We didn’t ask who had planted it, but within ourselves we all knew that this beautiful jasmine tree had been here before the state which had built this prison was planted on our land.
The tree was the only speck of colour in the grey surroundings, a spot of light in the darkness of our days here; that may have been the reason why they suddenly decided to cut it down. Our hearts sank with every blow of their axes on the thin, strong trunk. When our tree finally gave way, falling down and scattering its white flowers and green, delicate leaves on the ground, we watched with tearful eyes as they dragged its now dead body out of the prison yard. We wondered how a jasmine tree could be a danger to security in this prison, this state. We must have stood there a long while, speechless, staring at the empty space on the grey wall, when one of the comrades said in a clear voice, ‘Well, sisters, the thing they forget is that trees have roots.’ We went back to our cells, back to the daily routine, quietly smiling, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before the small, green buds would rise from the ground again.
I don’t know why this episode keeps coming to mind when I think about my days in prison. Maybe because it meant a lot not only to me, but for all the girls who were there that day. It means there is always hope, even in the darkest hours of prison, and that we have the power to survive, to learn and to fight.
It all began with a little piece of paper that said that I was wanted for questioning by the military authorities. I even can’t remember whether it came by post or whether it was delivered by hand, but this piece of paper determined my life for the next few years. The rest of the group to which I belonged, including my brother, had already been arrested five months previously, and so I’d spent this whole period waiting for the knock on the door at dead of night. (They don’t like arresting us in broad daylight.) The darkness meant fear and pain, the vulnerability of anticipating what must come.
I was not arrested, because they assumed that I would panic and lead them to other members they did not know of. For five months I slept with my clothes on, wondering whether each night would be the night. At long last they gave up hope, and I was called in for questioning on the same day that the trial of my comrades began. All sorts of thoughts went through my mind and, I must confess, so did fear. What I was about to face might be anything: maybe questioning and harassment for this has become a common experience for many of us living under occupation. On the other hand, it could also mean torture and imprisonment, as happened to one of my colleagues at university; he went in for questioning and he never came back.
My brother’s face came to my mind, thin and pale, the way he looked when I visited him in prison. ‘Prison is a school’, he used to say, smiling cheerfully. I always wondered why they were so cheerful, so confident, when I went to see him and the others. I only came to understand this when I was imprisoned myself. Up to that point I felt they were more confident, less worried than those of us left outside.
Names echoed in my memory, names of women political prisoners who were still in prison and unable to tell of their experience. This added to my confusion. I knew that many of them were tortured, and this knowledge certainly did not make things easier.
Maskobiya. The name still makes many prisoners and ex-prisoners shudder. That was the place I was to be interrogated in. This big, yellow-walled building, built almost a century ago by the Russian Orthodox Church, was the centre of torture stories for Palestinian prisoners. Its dark and narrow corridors and its small cells were the terrain on which many human struggles for survival have been fought, struggles to retain your honour and your sanity, in the face of a sophisticated machine of torture, designed to break you down.
As you pass through the first of the huge gates and hear it squeak closing behind you, you can’t help feeling ‘creepy’. You remember what people say about the place: ‘The one who enters is lost; the one who gets out is reborn’. I was in now, being led to one of the many cells along an interminable corridor. It seemed to take forever, I was full of fears. Fears of the unknown.
Sounds. Sounds without images, penetrating through the thick walls, twisting around the labyrinth of corridors, rising from the cellars. The sounds were not difficult to work out. The noise of crying, of bodies being kicked, thrown against the walls, falling under blows, collapsing into the bliss of unconsciousness. The sounds of torture must be similar the world over; I learned to listen in a completely new way. I kept wondering – was it planned this way? It meant that torture was shared out between the one being tortured and the many listening ears; that every time one of us was led through these corridors of pain, we suffered with our unseen friends, hidden somewhere within this monstrous building. This kind of preparation for your own interrogation is planned to break the toughest prisoners even before the questioning starts. A kind of warning that unless you cooperate, your fate will be similar.
A small room, at the end of that awful corridor. One desk, three interrogators. On entering, it was not fear that filled me, but anger. That first session lasted for a few hours. It began with ordinary questions about my life and studies, and ended by them making it clear that I was here to stay. The noises penetrating through the walls during my questioning, made it impossible to concentrate on anything – shouting, screams, yelling and cursing. After a while I was ordered to sit facing the wall. I could sense the presence of someone in the room. I turned my face to see who was there and a sharp woman’s voice ordered me: ‘Keep your face to the wall, Arab bitch, and don’t move.’
