This episode has been released for Palestinian Prisoner’s Day. All around the world people are highlighting the conditions of people incarcerated by the Israeli occupation. To mark this day we bring you an interview with Milena Ansari, an incredible organiser from Addameer. Adameer in arabic means conscience. Adameer is a prisoner support and human rights organisation based in Palestine that supports Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli and Palestinian prisons. Established in 1991, the center offers free legal aid to political prisoners, advocates their rights at the national and international level, and works to end torture and other violations of prisoners’ rights through monitoring, legal procedures and solidarity campaigns.
Unfortunately we had to finish the interview prematurely due to the deportation of Milena’s friend Salah Hammouri, a long-time human rights defender and lawyer working with Addameer, which needed an urgent response. We are incredibly grateful for everything that Milena shared with us through the interview.
We want to give a content warning that there are detailed descriptions of prison conditions, including child imprisonment.
To support the work of Addameer and to learn about the prisoner struggle in Palestine, please check out the links below.
Hey, welcome to the International Solidarity Movement Podcast [Arabic translation].
Welcome back to The International Solidarity Movement Podcast. Today is April 17th, which is Palestinian Prisoners Day. All around the world, people are highlighting the conditions of people incarcerated by the Israeli occupation. To mark this day we bring you an interview with Milena Ansari, an incredible organiser from Addameer. Adameer in Arabic means ‘conscience’. Adameer is a prisoner support and human rights organisation based in Palestine that supports Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli and Palestinian prisons. Established in 1991, the center offers free legal aid to political prisoners, advocates their rights at the national and international level, and works to end torture and other violations of prisoners’ rights through monitoring, legal procedures and solidarity campaigns. Unfortunately we had to finish the interview prematurely due to the deportation of Milena’s friend Salah Hammouri, a long-time human rights defender and lawyer working with Addameer, which needed an urgent response. We are incredibly grateful for everything that Milena shared with us through the interview. We want to give a content warning that there are detailed descriptions of prison conditions, including child imprisonment. To support the work of Addameer and to learn about the prisoner struggle in Palestine, please check out the links in the show notes.
Milena Ansari 01:46
Hi, hello, my name is Milena Ansari, I’m the international advocacy officer at Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association. A bit about Addameer, and the work that we do: Addameer is a Palestinian non governmental human rights organisation that focuses its work on advocating internationally and locally on behalf of Palestinian political prisoners, held both in Israeli occupation prisons and [by] the Palestinian Authority as well. Part of the work that Addameer does is divided into legal work, advocacy work, and awareness. And so the legal work mainly revolves around providing free legal aid and services and consultation to Palestinian detainees and prisoners and their families as well. In Israeli military courts and Israeli civil courts, and the Palestinian Authority courts as well. We do regular prison visits, where we meet the prisoners and detainees and take their testimonies regarding their detention conditions, their violations of rights, the violations of rights during incarceration. And then we analyse this information and [the] documents we get from the detainees and from the lawyers regarding legal procedures, and through mechanisms of international law, including international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and also international criminal law. In order to look into the systematic and widespread violations of detainees rights, such as the use of torture, ill treatment and medical neglect, prison raids that are brutal in nature, and also the overall brutal detention conditions that the Palestinians face inside prison. And of course, fair trial guarantees in the Israeli judicial system, whether the military one or the civil one. So that’s locally local work. When we’re talking about advocacy. It’s mainly international advocacy speaking to the international community, the way I see it, or I divide the work for advocacy into three targeted groups. The first group is regarding litigation. So the United Nations, the Human Rights Council, the special procedures, and the International Criminal Cour. Different mechanisms regarding litigation on an international level, where we report to them regularly regarding highlighted cases of Palestinian prisoners and detainees and whether there is any new violations or circumstances leading to something very threatening regarding the prisoners’ movement as a whole. The second target group is parliamentarians’ representative offices in Ramallah in Jerusalem. But sadly, this type of targeted group, there’s not much development or actual work taking action because sadly, the diplomats or the parliamentarians are always restricted with their own state position on how much they can take action so they can know the brutality and in just about these cases, but they don’t take any concrete action to prevent the further violations of human rights, because they’re restricted by the country’s politics. The third targeted group is international organisations, grassroots solidarity movements and liberation movements across the world. It’s important for us to also target our advocacy work to these groups, because at the end of the day, we understand the injustice that happens in Palestine, the brutality, the violence, what happens with political prisoners, whether spyware surveillance or the use of torture or medical neglect, is not something very unique to the Palestinian situation. But these are policies that oppressive governments use across the world to implement their domination and oppression over a vulnerable community