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Political organization, resistance, and education in Israeli prisons

by Alistair George and Ben Lorber

24 November 2011 | International Solidarity Movement, West Bank

Raed Atrash, 25, is a presenter and journalist working in Hebron; his work focuses on prisoner’s issues.  He interviews prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families, and he writes articles and presents programmes on the issue.  Issa Amro is the director of Youth Against Settlements (YAS), a nonviolent organization protesting against the occupation.

Israeli Occupation soldiers in Hebron

Israeli Occupation soldiers in Hebron

 They spoke to ISM about political organization, resistance and education in prison and how the media covers prisoner issues.

 ISM:  Can you explain how life in prison is organized for Palestinian political prisoners?

 Attrash:  Life inside prison is organised very well.  Every prisoner who is arrested by the Israeli army will go to the prison and align himself with a political party…for each party, there is a leadership committee which organises the life of these prisoners.

 Prison is divided into many parts; in each part there is a commitee from all the parties which decides rules that the prisoners have to follow in order to organise their life.  There is a cultural committe in order to raise the awareness amongst the prisoners of what’s happening outside and inside to give them the experience to deal with their situation.  There is also a management committee to solves clashes between prisoners if something happens.  There is a religious commitee which will protect the right to pray for every prisoner.

 There are rarely clashes between different political groups in prison.  There are a lot of problems between the prisoners and the Israeli management – they interfere and they try to make problems for the prisoners.  They try to interrogate them in the night in order to annoy them and to create instability in their lives.  They also try to strip search them.  They try to take the machines which prisoners use – televisions or hot-plates.  It’s not easy to live without these things.

 There is also an educational committee in prison.  There are very intelligent prisoners inside the prison who have a very high level of education.  The task of this committee is to teach the prisoners how to read and write – simple education.

 Five years ago the [Israeli]  management allowed papers and pens into prison.  Since Shalit [was captured] they prevented books and paper from entering.  They are allowed now to buy pencils but not new books.

 ISM:  Are any Palestinian prisoners studying for degrees or taking high school exams?

 Attrash:  Absolutely none.

 Amro:  In the past they were letting the schoolchildren take the high school exams but not anymore – not the high schools or even any degrees as a collective punishment for all the prisoners for Shalit.  After Shalit was captured they launched a new law (‘Shalit’s Law’) against the prisoners.  After he was released everyone thought they might stop Shalit’s Law, to let the Palestinian prisoners study, to let the families from Gaza vistit their family members.  Until now, nothing has changed – only the isolation [has ended] because of the hunger strikes.

 Attrash:  Many prisoners volunteer to teach the other prisoners but the main issue is to have a formal education – to have a degree at the end of the education and they are not allowed to do it.  They call it ‘self-education’, the prisoners teach each other many subjects.  It’s continuous and working well – you need education to fill your time, otherwise you will go crazy.

 ISM:  Can you describe the political education and resistance that takes place in prison?

 Attrash:  They teach the prisoners about the Palestinian cause in general, about the history of the Palestinian people and the naqba [tragedy] and teach them many case studies in the world; Che Guevara and these kind of revolutions – the French, Indian, Colombian – to use them as case studies for revolutions across the world.  There are many political meetings, debates, discussions among the prisoners to teach them and empower their discussions.  For many prisoners this is a form of steadfastness for them and a form of remaining in their cause and supporting their motivations and their willingness to learn more and more.  Without this kind of education and empowerment I don’t know if they can survive.

 [Regarding resistance in prison] usually they have many steps and they have their own nonviolent resistance history – the hunger strike and disobedience.  They have representatives in there, a structure, people who negotiate with the authorities, they try to talk to them and convince them.  They start with boycotts, not listening, not going for the count, missing meals until they go to the hunger strike.  After the hunger strike is the disobedience – they ignore the security completely and they don’t listen at all – which makes it very hard and its not easy to count the prisoners every three hours without their willingness.

 Amro:  Historically nonviolent resistance was very successful inside Israeli jails.  Many writers wrote about the prison resistance – it’s nonviolent resistance.  They got many achievements; they got the right to education, to family visits, more TV channels, reading, writing, food – prisoners negotiate about every small detail of their lives.  It’s a continuous conflict and it’s about who will give up first and usually the prisoners get their rights through many hunger strikes – many people died because of their resistance.  If you are strong, they [the Israelis] listen to you.

 Attrash:  Israel considers children older than 15 as adult – although from 15-18 they put them in a special jail, they don’t want them to let the political prisoners affect them politically.

 All the prisoners consider the jail as a school.  Prisoners in Israeli jails learns political issues, languages, religion – anything you can imagine.  It’s not optional for the prisoner not to study or participate in these courses – all the Palestinian parties/factions oblige their members to join the education system – both political and otherwise.  There are some optional courses, which are extra, but the basic education is compulsory.  This obligation fulfills the prisoner’s needs, so you don’t have anyone refusing this.