I could still hear the sound coming through the wall I was facing: the blows on a human body. It sounded as if the prisoner was in the middle of the room, being kicked from one torturer to another, his hands handcuffed behind his back and blindfolded, unable to avoid the next blow or to know where to anticipate it. Was this the way they killed Muhammad Abu Aker during his interrogation? What else was awaiting him, in the next room? Perhaps the hot and cold bath treatment. They knew that a man’s body cannot survive a whole night in the cold bath, in the middle of winter. He was too old. They found him dead the next morning. They were very fond of using that particular method of torture, it leaves no incriminating marks on the victim’s body. Sitting there, in that room, just sitting and listening, filled me with horror. My mind heaved with wondering: What? When? Is this what I will have to face? My spinal cord shrank as if under cold water; I began to sweat, feeling as if thousands of tiny creatures were creeping under my skin.
The door opened. It was time. I was taken out of the room, led down corridors, more corridors, up the stairs and more corridors. The questions in my mind got bigger and bigger. What if I could not take the torture; if they tried to rape me; what if…? The faces of my family came into my mind, and the faces of my comrades in prison. Tears came to my eyes. I wondered about the man in the torture room downstairs. What was his name? What does he look like? What were the charges against him? Thinking about him was a way to quell my own fears, to hold back the tears.
All along the corridor of cells I heard: ‘Be brave, sister’. Voices, faces, trying to console me. ‘Be strong, comrade, don’t worry. Don’t let them frighten you’, the bruised faces were saying, smiling at me from behind the bars. Swollen hands were extended out, greeting, touching and encouraging. I was not alone. They must have been through inhuman torture, yet they felt the need to comfort and encourage me. I felt my fears melting away. They cannot break us.
Pushed into a cell, the door closing behind me, I heard a warm voice welcoming me. An old woman wearing the traditional embroidered dress, smiling at me. ‘Don’t be afraid’, she said, ‘I am Umm Sabir. I was arrested three months ago’. She asked about my arrrest, and I told her everything that happened to me that morning, even about my fears.
Umm Sabir told me her story. ‘I have been here three months. I still don’t know what is going to happen to me. They say I killed my husband, but I didn’t, I swear I didn’t. They killed him. They found his body in a well by the settlement, the settlement which was built on our land. We were about to appear in court and show the documents that prove that the land belongs to us, so they killed him, and arrested me. I’ve only been interrogated once since then; I am still waiting. Why did they have to kill him, a poor old man, over seventy he was; wasn’t it enough that they took our land and left us nothing to live on?’ She started to cry and all the tears that I had held back that day streamed down my cheeks.
For the next few days, not much happened. Umm Sabir and I spent the time exchanging stories, listening to the prison sounds – dogs barking, more shouting, and sometimes the sound of men singing, a few cells away. I started singing with them. To my amazement singing filled me with hope, because I knew what these men must have been through, and I thought: ‘They can still sing; not all is lost’. I started looking forward to hearing their voices and singing with them.
The next interrogation took place a week after the first one. This time I was not afraid, again encouraged by the greetings as I went down the corridor, passing the men’s cells. I was prepared for the worst.
What happened was not at all what I expected. I was treated to a lecture that lasted two hours, while the interrogator spoke about the historical rights of the Jews to our land; that land actually belonged to them; that we were a bunch of Bedouins who came from Saudi Arabia; and that we’d best leave this place and go where we belong. The next chapter of this lecture dealt with the persecution the Jews suffered in the fifteenth century in Spain; then Hitler; and now the PLO and us terrorists trying to drive them into the sea. This bizarre session of mixed-up history and Zionist propaganda continued, while I listened to the dogs barking outside. ‘Are you listening to me?’ shouted the interrogator, his face getting redder. I was wondering – do they use the dogs to torture prisoners?
‘Anyway’, the interrogator said, ‘I don’t expect you to become a Zionist after listening to me. I just wanted you to understand’. Understand, understand what? He did not tell me and I did not ask.
I was taken back to the cell. In the corridor, again passing by the men’s cells, I felt a hand press something into mine. I couldn’t work out who, of the faces looking at me through the bars, had given me it. Back in the cell with Umm Sabir, I unrolled the little piece of paper and found a song, written in pencil. Its words were simple. It said:
We are not going to die; we are
going to uproot death from our land…
There, far away, the soldiers will
take me, to be locked in the darkness
In the hell of chains…
But now I am amongst my comrades
adding my voice to theirs, now I
am strong, I can break down the
walls of my cell…
And I swear there will be no peace
until our revolution, our struggle
for freedom is victorious.
I learned the words by heart and joined the comrades from the men’s block in singing it. It is strange, almost mysterious, the way that sharing makes one so much stronger. When I was first brought in, I felt so small and isolated, I could easily have been crushed. Now, hearing my own voice singing in unison with the others, I felt completely different. I had the strength to bring down the walls of my cell.
Sharing was the first lesson I have learnt – the knowledge that behind the wall there is someone prepared to grit their teeth and ignore their pain, so as to offer you a smile of encouragement. You are not alone; thousands have passed down the same corridors before you. Harassed, tortured, even died in this place, all for the cause. It matters little that I did not know their names, they are part of you, you are part of them; that feeling of comradeship joins you together. You lose the boundaries of your own body, it becomes part of this huge, strong, living entity – you cannot help feeling the pain of their bruises on your own face.
