Tuesday 5 February
Sometimes there’s a time to reflect, sometimes there’s a time to rage.
We have a breakfast briefing with Aied Abu Qutash and Bradley Barker from Defence for Children International, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) which documents abuse of child prisoners and raises awareness. Israel detains 500-700 children a year we’re told; usually for throwing stones. All Palestinian children are tried in military courts, any Israeli children in civil courts.
A typical arrest will involve a child being seized, not necessarily in the heat of the moment (often from his home between midnight and 5a.m.) by soldiers. He (it’s usually he) will have his hands tied behind his back very tightly, this will continue through interrogation up to and then after he signs a statement. The child will not be allowed to have a parent, lawyer or other sympathetic adult present. He will be usually be subject to some form of physical and verbal abuse. A typical “offender” will be sentenced to between 4 and 6 months in jail, children are usually not given bail when charged and can wait 2 years before trial. The majority are detained in Israel away from their parents.It’s not difficult to see why there’s a tendency to plead guilty.
According to Israeli figures in 2010 99.79% of everybody charged in military courts was found guilty. Either they’re an incredibly guilty bunch or there’s something very funny going on.
I’ve got more information but the above gives you a general picture.
Next we journey to the grave of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. Samples from Arafat’s body were recently taken away at his widow’s request so a poisoning allegation can be investigated. Indeed we can see the surface has been disturbed. The atmosphere is peaceful, we’re told an Arafat museum will be built here.
We visit the Amari refugee camp which holds 7,500 people in a fairly small space (it looks more like a section of Ramallah than a visible camp). It appears grimy, run-down and very congested. We’re shown around by a man of approximately 50. Somebody asks him, “Have you ever been to where you came from?” This seems ridiculous at first. The man immediately replies, “No”. He means his family became refugees in 1948 and he still regards their former home as his true one.
Away from his hearing two of two of our group discuss when does a refugee cease to be a refugee. I suppose this happens when he’s willingly settled elsewhere or when he goes back home.
All services in the camp are provided by the UN’s humanitarian wing, UNHRWA, including education, housing and social services. We are shown around the equivalent of a community centre. Most of the people in the camp have no income and no medical cover.
Shortly afterwards we attend a meeting with two NGOs, Al-Haq and Addameer. Majed explains that Al-Haq is a human rights organisation that documents human rights abuse. Saha explains that Addameer exists specifically to lobby and raise awareness on the treatment of Palestinians prisoners.
There are believed to be 4,600 Palestinian prisoners, all of whom are held in Israel. In 2006 the Israeli Government cancelled all family visits from Gaza until May 2012 when a hunger strike by prisoners brought about a rethink.
According to Saha torture such as tying a prisoner to a chair for 18 or 20 hours is not uncommon as are sleep deprivation and arresting relatives of the prisoner. Palestinian prisoners are not allowed legal help in the first 60 days after their arrest. Still worse, a prisoner can be sentenced to 6 months “administrative detention” which can be renewed indefinitely. A judge is the only person to hear the request for administrative detention. There may be as many as 700 people detained in this way, people can be adminisratively detained for 6 or 8 years and re-arrested shortly after release.
The legislation Israel relies on for this type of detention is a law passed here by the British Mandate Government in 1945. However this was emergency legislation which was only to be applied in cases where there was a real threat to public safety.
Yesterday 25 Palestinians were arrested including three parliamentarians. I ask for the names and am moderately surprised that Abu Ali Yatta who I met on Sunday is not one of them.
The NGOs depart and after a brief break we meet representatives of the families of nine prisoners. Many of them hold up photos of their loved ones, some are obviously distressed. They obviously think that we can help them and are trying to impress on us their human plight.
Five of the nine are on hunger strike, a protest against “administrative detention”. Jaffa was arrested last April when he tried to protest aginst someone else’s imprisonment. He’s been on hunger strike for 56 days, his weight has gone from 71kg to 52 kg. His wife, not in prison, has been on hunger strike for 40 days in solidarity. Jaffa has a brother who was released on condition he was deported to Gaza. His relatives can’t see him.
This is perhaps not the saddest case : a distressed mother hands round photos of her son who has aged terribly in a very short space of time.
We hear from the brother of another prisoner who has been on hunger stike for 70 days. He has said,” the only weapon I have is my body.”
A released prisoner speaks, he served 34 years. He reminds us the Israelis are using a law passed by the British Mandate Goverment in Palestine to arbitrarily detain. “My cuffs were made in England,” he says. (One factor generally not considered by western democracies when considering repressive legislation is that any restrictions they impose will be copied by someone, somewhere.)
I’m moved by all this. Of course some of the prisoners may be very guilty. But they are prisoners of a political conflict struggle and a cruel and unequal one at that. The least we can ask for is that each detention should be justified in an open court of law.
Our leader, Martin Linton, replies. He puts the 1945 British law in context as emergency short-term legislation. He also tells something I didn’t know. The Palestinians have had 76 prisoners who have served more than Nelson Mandela’s 27 years. 23 of them are still inside.
It’s been an absorbing day. This is the end of the official part of the tour though some are staying on. The treatment of Palestinian prisoners has been appalling and the NGOs we have talked to have no axe to grind.
The Palestinians’ show of unity in support of Yasser Arafat has been almost absolute, at least in public sessions. The revelation from Basil, our guide in Hebron, that all Palestinians privately realise a two state solution is impossible strikes a chord.
I’ll be going back to Britain to fight for dignity and justice. My interest in domestic politics will be just as keen. But I won’t be afraid to confront oppression wherever it occurs. Unfairness in any context sets an example for others to follow.
I’ll be writing a postscript in a few days time.