Two Kinds of Prison: Reflections on Leaving Palestine

22 July 2003 — On Thursday, a man in the streets of Qalqilia asked me, “Do they think we are animals? Not even human? They have put us in a cage.”

Every day that we visited the Qalqilia checkpoint, we watched the “progress” of the Israeli Occupying Forces’ Apartheid Wall which is holding 40,000 Palestinians captive in their own city, on their own land (for pictures and maps see Each day the fenced section of the Apartheid Wall on either side of the checkpoint looms closer to completion. In two days, trenches six feet wide and and equally as deep were dug on either side of the central fence. The next day, the Israeli Occupying Forces erected triangular coils of barbed wired eight feet high running the entire length of each trench. The concrete base for the central fence has been laid, and any day the 12-foot-tall fence will be erected, and possibly electrified.

From the checkpoint, you can see more fenced sections of the Apartheid Wall snaking up the hilly Qalqilia region, through Palestinian farmlands and villages. On other side of the the wall where trees and crops once grew are 30-foot-wide roads for the vehicles of the Israeli Occupying Forces. Two large Israeli colonies (settlements) sit in plain view from the Qalqilia checkpoint on the side of the fence where people, Israeli settlers, can move freely as they please. As far as the eye can see, the Israeli Occupying Forces’ bulldozers, dump-trucks, trench diggers, army jeeps, armed contractors, and hired “security” officers are moving on the barren roads along the Apartheid Wall. Clouds of dirt rise into the air as the construction continues at a frenzied pace, creating an eerie feeling of doom. Each day I stood there watching the construction and I asked myself - does anyone in the outside world understand the atrocity of this Apartheid Wall? Can anyone who has not been here and stood inside this cage while it is built around you feel the fear and anger and horror which it instills?

On Friday afternoon, the local ISM coordinator, Faris, and I dropped by the house of one of his friends who was having computer problems. His friend, Majer, was desperate to get his web camera working. His wife and four children live in Gaza and he has not seen them in three years. They had bought web cameras to try to see each other, but so far, his family had only been able to see him through the computer, but the images of his wife and children were not coming through to his computer. Majer has a business in Qalqilia and before the Intifada, he could travel freely back and forth between Gaza and Qalqilia. But Majer was trapped in Qalqilia when the Intifada started, and now he does not know when he will see his wife and children again. Sadly, Faris was not able to fix the web camera so that Majer could see his family through the internet.

Qalqilia is less than 10 miles from Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean Sea. My friend Mohammad is 28 and he tells me that before the Intifada, before the Apartheid Wall, he and his friends used to go to the beach at midnight and stay until 5 am, talking, swimming, laughing, dancing to the Tablah. Last weekend Mohammad left Qalqilia for the first time in 2 years, but he did not go to the beach.

I asked Mohammad’s 18-year-old sister, Hiba, if she thought the Apartheid Wall would ever come down. She replied, “It is very doubtful while America gives money to Israel. While America gives money to Israel, they continue to build this wall. Israel will not stop.”

The night before I left Qalqilia, Ahmad, a friend and local press photographer, told us he was sad because he knew in time that all of us internationals would leave. I told him I planned to come back, and that I hoped that one day I might be able to some back when Palestine is free and there is no wall around Qalqilia. He told me in all seriousness, “When you come back, we will all be dead. I don not think Palestine will ever be free.”

I left Qalqilia early Sunday morning with a wave of my United States passport in the direction of the soldiers at the checkpoint. They did not ask me any questions or even ask to look inside the passport. To travel so freely as a stranger in a country where the indigenous people can often barely leave their homes without enduring harassment or mortal danger from the Israeli Occupying Forces makes me feel the racism here in the pit of my stomach in a way that can make me feel ill.

>From Qalqilia I traveled to Nablus to visit friends from my time in Palestine last summer. I stayed in the home of my friend Zeiad’s family. He had some meetings in the afternoon and invited me to stay at the house to eat lunch with the women and children in his family. They welcomed me with incredible hospitality. We ate Palestinian food while the children sat on my lap, pulled on my hair, and made funny faces at me to make me giggle while their moms weren’t watching.

