BETHLEHEM, occupied West Bank (IPS) - In her office at the Bethlehem women’s counseling center, Khawla al-Azraq recounts her memories from Israeli prison as vividly as if they were yesterday: the routine physical and psychological abuse, the nightly room searches, the hunger strikes and other collective actions in protest against their conditions, and the intense study sessions with her fellow prisoners.
“I still have a hard time with certain aspects — particularly the torture and the long periods in isolation. Prison is not a normal life. The psychological impacts affect how you see the world long after you are released,” she says. “And the problems that remain from prison affect your family, your community — every aspect of your life.”
Al-Azraq served three separate terms in prison, beginning in 1979 and running though the period leading up to the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987. She is among some 12,000 women who have been imprisoned by Israel since 1967, according to a recent report by the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society, an arms-length agency of the Palestinian Authority.
The arrest of the women is part of a pattern of incarceration of Palestinians by Israel that now totals more than 700,000 since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began 42 years ago, according to the prisoners’ society. Currently there are upwards of 11,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.
A publication by Defence for Children International says that at least 355 Palestinian children were being held in Israel’s prisons at the end of June.
Abdallah al-Zeghari, director of the Bethlehem branch of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society told IPS that while women face significant pressures inside Israel’s prisons, including strip searches, poor sanitation, sub-standard living conditions, severe restrictions on family visits, and long periods of isolation, the treatment they are given is part of an overall strategy of punitive measures against Palestinian activists, not just women.
“Israel treats all Palestinian prisoners harshly, without regard for whether they are women, children or adults — they see them all as Palestinians.”
Israel’s systemic abuses have long been documented by human rights groups. So far at least 196 Palestinians have died or been killed while in Israeli custody, al-Zeghari says. “Some of them were killed by torture, some were shot after they were arrested, while others died because they were denied necessary medication.”
According to Addameer, a Palestinian human rights group that supports prisoners, women prisoners are “usually detained in harsher conditions than men, in jails dating back to the British Mandate period [1922-1948], lacking modern-day infrastructure or gender-sensitive healthcare. Humid, unhygienic, deprived of natural sunlight and overcrowded, these facilities have been designed for men and by men and rarely do they meet women’s needs.”
Al-Azraq says women face particular challenges in continuing education while in prison. Unlike male prisoners who have access to high school equivalency courses, women are not uniformly afforded the same access.
Still, prison is not dead time. Palestinians often refer to prisons as the universities of the national movement, where long study sessions and critical political organization and decision-making take place. “Every hour we knew what we needed to do — we didn’t waste any time,” says al-Azraq.
The political organizing within Israel’s prisons has improved conditions for Palestinian prisoners over the past 40 years. Getting visits, and access to books and writing materials have been hard-won victories for prisoners, achieved through grueling hunger strikes and in the face of harsh Israeli measures to counteract the advances.
“The strength that we gain from collective action and our focus on the national project makes the experience easier,” al-Azraq says. “We learned to be more patient, more focused and more stable in our resistance.”
Al-Azraq told IPS she had in fact resisted release two weeks before the due date. “I was caught by surprise, and was upset because I was prepared for a certain date, and there was more work to be done.”
The work was all about resistance. “After my first experience I began reading intensely about interrogation techniques and torture — to understand the prison as part of our resistance,” she said.
For their part, the Palestinians hold one Israeli prisoner — a corporal captured after a raid on an Israeli post on the Gaza border by militants in June 2006. Hamas, who holds the prisoner, has reportedly offered to release the soldier in exchange for the women and children held in Israeli prisons.
Negotiations on a prisoner exchange have so far been fruitless. Israel has been loath to negotiate on Palestinian prisoners since the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began in September 2000.
In 2003 Avigdor Lieberman, now the Israeli foreign minister, responded to pressure from then US president George W. Bush to release some Palestinian prisoners as part of the doomed Road Map peace proposal by telling a cabinet meeting: “It would be better to drown these prisoners in the Dead Sea if possible, since that’s the lowest point in the world.” He added that, as minister for transportation, he would provide buses to carry out the task.
In the nine years since the intifada began, more than 70,000 Palestinians have been arrested by Israel, according to al-Zeghari, including at least 850 women. In an ongoing occupation, precise data is difficult to come by in every circumstance.
“It is not easy for us to indicate an exact number because every day the Israelis invade the West Bank to make arrests. It is what we call the ‘revolving door.’ Some people have been arrested and released more than 10 times.”
The latest Palestinian Centre for Human Rights weekly report cites 214 arrests, including two children, during at least 21 Israeli army incursions into the West Bank in the seven days ending 29 July.
“Like any human community, there are contradictions,” says al-Azraq. “But there is a common thread in the experience in prison that gives us strength, a common goal, a common purpose. We are joined together in struggle, so our shared experiences only make us stronger.”
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