Come September

Till Israel frees political prisoners from its jails, there can be no solution to the occupation of Palestine
Mehru Jaffer Vienna

If this happens, it will be a miracle coming true, a revelation of progressive history, a moment of magnificent optimism. The international community has chosen September 2011 as the deadline to finally free Palestinian territories of Israeli occupation. However, Palestinians, participating in an international meeting held in Vienna this March on the question of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention, want all prisoners, including women and children, first released from jails in Israel.

This was the first meeting hosted by the Committee on the Exercise of Inalienable Rights of Palestinian People, and devoted exclusively to the highly emotional issue of political prisoners languishing in Israeli prisons, some for over three decades and others as young as seven years old. Designed to raise awareness of one of the most burning questions of our time, the meeting of nearly 100 representatives of governments and Parliaments, intergovernmental organisations, lawyers, civil society and United Nations agencies supported possible conclusion of negotiations between Palestinians and Israel by September 2011. "The issue of prisoners has always been central to our concerns. In 1975, the committee recommended that pending its withdrawal from the areas occupied in June 1967, Israel should release all political prisoners," Abdou Salam Diallo, chairman of the committee, told reporters at the start of the meet. 

The other initiative to end decades of occupation of Palestinian territory is led by the high-powered, but ineffectual Middle East Quartet, which comprises the EU,  the UN, USA and Russia. It was established in Madrid in 2002 as a response to the escalating conflict in the Middle East. The mandate of the quartet remains to help realise the 'two state' solution and birth of an independent state of Palestine based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the capital.

However, the quartet has failed to get Israel to halt the expansion of illegal settlements that continues to alienate locals, creates social fissures, and takes a drastic toll on Palestinian lives. It has failed to improve the free movement of Palestinians in their own territory to work, travel or study. In fact, restrictions like checkpoints, the Wall and restricted roads increased from 561 in 2007 to around 600 in 2008. The suffocating sense of siege is transparent.

Today, the violence in Gaza has apparently ceased but the blockade against Palestinians has not been lifted. There is no improvement in the 'human' situation there. In Gaza, 80 per cent of the population continues to depend on aid, but stalled emergency relief projects have not been resumed. The quartet is unable to get the warring parties to keep their obligations. 

Asked if the question of Palestine re-discovered international focus due to the rise of people's protests all over the Arab world, Riyad Mansour, Palestine's envoy to the UN, said that has happened by accident and not by design. "The demand all over the Arab world for justice, democracy and self-determination does mirror the aspiration of the Palestinian people struggling for more than half a century for the same rights," said Mansour. A delegate pointed out that if the entire region enjoys fundamental freedoms, there is no way a small piece of land in the Middle East can remain bereft of democracy for too long.

The resistance of the people of Palestine began in 1948. Even as they continue to quietly prepare the ground for an independent nation-state, Palestinians want nothing less than the immediate release of their grandfathers, daughters, sons and husbands from imprisonment, and their reintegration into society. This must happen even before they agree to resume peace talks. 

The other demands include withdrawal from lands occupied by Israel since 1967 and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Israeli settlements established in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to peaceful co-existence in the Middle East. The perception is, Israel will not give up settlements and the occupied territories, making it impossible for Palestinian refugees to return home. Israel will also refuse to free prisoners as it considers them a threat to 'national security'.

The Vienna meeting highlighted the plight of political prisoners huddled in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. They are denied access to health services, abused and assaulted by guards, subjected to solitary confinement with family visits severely restricted. There are numerous reports of torture and ill treatment. 

Issa Qaraqe, the Palestinian Authority's minister for prisoners' affairs, showed a short video of a 12-year-old boy 'captured' by Israeli soldiers from a residential street. This is a classic case of indiscriminate repression and injustice. Qaraqe said the issue of Palestinian prisoners of war is key to a permanent solution with Israel. Giving more examples of 'punishment' adopted in jails, Qaraqe expressed alarm at the silence of the international community regarding widespread torture and deprivation of legal rights. Most Palestinians are directly or silently affected by a relentless, sinister campaign of arrests, harassment and intimidation carried out by Israeli security forces and settlers with the sole aim of breaking the resistance of the Palestinian people and push them into absolute despair and helplessness. "Our meeting is not just about prisoners, it is about all the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation," Diallo said.

Since 1967, Israeli security forces have arrested about 700,000 Palestinians. Currently, 37 Palestinian women prisoners and over 200 children languish in Israeli prisons, plus 7,500 male prisoners. They remain incarcerated in prisons and detention facilities outside the occupied territory in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention. 

The harsh treatment of Palestinians is in sharp contrast to the leniency shown to violent, often armed, Israeli settlers. Most are political prisoners, including members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Some have been in jail for over 30 years, many charged with fabricated evidence. For many, the 'crime' is that they are perceived to be a 'threat' to the Jewish State. Often, administrative detention does not involve any judicial decision. There is no list of charges and no trial of detainees. 

Palestinians want this reign of terror and injustice to end. However, the cold-blooded Israeli regime is refusing to move one inch towards a rational, just and democratic solution. So whatever happens to the sweet song of September?

It's hard for women political prisoners
"The plight of female prisoners is worse than that of the men," Fabrizia Falcione, Project Manager, Women Human Rights Unit, UN Women, told Hardnews. There is total lack of medical care, particularly during childbirth. Women lament that infants are taken away after two years. Pregnant women are reportedly shackled even while giving birth, and later.

The great majority of Palestinian women political prisoners in Israeli prisons suffer from serious health problems. Women require medical attention regularly - it is their right during confinement. In Israeli prisons, women's rights are recognised but not respected. 
Psychological scars are deeply embedded. Women suffer infringement upon their cultural and religious norms. Many are imprisoned without a trial, for belonging to organisations banned by Israel, or as threats to the 'national security' of the Jewish State.

Falcione's work includes providing legal aid and representation to female prisoners, and psycho-social support to family members, including children, throughout imprisonment. This includes helping them after their release, to reintegrate them within the family and society. 

Female prisoners are mainly incarcerated in two Israeli facilities at Hasharon and Damon, outside the occupied Palestinian territory in violation of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Former prisoners from both the prisons, and family members of women still in prison, have told Falcione that the sub-human cells are infested with cockroaches and rats. 

If family visits do get allowed, through a thick glass divider, preventing any physical contact, even between mother and child, the time limit is 30 minutes. Social psychologists argue that the violent disruption of individual freedom, family ties and social relations irretrievably damages the psychological well-being of women. Theoretically, family visits are allowed to prisoners twice a month, but are drastically restricted in practice, particularly because the prisons are outside the occupied Palestinian territory. Trips to the prison and back is a ten-hour journey, not only due to the geographical distance but also because the movement of Palestinians is constantly controlled and restricted.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2011