Thursday, May 11, 2006
Palestinian Prisoners Day
Palestinian Prisoners day was marked on April 17th. It is an opportune moment to draw attention not only to the open air prisons created by the Occupation, through closures, the Wall and locked gates (restricting freedom of movement and land access), but also to the plight of Palestinian prisoners, held in Israeli interrogation and detention facilities.
Since the beginning of the Occupation in 1967 over 650,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israeli Authorities  which includes approximately 40% of the Palestinian male population , many of whom have been humiliated and subjected to ill treatment and torture. In January '06 there were 8,238 Palestinian prisoners, of which 794 were held in administrative detention without charge or trial .
Palestinian women are not immune from arrest. Currently, there are approximately 115 women imprisoned in Israel's prisons . I recently interviewed Zahra, a well-known former prisoner, who spent 11 years in captivity. She is the mother of three children, and lives in Deir Ballut, a village here in the Salfeet district of the West Bank. In 1986 the army came to her house at midnight and blindfolded, handcuffed and arrested her in front of her children, aged 9, 5 and 2. Two months later her house was demolished by the Israeli army, an act of collective punishment violating international law (4 th Geneva Convention and Hague Regulation), which left her children homeless.
Zahra spoke of the atrocious interrogation procedure and the conditions in which she was kept. She made it clear that there was nothing unique in her experiences. Israeli authorities are committing grave human rights abuses on a daily basis, and are clearly violating international law, which prohibits the use of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment (4th Geneva Conventions, International Convention for Political and Civil Rights, Convention against Torture and Cruel and Inhuman Treatment). The practices Zahra described are well documented by a number of human rights organizations and reveal that torture is systematically practiced by the Israeli authorities . Indeed more than 85% of Palestinian detainees are subjected to ill treatment and torture during interrogation. 
Zahra spent the first 31 days in isolation, without access to a lawyer, held in a small dark cell, with neither room to lie down or stand up. Rats and insects inhabited the cell. She was denied sanitary protection during her monthly period, and used a bucket in her cell as a toilet. Sometimes she was drenched with buckets of cold water thrown into the cell at her. At other times she was blasted with loud, distorted music. Detainees were subjected to very cold conditions inside a "refrigeration room".
Zahra was tortured physically and mentally, taken from her cell at random times of the day or night for interrogation, during which there was very rarely another woman present.
As well as being suspended from the ceiling, with handcuffs that cut into her skin, she was made to sit in uncomfortable positions for long periods with her hands and legs tied. At other times a foul smelling bag was placed over her head.
At least once she was taken to the interrogation room and made to wait the entire day, only to be taken back to her cell, clearly intended to create mental stress. On another occasion she was held in the interrogation room continuously for two days.
Threats of, as well as actual sexual violence, occurred. Zahra knew a 17 year old girl who was raped during interrogation. In the context of sexual violence being a real danger in interrogation, to be threatened with rape as a method of interrogation is mental torture. Threats were made to strip her, which holds even more significance and distress in Islamic/Muslim culture.
Zahra is clearly a strong, articulate woman. A darkness and subdued quietness descended when she spoke of the sexual violence, actual or threatened. A long silence followed. She had clearly touched on some dark, painful places and I felt deep compassion for her
Zahra spoke about women who were pregnant when they were arrested. Some miscarried. The remaining women were shackled during labour and had the humiliation of lack of privacy. Zahra shared a cell with a woman who named her daughter "Watan", meaning nation or home land.
She was transferred from the interrogation centre to Ramleh prison in Israel, where she was held with "criminal" not political prisoners, which resulted in added difficulties. From there, after a hunger strike, she was transferred to Hasharon prison, where she shared a 6 meter wide cell with five other Palestinian women. They were frequently denied hot water and received very inadequate food. On one occasion there were small pieces of glass in the food. She spoke of at least one occasion when tear gas was fired into the cell.
There were times when she went a whole year without seeing her children. At other times she saw them for half an hour every two weeks. On occasions Zahra's mother brought the children to prison, but they were then denied access.
She was released on 11th February '97 after eleven years in prison. Nine years later she has on going physical problems- back and neck pain, stomach problems and impaired distance vision.
My time with Zahra passed quickly, as we left her house the light was already fading and the moon visible. We looked west to the Wall carving up the landscape, with the lights of Tel Aviv clearly visible in the distance. I remembered her words from earlier. "Palestinian blood is cheap. We are not asking for the moon, only our rights".
The suffering of prisoners does not end on release. My interviews with a number of psychologists, including from the Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Torture (TRC) revealed the on going mental health problems of ex-detainees. TRC offers treatment and rehabilitation services to victims of torture and organised violence, as well as supporting their families.
Wail and Hadeel, from the recently opened Nablus branch, explained how they liaise with the PA ministry of detainees, so they can offer timely assistance to the prisoners on their release, helping them in the difficult process of re-adjusting to family and community life.
There are a range of mental health problems tortured ex detainees suffer from, the vast majority being Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D), grief reaction and acute stress disorder. The heroic status given to ex-prisoners can make it very difficult for these (predominantly) men to confront and admit to the psychological and physical problems resulting from torture and the humiliating treatment suffered in prison. Likewise the heroic status of martyrs can make it difficult for families to admit to their suffering.
TRC seeks to treat and support the victims of torture, as well as advocating within the wider community. They have an advocacy and training programme which aims to create a culture which is active against retaliatory feelings, working to ensure that the victims of violence do not go on to become the perpetrators. They seek to encourage changes in attitude towards mental health issues through their work with other health, education and social service professionals, as well as training programmes with the PA.
My interviews with staff from the Ramallah branch indicated that there is still a reluctance within society to address health problems associated with torture. Arrest is an ever present danger for Palestinians in the OPT and with it the strong possibility of humiliation, ill treatment and torture. For the significant number of Palestinians who have been subject to the mass arrest campaigns , tortured or ill treated in detention, held without charge or trial in administrative detention  or tried as adults in military courts despite being children  their experiences remain largely invisible from the international eye
 PCATI ( www.stoptorture.org.il ) documents many forms of torture and ill treatment including beating, slapping, kicking, stepping on shackles, bending the interrogee and placing them in other painful positions, intentionally tightening shackles, violent shaking, sleep deprivation and prolonged shackling behind the back. Psychological abuse includes threats to the detainee and family members, long solitary confinement and pressure to collaborate
 The mass arrest campaigns, during the period of March 2002 to October 2002 resulted in approximately 15,000 men being detained, sometimes entire villages being emptied of males over 15 years. In October 2002 there were over 1,050 Palestinians in administrative detention. ( www.palestinemonitor.org )
 Administrative detention is indefinitely renewable under military regulations. Secret evidence is presented during military tribunals, to which neither the detainee nor the lawyer has access. Addameer reports that people are being held in administrative detention, without charge or trial, from anywhere between six months to six years. The issuing of administrative detention orders bears a direct relation to the political situation, with an increase in its use when there is an increase in protest against the Occupation. www.addameer.org
 Approximately 344 Palestinian children are being held in Israeli prison/detention facilities. Under military regulations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a child over the age of 16 is considered an adult. This blatantly contradicts the Convention of the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is a signatory, which defines a child up to the age of 18. Between the ages of twelve and fourteen Palestinian children can be sentenced in military courts for up to six months, and at fourteen they can be tried as adults, in violation of international law. www.addameer.org , www.palestinemonitor.org , www.dci-pal.org