Israel: A Carceral State
There are numerous misleading ways of framing the conflict in Palestine. These include long-standing tropes, such as that it has been going on “since time immemorial;” or that all the bloodshed is a direct result of a historic Arab or Muslim rejection of Jews, linked to a desire to “drive them into the sea;” or that it is a tragic struggle between two national movements of roughly equal valence, each with its own perfectly valid historical “narrative,” à la France and Germany between 1870 and 1945. Another faulty approach, favored by the media, is to regard every outburst as part of an irrational and self-generating “cycle of violence,” as if it is impossible to ascribe cause and effect to what is happening. All of these flawed depictions elide the fact that in essence this is an encounter of a colonial nature, notwithstanding the impassioned nationalisms and inflamed religious sentiments evidently in play on both sides. The protagonists are on one side a settler population that is protected by its own powerful, militarized, and nuclear-armed nation-state, and on the other a nation rooted in the original indigenous population that has always been denied a state.
Starting from that premise, there is a far more fruitful approach for understanding what is happening in Palestine. Such an approach is faithful to history and to the way the situation on the ground in Palestine today appears to any observer who looks closely at the settlements, checkpoints, and walls that define this reality. This approach consists regarding the Zionist movement and the Israeli state that grew out of it as a carceral project insofar as it relates to the Palestinian people. It is within this framework that this issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies presents a dossier on Palestinian prisoners.
Fencing off lands to prevent access by their indigenous owners, or walling in, confining, and otherwise restricting the native people of the land to “reservations” in order to allow the settler population freedom of movement and action, all the while imprisoning (or killing) those who actively contest the legitimacy of the colonial project, are typical characteristics of settler-colonial endeavors. Needless to say, those murdered and imprisoned in the process are dismissively described as “bandits,” “fanatics,” or “terrorists.”
Leaving aside the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, which have extirpated or marginalized their indigenous populations, Israel remains the last settler-colonial state standing. In the territories occupied in 1967, Israel has taken the traditional approaches of isolation, containment, and control to new heights. It has done so by creating settlement blocs strategically sited to separate, isolate, and break down Palestinian population concentrations; a web of walls, fences, crossing-points, and checkpoints, as well as a segregated road network, and a highly sophisticated system for the regulation of Palestinian movement; and a vast prison structure overseen by an intrusive and omnipresent intelligence service and a tame and subservient military and civil legal apparatus. In short, this is a vast carceral edifice, one which Israeli journalist Amira Hass has memorably described as a “matrix of control.”
The proportion of Palestinians who have been through the Israeli penal system over several generations is startlingly high, with an estimated 800,000 people, or about 40 percent of the male population of the occupied territories, having suffered some form of detention since 1967. Of course, only a fraction of the entire Palestinian population is actually in prison at any one time: as of May 1, 2014, Israel held 5,271 political prisoners and “administrative detainees” according to Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, the leading Palestinian NGO dedicated to the issue of prisoners. Using slightly different criteria, Addameer’s Israeli counterpart, B’Tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), puts that figure at 5,053 at the end of the same month. These numbers are deceptively low, however. Thousands of other Palestinians, many hundreds of them children, have been detained for interrogation or before trial for shorter periods, or held for the “crime” of trying to enter Israel to obtain work (Israeli citizens go where they please by right in the entirety of “Eretz Israel;” West Bank or Gaza Strip Palestinians who try to enter Israel are subject to severe criminal penalties). Moreover, the inoffensive term “administrative detention,” like all such Orwellian constructions (e.g., “peace process”), conceals a brutal reality, one of potentially indefinite detention without charge, trial, or sentence for renewable three- or six-month periods, sometimes for years, and in some cases for a decade or more. An estimated 100,000 Palestinians have been subjected to this practice in the nearly 50 years since the occupation of 1967.
