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Published in the 1-15 Sep 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails protest 

reports Khalid Amayreh from the West Bank

Thousands of Palestinians began a mass hunger strike on Sunday in four Israeli prisons and detention centres, including the notorious Ofer and Hadarim prisons where inmates have been subject to a variety of degrading and criminal treatment at the hands of prison guards. Thousands of other political prisoners held at detention facilities -- including the hellish desert camp in the Negev, known as Kitziot -- were expected to join the strike.

The prisoners are demanding that Israeli prison authorities desist from practising sinister methods of humiliation and torture, including the recurrent beating of inmates, forced stripping, surprise midnight searches, extended solitary confinements which often last for months, as well as protracted handcuffing and leg-fettering. They are also demanding that regular family visits be allowed and that public telephones be installed in their prisons to enable them to speak with their relatives.

Prisoner leaders -- whose testimonies are corroborated by human rights organisations -- have been complaining for some time that Israeli prison authorities are treating them extremely inhumanely, and seeking to destroy their morale by inflicting suffering on them. Inmates have also reported that prison authorities employ manifestly racist, Jewish settler fanatics to torture and maltreat them.

Israel has resorted to a number of draconian measures to thwart the collective strike. Prior to the start of the protest, Israeli prison police reportedly stormed prison cells and confiscated cigarettes, candy, water and salt. They also reportedly confiscated radios, pens, newspapers and even personal items, apparently to break the prisoners' will. In addition, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that barbecues had been set up to grill meat near the strikers' cells in order to make it harder for them to resist their hunger.

For his part, Israel's Public Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi reacted extremely callously to news of the strike. "Israel will not give in to their demands. They can starve for a day, a month, even starve to death, as far as I am concerned," said the man who, while studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, used iron chains to beat Arab and leftist students who were opposed to Israel's racist occupation of the Palestinian homeland.

Israeli Prison Commissioner Yaakov Granot made similar remarks in reaction to the strike, revealing his utter indifference to the fate of the 7,500 Palestinians who are currently being held in detention: "If the strike were to stop due to our meeting the prisoners' demands, I wouldn't view it as a success, but rather as a victory for terror." Especially after the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000, Israeli officials have routinely labelled almost every form of Palestinian protest against Israel's brutal occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem as acts of "terror".

The Palestinian Prisoner Club, a semi-official body that monitors the treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israel, stressed that prisoners were suffering from a host of "deplorable conditions" including flagrant medical negligence, unsanitary surroundings, routine beatings, contortion, hooding and degrading strip searches. "They live in hellish conditions that are intolerable by any human standards," said Issa Qaraqi, director of the organisation. "The goal of the hunger strike is to improve the humanitarian conditions inside the prisons."

As usual, Israel denies any wrong doing, invoking the mantra of "terror" and insisting that Palestinian prisoners are treated "normally and fairly". Israeli officials, always eager to evade responsibility, insist that Israel is not violating the inmates' rights, arguing that political prisoners in other parts of the world receive far worse treatment. The defence reflex, however, while containing a modicum of truth, simply seeks to divert attention from the racist and often criminal treatment meted out to non-Jewish prisoners in Israeli jails.

A recent report by the Israeli Public Committee Against Torture found a "sharp rise in the practice of torture, ill treatment, humiliation in inhuman conditions" of Palestinian detainees during 2003. Based on an analysis of dozens of affidavits, the report cited a number of serious violations, including routing beatings, kicking, shaking, being forced into painful positions and having handcuffs intentionally tightened, causing terrible pain.

The hunger strike already counts on widespread popular support from all over the occupied territories, as well as from Syria and Lebanon, where nearly three quarters of a million Palestinian refugees reside, having been expelled from their homes when Israel was created in 1948. In the Gaza Strip, thousands of protesters took to the streets in a show of support. Speakers underscored the "sacrifices of the suspended martyrs", urging freedom-loving people around the world to show their solidarity with them.

One speaker drew a comparison between inmates in German detention centres during World War II and Palestinian political and security prisoners in Israeli jails. "History is repeating itself. Yesterday's victims are doing to our sons and daughters what the Gestapo did to them more than 55 years ago."

In Ramallah, Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei warned that the PA would go to the United Nations General Assembly to force Israel to treat Palestinian political prisoners humanely. "Israel must understand that our political prisoners and prisoners of war [POWs] are not children of a lesser God. Israel must understand that the disgusting acts of beating, forced stripping and other forms of torture and humiliation constitute a brazen violation of the international humanitarian law and all principles of justice and fair play."

Israel utterly refuses to consider Palestinian resistance prisoners as POWs, preferring instead to use tendentious terms such as "terrorists", "security prisoners" or simply "Palestinian prisoners" when referring to them. Many of the 7,500 prisoners are "administrative detainees", interned indefinitely without charge or trial and effectively used as political bargaining chips to be used in any prospective final status deal with the Palestinian leadership. 

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