Pinning Their Hopes on Hezbollah

Monday, June 11, 2001
By Ori Nir

Arab citizens of Israel who are serving time for security offenses dream of gaining their freedom in a prisoner exchange.

About three weeks ago a rally was held in Majd al-Krum in solidarity with the Arab citizens of Israel who are security prisoners. Depression and despair emanated from the stage to the meager audience, a few dozen of the prisoners' relatives. There were only two Arab Knesset members present (both from the United Arab List): MK Abdulmalik Dehamshe, himself a former security prisoner, and MK Muhammad Kanan, head of the hosting municipal council."I will not deny that efforts to solve this problem have met with dismal failure," said one of the organizers of the event, Munir Mansour of The Association for the Prisoner. His only new message was that the list of prisoners had been sent to Hezbollah, in the hope that the 39 Arab citizens imprisoned in Israel for security offenses will be released in a barter deal, in exchange for the Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah.

The feelings of despair derived from the realization that the Oslo spring had passed over the Israeli Arab prisoners. When agreement was reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority for the release of Palestinian prisoners, Israel informed the Palestinian Liberation Organization of its refusal to allow it to represent those prisoners who are citizens of Israel, promising that these would be dealt with under Israeli law. Meanwhile, as Oslo again became the forgotten capital of a distant land, and the atmosphere of peace was replaced by the winds of war, the chance that the Israeli Arab prisoners would be released within the framework of a political agreement has diminished. Meanwhile, requests to give them conditions similar to those granted to people imprisoned on criminal charges, or to Jewish security prisoners, have been rejected.

At present, Israeli Arab security prisoners are being held together with security prisoners from the territories, and in identical conditions. "The government is not prepared to solve the problem of our release in the Oslo framework, and the Prison Service is not prepared to relate to us as Israeli citizens," writes Walid Daqa, a leader of the prisoners. According to him, "The prisoners are now asking to have their conditions made identical, not to those of the Jewish prisoners but rather to those of the Hezbollah prisoners, if and when a prisoner exchange is carried out. And we are demanding this not from the Israeli government but from Sheikh Nasrallah."

Corresponding with Daqa and two of his companions in prison was the only possible alternative to an interview with them. The Prison Service refused to allow them to be interviewed, either face to face or over the phone. 

Daqa, 41, is serving a life sentence for having participated in the abduction and murder of soldier Moshe Tammam in 1984. Karim Yunis, 43, was sentenced to death (commuted to life imprisonment) for the murder of soldier Avi Bromberg in 1980. Mukhlas Burgal, 39, was arrested in 1987 and sentenced to life imprisonment for throwing a grenade at a bus, on which none of the passengers were injured. 

They and the other security prisoners who are Israeli citizens are being held together with the Palestinian security prisoners at the Shatta Prison. They agreed to answer questions from Ha'aretz in writing.

The security prisoners have found that they too, like the rest of Israel's Arab citizens, are torn between their Palestinian identity and their Israeli citizenship. After Oslo, and especially after the wholesale release of Palestinian security prisoners from the territories, these prisoners expected commutation, release or amnesty. This strengthened their sense of Israeli citizenship, according to Yunis. "Before, I had never felt like an Israeli," he writes. "I was born Israeli, but as I grew older I felt that I was Palestinian and I joined the Palestinian struggle. 

"When they started to talk about the way they would release us - according to Israeli procedures and not in the context of the Oslo agreements - I began to emphasize my Israeli identity ... And then we wrote to government ministers and Knesset members and even to the president, as citizens. But nothing came of it ... Today there is no difference between us and the prisoners from Gaza or Tulkarm. In the end, it turns out that they are strengthening my Palestinian identity, not my Israeliness."

Their disappointment is similar to what is felt by Israeli Arabs outside prison, they write. "Our situation in prison is a kind of microcosm of life outside," explains Daqa. "The establishment's attitude toward the Arabs in this country, whether as prisoners or as what is called 'the Arab sector' outside of prison, is discriminatory and humiliating."

