Israeli prisons as revolutionary universities

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been held as political prisoners by Israel in its attempt to repress the national movement for liberation. (Hatem Omar)

Let me start by saying that the role of the Palestinian prisoners’ movement in educating its cadre, and thereby contributing to Palestinian “national education” is a large topic, and one worthy of much more discussion and research. As a Palestinian political prisoner who has spent the past 20 years in Israeli jails I would like to highlight some of the general characteristics of the prisoners’ movement’s struggle to build a system of self and collective education as a central part of developing a patriotic and revolutionary culture that can be a pillar of the liberation movement.

It was at a very early age that I began to understand the occupation, and the state of being under occupation. Some of my first interactions with the occupation involved hearing conversations in my family, for example about how my older brother was not allowed to enter Jordan because of his “security file” with the occupation. I learned the meaning of occupation in the all-too-frequent days of curfew imposed on our refugee camp. Any question I asked about these difficult times were met with the same answer; “it’s Israel, it’s the occupation.” Little by little I learned the meaning of Palestine through the stories narrated by my father and grandmother about the Nakba and the difficult early years of exile and refuge. I fell in love with Palestine through the stories of “al-blad” (the land), memories of the times before the Nakba, or “real life” as my grandmother used to call it. In those days of diving into my elders’ stories — the late 1970s — I had no other source through which to learn about Palestine other than those stories and the few words secretly uttered by a teacher risking the loss of his job and livelihood at the hands of the district military commander if the latter found out.

In the early ’80s, Palestinian society transformed into a volcano of protest against the Israeli regime’s attempt to impose the “village leagues” as a kind of political leadership that would replace elected municipal leaders and the Palestine Liberation Organization. This period of protests changed my life. I became an active part of the growing popular movement. My activism was not limited to participating in strikes, rallies and protests, for I had begun the lifelong process of political self-education. This was harder than it may seem. Finding books about Palestinian political history and the Zionist colonization of Palestine required a great deal of effort and discretion; all of these books were banned by Israel, and most of them had been burned or confiscated by the army. It was very difficult to find a book about Palestine or Palestinians, even if it was a novel by Ghassan Kanafani, or a book of poems by Mahmoud Darwish. I quenched my thirst for these texts by consuming the secret books and pamphlets which, you may be surprised to hear, were not instruction manuals for making explosives, but historical, literary, political writings by various Palestinian and international authors that we would secretly pass around from one person to another. If an Israeli soldier caught you with one of those texts, you would most likely end up in prison.

In those years I fed my revolutionary fervor with patriotic songs. I particularly craved the compositions of Marcel Khalife and Ahmad Qaabour, and the voice of Muthaffar al-Nuwwab reciting his own poetry. Tapes with recordings of patriotic music, like their printed counterparts, were also illegal as far as the Israelis were concerned. We recorded these songs on tapes with foreign love songs just in case a soldier decided to check. It was through these banned songs and poems that I learned the meaning of struggle for freedom, the meaning of international solidarity and how a victory for one can be a victory for all.

Despite the harshness and difficulty of those days, I miss them. Today, after two decades of isolation in prison, I say “if only I could relive those days!”

I was first imprisoned in 1982 at the age of 16. In prison I found what I was not expecting to find: I found inside the prison what I could not find outside of it. In prison I found Palestine’s political, national, revolutionary university. It was in prison that I realized that knowledge is what paves the road to victory and freedom.

In prison, and through a long and arduous struggle, the prisoners’ movement has been able to win and maintain the right to a library. Members of the prisoners’ movement came up with ingenious ways of smuggling books into Israeli prisons, methods that Israeli prison guards were never able to discover. The movement systematically organized workshops, seminars and courses held inside the prison to educate prisoners on every relevant topic one can imagine. Every day, the prisoner holding the position of “librarian” would pass through the different cells and sections, and prisoners would exchange the book they had just finished for the one they were about to begin. The librarian carried the “library book,” a record of the books available in the library, and a list of the books each prisoner had requested.

Talking about this reminds me of one of the most memorable prison library moments. We had found out that the movement had managed to smuggle Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun into the old Nablus prison. We all raced to get our names on the list of people wanting to read the book, and the wait lasted weeks! Several times, we resorted to making copies of sought-after books like this. Of course, copies were done with pen and paper, and I remember copying Naji Aloush’s The Palestinian National Movement of which we made five hand-written copies. I remember how we all raced for the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Amado, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Hanna Mina, Nazim Hikmet, and many, many others.

Through the will and perseverance of the prisoners, prison was transformed into a school, a veritable university offering education in literature, languages, politics, philosophy, history and more. The graduates of this university excelled in various fields. I still remember the words of Bader al-Qawasmah, one of my compatriots who I met in the old Nablus prison in 1984, who said to me, “before prison I was a porter who could neither read nor write. Now, after 14 years in prison, I write in Arabic, I teach Hebrew, and I translate from English.” I remember the words of Saleh Abu Tayi (a Palestinian refugee in Syria who was a political prisoner in Israeli jails for 17 years before being released in the prisoner exchange of 1985) who told me vivid stories of prisoners’ adventures smuggling books, pieces of paper and even the ink-housing tubes of pens.

Prisoners passed on what they knew and had learned in an organized and systematic fashion. Simply put, learning and passing on knowledge and understanding, both about Palestine and in general, has been considered a patriotic duty necessary to ensure steadfastness and perseverance in the struggle to defend our rights against Zionism and colonialism. There is no doubt that the Palestinian political prisoners’ movement has played a leading role in developing Palestinian national education.

Khaled al-Azraq is a refugee who lived in Aida refugee Camp (Bethlehem) before being captured and imprisoned by Israel. He has been a political prisoner for the past 20 years, and is currently being held in Nafha (Hadarim) prison in southern Palestine. This article was originally published in the Autumn 2009 issue of al-Majdal, the quarterly magazine of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights (, and is republished with permission.