Two of Zeiad’s brothers are in Israeli prison. I had met their wives and children before, but never had a chance to spend time with them. The last time I was in Nablus both Raed and Hussien were free. Raed’s wife Sojat is 23, and she is beautiful. They have three children— Nibal is 4, Nabil is 5, and Manar is 2. The last night I was in Nablus last summer was the first time the Israeli Occupying Forces had come to Zeiad’s family’s house looking for the youngest, Raed, who is 26. Raed was not home at the time, but the soldiers proceeded to force the family out into the street and completely trash every room in the house. The house consists of four apartments: one for Zeiad’s parents and his youngest unmarried siblings, and one apartment each for Zeiad and his two brothers and their wives and children. The soldiers shot so many rounds of bullets in the house that walls, mattresses, even baby clothes were riddled with bullet holes. The family collected four bowls full of empty shells when they cleaned the house the next day. Dressers, beds, chairs were overturned. Anything in a drawer or cabinet was strewn on the floor. Mirrors were broken. Raed was a fighter, but he never killed anyone and he never fought outside of Nablus. He only fought against the Israeli Occupying Forces in defense of his city during the Israeli military invasion of the Spring of 2002. After the soldiers came to his home looking for him, Raed began to consider turning himself in to spare his family from the terror of the Israeli Occupying Forces. When the Israeli army threatened to demolish his family’s home, Raed made up his mind and turned himself in. His sentence is 20 years. I can’t even imagine what it must feel like for his wife and children to know that they will not have him in their lives for the next twenty years. His children will be adults before he comes home.

A few months after Raed turned himself in on the promise that if he went to prison his family could live in peace, the Israeli Occupying Forces came back to his family’s home. This time, they ordered the entire family outside and again trashed the house. Then they ordered the women and children inside, but kept all of the men in the family kneeling outside in the cold at gunpoint. This night, the Israeli Occupying Forces arrested Raed’s brother Hussien for no given reason. He has been in prison for about nine months and it is not clear when he will be released or even why he is being held prisoner. He has served six months of “administrative detention,” but when the six months was finished, the Israeli Occupying Forces gave him another six months rather than setting him free. When this period is completed, who knows what will happen. “Administrative detention” is the process of arresting someone on suspicion and holding them prisoner without charges or any legal process for getting released.

Hussein’s wife’s name is Jihan and they have three children— Faras is 11, Mohammad is 6, and Diat it 2. The entire day that I was at Zeiad’s house, Jihan kept checking on me to see if I needed anything. In the afternoon, she came in to show me two stone heart necklaces from her wedding that had her and her husband’s names engraved on either side of them. Later, she gave me a beaded ring. In our limited Arabic and English, I was able to understand that the ring had something to do with her husband, but I could not figure out exactly what. The next day, I saw Khalil, a friend who was just freed from Israeli prison three weeks ago after six months of “administrative detention”. Khalil noticed my ring immediately and told me that the Palestinian prisoners make them as one of the ways they pass their time in captivity.

There is massive popular support in Palestine for the release of all of the 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. In the two weeks I spent in Qalqilia, I participated in three different demonstrations for the prisoners, and there was another demonstration for the prisoners in Qalqilia today. Recently there have been many marches in protests for the Palestinian prisoners in other Palestinian cities as well. My 16-year-old friend Hanan, wrote this poem:


Freedom to the prisoners
in the Israeli Occupation Jails
Stop arrest, torture, and killing
of Palestinian children

We demand international protection
from Israeli massacres
against the Palestinian people

I am leaving Palestine tomorrow, but the Palestinian prisoners - the men and women in Israeli prisons, and the Palestinians being held captive in their own homes - are in my mind and in my heart. I hope those of us in the United States can do everything we can to stop our government’s funding of this imprisonment.

Brooke Atherton visited Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement.