~ From Katya Reed in Ramallah
Yesterday as I was walking home from Ramallah’s big produce market, I watched huge crowds pour into Manara Square waving Palestinian flags and placards with pictures of Palestinian prisoners.
AFP estimated that 500 people turned out for that rally, which was held to demand that the release of Palestinian prisoners be part of any peace deal with Israel. Rallies were held throughout the West Bank on January 27, which is newly recognized by PM Fayyad’s cabinet as the official day for solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners. Many held signs of Marwan Barghouti and other prominent prisoners, while others held framed photos of imprisoned members of their family.
AFP reports on their interview at the rally with one of the organizers:
“This demonstration is part of a series of events organised to further the prisoners issue in any future political negotiations,” Palestinian prisoner affairs minister Issa Qaraqaa told AFP.
“The prisoners issue must be a main issue on the agenda of any negotiations.”
There are currently some 7,500 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, including 34 women and 310 minors, according to the Palestinian Authority.”
I happened to have my camera on me so I joined the square’s island of TV camera crews and reporters. Without speaking Arabic, I was at an obvious disadvantage to engage with the protesters.
However, just by holding a camera, I attracted dozens of people pushing their way through the crowds to get my attention. Entire families would come to me holding the framed picture of their loved one. I pictured all the living room display cases that must be missing their loved one’s photo at this moment. The intensity in the eyes of the family members said quite clearly “please show my sister/brother/mother/father now languishing in prison to the world”.
I was particularly struck by one picture that had clearly been taken in a portrait studio with a fake background of the Dome of the Rock – the Palestinian and in fact, global iconic image both of Jerusalem and Palestine. No doubt most Palestinians would have preferred to have their picture taken in front of the real thing. However, under the current regime of restrictions on Palestinian movement and travel, a portrait studio’s rendition of this deeply symbolic mosque is the closest most Palestinians ever come to Jerusalem.
According to a recent UN report, over 700,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned by Israel since 1967. The Guardian reports that approximately one-fifth of Palestinians have been imprisoned at some point since 1967. According to Addameer, a Palestinian human rights organization providing legal support for prisoners, 40% of Palestinian men have at one time been imprisoned.
Many of these people’s families are unable to visit their loved ones in prison. Amnesty International, in its 2009 human rights report on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, emphasized this aspect of the detentions:
Almost all Palestinian detainees were held in prisons in Israel in violation of international humanitarian law, which prohibits the removal of detainees to the territory of the occupying power. This made it difficult or impossible in practice for detainees to receive family visits.
In fact on Palestinian residents of occupied East Jerusalem are able to travel within Israel without a permit to visit their family members in Israeli jails. For all other West bankers, those permits are notoriously hard to attain.
As of last month, 278 Palestinians were being held without charge or trial under “administrative detention” orders issued by the Israeli military government.
B’tselem explains in their fact sheet on administrative detention that while international law allows its restricted use in emergency cases, Israel’s routine recourse to this detention instrument is a flagrant violation of international law:
Over the years, Israel has administratively detained thousands of Palestinian for prolonged periods of time, without prosecuting them, without informing them of the charges against them, and without allowing them or their attorneys to study the evidence, making a mockery of the protections specified in Israeli and international law to protect the right to liberty and due process, the right of defendants to state their case, and the presumption of innocence.
One woman at the protest who helped translate a bit of what was going on told me, “It’s just part of life for any Palestinian.” She shrugged, and went on to say “It’s just part of life that someone you know, someone in your family, someone you love, is in an Israeli jail. ”
The rally reminded me of what Daphna Golan, a co-founder of B’tselem and senior researcher at Minerva said at Al Haq’s 30th anniversary human rights conference in Ramallah last month. She was discussing the failures of the human rights movement in Israel, and emphasized the tendency of Israeli activists and others to get caught up in the day-to-day abuses of the occupation rather than focusing on the larger picture of the occupation itself.
“We need to start thinking about what this does to a society, when almost half of its men have been imprisoned,” Golan said.
Golan wrote an inspired piece in Haaretz calling on Israel to use a prisoner swap exchange as the beginning of a wider reconciliation process, just as had been accomplished in South Africa.
She illuminates how listening to the stories of Palestinians would not only help secure the release of the one Israeli held in Palestinian control (captured soldier Gilad Shalit), but also how the release of the stories themselves could pave the way for a just and secure future for both peoples living “together and separately, Jews and Arabs, in reconciliation”:
“Is it possible that Gilad Shalit is still in captivity and the Qassam fire is continuing not because there is no one to talk to, but because we don’t want to hear what the Palestinian leaders have to say? We must speak out loudly and openly with everyone – about the past, present and future, about a life of fair, decent neighborly relations. Without red and green lines and with no prior conditions. Only about how we will live here together and separately, Jews and Arabs, in reconciliation.”
Click here for Golan’s piece “From Darkness into Light” and here for more photos of the pictures that hundreds of Palestinians demonstrating in Manara Square wanted you to see, of their loved ones who are inside Israeli prisons.