Israel, Palestinian Civil Society, and Political Prisoners

Addameer’s office ransacked by the Israeli military. (Photo: Addameer/supplied)

By Patrick O. Strickland – Ramallah

(An interview with a representative of Addameer Prisoner Support Network, a Palestinian human rights organization dedicated to documenting and protecting the rights of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention – BikyaMasr.com)

The interview came just two days after Israeli military forces raided three civil society organizations in Ramallah, one of which was Addameer. Around 3:00 am on Tuesday morning soldiers entered Addameer and stole four laptops, one hard drive, and one video camera. It was the first time the prisoner support organization has been raided since 2002 during the height of the Second Palestinian Intifada.

Soldiers also ransacked the offices of the Union of Palestinian Women, located in the Qaddura refugee camp, and the Palestinian NGO Network, an umbrella organization that represents over 130 civil society organizations.

BikyaMasr.com: Let’s start with the obvious question. Israeli military forces raided Addameer’s offices two nights ago and stole computers, files, and other property. Why do you think they chose Addameer? What threat does Addameer pose to Israel?

Addameer Prisoners Support Network: The raid on Addameer can be understood in two senses. Firstly, it was an attack on Addameer as a specific individual organization. Addameer is a prominent human rights organization that has been very vocal on behalf of Palestinian rights, especially on the issue of hunger strikers.

This is not the first attack on Addameer either. The first attack was the arrest of Ayman Nasser, an Addameer human rights researcher. Ayman was interrogated for 45 days, some 20 or more hours per day. His hands were tied behind his back the whole time he was interrogated. When he wasn’t in interrogation, he was being held in isolation in a single room with only one blanket, a constant air conditioner on very low temperatures, and a bright fluorescent light that didn’t turn off.

Ayman is still awaiting “trial,” which I think we have to put in quotes because 99 percent of trials end in convictions, which says clearly that there is no justice.

Ayman is not the only Addameer employee to be intimidated or persecuted either. Israel has placed travel bans on our chairperson as well. He is not allowed to travel internationally or enter the occupied West Bank (he is a Jerusalem citizen). He cannot come to Ramallah, for instance, for work.

Many other members of our staff were banned from traveling in the past. In effect, this is Israel’s way of stifling our defense of Palestinian prisoners.

Secondly, Israel’s raid on Addameer took place at the same time as similar raids on the Qaddura Refugee Camp Women’s Committee and the Palestinian NGO Network. This is a clear attack on Palestinian civil society in its entirety. Israel wants to send a message: we can attack you whenever and wherever we want.

BM: What kind of files and materials were stolen? Did it appear as if the occupation forces raided the office for very specific information, or rather that they were simply trying to dig anything up?

APSN: We know that advocacy and administration files were taken. Every room in our office was ransacked, but computers were only taken from the legal unit and the documentation unit. From this we understood that the soldiers obviously knew exactly where to go once they entered the offices.

We assume that the Israeli soldiers copied the entire server, but we cannot be sure at this point. From the security tapes we know that they were here for exactly one hour and two minutes.

At this point, we don’t know if they placed a bug in the office or a monitoring program on our computer server. We are pretty sure that our phone calls are being listened to.

BM: Building on that, why did Israel chose to detain Ayman Nasser, an Addameer employee, for innocuous charges such as attending public festivals? Do you understand it as a direct attempt to intimidate work conducted in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners?

APSN: Mass detention of Palestinians is an Israeli strategy geared specifically at the destruction of Palestinian civil society. It’s an attempt to prevent Palestine from building society—a classic colonial tactic. Ayman Nasser is a perfect example of Israel’s attack on Palestinian intellectuals and human rights defenders. He was targeted specifically for his opinions and his political views as well as the local work he does.

Ayman and Addameer are targets of Israeli occupation forces specifically because we expose the brutality of the occupation and we are so vocal.

BM: Switching the topic slightly, since the ceasefire that put an end to the recent Gaza war, the military has launched several mass arrest campaigns in the occupied West Bank. What kind of people were targeted for arrest, and why do you think they were targeted?

APSN: Most people were arrested at demonstrations or later for having participated in demonstrations. It is impossible to track every arrest accurately, but we estimate that at least 200 Palestinians were arrested the same week that the ceasefire was reached.

Israel clearly wants to silence dissent or what they perceive as dissent, particularly peaceful resistance. All of the demonstrations were unarmed. Here in the West Bank resistance is almost always peaceful. People were protesting in solidarity with Gaza, against Israel’s military assault on Gaza, which killed over 100 civilians.