“Administrative detention” is one of many colonial relics in the Israeli arsenal of tools for subjugation of the Palestinian subject population. It is the bitter fruit of Great Britain’s 1945 Emergency Regulations, a body of abusive legislation that has been the backbone of Israel’s legal and carceral policies in the areas of Palestine occupied in 1967. And this is no coincidence. Central to Israel’s restrictive regime vis-à-vis the Palestinians, administrative detention—and many other practices, such as home demolition, exile, and collective punishment, which are internationally outlawed—comes straight from the British playbook: Israel’s policies and practices are directly rooted in Britain’s lengthy experience of keeping the natives in line in India, Ireland, Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, and much of the rest of the world.
Most of the Palestinian administrative detainees, who in May 2014 numbered 192 (and some of whom had been held in this fashion for over ten years), recently went on a hunger strike, demanding the end of this arbitrary practice. The strike garnered the sympathy of many hundreds of other Palestinian political prisoners, who refused food in solidarity with the striking administrative detainees. It also struck a responsive chord in many sectors of Palestinian civil society, which responded with protests and demonstrations throughout the occupied territories. The population of much of the West Bank had previously seemed passive, almost paralyzed, in the face of combined Israeli repression and the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security cooperation with Israel, notoriously described by PA Mahmud Abbas as “sacred,” in a message stressing individual well-being and security for the comfortable sectors of Palestinian society. Although the prisoners’ hunger strike was called off in June 2014 without achieving its main objective of ending the practice of administrative detention, by then it had already led to a new level of popular ferment. Together with the revulsion produced by Israel’s repression of Palestinians protesting Israeli detention practices, including the shooting deaths of five young demonstrators in May and early June 2014, this ongoing ferment contributed to a subsequent escalation of protests. This escalation of an already explosive situation, involving the highest levels of Palestinian popular unrest in Jerusalem and elsewhere seen in over a decade, began with the kidnapping and killing in June 2014 of three Israelis studying at a yeshiva in the occupied West Bank. Thereafter, Israel launched a campaign detaining hundreds of Palestinians throughout the West Bank. The “revenge” kidnapping, torture, and killing of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir then took place, with the boy apparently burned alive by his Israeli captors in Jerusalem. All of this formed the backdrop to Israel’s massive military attack on Gaza in July 2014.
However, central though they are, imprisonment and detention are only one part of the greater picture. The entire structure of the occupation regime established after 1967 in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem—which in essential features resembles what was earlier done in the areas incorporated into Israel in 1948–49—can be seen as a carceral enterprise, which is designed to control, confine, and dominate the Palestinians living in these areas. The most extreme and most perfected example of this strategy is the treatment of the Gaza Strip, which has become the world’s largest open-air prison, where 1.8 million people are penned into 360 sq km, a ghetto in which most of them are confined for years. But even in the apparently more “open” circumstances of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the same principles of control, confine, and dominate apply, as in any prison system.
There is a history to this approach, with two distinct periods worthy of attention: that before 1948, and that from 1948 until 1967. The early Zionist movement, attempting to colonize and ultimately take control of the entirety of the heavily populated territory of Arab Palestine, employed a strategy of rapidly erecting so-called stockade and watchtower (homah v’migdal) settlements to dominate their strategically-chosen environs, and at the same time keep out the understandably hostile Palestinian population on whose land the settlers were inexorably encroaching. When the settler population was a fraction of the total at the outset, and the Zionist project was utterly dependent on the might of the British colonial power for its implantation, such a set of measures to exclude “the natives” from areas that had been taken over by the newcomers was necessary. After the military victory and ethnic cleansing of 1948–49, attendant on the establishment of the State of Israel, however, it was possible to adopt an entirely new set of approaches drawn from this basic carceral model. Thus, the Palestinians that remained as a now-small minority in the new Israeli state were from 1948–66 confined to limited areas of the country by a military government that used its highly developed intelligence service to meticulously regulate their movements, and by a policy of legalized land theft. This policy restricted the Arab populations of areas like the Galilee and the Triangle to a fraction of the lands that had been Arab-owned before 1948. The Palestinians inside Israel were encircled not with fences and watchtowers, but with kibbutzim, moshavim, “green zones,” restricted areas, military zones, and other ingenious forms for the control of the newly-appropriated land, whereby they found their communities tightly surrounded and unable to expand. At the same time, both physical and legal barriers were erected to keep the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had been expelled or had fled their homes in terror during the fighting of 1948–49 from being able to return to their homeland or to reclaim their stolen property. Thus, Israel’s new post-1948 carceral regime was designed both to physically and legally confine and control that small part of the Palestinian population that remained inside the borders of the state, and to exclude the much larger numbers of Palestinians who had been forced out.
