Mustafa Barghouti: The Prison and Its Wardens

By Dr. Mustafa Barghouti

Being a Palestinian is to know prison first hand. As anyone who went through prison knows, prisoners are often allowed to share the space within the wards and even fight for turf, so long as the warden has total control of the locks and keys and of the doors and the walls. For the warden, what matters most is that he can get inside the ward anytime he wants and keep the inmates in line. Nothing is sadder when the inmates get so absorbed in their fight for turf that they forget their real situation: that they are in prison and therefore powerless.

For the past seven months, this has been the case in the occupied territories, where Fatah and Hamas have been too busy pushing each other around to think of anything else.

Meanwhile, the occupation forces have escalated their brutal attacks, expanded their settlement building activities, continued to build the racial separation wall, and kept changing Jerusalem’s borders and demographics. The Israelis are destroying every chance for an independent Palestinian state, and we’re too busy to speak in one voice.

The occupation forces have put us into prisons of various sizes. Some are as small as a cell, as in Al-Noaman and Qalqilia. Some are more like a ward, as in Bethlehem and Nablus. Others are larger, such as the Gaza Strip. In these prisons, we continue to fight and call each other names. We continue to jockey for imaginary power, a power that is totally controlled by our occupiers.

The occupation is approaching its 40th year and has perfected its racist system of oppression. Meanwhile, we’re as divided as ever, incapable as ever of foiling its schemes. The occupation authorities are holding back the salaries of government employees, yet no one raises their voice in protest. On the contrary, we’re blaming each other for the consequences. Everyone knows that the sum total of the Palestinian money held by the occupation forces, unjustly and in contravention of earlier agreements, amounts to $550 million — more than enough to cover all the unpaid salaries.

Donors from the East and the West are vying to boost the size of our security services. Now we can make it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the only government in the world where security personnel (over 81,000) outnumber the rest of public servants. And yet we have no security and no peace. Worse still, our security services are being used as militia, a matter that is degrading by any standards.

We used to criticize the Palestinian budget because it earmarks 25 per cent of its expenditure for security, 0.8 per cent for agriculture, and nine per cent for health. Now things are getting even worse. The next budget — applicable once and if the siege is ended — will allocate 33.5 per cent for security, 0.7 per cent for agriculture, and seven per cent for health.

The last Legislative Council was marginalized. But our answer to Israel’s abduction of 40 members of the new Legislative Council was to bring the council’s activities to a standstill. Our paralyzing factional strife stopped us from finding any solution to the undemocratic acts of the occupying power.

During the first Intifada, we used to challenge the occupation. We used to organize medical relief, in defiance of Israel, to treat the wounded and take care of the patients. When Israel closed our schools and universities, we organized grass-root education committees. When the occupation authorities arrested us, we set up clinics and classes within the prisons. Now we close our schools with our own hands. And some of us feel no pity at the sight of a poor woman needing medical help to deliver her baby.

Despite the siege and the prisons — and at a time when we had no government — no one went hungry during the first Intifada thanks to social schemes and organized charity. Now thousands cannot feed their children, while others are getting fat on incredibly high wages — by local standards — working for foreign agencies.

Israel has learned from its failures during the first Intifada. Israel managed to distract us through the Oslo Accords and its annexes. Then it proceeded to change the rules of the game, to demonize our just struggle and denigrate our humane principles. Now we have to prove our good conduct to the world with every passing day. And instead of standing together in the face of this grave injustice, some of us are pleased to prove our compatriots wrong.

Israel’s whole strategy is based on distorting the essence of our struggle, on twisting international laws and norms. Israel wants to turn the occupied territories into disputed territories. Israel wants to portray the legitimate struggle against injustice as acts of terror. Israel wants the blame to fall not on the occupation, but on the victims of occupation. And yet Israel’s ideas are now seeping into our political culture. Some of us are now ashamed to assert our right to defend our dignity and resist. Some of us want us to capitulate instead of understand and change reality.

At the moment when we need a unified strategy and action, when we need to capitalize on Israel’s failure in Lebanon, when it takes a mere visit by a journalist to the occupation walls to see Israel’s inhumanity, the world media is focused on our infighting.

I have said it before, and I will say it yet again. There is no way forward except through a unified national command. We need to agree, even temporarily, on a unified vision. And we need to have a government of national unity — be it from the factions, the technocrats, or the independents. The most important thing is for the government to be united.

We need a unified mechanism to manage the conflict, defend our rights, break the siege, and protect our people and our name from the harsh judgment of history. We need to remember that the conflict must not be among our factions, but between our people and the forces of occupation, injustice, and repression.

We need to remember that however big the prisons we live in now, in our villages and towns, they are still prisons. And the only way to bring down the walls of those prisons is for us to work together. Those who are besieging us must know that they cannot divide us. We should unite in our vision, even while we disagree in our views. We need to remove from our eyes the speck that makes us unable to see the checkpoints, the daily arrests, the repeated incursions, and the gloating smile on the faces of our torturers and oppressors.

-The writer is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and the secretary – general of the Palestinian National Initiative.

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