“My daughter has only seen her father twice in her life,” said one woman. “It’s been two months since I last saw my husband.” A young boy, in a faltering voice, then recited a poem he had written to his father, also a prisoner, to warm applause from the audience. A group of youngsters sang a song, and an elderly woman asked how “we can have peace when our children are being treated like animals.”
They were all speaking at a tent erected in front of the Ramallah Baladna Cultural Center on August 17. Similar tents have gone up all across the Palestinian areas for people to show solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who have gone on a general hunger strike to protest their conditions. August 18 has been declared a national day of solidarity with the prisoners and in a speech on the same day, President Yasser Arafat praised them for their steadfastness and vowed his unstinting support.
“They have tried legal means to improve their conditions,” Khalida Jarrar, Director of the Ramallah-based Adameer Prisoners’ Support & Human Rights Association, told the Palestine Report. “But nothing has worked. This is their last avenue.”
On August 15 it was announced that Palestinian prisoners were commencing a hunger strike until certain demands pertaining to their conditions were met. By August 17, according to numbers from Adameer, 3,500 prisoners were striking. The number is important if only because the Israel Prisons Service, in charge of the prisons that are affected by the hunger strike (as opposed to Israeli military prisons, or administrative detention centers), on August 18 claimed the number was 1,469 after “several dozen terrorists halted their strike.” Jarrar dismissed that claim as “Israeli propaganda.”
The prisoners are charging that their basic rights are being systematically violated and accuse Israel of being in transgression of Israeli as well as international law. They are demanding, according to an August 15 press release from the Families of Palestinian Political Prisoners organization, an end to “arbitrary and indiscriminate beatings; arbitrary and indiscriminate firing of tear gas into prison cells; humiliating strip searches in front of other prisoners every time they enter or exit their cells; and arbitrary imposition of financial penalties for minor infractions such as singing or speaking too loud.”
Prisoners are also demanding improved medical treatment and more and better food, while six separate demands deal with family visitation rights and procedures.
“I think the family visits are especially important,” said Jarrar. “Many prisoners and their families have been telling me how they wish they could go back to the old visitation facilities where, while prisoners and their relatives were separated, the glass partition wall had holes in them so they could at least touch fingers.”
Now, explains Jarrar, prisoners are separated from their visitors by two partition walls, and no physical contact is possible. In addition, children are no longer allowed to go and sit with the prisoners, and communication usually takes place over a phone. Both prisoners and visitors are subjected to what Jarrar calls “humiliating searches, not only on their way into the visits, but on their way out.”
Finally, there are many restrictions in place as to who can visit, and how many times they go. In order to apply for a permit to visit prisoners, relatives must go through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that then applies to the Israeli civil administration on their behalf. Rejections or permits are conveyed back to the families through the same route. According to Jarrar, in many cases people are simply rejected “for security reasons” with no other explanation forthcoming. Appeals must be lodged through the ICRC. Only closest relatives are allowed to go in the first place, and no children or siblings between the ages of 16-45 will get a permit.
The ICRC is also in charge, subject to the strictures of the Israeli authorities, of transportation to and from prisons, a process, prisoners charge, that has been needlessly prolonged and complicated. Trips that should only take a few hours are sometimes prolonged to dozens of hours, according to Israeli, Palestinian and international prisoner rights groups.
Indeed, none of the prisoners’ complaints are new, and most of them are well documented. In February 2003, the International Federation of Human Rights (FDIH), in cooperation with several Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, released a lengthy report detailing several violations of international law. The report concluded that Israel, despite being signatory to international conventions on the treatment of detainees, was in “flagrant violation” of, among others, the Universal Human Rights Declaration, particularly those articles prohibiting all forms of torture and other abuses (article 5) and which protect the rights of detainees and prisoners (articles 9, 10 and 11); the Fourth (4th) Geneva Convention; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, particularly those articles regarding the prohibition of torture and other forms of abuses (article 7) and the rights of detainees and prisoners (article 9, 10, 14); the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners; as well as the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners.
“I hope,” said Jamal Ali, 40, now a municipal employee with the Palestinian Authority, “that the world will see what is happening here.” Ali spent five years in jail from 1986 to 1991. He recognized all the demands of the prisoners. He said in his five years in jail - 30 months were spent in administrative detention - he received no more than five visits from family. The food, he said, was “not fit for consumption,” and the medical attention was terrible.
“Whatever was wrong with me - I had a problem with my knee - the doctor would just point at his head and give me aspirin. It didn’t matter what I complained of.”
So far, the official Israeli response to the hunger strike has been uncompromising.
“They can strike until death,” Israeli Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi told the Jerusalem Post on August 16. Hanegbi also said he had received support from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to take a “strong and stiff stand” against the prisoners.
Israeli prison authorities have declared they are ready to weigh prisoners every day, and force-feed them if necessary. On August 17, it was reported that prison guards would use “psychological warfare” to break the strike, including holding large barbeques in jailhouses.
While Jarrar is not concerned about the BBQs - “it’s a silly idea. It’s a direct challenge to the prisoners and will only make them more determined” - she’s more worried by the threat of force-feeding prisoners.
“In 1980,” she recalls, “two prisoners [Ali Ja’fari and Rasem Halawi] in Nafha prison were force-fed after a lengthy hunger strike. When they put the tubes down, they put them in the wrong place, and they ended in their lungs.” Ja’fari and Halawi both died.
She’s also concerned at reports that prison authorities at the Eshel Prison have confiscated water and salt from prisoners. On August 18, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel charged that prison guards there had taken salt, water, juice and milk from prisoners and on August 15 cut off the water supply until the evening. Salt and water are essential to keep hunger strikers from deteriorating too rapidly.
“This can be handled well,” said Jarrar, “or it can be handled badly. If it is handled badly, it can get very dangerous,” she said, adding she felt prisoners were very serious in their demands.
Ali concurred. “If any of these prisoners die, it will cause an explosion on the Palestinian street.”
At the Baladna Center, meanwhile, there was a break in proceedings. For obvious reasons no refreshments were being provided, and medical staff was on hand to aid anyone feeling weak in the hot afternoon weather.
Eleven-year-old Huda Barghouti was sitting with a group of her female relatives. She has only ever seen her two uncles, Fakhri and Issam, in prison where both have so far served 27 years. Huda has been able to visit twice. She last went in July, and was allowed to stay for 45 minutes. She spoke to Fakhri through a phone. “It was hard to hear what he was saying,” she said, but would otherwise not be drawn on how the procedure had been.
“She’s shy to talk about it,” explained her mother, Hanan, who said that while Huda had not been strip searched, guards had run a metal detector across her body, including between her legs and it had made her so uncomfortable that she had hardly been able to tell her mother about it.
Hanan, 40, has herself not been able to visit her brothers since the early 1990s.
“Until Oslo,” she said, “I could go freely. But after Oslo I have not been allowed to go once.” She had been told she was not allowed for the standard “security reasons.” She speculated, however, that the real reason was because she herself had once spent time in jail. In 1989, she had been detained for four days for attending a demonstration calling for improved prisoners’ rights.
This article was originally published August 18, 2004, by Palestine Report, found at www.palestinereport.org. Also in this week’s edition, PR Online reports from the Rafah Crossing and interview the head of the Palestinian Olympic delegation in Athens.