The parting from Umm Sabir and the comrades in the men’s cell was a tearful one – I was being transferred to Neveh Tirtzah, the women’s prison in Ramleh. I only had seconds to say goodbye to everyone as I was dragged down the corridor for the last time, squeezing as many hands as I could. They will stay there, to face more torture, or will be released, or transferred to other prisons, their guilt automatically assumed. Under the Israeli legal system in the Occupied Territories, we are all guilty until proven innocent and your innocence very much depends on the political situation at the time and the mood and personalities of the interrogators. For them, each case is a professional challenge to their training and their ego, so many of them are prepared to do anything, no matter how inhuman, to get a confession from a prisoner. How many prisoners have ‘confessed’ to acts they have never committed, just to stop the torture, while others ended up crippled for life, some even died, rather than confess?
I had no idea what it was like in the women’s prison, and my thoughts were wandering as I sat in the military jeep, handcuffed and blindfolded and surrounded by military police. Are the women allowed books? Visitors? Are they allowed contact with the outside world, or are conditions just as bad as at the detention centre, where even your lawyer is not allowed in while you are under interrogation? Though I knew that transfer to Ramleh meant that I was getting a longer imprisonment than I had expected, I was looking forward to meeting all the women I had heard so much about over the years – heroines, freedom fighters, strong women who had given up everything for the cause.
Once I was inside the prison, my blindfold was removed, as were the handcuffs. The men gave my papers to the women guards and left. While I was changing into prison uniform, I was treated to another ‘educational’ session, with the guard telling me that none of this would have happened if I just stayed at home, got married and had children, instead of getting involved in stupid politics which would lead me nowhere but prison. The lecture was delivered in English, as she knew I did not speak Hebrew and she either did not speak Arabic, or preferred to speak English.
Another guard then took me over to the Palestinian women’s block. Going through the double gates, I saw them in their green prison uniforms, cleaning the yard and the corridors. As soon as they saw me, they all gathered around shaking my hand, hugging and patting my shoulders, with words of welcome. They then followed me down the long corridor to the cell, where the guard locked me in. I was hardly given a chance to look at my new surroundings – the women gathered at the small window in the door and showered me with questions. My name, the charges against me, news from outside – I could barely answer them all, I was so overwhelmed by the warmth of their welcome, linking me to those women who were separated from me by the heavy metal doors.
I wished I could embrace all those faces with my eyes, carve them into my heart, fearing that the minute I turned my face away, they would disappear, leaving me alone in that cell.
Then came the meetings with women I had heard of for years. The first was a strongly built woman – I realized I was looking at the first woman to be involved in the armed struggle in the Occupied Territories. She was the first to be jailed and was sentenced to a life-term plus ten years. Looking at her face, it was not difficult to imagine how she had suffered – she had been in prison eight years by then – yet she still smiled and made jokes.
The other one was a woman with magnificent eyes and a comforting, friendly smile. I had heard about her torture before I came to prison, she was sentenced to two life-terms plus ten years… How much did she have to struggle within herself, to forget or put aside the memories of torture and to keep that smile? When I heard later about the torture she suffered, I realized why she was always busy; she never allowed herself a moment of rest. I do not believe that anyone will be able to forget such a nightmare – she was beaten to the point of unconsciousness, then raped with a truncheon. She does not talk about her experiences and I deeply regretted the one time I asked her about it. It was like reopening a deep wound that took too long to heal. My questions were scratching her memory with a knife of pain, bringing back things which she had struggled to push away into the dark corners of her mind.
It is still painful to me to write about yet another story of torture. Nonetheless, these stories have to be told – so that they may not happen again; so that people know the sufferings that our women, our men, and our children have gone through and are still going through; so that the cynical phrase ‘Humane Occupation’ can be exposed as the cruel lie it always was.
Writing these lines, I have in mind a small, thin, sharp featured woman. She always kept herself apart, as if surrounded by a deep sadness. When I met her, I knew that here was someone who would not, who could not, compromise. During her torture, she and her father were made to strip naked in front of each other; then they ordered her father to rape her. When they both refused to comply, they had to face the most inhuman tortures.
These stories and many others were living with me, with all of us in our cells. The cell I found myself in was a small room with three bunk beds and extremely thin mattresses. It had a small window looking onto a green yard (which later I found was not allowed us), a toilet and shower cubicle, all very clean – a credit to the women who were living there. This was to be my new home. For how long?
