Prominent Palestinian professor and writer Ahmad Qatamesh spent a total of eight and a half years in Israeli prison without being charged or brought to trial.
During two separate stints in Israeli lockup, Qatamesh was held in administrative detention, a draconian practice in which Israel imprisons Palestinians for infinitely renewable six-month terms without charge or trial, using “secret evidence” against them.
“Administrative detention is one of the most difficult of Israel’s tactics because prisoners have nothing but uncertainty,” Qatamesh told The Electronic Intifada. “They never know when or if they will go home, and neither do their families.”
Sitting in the living room of his home in al-Bireh, a central West Bank city near Ramallah, the veteran prisoner explained the Israeli occupation’s use of administrative detention as a method of targeting influential Palestinians — resistance and civil society figures alike.
As one of those who has been targeted multiple times, Qatamesh rejects Israel’s claim that administrative detention is used solely as a security measure.
Indeed, it was used to collectively punish Palestinians in the West Bank after three Israeli teens, later found slain, went missing there in June.
Thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and present-day Israel were arrested during the popular demonstrations that followed the nationalist-motivated 2 July kidnapping and brutal murder of Muhammad Abu Khudair, a sixteen-year-old Palestinian from Jerusalem.
As of 7 August, that arrest campaign had resulted in the number of prisoners held in administrative detention soaring to an estimated 450, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Society.
Though arrests have continued since then, these are the latest available statistics.
There have been numerous hunger strikes in Israeli jails undertaken by Palestinian detainees in recent years in a bid to demand their freedom. Dozens of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails across the occupied West Bank and Israel agreed in June to end a mass hunger strike against administrative detention.
Qatamesh, who has spent a total of thirteen years in Israeli prison, was first arrested and locked up for four and a half years in the 1970s for charges related to activism with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a secular Marxist political party deemed illegal by Israel.
“These years were easier than later on,” he recalled. “We still had the hope to liberate the homeland.”
When he was rearrested in 1992, he was accused of “illegal activities” as an organizer and leader in the PFLP, a charge he denies until today. Rather than bring charges against him, Israel instead put him in administrative detention and barred him and his lawyer from seeing the secret evidence against him.
Israeli intelligence were apparently unable to prove his involvement in any illegal activities despite three months of interrogation, during which Qatamesh says he was tortured. Though a military judge decided that he ought to be released shortly after the interrogation period ended, it would be six and a half years before that order was carried out.
During his more than six years of detention in the 1990s, Qatamesh says that “Israeli interrogators and secret intelligence used very specific types of torture — not punching, but psychological pressure, [such as] isolation and sleep deprivation,” among other techniques.
In those years, Qatamesh would regularly participate in collective hunger strikes with other administrative detainees and prisoners. “It wasn’t like today,” he said. “There wasn’t the same attention [in the media] at that time.”
“But times had also changed,” he remembered. “Many of us were older and others had been in and out prison. We were starting to get tired. There was still hope as the intifada took place outside, but we wanted to get out of prison and be a part of it.”
Leading up to his 1998 release, Qatamesh says Israel was facing mounting pressure and calls for his release as he received regular visits from European Union politicians, as well as Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations and left-wing groups.
After six years and seven months of imprisonment without charge or trial, Qatamesh returned to his home in al-Bireh.
Following that release, Qatamesh says he abstained from all political activity, including involvement with the PFLP. For several years, he taught at Birzeit University, where he lectured on philosophy, history and politics.
“Bigger than I am”
Upon his release, Qatamesh wrote about his experience being tortured in his first book, I Shall Not Wear Your Tarboosh. He wrote two more books, one titled A History of the Secret Revolution, and another about the one-state solution in Palestine.
After he was rearrested yet again in 2011, he says that Israeli interrogators repeatedly asked him about the ideas expressed in his writing. “They accused me of being PFLP, then Hamas, and finally they told me I was a threat to their state,” he recalled.
