Assume the position: a play about prison is followed by arrests

Assuming the position: Palestinian students’ theatrical meditation on torture

The prisoner asked that the tea be without sugar, but the interrogator — the nicer one, who called off the beatings and offered cigarettes — insisted to the guard that the tea be as sweet as possible. So the guard came in carrying tea and his rifle, presented the prisoner with the glass, cut loose the plastic cuffs holding the prisoner’s hands together. Minutes later, the prisoner seemed drunk, as though the tea had been drugged. He spun around the room exaggeratedly, offering confessions about how his friends and he had participated in demonstrations.

The placard on the Israeli interrogator’s desk was in Arabic and it read simply: “Interrogator.” All three — guard, interrogator, and prisoner — looked as though they were in high school. There was a reassuring dissonance between the seriousness of the subject and these few clues to the pretend nature of the scene. A few minutes later, the boys were elbowing each other, laughing at another young actor who, every time his lines came up, would giggle uncontrollably.

The play had been organized by Lajee’ Center, a youth center in Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem. The goal was not only to give the youth a chance to act, but also to teach them about the realities of prison and interrogation. Those who wrote the play thought this was a timely project since many youths have been arrested during this intifada. The play includes scenes not only of Palestinian prisoners being interrogated by Israeli officials, but also of prisoners encountering Palestinian collaborators with Israel. These collaborators are trained to seek signed confessions from prisoners. The play addresses how not to accidentally give one’s self up to collaborators who might ask such trick questions as, “do you have any friends on the outside you want us to particularly look out for?”

A few months later, at four o’clock on the morning of March 18, Marwan, who had kept a straight face in overacting being intoxicated, was arrested for real. He is now in Ofer prison, north of Ramallah. Two other actors from the play have also been arrested: Ahmed, who played the armed guard, and Hamza, who played another prisoner.

Marwan’s family described the night of his arrest. His mother recounted, “The army came to our house at four in the morning. Marwan’s father woke up and opened the door for the soldiers. I told him not to protest, because I didn’t want to see anyone hurt, especially in front of the children. The soldiers told us all to go outside, so we went out to the patio under the grapevine. At first they took away Marwan’s younger brother, who is just 14, but soon after they asked his name, they realized he wasn’t the boy they were looking for, returned him, and took Marwan instead.”

Maher, Marwan’s older brother, added, “A little while later, people saw that the army had taken Marwan to the cemetery where they beat him for an hour before taking him away. This means that they didn’t initially have any good evidence on which to arrest him.”

His father said that just the day before he was arrested the family had paid $550 in tuition for private school for Marwan. This money would now be lost, and when Marwan was released, he’d have to start the semester again, surely having fallen behind. Moreover, they would all have to worry about him being arrested again. “This is how they ruin the futures of our children. They don’t let them study, grow, or even breathe,” said Marwan’s father.

That day, Marwan’s mother cooked stuffed grape leaves made from the new spring leaves on their grapevine. “Marwan loves stuffed grape leaves. I ate them today, but I didn’t taste them. I could only think of him.”

For months, people in the camp have been joking nervously that soon there will be no men or boys left in Aida. According to the Palestinian Prisoner Society, in the last four months, between 50 and 70 people have been arrested from Aida, two thirds of them children under the age of 18. This brings to 115 the approximate number of Aida’s 4,250 residents who are currently in Israeli prisons as political prisoners. Most of the youth arrested recently have been charged with being involved with rock throwing and making Molotov cocktails to resist soldiers operating in and around the camp itself.

Community leaders suggest that one of the reasons the arrests have been happening now is to preclude popular resistance to Israel’s building of the separation wall that seems on course now to run about 50 meters from the borders of the camp. The wall will cut off the last bit of open land available to its residents, and eliminate the only source of agricultural income that remains for these refugees who lost their village land in 1948.

Israel seems to be employing a number of strategies to eliminate resistance to the wall, starting with controlling information. The earliest stages of work on the wall began in spring 2002 during the siege of the Church of the Nativity, when olive trees were destroyed in a path about 100 meters from the camp. At the time, the camp was under strict curfew and the West Bank was reeling from a series of Israeli invasions into Palestinian cities. Moreover, it was not clear what the goal of this destruction would be. For all of these reasons, there was no popular resistance at this stage.