or minority group. So we tried to put aside the geographic fragmentation and differences and focus on these arbitrary policies. And this is the third targeted group. But when we talk about the work of Addameer we also work on spreading awareness to the Palestinian community here locally on the ground. We do workshop programmes that are called Know Your Rights ‘K N O W’. Sadly, if you can see me you will be you’ll see that I’m doing air quotes, because from the first moment Palestinians are arrested up until the release, there’s brutality and violence embedded at each stage of the process, whether it is the arrest process, the detention process, the interrogation, the transfer to the prison, and the incarceration itself. There’s violence and brutality. But it’s really important for us to spread the awareness to our community, to strengthen their knowledge of their own rights, when they are subjected to arrest and detention, we make sure that they know they have the right to have a lawyer present with them to be interrogated in the language they know. But sadly, none of these rights are provided to them. But it gives some kind of, you know, strength to the prisoners, because inside prison, they are isolated, they don’t have a community to support [them] psychologically or mentally, and so on. It’s on us to empower them ahead of time, and to know what to expect and how to act in these conditions.
What is the situation of prisoners in Palestine? What kind of conditions are they living in and experiencing
Milena Ansari 07:15
First, before talking about prison conditions, I do have to acknowledge that me myself, I have never been in prison. So part of me doesn’t feel like I have the right to talk about prison conditions, because we document from the prisoners themselves, [taking] testimonies directly. So these are their words, their own experiences, prison conditions are extremely brutal, and they’re harsh in nature, there’s overcrowding in prisons [that] Palestinians are incarcerated in. In one prison cell, there could be more than ten prisoners there. [Its] not only overcrowding, but there is lack of any basic minimum living standards, like any adequate living for basic human beings, there is no protection of the right to health, the right to education, even inside prison. What I mean by this is that inside prison, the prisoners are in control – or they are in charge and responsible – of everything for themselves. They do the cooking, they do the cleaning, they buy their life necessities from the prison canteen, where there is also economic exploitation, where the prison canteen sells life necessities and food at very high costs and high prices. There is also economic exploitation because the prison contains you. The prisoners are obligated to buy these necessities at very high prices. Why I say obligated because according to international humanitarian law, when there’s occupation and there are prisoners from an occupied territory and the occupying power, which Israel in this context has. [The occupier] has an obligation to provide adequate living necessities to the prisoners, they have an obligation to provide even adequate healthcare to prisoners. But what we see [with] implementation on the ground is actually using healthcare as a leverage against detainees and prisoners, where in order to put more psychological pressure, more physical pressure on the detainees, even [when they are already] in prison, the Israeli Prison Services don’t provide them proper medical health care. The prison clinics are [called] by the prisoners as the slaughterhouse because they’re by no means a place to take medical care, or to take any kind of treatment or prevent yourself from any sickness or diseases or even chronic illnesses that the detainees or prisoners already have. So they are experiencing more brutality in the clinic. The prison clinics [are[ like going back to prison conditions as a whole. How is life inside prison? The prison structure the prisons. So general, there are 17 prisons and detention centres where Palestinians are incarcerated by the Israeli occupation, and only one is located in the West Bank – so in the Palestinian territory – the rest are located in what is now called Israel. What that means? one thing is that the Palestinian prisoners are isolated from their own community. What it also means is that the loved ones, the Palestinian community cannot visit the prisoners inside Israeli prisons, because they need to take a specific permit from the Israeli occupation. And we note and report that male Palestinians between the age of 20 and 40, almost never get a permit to visit their loved one is in prison. So there is isolation. I don’t want to talk about law a lot. But the forcible transfer of the prisoners outside of their occupied territory, to the territory of the occupying power, is also illegal under international law and is a crime, and what we see happen on a day to day basis. And the majority of the Palestinian prisoners are forcibly transferred outside of their territory. The prison structures or the prisons where Palestinians are incarcerated in now. Not only are they held inside what is Israel, but they are also prisons that were established from the British Mandate era. So we’re talking about from way before 1948. And no actual reconstruction or rehabilitation for these structures have happened. Yhe structure of prisons doesn’t really entail anything that they can hold prisoners in them. Like, for example, Damon Prison [in the Naqab, inside the borders of Israel] – where Palestinian woman prisoners are incarcerated and detained. And originally, during the British Mandate, it was a place to store tobacco and even a horse stable at some sort of time period. But when I say this, by no means do we mean that we need to better the detention conditions for Palestinian prisoners. No, we do need to focus [on] the root cause. That is, why do we have 4700 Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli prisons? This is the focus or the question that we should tackle and prison conditions is just one of the issues we follow up on. So other than the overcrowdness, there’s also lack of ventilation, lack of natural lighting, or any kind of like window cell that brings any kind of sunlight or natural lighting to the prison cell.