Demonstrators who weren’t arrested on the spot during protests were photographed and later detained. Israeli soldiers kick in their doors in the dead of night and take them by force. This is their response to peaceful protests.

This is a trend: soldiers kick in the doors of civilians during the middle of the night, just like they raided Addameer’s offices and the other NGOs at 3:00 am.

There appears to be collusion between the Israeli military and the Palestinian Authority, though it cannot be proven. Cooperation is simply a fact, but the extent of which we are not certain. Ramallah is in Area A of the West Bank, delegated to full Palestinian control as a result of the Oslo Accords. The Israeli military is not permitted to enter Area A neither under international law or the agreements reached in Oslo.

How were four Israeli military jeeps outside of our office for an hour without anyone seeing? Ramallah is very small, but Palestinian police were not able to make it across town during the hour the military was ransacking the office?

It also shows that the division of jurisdiction in the West Bank is a complete farce. Israeli forces enter wherever they want and whenever they want.

BM: There are five prisoners currently on hunger strike, and over 150 being held in administrative detention without charges or trials. How has the Palestinian Authority reacted to this situation? Have they done anything to ease the burdens of the prisoners?

APSN: The Palestinian Authority officially has a Ministry dedicated to detainees and prisoners, of course. However, there is little that the PA can do beyond lip service. They simply do not have the means to do much else. I understand this as the inevitable outcome of the way the Oslo Accords were structured—heavily in Israel’s favor.

BM: What kind of access do Addameer and other human rights organizations have to these prisoners? What about their legal representatives? Do the prisoners have sufficient access to adequate healthcare?

APSN: The only visitors that the prisoners are allowed to receive are lawyers and immediate family members. With that said, two Addameer lawyers, who were the legal representatives of particular prisoners, were banned from visiting their clients during the mass hunger strikes last April.

In respect to family, it gets even trickier. There are 19 prisons in which Israel places Palestinian detainees. 18 of them are inside Israel’s 1967 borders. Therefore, the practical consequence is that any given prisoner’s relatives have to apply for a permit first and foremost to enter Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territory. These permits are often denied on grounds of “security,” which is of course a vague term that the military more times than not neglects to define.

On the point of medical treatment, it is unbelievable how hunger strikers have been systematically and consistently denied proper treatment or medication. There are several examples of hunger strikers being denied medication by Israeli Prison Services simply in order to make them break their strike.

During the mass hunger strikes last April, in which around 2,000 Palestinians joined, one of our lawyers visited two prisoners who were on strike. They were both in wheelchairs by this point, and they shared a single room with two small beds and very little space to move in. The lawyer said that there were cockroaches in the room and that it the cleanliness wasn’t fit for an animal. Also there was absolutely no ventilation.

BM: What is the significance of prisoners launching hunger strikes as a method of demanding basic human rights? Do you think it is an effective means of resistance?

APSN: The hunger strikers have brought the issue of Palestinian prisoners back to the forefront, and they have proven that they are able to capture international attention. The political prisoners usually come from various strata of Palestinian society’s leadership: political movements, students, intellectuals, and so forth.

At the same time, most of the media has failed to report that Israel has reneged on almost all of the obligations on which it agreed during the negotiations that put an end to the mass hunger strike [in April] and earlier hunger strikes, namely those that took place in 2011. This makes it difficult to know where things will go from here, how it will end up. After it’s been proven that Israel does not respect any of the tenets to which it agrees, we worry that prisoners who decide to hunger strike in 2013 may be left to die.

I think it’s effective in bringing the issue of Palestinian prisoners to the forefront, along with the issue of the occupation and what it actually means in a broader sense. The question now, though, is should the hunger striking continue.

There are currently five people on hunger strike—where else in the world would this not be considered a serious human rights crisis? What other weapons do prisoners have? When they are pushed into a corner and denied their basic rights, they have no choice. In that way, hunger striking is the only way they can protest—2013 is very worrying for us. The immediate outlook is bleak.

– Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance American journalist and Israel-Palestine correspondent for BikyaMasr.com, where this interview was first published. His work has been published by CounterPunch, Palestine Chronicle, Fair Observer, Socialistworker.org, and elsewhere. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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1 Comment

  1. A prisoner escape of Palestinians, cloaked in fiction, is brilliantly depicted in Jonathan Bloomfield’s award-winning book, “Palestine.”

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