About one year later, the Israeli military put down barbed wire in a ditch along the path, isolating the families living on the other side of the wire from Aida and Bethlehem. With Israel’s plan for a separation wall now public, the people of Aida could see what was happening to their community. Youth threw stones in resistance to the building of the barrier. Then Israeli construction work stopped again until March 2004, when Israel began erecting the eight-meter concrete wall itself.

The new campaign of arrests began about two months before the towering slabs of concrete that will make up Israel’s separation wall began to take their grim places in Aida. Perhaps partly because so many youth have been arrested, there has been little popular resistance to the building of the wall near Aida in the last few months.

Since his early morning arrest, Marwan has been in interrogation for a month and a half. Such lengthy periods of interrogation are not unusual. During this period, detainees do not see lawyers or representatives of the Red Cross. A report issued on January 26, 2004 by the Palestinian Prisoner Association found that torture of Palestinian political prisoners remains widespread, with more than three-quarters of prisoners forced to remain in uncomfortable positions for extended periods of time. More than 90% have endured beatings, been forced to stand for long periods of time, or have been kept from sleeping for extended periods.

After interrogation, prisoners can be charged, released, or placed under administrative detention without charge for up to six months, a sentence which is renewable. Administrative detention allows Israeli authorities to extend interrogation and wait to see if others will make confessions about the detainee. Those at the Prisoner Association regarded forced confessions as inaccurate vehicles for obtaining information. Abed al-Fattah Al-‘Atabi, who works with the Prisoner Association, quipped that if everything that prisoners confessed during these interrogations were true, Palestine would have had a strong enough resistance to have been liberated long ago. Youth being charged with throwing stones may serve between six months and a year, and those preparing or throwing Molotov cocktails may serve two or more years.

One afternoon, two other actors in the play, Nidal, 14, and Muhammad, 18, reflected on their experience making the play and on the arrests that followed. Nidal played the hero of the play who did not confess anything to the interrogators. He said that the play taught them about what to expect if they were ever arrested, and how to avoid giving up information even when manipulated. “Now,” he said, “three of the actors are living the play in real life.”

Muhammad, who played an interrogator in the play, is lonely these days, having lost many in his circle of friends. With a forlorn air that almost suggested he only spoke to journalists because there was no one else to talk to, he said, “Before the arrests, there was movement in Aida, I could find people to chat with. Now, there is no one.” On why these arrests occurred, he suggested, “maybe the Israeli authorities are afraid of the new generation, they want to break it up.”

A few weeks before Palestinian Prisoner’s Day, a group of ten boys and girls ranging from ages 13 to 16 from Lajee Center decided to do something small for their friends who have been arrested. They organized to make olive wood placards for twelve of those imprisoned, on which they wrote the prisoner’s name and the second half of a famous couplet of poetry by the Tunisian poet Abdelqasim Shabbi: “As the night must dawn, the fetters will be broken.”

On April 17, Palestinian Prisoner’s Day, the group met after school. For three hours they went from house to house to deliver the placards. Not one left early. Along the way, the girls walked shoulder to shoulder, nudging each other as they chatted, and the boys occasionally dropped the olive wood placards in their charge. As they settled into salon after salon, they offered their own brand of tentative teenage support. As an older volunteer made an introduction for the group, they would sip their tea or juice. Then, almost fearing the answers, they would ask their questions. “Have you been in touch with your son?” “Does he have access to a phone?” “How is he doing?”

Between visits and then in a group seminar led by the same Lajee Center volunteer a few days later, the youth reflected on what they were doing. “I thought all the parents would be in tears, but many of them said they are hopeful that their children are going to be released. That made us feel optimistic, too,” said Rowan, 14. The volunteer encouraged them to see parents’ complicated mix of emotions: nationalism and support for all of the political prisoners on the one hand along with their utmost desire for their sons to be safe and come home on the other.

Another girl, Abeer, 15, articulated how these two feelings might come together: “One of my favorite moments was when one of the fathers talked about someday when our generation will be old and we will have our own children and grandchildren to look after, and they will hopefully live in a better society. Can you imagine? Grandma Rowan? Grandma Abeer?”

Amahl Bishara, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at New York University, and Nidal al-Azraq, an aspiring actor, filed this dispatch from Aida camp near Bethlehem.