institutions that spread such subversive messages about freedom, justice and international law.

The second intifada exploded, an armed intifada, and the prisons filled up again. By now, the deliberate Israeli policy to divide a weak Palestinian leadership resulted in far less political organisation in prison. The days of lessons and groups discussions, of allocated tasks and comradeship had dwindled. The Palestinian university that had provided education, support and a profound sense of collective pride in their cause had gone forever.

And back to the pictures I saw. The decline is now complete. Prisoners in cells with TVs; wearing their own clothes; moving freely; mobile phones; even a kettle and a fridge! The prisoners now just sit and wait until their release date, with nothing more to motivate them than some crass talent show or soap opera. Israel, while destroying land, trees and crops, homes and water cisterns, has destroyed so much more that cannot be seen.

While there are still very politically active Palestinians in prison, the system that would have sustained and nourished them, allowing them to inspire others, has long gone. It is Palestinian prisoners’ day today. Let us not forget the destruction that has been wrought on them as well as the Palestinian struggle for justice.

In solidarity with Ameer Makhoul, who writes today from Gilboa prison in Israel.

1 Response to 5777

  • Florence Brown says:

    How can Israel call itself a democracy? Where is their humanity? They have none. They are an inmoral country and I hope the world starts to take notice. I am sorry I live in an America that so blindly supports Israel. What God would tell you to destroy another country for that God?
    The world must pay attention and support all Palestinians
    and free them from occupation. Long live Palestine!

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