April 17 is Palestinian prisonersʼ day. If you pay any attention to the situation in Palestine youʼve probably heard the statistics about imprisonment, administrative detention and torture: 4,610 political prisoners, 203 of whom are children (thatʼs according Addameer). 322 of those prisoners are in administrative detention, meaning that there are no charges, no trial, and detainees donʼt know how long theyʼll be incarcerated for.
Addameer collects statistics specifically about ʻpoliticalʼ prisoners but I am very much of the belief that all prisoners are political prisoners. Not every Palestinian who is incarcerated in an Israeli prison is there for political activism. Some are locked up for ordinary crimes like car theft. But the circumstances that lead people to commit crimes are political. Poverty is a weapon of the occupation. The Israeli military and the settlers continually remove Palestiniansʼ sources of income. They steal farmland, they uproot orchards, they impose curfews, shut down checkpoints, take away peopleʼs work permits. The IDF drives Palestinians into poverty; then they imprison them for trying to make a living. Thatʼs why I think solidarity with Palestinian prisoners needs to include all Palestinian prisoners, not only those whoʼve been imprisoned for explicitly political actions.
It is hard to comprehend the impact of incarceration on peopleʼs daily life. What does it mean for a society when every family has someone in prison? (40% of Palestinian men have spent time in prison or administrative detention.) What is it like for children growing up in a home thatʼs been broken up by the state? What is it like to be a mother looking after your baby in prison, or being separated from your child? What is it like trying to keep your family together when family members are in and out of prison and administrative detention? What is it like trying to keep your family fed and clothed when the family members whose income you depend on are in and out of prison and administrative detention? How does the trauma and violence of prison and torture affect peopleʼs relationship with their families?
The statistics donʼt do the issue justice. Itʼs only once you start to imagine living in a society where incarceration is a norm that the horror of it really hits you. (Of course, this isnʼt a situation unique to Palestine. Incarceration is used as a weapon by racist and colonial administrations around the world. Here in Aoteraoa incarceration is used as a weapon against Māori and Pacific Island people.)
Hereʼs something else to think about:
According to the East Jerusalem YMCA, over 8,000 Palestinian children have been incarcerated since 2000. Save the Children estimates that 65% of them suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. What does that mean for the future of Palestine?
As the granddaughter of holocaust survivors, I know from experience the way that trauma is passed down from generation to generation. What kind of hope is there for building a society of justice and equality out of the ashes of a racist oppressive state when so many people are carrying the trauma of occupation? After all, Israel was founded by people traumatised by fascism and racism, people whose life experience taught them that everyone outside the ʻnationʼ was an enemy, that the only way to avoid being oppressed is to become an oppressor. That oppression is now being maintained through imprisonment and administrative detention.
What kind of hope do we have for living together in peace and equality in the future when one half of society is carrying the physical and psychological scars inflicted by the other?
Itʼs not only Palestinians who are imprisoned for challenging Israelʼs policies. Yesterday a Jewish-Israeli teenager, Noam Gur, declared her refusal to serve in the Israeli Defence Force. She was sentenced to ten days in military prison. Once sheʼs released she will probably repeat the cycle of being drafted, refusing, and being sentenced to prison.
But there is a huge difference in the way that Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians are punished for resisting Israel. Gur knows that she will not be tortured in prison. Her family will know where she is and be able to communicate with her. She will receive medical care if she needs it. I donʼt mean to minimise her experience, or her courage. I just want to point out that the consequences of resistance are so much bigger for Palestinians than they are for Jewish-Israelis.
As of today Palestinian prisoners are hunger striking indefinitely. The protest is supposed to highlight the horrific treatment of prisoners and admistrative detainees. Itʼs also so much more. Itʼs a protest of the way the entirety of Palestine has been turned into a prison, where Israel controls peopleʼs movement through roadblocks, checkpoints, border control, arbitrary confiscation of car keys, the ID system. Hunger striking is a dangerous form of protest. Itʼs possible that some of those prisoners will die. In a way thatʼs the point—itʼs a protest of the fact that Israelʼs policies have made life so unliveable that people would risk death rather than continue to live under military occupation.
DAMʼs song, written for the hunger striking prisoners, tells the stories of three Palestinian prisoners. It clarifies just how much incarceration is an integral tool of the occupation. You canʼt just fight for humane conditions in Israeli prisons, you have to fight against occupation itself.