like how do prisoners in Palestine [organise]? Like are they able to organise with each other, or resist the conditions? Obviously, they must experience oppression from these activities. But yeah, how are prisoners fighting back?
Milena Ansari 12:46
The Palestinian prisoner movement – and I can tell you this, with all honesty – it’s one of the only forms where Palestinians are united, sadly. Because outside of prisons Palestinians are fragmented, geographically, whether it is Palestinians in Gaza in their land, water and air siege for more than five years, seven years now, whether it is Palestinians in the West Bank that are under military rule, or Palestinians in Jerusalem and occupied ’48 territories that are under direct Israeli apartheid and discrimination. And of course, the Palestinian refugees, millions of them in exile, not being able to return back to their country. So the Palestinian community is fragmented outside of prison. But when we talk about the prisoners movement, it is all united, all together. There is no political party making decisions amongst all the other prisoners, they are all united taking decisions. And we see honestly a very strong connection and strong activism inside prison even with all of the brutality that prisoners face. And one example of this is hunger strikes. Collective hunger strikes have been one of the most important and only tools for Palestinian prisoners to protest either their harsh incarceration conditions, or their arbitrary detention in general. So collectively, they decide as a whole to refuse food for an open period of time, in order to change the power dynamics between the prison guards and the prisoners themselves. So the prisoners become in control of their own bodies. They become sovereign over their bodies, and don’t allow the prison guards to decide how they want to live their life or whatnot. It’s a form of pressure. It’s a peaceful form of demonstration. You’re’re using your own body to change the power dynamics between the oppressor and the victim. But sadly we see [that] collective hunger strikes are also being faced with more retaliation by the Israeli Prison Service. And so for example, when the prisoners initiate a hunger strike, those who are striking are immediately put into isolation as a form of punishment in the Israeli Prison Service’s sense that doesn’t make any common sense. And they say that since they are refusing a meal, which is in the laws and policies of the prison, they are basically refusing to abide by the prison rules. So they punish them by isolating them and putting them in isolation cells. Also part of [the repression is] not allowing them any contact or communication with the rest of the prisoners. Other forms of resistance by the prisoner movements other than hunger strikes and refusing meals is they refuse to stand in the count. The count is when the prison guards enter each prison cell and call out the prisoners by their numbers to make sure everyone is still in their place in their cells. And so a form [of resisting] is refusing to stand, to obey or to listen to them calling the prisoners.
How is the prisoner solidarity movement, like on the outside? Like how is this relationship between the inside and the outside in Palestine?