“I hadn’t been a part of any political group for years. It was harder than when I was younger. I just wanted to go home and be with my family,” he said, referring to his wife, Suha, and his daughter, who was 21 years old when he was arrested the last time. Israeli soldiers pointed guns at her and forced her to call her father to demand his surrender.
Qatamesh says Israeli authorities “made me into something bigger than I am. That’s why they used administrative detention.”
For two and a half years, Israeli military courts continually rubber-stamped the intelligence establishment’s requests to extend Qatamesh’s administrative detention order. His health declined during this time and he suffered from regular fainting and chronic debilitating headaches.
In April 2013, the international human rights group Amnesty International called for Israel to unconditionally release Qatamesh.
“Ahmad Qatamesh is a prisoner of conscience who is being detained solely for expressing nonviolent political beliefs,” stated Amnesty International’s Ann Harrison, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program.
During his third stint in prison, however, it took the military judges longer to recognize the lack of evidence against the aging writer.
It wasn’t until August 2013 that an Israeli military court ruled that it would only extend Qatamesh’s administrative detention order for one more six-month interval unless Israeli intelligence or the military could bring provide evidence demonstrating his involvement in resistance activities banned by Israel.
After seven consecutive administrative detention orders, he was released on 28 December 2013 and returned home to his family.
Gavan Kelly, an advocacy officer for Addameer, a Ramallah-based group that monitors Israel’s arrests of Palestinians and advocates for prisoners’ rights, said that “Qatamesh is the clearest case of Israel using administrative detention to remove influential people from Palestinian society.”
International law permits the use of administrative detention in exceptional cases, but Israeli policy flies in the face of international law, according to Kelly, who said the number of Palestinians locked up without trial has “hovered between 200 and 300 over the last couple years.”
According to the Israeli legislation titled Emergency Powers Law Detention (also known as the 1979 Emergency Law), the defense minister can order the detention of a citizen for indefinitely renewable six-month periods. Though it is only supposed to be applicable during a state of emergency, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has considered the country in a state of emergency since its establishment in 1948.
In practice, the law targets Palestinian citizens of Israel and has rarely been used against their Jewish compatriots.
For Palestinians in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and in the Gaza Strip, military order 1651.56 authorizes military commanders to detain individuals if there are “reasonable grounds to presume that the security of the area or public security require the detention,” according to Addameer’s website.
Because the military order does not limit the number of times an administrative detention order can be renewed and the terms are vague, the fate of imprisoned Palestinians is often left to military commanders.
During his last two and a half years in prison, Qatamesh says the only explanation he was ever given by interrogators or intelligence officers was that he “is a threat to their state.”
Abusive detention practices
“The last couple years have seen historically low numbers [of administrative detainees],” Addameer’s Kelly said.
According to Addameer data, the number of administrative detainees peaked at more than 1,050 Palestinians in March 2003, during the second intifada.
That came after a mass arrest campaign in which Israeli occupation forces rounded up more than 15,000 Palestinians, mostly males 15 to 45 years old, between March 2002 and and October 2002.
But even after the intifada tapered off a few years later, the use of administrative detention remained widespread. Israel held a monthly average of 830 administrative detainees in 2007.
Other Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights groups agree with Addameer’s assessment that Israel’s use of administrative exceeds “exceptional cases.”
In February 2013, Human Rights Watch called on Israel to “end abusive detention practices” while four Palestinian political prisoners on hunger strike were gaining international attention.
“Israel’s international legal obligations require it to inform those arrested of the reasons for the arrest at the time, to promptly inform them of any charges against them, and to bring them before a judge, and in criminal cases, to provide a fair and public trial in which the defendant may challenge any witnesses against them,” the international rights group observed.
“Administrative detainees are stuck in prison while the world changes outside,” Qatamesh said. “The prisoners are always thinking about their cities, villages, refugee camps.”
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article stated that Ahmad Qatamesh was released in 1998 after five years and seven months’ imprisonment; the article has since been corrected to state that it was six years and seven months of imprisonment.
Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist and frequent contributor to The Electronic Intifada. Follow him on Twitter: @P_Strickland_.