RAMALLAH, West Bank—Leaders of Hamas and Fatah announced this week that they have reached an agreement for reconciliation after years of division, drawing furious condemnation from the Israeli government. But the choice of peace between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza is nothing new for those who have languished together and suffered together in Israel’s jails.
As many as 40 per cent of all Palestinian men have done time in Israeli prisons, and along with the physical and emotional scars of incarceration, the solidarity among prisoners does not simply disappear once they are released.
I recently met with Salah Hamouri, who was 20 years old in March 2005 when officers of the Israeli security service arrested him near the Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. They charged Hamouri and two other members of the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine with conspiring to assassinate Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was the leader of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Shas Party at the time.
Hamouri, a Palestinian Jerusalemite with French citizenship, struck a plea bargain and was incarcerated for almost seven years before his release as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in late 2011: the trade of 1,027 prisoners held by Israel for one IDF soldier abducted by Hamas in 2006. After Hamouri got out he was able to travel with his French passport, and he experienced minimal lingering damage from the first three months of his incarceration when he was held and, he says, subjected to physical abuse at a Russian church in West Jerusalem repurposed as an interrogation center. Among Palestinian prisoners in Israel, he says, he was one of the lucky ones.
“I’m not the standard [case], because I traveled, I had friends who supported me,” Hamouri told me over coffee on the ninth anniversary of his arrest. “There are many problems that many prisoners faced outside that I didn’t face.”
Since 1967, more than 800,000 Palestinians have been arrested by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories. Because of the vast number of Palestinian political prisoners, an internal governing structure has emerged within the prisons. “We were very organized in the prisons,” says Hamouri. “We had our laws; we had our internal democracy; we had our elections.”
Although he declined to specify his role in the prison government, Hamouri said that each political party had its own organization and representatives within the prison system, all of whom came together to form a unified government. “Each party will send someone like a ‘foreign minister’ to a committee,” he said, “and this committee will choose a representative to go and negotiate with the Israelis.”
Such inter-party accord among Palestinians in Israeli prisons was codified in the National Conciliation Document of Prisoners, signed by prominent imprisoned members of all major Palestinian political factions and released in May 2006, a few months after the Hamas’ victory in the 2006 legislative elections. The Prisoners’ Document called for the formation of a unity government to oversee an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories, a call which finally was heeded eight years later, on Wednesday, when the top leadership of Fatah and Hamas announced their agreement, to reunite the parties.
According to Hamouri, in prison it’s those serving long terms who tend to take leadership roles in the internal political hierarchy. But even as they learn to work together, their ability to deal with the outside world may suffer in many ways and if they are released the effects of their lengthy incarceration may remain with them for years.
A report by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) cites, for example, handcuffing techniques used by the Israeli military, including the shackling of prisoners’ hands behind their chairs for extended periods. It’s a comparatively minor form of physical abuse relative to the brutal beatings and torture frequently alleged as part of Israeli arrests and interrogations, but it’s ubiquitous.
“Protracted handcuffing is liable to damage nerves that affect the functioning of the hands,” says the report. “Damage caused to the nerve by pressure may be temporary or permanent,” and the effects may include “paralysis or loss of sensation.”
Rachel Stroumsa, director of the forensic assessments project at PCATI, says many former prisoners have trouble clutching bags of groceries or walking up flights of stairs because of lingering neurological injuries to their hands and knees from shackling in stress positions. “That has a very immediate effect on people’s daily lives,” Stroumsa says. “All these things affect the family functioning.”
Although the lasting damage to the mental and physical health of prisoners can be severe, neither the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) nor the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Detainee Affairs provide much support or rehabilitation assistance to help prisoners overcome their trauma.
Gavan Kelly, coordinator of the advocacy unit at the Palestinian prisoner support association Addameer, describes widespread medical negligence in Israeli prisons that has claimed the lives of 53 prisoners since the occupation of the territories began in 1967; 72 more have died from alleged torture in that time period.
“When you consider that the most common treatment [in the IPS] for any ailments, whether it be the flu or cancer is Paracetamol [the mild analgesic acetaminophen], you begin to realize why so many prisoners are dying,” says Kelly.
“In terms of mental health, there’s practically nothing,” says Stroumsa. “You’d have to be in a very bad state before you saw a psychiatrist, and the treatment in prison is mostly medical” rather than psychological.
Rehabilitation services from the Palestinian Authority focus on financial support for former prisoners. The PA’s Ministry of Detainee Affairs provides subsidies for university or vocational training, health insurance, and small business loans to ex-detainees. Hamouri says it’s not enough. “It’s not a system,” he says. “They will give you small things, but it’s not ‘reintegrating.’”
Mohammad Al-Batta, General Director of the Rehabilitation Program for Ex-Detainees at the ministry, says that psychological services are also offered, but they’re underused because of the social stigma associated with mental health care. Strousma agrees. “The issue of the stigma is a massive obstacle,” she says. “The last thing most of these men need is to go to a psychologist and to have that floating over their heads.”
Sometimes the possibility is raised in the press or by academics that Palestinians who are leaders inside prison might emerge as Nelson Mandela did in South Africa to forge a lasting peace. But among Palestinians that’s seen as a Western fantasy, and in the real world many long-term prisoners simply are incapable of returning to life outside. “I know people who spent 20 years and 30 years [inside],” says Hamouri. When they are released they stay in their houses, he says, “they cannot go out.”
In addition to the psychological constraints, former prisoners often have to sign in regularly at police stations in nearby Israeli settlements and they have their movement restricted to the district of their release. They are barred from political participation, and what constitutes political action is left very vague. One example: 38 people recently were arrested in Deir Abu Mash’al, a small village west of Ramallah, for collecting money to help build a house for the widow of a former PFLP member.
For former prisoners, anything that could be construed as political action can get them sent to prison again, and under a 2009 Israeli military order any remaining time from their original sentence can be added to the period of their re-incarceration.
“We don’t have a real social system to reintegrate the prisoners in the society,” says Hamouri. They are supposed to maintain an image of stalwart courage at all times. “For the people here, you have to be proud,” says Hamouri. “But the problem is that all the people look at you as a hero, and nobody asks what happened to you in the prison these seven or 20 or 25 years. So each one has to do it alone,” he says. “Some… can do it, and some… cannot do it.”