Milena Ansari 16:19
they’re intertwined. Definitely, like whatever the situation on [the] ground outside of prison is, does reflect on the situation inside prison and vice versa. Of course, an example of this is there was a hunger strike that was supposed to [be] initiate[d] in 2014. But if you remember, in 2014, there was a huge war on Gaza. And the Palestinian community wasn’t able to either focus on the hunger strike in prison or the siege and the war on Gaza in 2014. So the prisoners halted their hunger strike and postponed it until after the violence against Gaza. Because, you know, the Palestinian community tends to feel a lot. Like in May 2021, when there were families, Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah being forcibly displaced [from[ their own homes in Jerusalem. And everyone across Palestine from the river to the sea was revolting, and was standing up with Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah. We even saw cities in the occupied 1948 territories that don’t usually stand up or speak up or challenge the Israelis, because they are at the forefront with the Israeli occupation. But for example, Al Lidd, which is a Palestinian occupied ’48 city was revolting and standing up. We saw even people in the diaspora, Palestinians all around the world standing up with Sheikh Jarrah, and so I can clearly say that there is an intertwine or a reflection to what happens outside of prison with what happens inside of prison. Same thing, if we talk about the vice versa. The Gilboa escape. That happened last year, in November, where six Palestinian prisoners from Gilboa, a maximum security prison, were able to successfully escape this prison and sadly, they were recaptured after that. But during that escape all the Palestinian community across Historic Palestine, was supporting them saying that we’re here to support or take on any prisoner or any escapee – even if they would face criminal responsibility and criminal charges. They made sure that whenever a prisoner needs a Palestinian, that the support and solidarity is there. And of course, the way that Palestinians look at prisoners, they look at them as a symbol of resistance and a symbol of strength. Because although we are living in an open air prison, they are living in a very closed prison, isolated from their loved ones, their family, and their support system. So we have to be their support system from outside of prisons.
And do people like receive letters? Is that possible? Or I know you said visits are often very restricted, but how do families stay in touch with their loved ones to prison?
Milena Ansari 19:31
Sadly, this is what the Israeli prison services and the Israeli Apartheid settler colonial regime aims for regarding prisoners, they aim to isolate them. So when we talk about, do they get letters from their loved ones and whatnot? The answer is simply no. It’s possible to send letters but the Israeli prison services will open each letter, read it through, and if they feel like any sentence or any word is misplaced, or might motivate the Palestinians, or support them in a way that the Israelis don’t want the prisoners to have support, they don’t give the letter to the prisoner. So it stops with the Israeli prison guard that looks into the letter. So it’s possible to send, but it’s not really possible that the prisoner will receive the letter at the end of the day. And this is all part of restriction like by the way even books, educational books, even the Quran – which is the Holy Bible – is sometimes refused to enter the prison. Or even if we want like different religious books – not the only the Quran – they don’t allow religious books. They don’t allow history books inside prison, any like chemistry or physics books? They use the allegation or the narrative of security reasons. But we know all of this is part of educating the Palestinian community, because inside prison, there’s no education system provided by the Israeli prison services. And it’s completely banned.
So in that regard, like we had the insight into reading one of your reports about prisoner education, and it was super inspiring all this organising and pressure campaigns to access education, including the development of a university! could you share a little bit about that?
Milena Ansari 21:24
And so inside prison, the Israeli Prison Services completely deny the Palestinian prisoners and detainees the right to education, the right to continue their education. So any educational books or study groups are banned, and the prisoners can be punished for [trying to access them], either by isolation or banning them from prison, from family visits, or phone calls to their families. And so what the the prisoner movement did – and this is one of the success stories of the Palestinian prisoners’ movement – is that they established their own university educational system, where they also work remotely with Al Quds University in Abu Dis. But this educational system is restricted [to] a few topics, like a few fields of education, like social sciences, and I believe political science as well. Social Sciences and Political Science and Social Studies, Psychology, things that have do with math, or physics or biology or whatnot. Because these are banned by the Israeli Prison Services. So when I say that they have established their own system, it’s really important to note that the Israeli Prison Services, up, until this point, have allowed this to happen. But at any moment, they can hold every Palestinian prisoner who goes into this establishment of the like the study courses and the cultural courses – they can punish them because at the end of the day it’s still illegal, but for some reason, they’re shutting a blind eye at it. And of course, this education system was established by the Palestinian political prisoner and Legislative Council Member Marwan Barghouti, and he had [an] important role in this. And he led the prisoner movement with this educational system.