I was allowed one hour in the prison yard, which I happily welcomed. After being locked up in Maskobiya for eighteen days, it was my first chance to talk to the women. Sitting on the ground, they were telling me about life in the prison, when we heard a scream. It was more like a wounded animal squealing. We saw a woman being dragged by three guards, her whole body was bloodstained. Despite their number she managed to free herself from them, trying in vain to escape; the place was surrounded by so many fences and masses of barbed wire… at last they caught her and dragged her, beating her, into a small building. I was later told it was the isolation block.
My face must have reflected the horror I felt at this display of brutality, for my friends told me that the woman was a drug addict. Unable to afford to buy the drugs from prison pushers, she would cut herself with anything sharp she could find, and became uncontrollable. ‘Why don’t they take her to hospital?’ I asked. They told me that taking her to hospital would mean informing the prison governor, getting a special vehicle and guards – it was easier to lock her in the isolation block and get the prison nurse to stitch her up. I gathered that this happened quite often, depending on the number of drug addicts kept in the other wing of the prison.
I thus learnt the prison had two wings – one for the Jewish women, mainly drug addicts, thieves and prostitutes; the other one for the Arab women, all but two of whom were political prisoners. We were not allowed into their yard, which was the patch of green I saw from my window. Only during work were we allowed to mix with the Jewish women. All sentenced prisoners had to go out to work; sometimes they also allowed those awaiting trial to work. As those that did not go to work were only allowed out for one hour per day, we all preferred to work, even though we had no choice about the kind of work we were given to do.
For work done in prison we used to get paid such meagre wages, we must have been some of the world’s worst paid workers. It was not enough for the most basic needs, such as cigarettes. In addition to the wage, each of us was allowed a small sum in support from our families, to supplement our wages. Many had no families, or came from very poor ones and could not get any money from the outside. To solve this basic inequality we set up a ‘common fund’ into which money was put by those that could afford it and from which all our needs were met communally. This ‘canteen for all’ project was most successful and brought us all closer together.
The first job I was given was making clothes pegs. In the workshop building there were a number of sewing machines, and the other women told me that they had first been ordered to sew military uniforms, but had refused. This led to them being locked up for a long time, at the end of which they ended up making prison uniforms.
Making clothes pegs was the most boring part of our day: sitting for six hours constantly doing the same movement really puts your brain to sleep. From the start, I decided to let my hands do the movement and to let my mind wander, think, imagine I learned to separate mind and body. This way my mind could leave the prison, visit my family and friends, or even wander into the men’s prison, separated from ours by a wall and an ever-closed gate. This gate was only used in emergencies – when they needed the male guards to beat us up, fire teargas at us, or drag a whole number of us to the isolation block, as happened when we went on strike.
To make time work for us, the Palestinian women decided to allocate daily subjects for discussion, so that each of us would prepare one, teaching the rest. This was very successful, until the Jewish women working with us complained that we were disturbing their peace and quiet, and the guards enforced total silence once again.
At the same workbench there were a couple of Jewish women, a mother and daughter. We noticed that they hardly spoke Hebrew, indeed they hardly spoke at all. We then found out they were new immigrants from the USSR, who had left everything behind and came to the land of milk and honey. They found themselves living in barrack-like dormitories with no prospect of a job, or meaningful life. In their frustration, they had beaten up a social security office clerk and now found themselves working side by side with us.
Another similar woman found it impossible to live outside. When her prison term was over, she would refuse to leave; she had nowhere to go – no family, no job, no other friends, nowhere to live. She used to sit outside begging the guards to let her in, and then would go to steal, or assault someone, so as to be sent back inside. She and some of the other Jewish women were visited every day by a special sewing teacher; the hope was that this training would turn them into useful members of society.
I then realized that most of the Jewish prisoners were women from the Sephardi community, originating in the Arab countries; only a small minority came from the USSR and the rest of Eastern Europe. The relationships between us and them were quite friendly, including some petty trading, such as bartering tea for cigarettes. At break times they would separate themselves from us. We kept away from their fights unless they became too violent or dangerous. They even would use us as arbiters in their quarrels, sometimes, telling us stories about each other.
This came in handy during the strike, when all privileges were withdrawn, and we were not allowed to use the prison canteen. Soon we ran out of supplies of coffee, tea and cigarettes. Two of us persuaded the Jewish women that we were able to read their fortunes in the coffee-cup, in return for supplies. As we heard so many stories about each of them from her friends and enemies, the readings were reasonably accurate, and our supplies kept flowing…
Other services we performed for them included writing to their boyfriends, as most of them were illiterate. This even led to a Hebrew class being opened for the Jewish girls, to teach them basic language skills. We were allowed to attend, and a whole number of us studied Hebrew that way. The class was wound up when the Jewish girls stopped attending – it then looked as if the class was run mainly for us, and they closed the class. Most of them came from very large families and were quite bitter about their real chances in life. They explained that anything worthwhile was in the hands of Ashkenazi (Western) Jews, and how they and other Sephardis were treated as second-class citizens.
