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Threat: Palestinian Prisoners in Israel

[Cover of [Cover of "Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel"]

Abeer Baker and Anat Matar (eds.), Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel. London: Pluto Press, 2011.

There are many harrowing passages in the excellent new edited volume by Abeer Baker and Anat Matar on the processes of administrative detention and imprisonment of Palestinians in Israel; some of them are even in the book’s academic chapters. But the most harrowing, and paradoxically the most hopeful, is the account Osama Barham gives of his endless arrests, detentions, and interrogations. These began in 1979—when he was detained for flying the colors of Palestine in a flag partially made of his mother’s blouse—and ended in 2008, when he was released after a five-year sentence. In the interim, he has been held in detention or in prison (and the distinction is important, as I will describe below) for anything from eighteen days to seven years on separate occasions.

Barham’s story is striking in many different ways: the way he marks the cycles of his life by the periods of detention and imprisonment; the manner in which he has experienced the broad range of confinement practices Israel deploys as its technique of population control; the broader impact of these techniques not just on the confined but on the Palestinian society; and the ease with which law and judicial processes are elided to the control techniques.

It is particularly striking that Barham’s two longest periods of incarceration have been a seven-year sentence after a trial, and a six-and-a-half year administrative detention without trial, where a court continuously renewed his six-month detention order for a total of seventy-eight months. These varieties of politico-legal techniques of incarceration are what the other perennial prisoner interviewed in the book, Sheikh Muhammad Abu Tir, who has spent thirty years, or more than half his life, in Israeli prisons, calls “formats” of a regime of population control. What I am emphasizing here, and what appears again and again throughout this clearly focused, well-written, and immensely useful volume, is that violent limitations on Palestinian bodily freedom has remained constant in the Israeli political arsenal. This has occurred despite all the innovations in techniques of control, all the legal window-dressing and the tedious Israeli discourse of “security” recycled ad nauseum. Perhaps the most enduring characteristic of Israeli settler-colonial counterinsurgency throughout the decades has been a brutal prison regime that is intended to disrupt not just political activism, but lives and communities. The singular essence of the project is what the editors describe as “a blind, categorical” rubric, which transforms all the Palestinians into a “security threat.” The effect is that this incarceration is depoliticized and “all of Palestinian existence is fossilized by means of the ‘security threat’ label, turned into a type of dangerous object for the only subjects around.”

The editors and authors are particularly well placed to make the arguments they do in this volume. Abeer Baker was at the time of editing the book a senior lawyer for Adalah, a legal organisation struggling for equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Anat Matar has been a tireless activist against the occupation, and is a co-founder of Israeli Committee for the Palestinian Prisoners. The authors in the volume include five former and current Palestinian political prisoners, at least nine lawyers (some also academics) who have defended Palestinian prisoners, and many activists and scholars.

This juxtaposition of academic studies with the measured narratives of the prisoners and their defenders constantly generates productive friction. Just as one settles into the rhythms of academic texts, a raw and distressing account of incarceration injects something of the embodied brutality of incarceration. Barham tells us how his interrogators deliberately tormented him by falsely conveying the news of the death of his wife and small children and maintained the fiction for five weeks. Former female prisoner Ittaf Alian (Hodaly) recounts how her interrogators refused her hygienic pads when she was menstruating. Walid Daka—who is currently serving a life sentence—recounts how the Israeli Prison Service divides the prisoners into ever smaller wards whose boundaries “coincide with the closed enclaves that Israel created” in the Occupied Territories:

a special ward, for the inhabitants of the town of Jenin, and another for prisoners from Jenin’s refugee camp...a ward for prisoners from Qabatiyya and the surrounding villages, one for Tulkarm, and another for Qalqiliya and its villages.

Daka’s account is notable also by its coolly measured and analytically broad focus. The article, about how torture works, is not an account of his personal experience, but rather a reflection on how prisons function to transform prisoners’ subjectivities.

The book brims with useful and fascinating pieces. Some critique the ways in which detention has been embedded in Israeli law and—also—how law has been implicated in detention. Many also look at the ways in which a detailed and chillingly Foucauldian system of categorization and classification attempts to render prisoners helpless and bereft of hope. The question of category appears again and again throughout. Yael Berda’s brilliant piece reflects her former career as a lawyer and her current vocation as a sociologist. She is interested in theorizing the classification process itself and how the bureaucracy around it works to transform entire populations into security threats through “radical simplification, standardization, and homogenization.” Lawyers and legal scholars, meanwhile, question the practice on legal grounds. On the one end of spectrum, and accepting the mainstream legitimacy of the legal system, Alon Harel nevertheless questions the legality of the category of “security prisoner.” Lawyer Smadar Ben-Natan, who in 2006 argued for Hizbullah fighters to be classified as prisoners of war (and thus be protected by a spectrum of international legal instruments), applies the same set of arguments to Palestinian detainees here. On the other end of the spectrum from Harel is researcher Sharon Weill’s argument that law can in fact serve as “an effective tool for exercising arbitrary power.”

Other articles are careful examinations of the processes of interrogation, arrest, and imprisonment. Esmail Nashif, who has written a theoretically rich eponymous monograph on Palestinian political prisoners (Palestinian Political Prisoners: Identity and Community), argues for the importance of material conditions of incarceration in understanding the process. Sahar Francis and Kathleen Gibson, both associated with the Palestinian prisoner rights group Addameer, and feminist psychiatrist Ruchama Marton, all examine isolation and solitary confinement. A number of other articles explore issues such as prisoner transfers (by Michael Sfard), prisoner release (by Leslie Sebba), and prisoner exchanges (by Mounir Mansour). Bana Shoughry-Badarne assiduously examines the persistence of torture in the face of toothless Israel Supreme Court rulings. Tamar Pelleg-Sryck shows how administrative detention also serves as a method of recruiting collaborators and disciplining Palestinians as a whole.

Others still look at the effect of prisoners on the society at large. Maya Rosenfeld, a third of whose careful ethnography of Dheisheh refugee camp in the West Bank, Confronting the Occupation, powerfully examined the effect of imprisonment on camp families, here writes about the centrality of the prisoners in Palestinian struggles. Sigi Ben-Ari and Anat Barsella write about family visits; Nahla Abdo explores women political prisoners. Finally, Alina Korn’s comparison of Israel with Northern Ireland places the Palestinians’ plight in a broader context of settler-colonialism worldwide.

What makes the book succeed as a whole is the adjacency of the legal analyses and academic arguments with the personal accounts. One does wish that Matar and Baker had written a slightly longer introductory essay or provided more articles like Berda’s, with its forensic dissection of the system as a whole. But the book is nevertheless a very welcome and valuable contribution to our understanding of how incarceration has become an inseparable part of the Israeli system of control, discipline, and violence.

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