So in the UK, we have one of the most privatised prison systems in the world. We have a lot of private companies making massive profits from imprisoning people. And I’m aware that one of those companies G4S has also worked in Palestine. Could you share a little bit about that?
Milena Ansari 23:45
The G4S campaign actually is also another success story for the BDS [Boycorr, Divestment and Sanctions] Movement. Because in the past, I believe in 2014-2016, the G4S campaign – which is a security surveillance company that runs in different prisons across the world, and Israeli prison services used to use G4S in their own prison systems. There was a huge campaign against G4S asking them, and calling them to end their ties with the Israeli occupation, because of their violations of human rights. And this is where we see the line between private companies and human rights come together. Because we cannot say that businesses or companies should not abide by human rights, law and international principles. On the contrary, they play a huge and important role in really facilitating and playing an integral role in the oppression and domination of the people. So thankfully, up until now, the G4S have withdrawn their surveillance and their technology systems from Israeli prisons, but I do acknowledge and I can say it clearly that training sessions between G4S and Israeli Prison Services or Israeli security intelligence is still ongoing. So while they pulled their services from prisons, they’re still complicit somehow, by training and giving workshops to the Israeli occupation. This is why the power of BDS is important. Because it’s not only about the clear violations that we see, but it’s also what happens under the table. It’s these training sessions that are also embedded in the Israeli occupation, the ways of domination and oppression. And it all needs to end. Maybe I’ll connect it to something very recent I read about, which is Ben and Jerry’s, the ice cream company. And very recently, I think last week, officially, they won the lawsuit where they took control over stopping their products – Ben and Jerry’s, an ice cream company – [stopping] their products in Israeli settlements. The mother company of Ben and Jerry’s, refused this act, and wanted to hold them responsible for stopping their products in an Israeli settlement. But after following up with legal procedures, and really not bowing down to the bullying of the Israeli occupation, and also Israeli lobbying around the world, they won the case. And they were able to officially decide and announce that they will not have any of their products in Israeli settlements. So this is what we need to focus on, is that no matter how big, or how small,. Whether it is security and technology in prisons, or ice cream, it really plays a role in maintaining the oppression on the Palestinian people and sustaining the Israeli apartheid regime. So in order to really tackle the root cause of what’s happening here in Palestine, each country or each company needs to really self-criticise their work and self note, how are they complicit and playing an integral role into the occupation of the Palestinian people. And trust me, when this happens, when companies start opening their eyes and holding Israel accountable for human rights violations, Israel will understand the pressure from the international community. And I know this is possible because, when Russia invaded parts of Ukraine and established a war, and started stealing lands in Ukraine, European countries did not stop to think for a second [before] boycott[ing], sanction[ing] and divest[ing] from Russia and Russian companies. So we know it’s possible, with political will and with political intention. And we just want the same treatment, of how the international community is treating different racial groups or different nationalities – to treat Palestinians minimum the same. It’s not because we’re jealous, or we want to be treated as Europeans or whatnot. It’s basic human rights. It’s a legal, and it’s a moral obligation on the countries around the world, to hold Israel accountable for their human rights violations, instead of shedding a blind eye and constantly giving impunity to their violations. Because this silence only tells Israel, we’re giving you the green-light to continue on doing whatever you’re doing, and even expanding on doing that. So there’s a big role [for] the international community, ending their silence. And it starts with basically ending their silence. And what do you think is the role of the international community in terms of prisoner solidarity and prisoner support in Palestine? For the prisoners movement, solidarity is not only during hunger strikes, this is what I really want to focus on. Because in the type of work I do, I always interact with the international community, I always talk or report on cases of the hunger striking detainee, or a detainee under medical neglect or a woman in prison or a child. We talk about the policies, the systematic policies, and sadly, no one hears us when we’re talking about policies. But when we say there’s a detainee under imminent threat of death, that there is a child who was subjected to torture, or there was a woman who was subjected to rape, like when we are extremely clear about the cases, do we see people wanting to interact and wanting to work and wanting to save this specific case? But sadly, that’s not how we will deal with the prisoners issue. Because it’s not only one prisoner, it’s not two prisoners. It’s 4700 prisoners all facing the same policies of discrimination and oppression. So when You want to stand with Palestinian prisoners, you have to stand against the policies stand against prosecuting Palestinian civilians in Israeli military courts that lack any guarantee of fair trial standards, because violations of their rights starts from them. Starts when a military judge whose most of the time an Israeli military officer and most of the time an Israeli settler is ruling using Israeli military orders against a Palestinian. So basically, there’s no real justice or accountability in the Israeli judicial system. It’s just a system that plays an integral role in facilitating all these policies and all this oppression. So if the international community wants to stand with Palestinian prisoners, they have to stand against the Israeli apartheid regime, they have to stand against settler colonialism. Because as long as the idea – or the ideology – of settler colonialism is deeply rooted in the State of Israel, political prisoners will emerge over and over again. Violations of the rights will continue on happening. So in order to really support prisoners, we need to support the Palestinian people in general. Stand against prosecuting Palestinian prisoners in military courts, stand against the military regime that’s implemented against Palestinians in the West Bank, and stand against the racist policies of the Israeli apartheid regime.