 Many prisoners go into jail without any political education.  When they go in they have a lot of time to study why they are doing this [resisting] and they study the theory behind their practice.  They give them all these case studies and international law, tactics to resist and they share their experience fighting the occupation.

 Because of the division that happened between Fatah and Hamas, the West Bank and Gaza, the institution that created the unity charter was the prisoners.  The prisoners from Fatah and Hamas inside Israeli jails had a meeting and published a unity charter and now all the Palestinian factions are implementing it outside jails.

 Amro:  The prisoners are creative in what they do and they have a huge influence on the outside, this is why you saw all the people were more than happy when the Shalit deal gave them hundreds of prisoners, it was 10% of the Palestinian prisoners but the happiness was much more [than this] as if all the prisoners were released.  All Palestinians are united in listening to the prisoners – they see them as holy people, in spite of their political background or agenda.  All of them are equal and all of them are heroes in our eyes.

 ISM:  What are your opinions of the recent prisoner exchange deal?

 Attrash:  It’s a very good achievement to release even one prisoner.  This deal released 315 prisoners on life sentences in Israeli jails and usually they don’t give them a release date – even their bodies usually stay in Israeli jails [after they die], they keep them in special freezers or they bury them in cemetaries – just to punish the families.  It was a good achievement.

 Amro:  I have a poltical concern about the deal.  I thought that if they insisted to release Marwan Bargouti he would make a change in Palestinian political life, especially to Fatah.  Marwan Bargouti will start the third intifada for sure.  He’s the only one who can unify Fatah and all the Palestinian factions, everyone agrees on his leadership.  He was leading the second intifada and sentenced to six life sentences.  It gives him uncountable credit from the Palestinians from all factions.  All the factions consider all the prisoners as heroes.  If he is already a leader and he is high up in Fatah – this will make him the future President of Palestine.  [There will be a third intifada] next year or the year after – we are very close.  It will for sure be an nonviolent intifada, as the first intifada.

 The Palestinians learned from the second intifada and the political factions, even Hamas, are now talkign about nonviolence and the influence from the Arab Spring is so influential and we have very good experience.  The second intifada was problematic for us.  It was not normal – we were led to the second intifada.  I was one of the people starting the second intifada because I was a leader in my university.  How it became a violent intifada or an armed resistance, I don’t know.  I stopped following it after it became an armed intifada.  I can’t use arms.  The majority of the guns were from Israel – Israel wants us to be violent and to keep us violent to justify killing our children and killing us.  In the beginning of the second intifada the students were demonstrating in the streets and one day 10 people were killed in Hebron and they were only nonviolent demonstrators.  More than 100 people injured.  They were shooting at us with rubber bullets – I was injured – from zero distance [point blank range] which made it hard for the intifada to stay nonviolent – it was not proportional force.  They deal with us as gunmen – they don’t have any methodology to stop the nonviolent resistance, they are only trained to shoot, and to kill, and to be violent.

 The hatred inside them is so high.  Blind support from the UK,USA,Germany– if you know that all the strong countries support you, why follow international law?  Gaddafi described his people as ‘rabbits’ – they [the Israeli authorities] don’t even see us as rabbits, they see us as less than rabbits or mice.  They don’t see us as human beings, so we deserve to die.  A rabbi in Kiryat Arba [an Israeli settlement near Hebron] wrote a book syaing that you are allowed to kill Palestinian children, you are allowed to kill Palestinians even if they are not attacking you.  He is a religious leader and he is trying to transmit this poison to his followers.  Hate speech in Israel is illegal….I filed complaints.  You can’t challenge violence, even with all the evidence – you will not achieve anything in Israeli law [if you are Palestinian] it will vanish in Israeli courts.

 Everyday in 2008 I went to the police station to make complaints.  I went once to the court last year and they found him [a settler] guilty – he confessed that he broke my camera.  I had the video to prove that he attacked me.  The prosecutor representing me didn’t [even] want him to go to jail or to do voluntary work, she just wanted to send him to the behavioural officer where they tell him ‘how come you let him film you doing that, next time don’t leave evidence’ – this is the behavioural officer!  To file complaints to the same authorities that are violating the law – it’s useless.

 ISM:  What motivates you [Attrash} to focus on prisoners’ issues?

 Attrash:  It’s my patriotic duty, my national duty.  I am supporting human rights and the prisoners cause is a human rights case, it’s not even a political thing.  I have been in jail in 2009 for six months for ‘incitement’ against Israel, through my work.

 Amro:  If he was in a political party or in a poltical movement they would not accuse him of incitement – as a journalist or an activist these are the only charges that they can use.  They use it for many other Palestinian activists and journalists.

