The Train That Passed Them By

Allegra Pacheco

Try to imagine what it's like today to be a Palestinian in an Israeli prison. From a time so far back you cannot remember, you dedicated your days and nights, sacrificed your family life, education, career and freedom for the struggle to end the occupation of your land. You never wavered in your support for the PLO, fighting to bring its leader back to the homeland. You are now in prison for this. As a result of your dedication and that of others like you, the PLO and its leader were permitted to come back, at first, to less than half the Gaza Strip and the town of Jericho. Returning, they proclaimed an end to the struggle. As for you, you're in jail. A year later, your leader receives another 5% of the West Bank, negotiates the right to land his helicopter freely, and successfully raises funds to support his dozen or so security forces. As for you, you're in jail. Two years later, in 1997, the leader negotiates an airport for the Palestinian elite and another 7% of the Occupied Territories. As for you, you're not even on the agenda. You saw Nelson Mandela obtain the release of all the thousands who had struggled against apartheid. He insisted on this before signing any agreement. Palestine, it seems, is different. The man you accepted as your sole legitimate leader, whose name you chanted in hundreds of demonstrations, terminated your struggle, accepted his Bantustans, and abandoned you. Here you are, one of 4000 Palestinian political prisoners, along with 500 "administrative detainees" (people held without charges), still waiting for a train that passed you by.

On Sept. 28, 1995 the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip went into effect. It was designed as a step toward ending Israeli occupation within the framework of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. Article 16 of this Interim Agreement concerned confidence-building measures. It stated: "Israel will release or turn over to the Palestinian side Palestinian detainees and prisoners, residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip..." Under Annex 7 of the Interim Agreement, the release was to occur in three stages. Another legal document comes into play as well. In the Fourth Geneva Convention, the international law governing military occupation, Article 77 states: "Protected persons who have been accused of offenses or convicted by the courts in occupied territory shall be handed over at the close of the authorities of the liberated territory." The Israelis have failed to implement both Article 16 and Annex 7 of the Interim Agreement, as well as Article 77 of the Geneva Convention. The Palestinian Authority (PA), for its part, has failed to take a firm stand demanding implementation of these articles – for example, by conditioning any future negotiations on the release of all Palestinian political prisoners. From the inception of Oslo in 1993 until today, Israel has released approximately one-fifth of the Palestinian prisoners. In the meantime, the Israeli security services have arrested and re-arrested thousands. Among the prisoners are administrative detainees, many of whom have been held for years without charges, because the state lacks sufficient evidence to bring them to trial. At the signing of the Interim Agreement in September 1995, there were approximately eighty administrative detainees. Today there are more than 500.

In May 1997 the Israelis released twenty Palestinian women. Since then two have been re-arrested. One of these, Itaf al-Ayyan, was sent to administrative detention for a (renewable) three-month period. Immediately she began a hunger strike, challenging her tormentors to bring charges against her. She did not eat for forty days. The Palestinians of Bethlehem went into the streets in support, raising anew the whole issue of prisoners. The demonstrations grew violent. Then the Palestinian Authority brought Al-Ayyan a proposal from the Israeli security services. No one on the outside knows the terms, but she ended her hunger strike, announcing that she had been promised her freedom at the end of the three-month period. What role did the PA play here? Instead of demanding that Israel live up to its commitments and release Al-Ayyan together with all other political prisoners, it functioned as a messenger-boy, tacitly accepting the policy of administrative detention. Yet we should not be surprised: the PA itself holds hundreds of its own people without charges or trial. In the jails frustration grows. At Damoun prison near Haifa, 150 administrative detainees went on a five-day hunger strike in November after their jailers used tear gas and hoses to break up a protest they were making against the miserable conditions. Fifteen were put in isolation. Two of the leaders, Omar Barghouti and Sharwan Jabarin (a worker for al-Haq, a Palestinian civil-rights organization), remain in solitary confinement to this day. Dozens of administrative detainees are being held in isolation for up to a year at a stretch. The Palestinian Authority continues to neglect its own captured soldiers. Prison conditions worsen, the months drag into years, and the longing for freedom and family deepens.

bio:Allegra Pacheco is a lawyer in the Occupied Territories.
As Ramadan approaches... Not to forget the Political Prisoners and their Families! This year once again Challenge is taking part in an ODA drive to collect money for prisoners' families. We aim to raise at least $4000. We shall distribute the donations in person to forty families. Please send a check to Challenge, P.O.B. 41199, Jaffa 61411, Israel. Please state that the money is "for Ramadan." Thank you.