After 1967, the pre-state and 1948–66 models that had been perfected inside Israel were “exported” to the newly conquered territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Colonial settlements were built to stake out territorial claims and to confine the Palestinian population to smaller and smaller zones of what remained of their homeland. The acme of this process was the devising in the mid-1990s of the Oslo system comprising Areas A, B, and C of the West Bank whereby Israel retained absolute control of most of the territory and maintained its predominant position in the rest. Meanwhile, some of the same prisons that were used by the British to incarcerate Palestinians during the Mandate period, and by Israel after 1948 to jail recalcitrant Arab citizens of the new state, are today being used to detain Palestinians from the territories occupied in 1967. These are a part of an archipelago of 25 detention centers, prisons, and interrogation centers, 21 of them inside Israel, that dot this small country. The facilities are crammed with Palestinians being detained until interrogation and trial, held as administrative detainees without accusation, trial, or conviction, or imprisoned after trial and sentencing in military courts that invariably find the accused guilty: a travesty of the legal process that is grimly detailed in the 2011 Israeli documentary The Law in These Parts.
While this introduction was being written, disturbances had been taking place for weeks in Palestinian neighborhoods of occupied Arab East Jerusalem, in parts of the Palestinian-majority areas inside Israel, and in the West Bank, while the Gaza Strip was being pounded by Israel’s air force, navy, and artillery as ground troops penetrated on land and as rockets from there were being fired into Israel. Whatever their immediate causes, and whatever their unforeseeable outcome, these events represent the inevitable response of a society oppressed by a colonial power, which for generations has confined, isolated, separated, and expelled an entire people by means of a sophisticated and comprehensive carceral system. In spite of its looming and intrusive presence in the lives of every Palestinian, whether those confined within it, or those kept out and forbidden from returning to their homeland, this system is all the more sinister for being made nearly invisible to many in the West thanks to decades of successful media spin.
It may be a sign that the old obfuscating formulae can no longer be relied upon to fool all of the people all of the time concerning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians that one of the most vulnerable targets of the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been the security company G4S. Different elements of this global conglomerate provide equipment for prisons, barriers, and surveillance systems inside Israel and in the parts of Palestine occupied in 1967, as well as in prisons and detention centers in the UK, and along the U.S.-Mexican border and in prisons in many U.S. states. The United Methodist Church, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Unite, Great Britain’s largest trade union, have all divested or called for divestment from the company, singling it out for the services provided by its systems and equipment in the incarceration and control of Palestinians. These are four heavyweights in the Western world. This and other similar pressure was a major factor in the June 2014 announcement by this business heavyweight (with more than 600,000 employees worldwide) that it would allow all of its existing Israeli contracts to lapse. These provided for security and screening equipment at Israeli military checkpoints, at the notorious Ofer prison (outside of which video footage showed Israeli soldiers shooting down two Palestinian teenagers without provocation in May), and at an Israeli police station in the West Bank, as well as in prisons inside Israel itself where Palestinians are detained. It is singularly appropriate that such a company should be in the sights of the BDS movement, given how central prisons and confinement, isolation, and separation have been to the Zionist project and its offspring, the State of Israel. It is also a sign of the times that such pressure should have succeeded.
It is in this developing context that the Journal of Palestine Studies is devoting this special issue to the question of Israeli imprisonment and detention practices. The dossier includes interviews with two leading Palestinian political prisoners, Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat; a historical article that details meticulously how the new Israeli state created a system of forced labor camps for Palestinian prisoners, most of them civilians, during and after the 1948–49 war; and an essay on the status of Palestinian prisoners in international humanitarian law. The dossier includes as well a map of the Israeli carceral archipelago, produced by Addameer.