Their bitterness towards this oppression was such, that when an Ashkenazi school teacher was brought in for some crime she committed, she was totally rejected by the other Jewish women, and she ended up with us, in our section. They never missed an opportunity to kick her, especially when they found out she enjoyed some privileges denied to them – she was allowed not to wear prison uniform, and was treated much better by the guards, who, ironically, were mainly Sephardis.
All this was quite new to me. Of course, I have read about the exploitation of the Sephardis in Israel, but experiencing this in prison helped us to realize that the myth of a coherent, united and strong Israeli nation was flawed at the very centre of its existence, its racist features extending beyond the Palestinians towards the whole Sephardi community, in a structure of disadvantage resembling the hated apartheid system.
The most pleasant distraction from our hateful routine was the presence of a number of children, even babies, within the walls. One of the Arab women, sentenced for murder, was pregnant when she was brought in. She had a little daughter aged two, a lovely baby, who came into prison with her and soon became a plaything for all of us. We taught her to walk, talk, eat her food – there was no shortage of volunteers to look after her…
One of our comrades, who had been arrested together with her husband for belonging to a guerrilla group, was also pregnant when they brought her in. Her husband was kept on the other side of that big wall, in the men’s prison, and obviously he wasn’t allowed to see her. He was not even told when his wife was taken to hospital to give birth. In hospital, she was in the same room with a Jewish prisoner also about to have a baby. She told her that, whether it was a boy or a girl, she had decided to call her baby ‘Falasteen’ – Palestine. The Jewish woman then decided to call hers Israel…
When she came back with her newborn baby, we all flocked to see her, only to find that the Registrar refused to record the name ‘Falastin’ as the boy’s name. A long argument ensued, in which she made it clear that she refused to register her son under any other name. At last the Registrar gave in and registered the boy. The Jewish woman called her son David (without, one presumes, opposition from the prison authorities…). Little Falastin had more than fifty mothers, all competing for his attention, more than ready to play with him, feed him, sing him songs and even wash his nappies…
Finally, four months after my arrest, it was the day of my trial. I was driven to the military court in Nablus, where, apart from my close family, the only audience were the guards. I was disappointed, as I hoped to see my friends there – as a result of a last minute change, I had been taken to a different court, and my lawyer only managing to let my family know.
I was quite confident – I assumed that I would be released either immediately, or in a month or two, because up until then, most of the Palestinians convicted on the same charge of ‘membership of a banned hostile organization’ had been sentenced to periods between six months and a year. To my surprise, the judge, a military officer, announced a sentence of three years, basing it on the fact that I expressed no signs of regret or repentance. It was a deterrent sentence – a warning to women that might contemplate the same course of action. I heard my mother draw in her breath, as she tried hard not to cry.
It was a cold winter day in February when I was taken back to Nablus prison. I spent ten long days in a cubby hole between the guard’s toilet and washroom, as there were no other facilities for women in this prison, which was normally only used for men. I tried hard to calm down, to get used to the idea that I was to spend three years in prison. I kept thinking about people that had been sentenced for life; others that had died in prison. Compared with them, I thought, I have little to complain about.
I started thinking of ways of using this time positively, so as not to be destroyed by it. I could even continue my university degree study, if they’d let me… I’d have to work out quite a tight schedule of work… By the time I was brought back to Neveh Tirtzah, I had got used to the idea that I was to spend two years and eight months in jail, with no possibility of reprieve.
Our daily timetable was unchanging and very tight; it needed all of us to maintain it. After work we had lunch, and the study period would start. It was a long struggle before they would agree to supply us with a blackboard, and later some text books. Every one of those books could tell a story of the pleading, the strikes and the bitter struggle we had to wage, to get anything at all.
One of us was teaching English; another mathematics; a third comrade taught us Hebrew, as the Hebrew classes had been terminated some time previously. She came from the part of Palestine occupied in 1948, and spoke fluent Hebrew. One of my students was Umm ‘Abdalla, a seventy year-old woman. She had been arrested for feeding her son, a freedom fighter. The official charges were ‘hiding and feeding an enemy, not informing the appropriate authorities of his and his associates’ whereabouts’. She preferred to go to jail rather than inform on her son and his comrades. We were afraid that she would die in prison, she was so frail and old. After four months with us she was released, able, for the first time in her life, to write her own name and read a little. It seems that the prison authorities were worried as well – they could not afford having this old woman die in prison.
As there were a number of old women who were illiterate, we opened a special class for them. One of the women in the class was Umm Ahmad, whose son was serving a life sentence; she herself had been arrested while crossing from Jordan. She was a courageous woman, always ready with good advice; she was a mother to us all – we would rest our heads on her lap to seek comfort. She advanced well with her studies, and I was extremely happy and proud that I had come to know her.
After two hours of study, we would all go out into the yard for physical training. We all loved that part of the day, running and jumping – it was vital that we kept fit. After dinner, we would start our political education sessions. As these were not permitted, we had to post guards to keep watch for any prison guards approaching. When the doors were locked at 8 o’clock, we would read, talk and prepare for the next day’s lessons.