 Attrash:  When I was released, one of the intelligence commanders told me ‘I hope not to listen or hear you on the radio again’.  I work with 10 radio stations now!  During the investigation they showed me the timetable of my programmes and they were following my media programmes.

 Amro:  This shows for me that it is not about terrorism or violating Israeli law.  On the contrary, putting a journalist in the Israeli jail is violating Israeli law and international law and the Geneva Conventions.  He has special protection as a journalist.  This is one of the main violations of the Israelis and why you don’t have many Palestinian journalists working hard against the occupation as you are a target.

 Even if you are not a terrorist and you don’t believe in violence, if you are a journalist, a writer, a musician, a football player – whatever – you are a target.  They are targeting any active member in the Palestinian community, it’s about destroying Palestinian society and this is why we [YAS] are a target here because we are trying to empower the community.  They want the community to be without a leader, without a guide.  All the Palestinian leaders, in spite of their ideology, are a target for the Israeli security in a different way.  If you are within the law they put you in jail according to the law – I was accused of incitement and it wasn’t a mistake – it is a systematic way to kill any voice against the occupation.

 Take Abu Mazen’s step to go to the UN [bid at UN] it is a completely nonviolent step, he is allowed to do it according to international law, and they can oppose him politically, not to threaten to destroy Ramallah or theWest Bankor to cut the money.  But the international community is silent.  The Israeli security forces are the real terrorists, not us.

 Attrash:  I was once in the studio giving my programme – I was live – and the Israeli forces came and stopped the programme and raided the radio station and detained me for an hour.  This is normal for the Israeli security.  There is more harassment when I am out working in the field; they detained me many times.  I was detained at one of the checkpoints after I participated in the journalists forum election.  They detained me for 2 hours even though they knew I am a journalist and I showed them my ID as a journalist…I [personally] know 10 journalists in jail but there are a lot more.

 Amro:  You are a terrorist in spite of any identity you have.  All the Palestinians are terrorists – this is how they treat us!  We are all Bin Laden!  This is how they try to show us to the world.

 ISM:  How important is it to be sensitive to terminology in your media work?

 I took a special course in the terminology of international law about what to use exactly to suit [fit in] international law, not Palestinian culture or Israeli propaganda.

 ISM:  What do you make of the media coverage of the prisoner exchange?

 Attrash:  The international media covered the Shalit case and put him equal with 6000 Palestinian prisoners.  Some media agencies ignored the 6000 and only mentioned the victim who was Shalit, and the majority of the Palestinian prisoners are political prisoners and they didn’t participate in killing Israelis, however Shalit was inside a tank [as part of an occupying force that killed people], he was captured from his tank, not from his house, or his city or his school or his university.  The Palestinian media was talking about him as a normal prisoner and telling him that he should be treated according to our Islamic culture and that he should be safe and treated well, not as happened to our prisoners in Israeli jails who are suffering daily.

 Amro: All of the big international media agencies are biased, all of them are pro-Israel and pro the Zionist movement and they lie and manipulate and they hide a lot of obvious facts.  We use social media [to get past the media agencies], it’s our method to teach all the people in the world what’s happening.

 ISM:  But surely there are still many unbiased and fair journalists out there?

 Amro:  Let’s say that all international journalists are either pro-Israel or neutral.  I see the neutral people as biased – when you see violations, when you see oppressed people and you are neutral; you are biased and participating with the oppressor.  I meet many journalists who are pro-Palestinians but they are a tiny amount compared [to pro-Israelis].  I’m not against Israel by the way – I am aganist the occupation!  This is very important – if you are against the occupation, it doesn’t mean that you are against Israel – on the contrary, if you are against the occupation you are going to protect Israel in the long-term.  Not having a solution [to the occupation] doesn’t helpIsrael.

 ISM:  If this is true, how do you explain it?

 Amro:  People are afraid of  [being called] anti-semitic.  I met one of the main journalists from the Washington Post.  He said ‘either you are pro-Israel or you are silent, this is how to be successful’.  What about transparency, freedom of information etc and what about funds? ‘They will cut your salary.’  Capitalism, globalisation, all the big companies in the world are owned by the Jews or they are cowards.  Usually rich people are cowards.  I don’t think Obama is against out cause, I think he is pro-our cause but I don’t think he thinks his country’s interest is with our cause.  This is when we will reach our freedom, when our cause will be connected with the national interests of theUK,Sweden,USA,China,Russia – it’s about politicians, not about principles, morals or anything like that.  There are many good people in Israel who want to live in peace and love with the Palestinians but they are controlled and hidden [by the media].

 Ben Lorber and Alistair George (name has been changed) are volunteers with International Solidarity Movement.