Two days ago I attended a peaceful demonstration of villagers against the theft of their land by villagers. I found my self assaulted and ‘arrested’ by a settler with the acquiescence of the Isreali army, lied to by the Israeli police, dumped in the punishment block of the women’s prison, driven for miles to the Ministry of the Interior deportation centre, and eventually released because I had done nothing wrong. What would they have done to me if I was Palestinian?
Over the last week I have seen the heartache on the faces of the families of many Palestinian prisoners and the hollow looks in the eyes of those who have been incarcerated, as they have told me their stories of humiliation and degradation. Sitting in a prison cell, with no way of contacting the outside world, I began to grasp the enormity of what they had been telling me.
I know without a doubt that the Police and prison guards were being a little careful with us as internationals who had insisted on our right to contact our Consulate, to have legal representation, and to not sign the endless documents they put before us in Hebrew. But I still experienced the fear of sitting in a filthy dirty cell, not knowing how long I was going to be there. Then a young Palestinian woman in the cell next to us struck up a conversation. She had been sitting in cells for the last 2 years. Her youngest brother was shot by Israeli soldiers when he was 12, and all her other brothers were in prison. We knew our friends on the outside would be constantly worrying about us. What must her mother be going through? Her friend further down the block, and graduate of Beir Zeit University, had been there for 7 years. How had they survived this ordeal, and still had the energy to welcome us, and reassure us?
We thought it would be reasonable to expect such things as water, exercise, medical help, sleep and a phone call to the outside world. How wrong could we be? By the time we had gone 18 hours without water, having asked many, many times, we were given ‘water’ that was in fact orange squash that looked more like a urine sample sitting in our water bottle in the cell. When we questioned this the guards told us that there is no cold water supply in the prison and the prisoners never, ever get water. Soon afterwards we were told that we should be ready to ‘go out’ when it was our turn for the 1 hour of exercise we were entitled to in every 24 hours. We were quite excited at the prospect at leaving our cell until we saw that we would spend our precious hour in a hot concrete yard 20 x 25ft. We tried some stretches and walking around in circles, but found our motivation was quickly waning after a day of enforced sitting around doing nothing and not being able to sleep.
As we were in the ‘punishment’ block all the women around us were in solitary confinement. An Israeli woman nearby was clearly distressed by her situation. She must have used every ounce of energy she had to shout, scream, bang on her door with whatever she could find and cry endlessly. I was really worried that she would hurt herself, but the prison guards felt that ambling up to her cell and shouting at her intermittently was the appropriate response to this. As a result we had only 2 hrs respite when i assume she slept in the early hours of the morning. All the other prisoners were tired and stressed and shouting at her and each other through their cell doors. In the middle of all this racket the young women in the cell next to us sat at her cell door and sang the most beautiful song imaginable and I strained to listen to her and cut out all the noise around me to claim a few minutes of sanity. For this I have to thank her. When we hadn’t heard from our friend from Beir Zeit for some time we asked if she had left and were told that she was sleeping. Had she really had to get used to these torturous conditions to such an extent that she could now sleep through this constant noise?
As I had been told that we were arrested for 24 hours from 1.30pm on Friday I assumed that by 1.30pm on Saturday I would have to be released or go to court. Nothing is so simple. We were given different information by each prison guard that came along and felt a call to our solicitor was needed, so we asked for this. The reply: Yes, we were entitled to make a phone call but we needed a card. Could we buy a card with the money they had taken off us? No, they do not sell them.
Eventually they came to collect us at 7pm. They gave us our bags, then out came the handcuffs and shackles to be locked around our ankles. Did they really think we would try to run surrounded by police men and women with two guns each?
Throughout our time there the prison guards were nasty, uncooperative and sadistic without exception. I assume they will have developed their skill at treating people like animals in the two years they will have served in the army, and have been honing them ever since.