This very active daily schedule kept us sane and healthy, much better than sitting passively, trapped in our memories of our loved ones and missing all the things we were deprived of outside. We saw what happened to most of the Jewish convicts in the other block – their time was spent in petty quarrels and crying. Sometimes the routine was broken by film shows, mainly educational films about health and childbirth. But the break was not always welcome – they kept showing us films about the first Zionist pioneers in Palestine and, again and again, films about the Holocaust and Jewish suffering – as if we were responsible for the holocaust.
This forced viewing was a kind of psychological torture, totally unfair, we felt. On those occasions, our relationship with the Jewish women would suffer badly: they would begin behaving like patriots and ultra-nationalists, looking for an enemy to pick a fight with, and of course, there we were – enemies of their state, as they saw it. On one of those occasions, a Jewish girl who was normally very mild and even tempered, stood up and shouted that the Jews should do to the Arabs what had been done to the Jews in Europe. She was usually peaceful and nice to us, but these films were stirring her violence against us.
The Israeli Day of Independence was a day of celebration for them; we would stay locked in our cells, as punishment for our hunger-strike, which was not just a protest against our own imprisonment, our individual lack of freedom, but protest against the lack of freedom of our whole nation. For us it was a day of deep grief, a day on which our agony started. For them, it marked the end of the diaspora; for us, the beginning of our own diaspora, with no end in sight. On the day the state of Israel was declared, our identity as Palestinians was denied. Could there be two groups more polarized?
For daring to stage a hunger-strike on the day of their celebration, we had to face all kinds of threats, abuses and attacks. As the day progressed, both the guards and the Jewish inmates would attack us, trying to provoke us. Our policy in the face of all this aggression, was to stay calm and not to be provoked – any reaction from our side would have led to even more aggression being vented against us. The day would end with both sides totally exhausted – them with eating, drinking and singing, us with hunger and stress. A little microcosm of the relationship between the two estranged communities in Palestine.
It would normally take more than a couple of days for things to go back to some kind of normality, a few days during which both camps avoided talking to each other. This ‘normality’ lasted until the next religious occasion or another political upheaval. The one occasion when things took a long time to return to normal was the Entebbe raid.
On that day we were not allowed out to work; there were no newspapers and the guards were extremely hostile and aggressive towards us. It was clear that whatever had happened was very important –otherwise they would have let us go to work. The Jewish women were not allowed into our section, and only after two days of extreme tension did we find out that a military operation was taking place in Uganda. One of the women that worked in the kitchens told us. She also found out that there might be an exchange of prisoners, and that the comrades serving life sentences stood to be freed first.
The news had a very dramatic effect: comrades serving life sentences were jumping up and down like little children, overcome with joy; they handed out their meagre belongings to their friends, promising to come and liberate us all soon… ‘We will think of you, when we’re having coffee in Beirut…’ Their various roles in the prison, such as running the library, were delegated to others; change was in the air, urgent change.
That night none of us could sleep; over-excited, we waited for the doors to open at any moment and for our comrades to be taken on their way to freedom. But in the morning we were taken to work again, with the guards cracking jokes at our expense; the radio in the workshop gave the details of how the operation had failed. It is difficult to describe the bitter disappointment we all felt, especially the ones preparing to be liberated. We fell silent, not being able to look each other in the eye, as if it was us who had failed. But our problems were only starting – a more dangerous crisis was facing us.
From the other wing we heard shrill singing and hysterical voices threatening to kill us all. Provocations continued, and aggression flared in a way that was new and more frightening than before. We could hear the guards stirring it up, which added to our fears. We asked the guards to allow us not to work, as we feared clashes, but their orders were clear – everyone must go to work. There would be no incidents, they promised.
That morning I was working in our kitchen. One of the comrades told me that the Jewish convicts had got knives, through the kitchen in their section. We, of course, were not allowed to use knives in the kitchen except under constant attention from the guards. It was obvious they could not have acquired the knives without the guards turning a blind eye.
We managed to pass a warning to the girls in the workshops, but could not warn those working in the prison yard (the ‘meadow’ as we called it). They were cutting the grass between the barbed wire fences, so as to expose any tunnels being dug. The yard had access only through a single gate, always kept locked, even when the women were working there.
On that day, one of our comrades was working there with one of the Jewish convicts. All of a sudden we heard her scream. From where I was, I could not see what had happened, but I saw the girl being carried in by two comrades. She was unconscious and one of her friends was also hurt, bleeding. They then told us that a Jewish woman who was in for prostitution had tried to strangle our comrade, who was not suspecting an attack, and in any case, was not strong enough to resist. Two of the others rushed to save her, one jumping over the fence to fight the Jewish woman, releasing the girl from her grip, but cutting herself badly as she clambered over the barbed wire fence, back to our section. The guards, realizing the seriousness of the situation, then started a big search, and many knives were retrieved from the other wing.
