Monday, April 22, 2013

Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel

This review was first published in Middle East Monitor here.

By amalgamating the Palestinian historic struggle with individual memory, Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel (Pluto Press, 2013), portrays the brutality of Israel’s colonial occupation in relation to the mass incarceration of Palestinians. Departing from statistical information and the historical perspective, the book’s initial chapters weave a narrative of ideology, education and resistance within incarceration, creating a contrast between Palestinian tenacity towards achieving self-determination and Israel’s policy of torture and apartheid practices.

Incarceration is so widely practiced and incorporated within Israel’s oppressive regime that it is difficult to encounter a family which has not experienced the system’s ramifications. Mass imprisonment of Palestinians has been a constant feature of the occupation, with the incidence increasing in the post-Oslo period, particularly since the second Intifada when security became an integral component of Israel’s political rhetoric against Palestinian resistance.

The book describes Palestinian struggle in relation to world history and trends, noting how the shift from guerrilla warfare in the 1960s and 1970s gave way to affiliation with political factions such as Fatah, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Communist Party. Thus, a shift in the characterisation of political prisoners ensued – with the knowledge that the Palestinian struggle against the occupation was entrenched within education and ideology, Israel sought to manipulate the development of the prisoners movement by denying them ‘political prisoner status’ and referring to the resistance as ‘terrorists’ – a preliminary shift which would facilitate the incorporation of torture with impunity for officials indulging in human rights violations.

For the prisoners, education was central to resistance, with debate amongst various factions giving rise to a transformation of consciousness due to a focus upon the process of enlightenment rather than a stereotyped ‘educational attainment’. Prisoners became mobilised against the prison order, developing the unification of the struggle on two grounds while creating an analogy – the struggle against the occupation while incarcerated and the struggle against the occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.

The historic narrative focuses on the Palestinian struggle, escalated by the need for freedom and a national demand for change. Imprisonment is perceived as an entirety – the physical construction of prisons and the geopolitical characteristics of the occupation have stifled freedom and self-determination. The extent of control and exclusion unleashed by Israel has served to transform Palestinian identity from the local to the national. Within ‘the colonial prison’, this transformation can be observed in the impossibility to control and dominate every aspect of the resistance. “In our case of the colonial prison, indomitability stems from the nature of the system of domination itself.” The excesses, resulting in horrendous torture, can be read as a vengeful retaliation against Palestinians who are being castigated for the occupation’s inability to sustain the occupation through other measures. Hence, it is not viable to separate torture practice from the state of Israel – despite Israel’s description of torture as ‘moderate physical pressure’ in order to combat ‘hostile terrorist activity’ which is tantamount to obscene denial; the depicted reality is one where the state and torture are interdependent.

Through the various narratives and academic insights provided in the book, Israel’s prison system is meticulously dissected to reveal systematic physical and psychological abuse. The euphemism of ‘moderate physical pressure’ is described by torture survivors as taking the form of rape, exposure to extreme temperatures, beatings, sexual-psychological torture, shabeh, pain inflicted on sensitive areas of the body, frenzied shaking of the prisoner’s body and placing a foul smelling bag over a prisoner’s head for several hours. Despite a 1999 ruling by the Israeli High Court of Justice declaring a prohibition on ‘brutal or inhuman means in the course of an investigation’, the court also stipulated that interrogators indulging in torture ‘might not be held criminally liable as they may rely on the ‘necessity defence’. Impunity is rampant within the legal framework as Shin Bet is not required to produce any evidence of alleged crimes, although the judge is expected to adhere to the intelligence agency’s version of events. Within the legal framework, torture is therefore intertwined within an imaginary context – the experience of torture is never investigated whilst the practice is dismissed as a detail which plays not part in compromising any resulting confession.

The practice of administrative detention can also be classified as a form of torture. The convenience allows Israel to operate within the boundaries of its own necessities, while violating a detainee’s right to defence. Speculation or alleged conspiracy to commit a crime takes precedence over the facts, and the renewal of detention periods without bringing charges against the detainee has been used as a bargaining tool in Israel’s favour – enticing Palestinians to become collaborators, thus splitting the unity of the resistance through possible betrayal. As long as Israeli discourse remains entrenched within ‘security’, the challenge to administrative detention is slight, with non-violent resistance usually being the preferred method of achieving recognition of human rights violations. It is, however, a fact that torture within the contemporary has been side-lined. An outrage only occurs if there is instant access to imagery – long term torture fails to elicit a response.

The classification of security prisoners is applied broadly and without distinction – the ‘terrorist’ label is unlikely to change unless there is a change in the profiling carried out by Israel. War terminology is essential to justify force against Palestinians as legitimate self-defence, therefore Palestinian political prisoners are also not allowed the ‘prisoner of war status’, despite UN Resolution 3103 (1973) concerning the basic principles of the legal status of combatants struggling against colonial and alien domination and racist regimes. The resolution states that, ‘The struggle of peoples under colonial and alien domination and racist regimes for the implementation of their right to self-determination and independence is legitimate and in full accordance with the principles of international law.’

A notable aspect of this book is the renewed Palestinian resistance in the wake of constant human rights violations committed by Israel. The international community of spectators has not ceased to applaud Israel for its commitment to ‘eliminating security threats’ while intentionally disregarding their obligations under international law. The abuse against Palestinian prisoners is never newsworthy or of ‘concern’ unless it serves the interests of governing bodies in adopting aspects of the narration to suit their vested interests. Within the imposed isolation brought by the occupier’s colonial discourse and the imperial motives of its allies, Palestinian political prisoners have created a unique identity in which liberation is embodied within each individual deprived of personal freedom.

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