So how do you think that kind of like situation has changed over time here? I know [from] doing prisoner solidarity work a long time, it often feels extremely depressing, that things just seem to get worse and worse. And obviously, you’ve talked about some successes in your struggles and your organising. But how do you think it’s changed? And how do you think it might continue to change?
Milena Ansari 32:09
So I don’t want to be pessimistic at all. I want to be [as] realistic as possible. I have been working with Addameer for three years now. And I can say, from this short period of time, three years, the situation has been ten times worse, it has been increasingly escalating with violence with the numbers of prisoners with the policies that the Israeli Prison Services use. And sadly, it’s very disappointing. It’s very sad. It’s very unfortunate. And if I want to say who is to respond to be responsible, I’m not the type of person who likes to blame others. But I do want to shed light at the role of the international community. Because when the the prisoners’ movement first emerged, there wasn’t much solidarity and much support [for] the prisoner movement. Like the international community would still argue that Palestinians are in prison because of the safety of the State of Israel. We would still hear these arguments, justifying the brutality inside prisons, by saying [it is] to save the security of Israel. And so I believe, sadly, the impunity of the international community has allowed Israel to continue on doing what they’re doing, and even expanding more and more. As I mentioned before, but really, I’m being completely realistic. Like when I first started with Addameer, I was talking about 300 Palestinian administrative detainees. So those who are detained without a charge without a trial, based on secret information and indefinite time. There are 300 of them during the first time I started three years ago. But now if you asked me, what is the number of administrative detainees, it’s 835. And that’s within three years, this number, I think, doubled even within two years, the situation is definitely getting worse, even with the Gilboa escape last year. We are seeing the Israeli Prison Services implement more policies of retaliation against the prisoners. So they even started with the recent policy where one prisoner cannot stay in their own cell… more than three months, and they cannot stay in the same prison more than six months. So they’re even trying to really mess up the whole life inside prison, where it’s always uncertainty. There’s always unknowing, and the future of the prisoners inside prison is always left at the hands of the Israeli Prison Services sadly. So I don’t want to be sounding very pessimistic but it’s the situation on ground, it’s deteriorating day by day.
Recently, we went to a demonstration with some mothers whose children were in prison. I just wondered, you know, we have we have, like children prisoners in the UK from the age of 12. We can be in prison. But I know here it’s like on a completely different scale. How many children are in prison? And I just wondered what the situation is [for] child prisoners?
Milena Ansari 35:26
When we want to talk about Palestinian children, prisoners and detainees. Actually, it’s the most brutal and the saddest, topic or issue regarding the Palestinian prisoners’ movement, because yes, even here, children as young as 12, could be prosecuted and put in prison. And there is a juvenile system, or a juvenile judicial system, implemented by the Israeli occupation, but there’s no actual application of it, like in reality on ground, the same court that looks into prosecuting a Palestinian [adult], regardless of what age, is the same that looks into prosecuting Palestinian children. So this juvenile system only exists in words and writing but not in real implementation. There are around 160 Palestinian children in prison. Four of them are placed under administrative detention. So four children are placed without charge without trial under secret information! [final music].