Incensed, we pressed charges against the other woman for attempted murder. The prison atmosphere was very tense, with the governor trying to force us to drop the charges, and the girl herself came many times, trying to persuade us. We called many meetings to discuss this matter, and finally we decided to drop the charges against her. We knew that if found guilty, she would end up with another five years on her sentence.
It was a difficult decision. As political prisoners, this was our first chance to assert our rights, our political strength, by insisting on pressing the charges. On the other hand, we all knew what five years in prison would mean to this young, politically inexperienced woman, who had allowed herself to be swept along by the waves of hatred and incitement all around her. Would our revenge have a political echo and meaning, or would it just be a personal vendetta? After all, we couldn’t hold this poor woman responsible for the occupation, the torture, the killings – she is only a tool, a victim of a situation she does not fully comprehend. In the end, we explained to her why we were going to drop the charges. We gained a friend in her, and probably many more, to whom she spoke and explained our reasons.
Imprisonment is a severe punishment, being locked up behind walls, deprived of the most precious gift, freedom, even when, in occupied Palestine, freedom is a somewhat abstract concept. This basic injustice was heightened by the fact that we lacked even the simple amenities allowed common criminals. As we were not criminals, we were not allowed family visits; we could not be released after two thirds of our prison term, for ‘good behaviour’; we had no right of appeal against our sentence. Those basic, inalienable human rights were denied us because we were not common criminals.
On the other hand, we were refused the status of ‘prisoners of war’ – the war between us and Zionism being totally denied, in the same way that our national identity, our land, our whole entity are constantly denied by the enemy. This way, we had none of the rights of POW’s – we were termed ‘Security Prisoners’, according to the Emergency Regulations passed by the British Mandate government in 1945… We were prisoners with no rights, of a nation that did not exist, in a land no longer ours, governed by the regulations of an Empire no longer in existence…
Ib spite of the fact that the prison was recently built (there is always a boom in prison building in Israel) the conditions were harsh. Medical treatment, if you can call it that, was very poor. Two tablets were the only medication for ailments, and prisoners would die before the authorities would agree to take them to hospital. One of our comrades was very ill, and unable to eat or move at all. When she started having difficulties in breathing, we insisted on her being taken to hospital, or at least that an Arab doctor be allowed to visit her – we had no illusion about the type of treatment she would get in the prison clinic. Quite clearly, her life was in danger. But the authorities refused to transfer.
All this happened after a long period of tension, during which we had demanded a whole number of basic rights to be restored and a number of humiliating situations to be changed. Their refusal to transfer our sick comrade became the flashpoint of our anger and frustration. A list of demands presented to the authorities was not answered or acknowledged.
The list included a long catalogue of senseless atrocities, which we demanded should be stopped. These included the repeated arbitrary searches, carried out at any hour of day or night, with all of us waiting in the yard, cold and angry. When we returned to the cells, all our meagre belongings would be scattered on the floor, trampled on and destroyed, papers and exercise books gone for censorship. We never saw anything again. Books were almost impossible to get in – the Red Cross would tell us that they supplied books according to a list agreed by the prison authorities, yet those books would not arrive and when we inquired, all we got was abuse in return. We also complained about the humiliating way that members of our families were searched on the rare occasion of an agreed visit. During such visits, a guard would sit with us noting down every word uttered during the visit by either prisoners or visitors.
As there was no response to our demands, we refused to enter into the cell block until such a response was forthcoming. The governor ordered the guards to lock five of us in the isolation cells, and the rest in their cells. This led to an all-out strike by us. Our comrade’s health was rapidly failing and we started banging on the doors and windows, demanding her immediate transfer.
The answer was more violence. This time, male guards from the neighbouring prison were brought in to beat us up. It was impossible to get away from the truncheons, it was a bloody fight which we could not win.
After these events, we all decided to go on a hunger strike, as the only way of forcing them to negotiate with us. After three days, our comrades in the isolation block were released, and negotiations on the rest of our demands could start. The result was a qualified success: our comrade was taken to hospital, some of the books were returned and they promised that confiscated material would be returned – although they would not hear about stopping the searches. It took a few months for us to realize that they reneged on most of these promises.
Three of us were exiled to the Gaza prison for our role in the strike. We ended up having to wage a new battle in order to have them returned. We were not allowed to correspond with them at all. We were not successful, and slowly things went back to normal.