Saadat and Barghouti, the subjects of interviews in this issue, which are translated from our Arabic-language sister publication, Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filistiniyya, are perhaps the two best-known Palestinian political prisoners. The former, who continues to be the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was sentenced to thirty years in prison after an Israeli military court convicted him in 2008 of heading “an illegal terrorist organization,” and of responsibility for all its actions, including the October 2001 killing of Maj. Gen. (ret.) Rehavam Ze’evi, a former Israeli tourism minister. Barghouti received five life sentences from an Israeli civil court for attacks inside Israel in 2001–2 during the second intifada, in which five Israelis were killed.
Upwards of forty Palestinian leaders have been assassinated by Israel (over twenty of them between 1972 and 1988, and a similar number since 1994), while Ze’evi’s is the only similar case to date on the Israeli side. Needless to say, whether they were carrying out high-level Palestinian assassinations or attacks on Palestinian civilians, the Israeli perpetrators are not described as terrorists. Between 2000 and June 2014, Israeli military forces and/or settlers killed more than 1,407 Palestinian children, an average of two a week, according to Defence for Children International. While those responsible are not considered terrorists, Barghouti and Saadat, as well as thousands of other Palestinian political prisoners, are classified as such by Israel. The Western media generally follow suit, never describing Israelis responsible for murderous acts as terrorists, and often repeating Israel’s use of the term to describe Palestinians. The American legal system tends to follow that of Israel in slavish fashion. Thus, “material support” for many Palestinian groups is severely proscribed under U.S. law because of their classification as terrorist organizations, but there is no legal bar to tax-deductible contributions to “charities” that support Israeli West Bank settlements whence issue extremist vigilantes who routinely murder and maim Palestinians.
As pointed out earlier, the labelling of those who resist oppression as “terrorists” is a standard colonial trope, and it is worth going back to another colonial situation, that of South Africa under the apartheid regime, to examine how that played out over time. For white-ruled Pretoria, and for the Reagan administration that strongly supported it on Cold War grounds, the African National Congress (ANC) and its leader Nelson Mandela were simply terrorists. It is worth noting that the ANC’s armed wing, led by Mandela, carried out violent sabotage attacks against South African institutions and that Mandela was a member of the leadership of the South African Communist Party, as well as a committed advocate of armed struggle. To the very end of his confinement on Robben Island, he refused to renounce violence, as had been demanded by the apartheid regime as a condition of his release.
In spite of all this, Nelson Mandela was eventually transformed in the public eye, becoming the center of a huge international campaign around the slogan “Free Nelson Mandela,” which became the title of a 1984 hit song by The Specials. He and his incarcerated ANC comrades were thereby transmuted in the eyes of the world from “terrorists” to freedom fighters and came to be considered political prisoners. The late South African leader has now entered a pantheon of heroes in the struggle against colonial and racist oppression alongside Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., although unlike both of them, he was never an apostle of non-violence. While such an apotheosis has affected Mandela and many other leaders of anti-colonial movements who engaged in violence before him, all the way back to the architects of American independence over two centuries ago, Palestinians who do so are systematically tarred with the brush of terrorism.
Rounding out this issue are two important articles. In the first, Salman Abu Sitta and Terry Rempel tell the previously little-known story of the detention of Palestinian civilians in Israeli labor camps during the 1948–49 war. Their main sources are the files of the International Committee of the Red Cross that were not opened to the public until 1996 (and most of which had never been consulted before then), as well as twenty-one interviews with former detainees. The authors lay out the circumstances in which as many as 5,000 Palestinian non-combatants were detained for many months, some of them for longer than a year, and obliged to engage in forced labor. The second article is a legal analysis by Sahar Francis, who argues that the laws and rules of war are applicable to Palestinian detainees in their capacity as prisoners of war and civilians under occupation in accordance with the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. She stresses that the international community has never held Israel accountable for these and other violations of international humanitarian law. That impunity goes far toward explaining how Israel over the decades was able to erect structures of control and confinement affecting the entire Palestinian population. It is our hope that the materials in this issue will increase understanding of Israel’s nature from its very beginnings until the present day as a carceral state for the Palestinian people.
Rashid. I Khalidi