The Arab security prisoners are not entitled to the handful of benefits granted to Jewish security offenders. Only recently has the Prison Service deigned to permit telephone calls to the Arab prisoners in rare and urgent humanitarian cases (such as a disaster in the family). Three prisoners have been permitted short furloughs.

The Prison Service says it is impossible to give the Israeli Arabs conditions similar to those of the Jewish security prisoners, because the Jews are distributed among several different prisons, while the Arabs elect to conduct their lives in prison in a different way. They "maintain the rigid framework of a collective, according to their organizational affiliations, and they are coordinated and led of their own free will by spokesmen and leaders," according to the Prison Service.

The Arab prisoners say that only such an organizational structure allows them to stand up to the pressures from the prison administrations, to struggle together to improve their conditions and to help one another. The leadership of the Arab political prisoners is chosen in secret elections held by the prisoners from time to time. Each organizational group (Fatah, the Popular Front, Hamas and Islamic Jihad) holds internal election for representatives to a central committee. The committee runs the lives of the prisoners, "beginning with discipline and daily agenda, to struggles like hunger strikes," explains Yunis, One the member of the committee serves as their spokesman to the prison administration.

The Arab security prisoners are held in a separate wing of the Shatta Prison. There are eight prisoners in each cell. "This is a small, crowded room, with a shower and a toilet, two televisions and a hot plate for cooking and heating food. Here we cook, eat, pray. Here we spend 20 hours a day," writes Daqa.

Despite these conditions, many of the prisoners have managed to register for academic studies. According the prisoners' count, no less than 168 of them (both Israeli Arabs and Palestinians from the territories) are pursuing university studies by correspondence, mostly at the Open University. They include Palestinians from the territories who barely knew Hebrew when they registered. The Prison Service has authorized the studies, and the Palestinian Authority's ministry of prison affairs is paying for them. Requests to study at Palestinian universities in the territories have encountered refusals from the Prison Service.

"You study under difficult conditions. You sit curled up on your bed, with a book between your legs and try to write. We don't have a study room, library or educational center like the Jewish prisoners," relates Burgal. Daqa, who is about to receive his bachelor's degree in political science from the Open University (his mother and his wife will represent him at the graduation ceremony) and is already working toward his master's degree, writes that studies are important in order to maintain mental focus and overcome the prison's attempt to dwarf the prisoner's life: "Every day that goes by, the prison takes something from you. Every day you lose something of your connection to the world. The world moves on and you stay where you are. If you don't develop, you reach a point in which you have no connection to the world, and you will stay primitive, with no tools for coping with life ... Success in studies is part of your daily victory over the prison administration or the fact of your imprisonment."

One of the prisoners' most serious complaints concerns visiting conditions. They are allowed three visitors, once every two weeks, for 45 minutes. The visitors must be only first-degree relatives. Recently, according to the Prison Service, visits by second-degree relatives have also been permitted, on condition that they are not males between the ages of 17 and 50. The meeting takes place in a small, uncomfortably lit and noisy room. Six prisoners sit along one side of a dense metal screen, and on the other sit the visitors. The conversation is yelled. Physical contact is strictly forbidden. "Imagine, that for 16 or 19 years, at most you can press your mother's fingertip," writes Daqa. 

Yunis, Daqa and Burgal express no remorse or apology. At most, they write that in retrospect, they were mistaken when they thought their actions would succeed in sweeping the Israeli Arabs into an armed struggle against Israel. There is no value to expressions of remorse, they say, as the authorities do not grant any benefits for such expressions. 

In Yunis's opinion, an improvement in the attitude toward those whom he and his friends prefer to define as "political prisoners" has to be the result of the new political reality. "Things have happened in the region," he writes. "The peace process has been going on for 10 years. Instead of a change for the better in the general attitude toward us, the opposite has occurred ... We do not see any light at the end of the tunnel. There is no hope.


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