Time in prison has completely different qualities from the time spent elsewhere, for obvious reasons. One dreads certain times of the day, and eagerly expects others. The most special part of any day for all of us was four o’clock in the afternoon. It was then that we got newspapers, but, most important of all, letters were handed out. The guard arriving with the letters had us all standing around her with trepidation, our eyes fixed on her lips, trying to decipher the sounds of names before they were uttered. When you got a letter, the excitement was too much – you would start reading it even before you found a chair to sit down. Those of us who did not hear our name read out would quietly disperse, trying to hide the enormous sense of disappointment, the tear or two, the hope dashed but not totally given up – maybe tomorrow…
I used to read my letters many times, learning them by heart and reciting them to myself during my long hours at work. Tenuous as they were, the letters were our main link with the outside – visits were only allowed once a month. We were allowed to write six letters a month ourselves, on very small sheets of prison-supplied paper.
When we write, we know that not only our family and friends are going to read it; there will also be the prying hands and eyes of the censor looking at every single word, decoding any hints, recording any details. Our letters could not be the intimate contact that we wished them to be, that we so needed them to be. Our friends and families outside knew the same, and remembered the same when writing to us. This feeling of being looked at through a keyhole, of your most intimate feelings being paraded naked in front of someone hostile and unknown, was one of the worst punishments in the prison system.
It was after two years in prison that I first met Ruth. She was an Israeli sociology student from the Hebrew University, and she came to the prison often, as part of a study in criminology that she was conducting with the Israeli prisoners. When we first met, she was reluctant to speak to me; she was actually frightened of me. When she plucked up courage we ended up talking for hours. She told me she was frightened to death in our section of the prison, which she referred to as the ‘terrorist’ section. She had clear expectations of being physically attacked when she came in, and was surprised, even confused, by our friendly reaction.
Having overcome her fear, she started visiting us quite often. We became close friends and discussed everything, from theatre to music, to sex and family relationships. She told me about problems she had with her husband, and we talked of mutual academic interests – I was studying sociology before I was arrested. She even told me about friends of hers, to whom she planned to introduce me, after my release from prison. The guards warned her about us, about me, but this did not deter her, and she continued visiting me. For me, she had become not only a friend, but also a most welcome change in my prison routine. Warnings came from both sides, with my comrades arguing that she had been sent to spy on us, but it did not affect my determination to continue the friendship and the dialogue.
But our dialogue was not complete. One subject we both avoided totally was politics. Of course, we had to come to it sooner or later, and one day Ruth asked the fated question, ‘How did you come to be here?’ and then concluded with a rather naive, but moving statement about the fact that we seemed to get on with each other so well, so why fight, why not get together, put aside the conflict?
It was clear she did not see a political dimension to the conflict, so I began to talk to her about the fate of Palestine since the beginning of the Zionist settlement, tried to describe to her the aspect of the conflict that was always invisible to her, as it still is to most Israelis. The occupation, the destruction, loss of homes and family, of the rural and urban communities, of their cultural traditions, of their national and social sense of identity. The diaspora, one country after another rejecting us; a life with no future; a life with no constant and clear connection to a place; a landscape of home; a life of divisions and conflicts, in which disaster is a daily visitor in every family, and catastrophe is routine. I said that as a Jewish woman she should have no problem in understanding this fate of ours. Were the Jews not outcasts for centuries, refugees, victims of oppression?
She was quite shocked, crying throughout my story and saying repeatedly: ‘This is not what they tell us in school; I never heard any of this before; I had no idea…’ A long period of heavy silence followed. Ruth was battling with herself, taking her time, she was preparing to ask me another important question. I later understood she came armed with that question, a question that she treated like a kind of political litmus paper. She broke the silence by asking: ‘Suppose that one day we meet on opposite sides, me with an Uzi sub-machine gun, and you with a Kalashnikov rifle – would you be able to shoot me?’
I was quite shocked. She obviously had not understood my story (I told myself) if she could come up with this comic-strip formulation of our political and human dilemma. I told her: ‘If we met in the way that you describe, on opposite sides of the front, it means that we are going to shoot at each other, because that is why we are there. I shall be fighting for my freedom; what will you be fighting for? Probably, your right to deny my freedom? In that situation, do not count on me not to shoot you. I will not wait to be shot by you, or anybody else. I will shoot first; I will try to be faster, to survive’.
We spoke no more. Suddenly I realized that there was always a barrier between us, like a glass wall, invisibly separating our positions. We pretended not to see it, we did not want to admit its existence, but we both felt it. Her question made both of us realize that as long as she was the occupier and I the occupied, as long as we were not equals we would never be able to transcend this invisible barrier.
Ruth never came back. If she was to understand, she would have had to give up too many things that she was not ready to abandon, not yet, and probably, not ever. I was sad. I felt I had not lost a friend, but gained an enemy. An enemy who might just cry while doing the killing.
This relationship with Ruth comes to my mind often, when I hear talk about ‘peaceful coexistence’ between the occupied and the occupier, the oppressor and the oppressed, the lamb and the wolf. The lines of the poem I first learned in prison come back, from the distance of pain:
And I swear there will be no peace
until our revolution, our struggle
for freedom is victorious.