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If for Israelis "the whole nation is an army," for the Palestinians the whole nation is a prisoner: Like the experience of military service for us - the experience of prison in the Palestinian ethos is the formative and unifying experience. Both serving in the military and spending time in prison are perceived as a model of values, a sacrifice for the sake of the homeland. The two experiences are connected to the sanctified violent struggle in the two societies.

It is also possible to discern a similarity with respect to the proportion of the population: According to the Addamir Prisoner Support Center, a Palestinian organization, since 1967 approximately 650,000 Palestinians have spent time in Israeli prisons, which amounts to about 40 percent of all Palestinian males (including children and the elderly). Above a certain age it is difficult to meet Palestinian males who have not done time in an Israeli prison. There are not many households in the territories in which handicrafts by prisoners are not displayed, as a souvenir of the days in prison, like photos from the days of military service for us.

Between March and October 2002, Israel arrested 15,000 Palestinians. Are all of them terrorists? Anyone who claims that all of the 650,000 Palestinians who have been arrested are criminals is claiming that the Palestinian people is a nation of criminals. Only a politician lacking all restraint, such as Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, can define all the 7,500 prisoners and detainees currently in prison as "terrorists." Even he knows that some of them are political prisoners.

Those who are spending time in prison without having been tried - the approximately 750 administrative detainees, those who have been convicted of belonging to organizations and those who are tried and sentenced by military courts - cannot be judged by criminal criteria. They should be considered, as the world considers them, political prisoners and even prisoners of conscience.

If these definitions grate on Israeli ears, in Palestinian eyes the prisoners are perceived as national heroes. Israel's current attitude toward them - which is cruel and insensitive - is therefore perceived not only as personal harassment of them but also as a blow to the symbols of the national struggle. Their humiliation is the humiliation of all Palestinians. Just as Israel is concerned for the fate of its soldiers, Palestinians are concerned for the welfare of their prisoners: In every town in the territories there is a branch of an organization that works on behalf of prisoners.

And they have good cause for concern. The gravest example concerns the children who are in prison. According to Addamir, 380 of the prisoners today are minors - 78 of them under the age of 16. Israel treats 16-year-olds as adult prisoners even though under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is a signatory, a person is considered a minor until the age of 18. In practice, even 14-year-olds are not separated - during questioning and detention - from the adults.

In Haaretz this weekend, teenager Sawsan Abu Turki related that at the age of 14 she was thrown into the Abu Kabir jail, where she was incarcerated with prostitutes and criminals and was not questioned by youth interrogation officers. During the four and a half months of her detention no one in her family was allowed to visit her even once.

It is no wonder that the first 12 items, most of them reasonable and just, on the list of the demands of the hunger-striking prisoners concern family visits. If a society is measured by its attitude toward its prisoners, Israel's disgraceful attitude is evident most of all with respect to the issue of visits. Every visitor needs a permit to enter Israel, in contravention of Provision 47 of the Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of prisoners from occupied territories to the territory of the occupying state. In the absence of furloughs and permission to phone home, visits are the only means of communication between prisoners and their families. According to Addamir, 110 prisoners from Nablus have not been permitted to receive visits for three years now, and there are prisoners from the Gaza Strip who have not seen their families for seven years. There can be no justification for this; the only explanation can be the desire to abuse.

The Palestinians' future leaders are also incarcerated in Israeli prisons at this time, and they will affect the nature of the relations between them and us. In the past, the Palestinian prisoners were a moderating influence in Palestinian society. Israel made it a point to hold dialogue with them and during their stint in prison many of them became aware of the Israeli narrative and realized, for the first time in their lives, that there is justice in it too. Now, when the only contact between the two peoples is violent, Israel is also losing this last bridge.

The appointment of the new head of the Prison Service, Yaakov Granot - who has headed the two most brutal law enforcement agencies in Israel, the Border Police and the Immigration Police, where the norms are profligate - and under Minister Hanegbi, yet, has made the Prison Service into a brutal organization. Now only force speaks there.

If Hanegbi were to ask his mother, former MK Geula Cohen, about the ethos of the prisoners of the Jewish underground in the period before independence, perhaps it would make him see the prisoners towards whose death he is indifferent in another light. And perhaps precisely because he is aware of the power they wield, he is sending his jailers to grill kebabs to stimulate their hunger and is seeing to the publication of embarrassing pictures of their leader Marwan Barghouti, who has been held in solitary confinement for about a year now, eating in his cell. Is there any better proof of the weakness and the degeneracy of the jailer?