New book exposes brutal treatment of Palestinian prisoners

Shlomo Gazit, an Israeli general and the first “coordinator of government activities” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip apparently wrote a book in 1985 about Israel’s occupation policies there called The Carrot and the Stick. It is quite telling that such Israeli terminology relates to Palestinians as if they are animals. A new book about Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinians contains strong evidence that these policies have been a lot more about the “stick” of physical and psychological torture than about the “carrot” of persuasion.

Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel is a collection of essays from Pluto Press edited by Abeer Baker and Anat Matar. The contributors focus on different aspects of Israel’s system of political prisons. It is rare for such an anthology to be of such consistently high quality. Quite often essay collections can be a mixed bag but Threat is rarely less than interesting. Palestinian prisoners and the solidarity movements of their families and supporters have long been emblematic in the Palestinian liberation struggle. So the book is an important and welcome attempt to educate English-speakers on this neglected topic.

Consider, for example, this astonishing statistic: “almost half of all the prisoners held by the Israeli prison system are Palestinians who have been sent to prison by the military courts in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)” (68). Furthermore, this share seems to have been consistently high over a long period: the figure stood between 45 and 60 percent during the first two decades after the 1967 occupation (72).

The contributors to this book are from a mix of Israeli, Palestinian and other backgrounds but most are lawyers, academics and professional activists for human rights groups in Israel such as Adalah (with whom Baker works as a lawyer) or B’Tselem. We can also read the words of Palestinian prisoners, recalling their own experiences.

We learn from Alon Harel and Yael Berda about what exactly “security prisoners” are. They are “deprived of many of the rights granted to non-security prisoners” (37). Yet the definition of “security prisoners” is not just those who engage in armed struggle — Palestinian political activists who do not use violence are also classified as such. Berda notes, “It is actually surprising how, under the harsh classification regimes of the security threat, many Palestinians have chosen nonviolent political and social action, even though it carries with it similar consequences to the violent actions” (54).

In reality, the Israeli secret police — the Shin Bet — decides who is a “security prisoner”. Known by its formal title the General Security Services (GSS), the Shin Bet runs a system that is “constructed and applied administratively by the GSS alone” (52). We also learn, in information relevant to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, that the closeness of Israeli universities to the Shin Bet has meant “merging the security apparatuses with bases of academic power” (52).

Apartheid behind bars

The prisoners are emblematic of the whole Palestinian struggle for many reasons, not least of which is the system of apartheid that they are fighting against. It is striking that this applied to the whole of historic Palestine, not just the occupied West Bank and Gaza. It applies to Palestinians living in Israel, too: “In January 2009, there were about 370 Israeli Arab citizens classified as security prisoners. A small number of Jewish prisoners are classified by the IPS [Israel Prison Service] as security prisoners but they are not subjected to the harsh conditions reserved for the Palestinians” (80).

Sharon Weill’s essay is a strong contender for best essay in the book. She proves that because of the separate and unequal legal systems for Israelis and Palestinians there — civil courts for Israeli Jews but military courts for Palestinians — the occupation of the West Bank is best understood as a system of apartheid. I was amazed to learn that “until 2004 the [Israeli military] judges did not need to have any legal background; they were just regular officers, usually very young” (147). She also includes a strong example of how Israeli apartheid applies to even its own (supposedly equal) Palestinian citizens: “While Israeli Jews have been excluded from the military courts’ jurisdiction as a matter of policy, Palestinians carrying Israeli IDs (especially those from East Jerusalem), committing an offense within the OPT, have always been tried there” (141).

Disturbing studies on torture and rape

There is a wide range of rich topics addressed. Palestinian sociology professor Nahla Abdo has a devastating critique of colonial feminism and the “Western Orientalist literature [that has since 2002] emerged to deal with the female military resistance” (59). Abdo shows how Western academics have tried to analyze female Palestinians fighters as a response to a supposed endemic misogyny in Palestinian society — to “wipe away the stigma of being female” as one has put it (59). She proceeds to convincingly dismantle this crude framework of assumptions. Abdo then moves on to sexism and racism in the Israel Prison Service and recounts disturbing case studies — from her own research and interviews with women prisoners — of sexual torture and rape by Israeli personnel.

If I have one reservation about the book it is its inevitable (considering the authors’ professional backgrounds) bias towards the “human rights” narrative, rather than the resistance narrative. For example, the failed case by the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din against the practice of transferring Palestinians to prisons outside the West Bank cited by Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard seemed in effect to be arguing for Israeli prisons to be rebuilt in the West Bank (197-198). The Israeli high court rejected the Yesh Din petition on patronizing and spurious grounds. But the fact that a liberal Israeli human rights organization was not instead arguing for all the political prisons to be emptied exposes the contradictions and limits of such legal activism within the system of apartheid Zionism.

The editors — and some of the authors — seem to be aware of this to an extent, and Palestinian prisoner Walid Daka’s essay concluding the book is a good antidote in this regard, since it critiques this tendency. Daka sees the Palestinian Authority as key to this transformation: “the ‘Palestinian Revolution’ was replaced by the ‘Palestinian Authority,’ the mobilization of these young people [in the PA armed forces] signals the replacement of struggle with the ‘rule of law’ and ‘resistance’ with the ‘prevention of armed chaos’ … These new slogans do not belong to a discourse of a liberation movement; they were invoked to make the movement disappear” (238-239).

I would have liked to read more from Palestinian prisoners in their own words: 8 out of the 22 contributions in the book are by Palestinians (including Palestinian citizens of Israel) who are often former or current prisoners. But to be fair, those included offer deep and insightful historical analysis as well as important and troubling eyewitness accounts of torture and ill-treatment in Israeli prisons.

Overall, there is a wealth of history, analysis, documentation and plenty of legal details in this book. And fortunately, the legal details rarely lead into dry or unreadable territory. Threat comes highly recommended.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation will be published by Pluto Press in October. His website is