Israel Doesn't Allow Jailed Female Soldiers to Write. Yes, You Read Correctly

For female soldiers in jail, writing is the rarest of ‘privileges’

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Conscientious objector Shahar Perets.
Conscientious objector Shahar Perets.
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The Israel Defense Forces does not allow female soldiers to write. Yes, you read correctly. It applies “only” to soldiers incarcerated in the new military prison at Neve Tzedek (in Hebrew, Oasis of Justice), but they’re not allowed to hold writing implements, except for a half hour or 20 minutes a day at best. This ban did not exist in the old military prisons, which have been closed. It’s happening only in the new one, which has won praise.

MK Gaby Lasky (Meretz) posed a query on the issue on September 19. Two months later, on November 15, attorney Gali Ofir, an adviser to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, answered that: “The decision to restrict the use of writing implements was made by the commander of the prison base.”

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The answer that I received from a military official on November 11 was different: “An initial examination revealed that there are no restrictions on writing implements.” In short, the anonymous military official lied to me. What is true is that in the wings of imprisoned male soldiers, this ban is not enforced. What does this show about the IDF, and what does it show about the female commander-wardens who over-enthusiastically enforce the ban? You tell me.

Conscientious objector Shahar Perets brought the matter to my attention. She knew that formerly incarcerated women who like her objected to serving in an occupying army wrote all the time. Tair Kaminer, for example, who was in two different military jails in 2016, says that she and fellow inmates kept using writing implements for painting, writing journals and letters to family and friends, which was essential for breaking the boredom. “We could ask for paper and pens any time of day and the wardens would give it to us,” she said. All that is a thing of the past.

Perets already wrote about the ban on writing in the new jail in an article published in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz on October 18. Somehow the fact that the IDF prohibits incarcerated female soldiers from writing remained under the radar.

Perets has already reported three times to the draft board and each time announced her refusal to serve in an army that oppresses and expels Palestinians. Three times she was tried and sentenced to imprisonment; all told she has spent 58 days in military prison. Last week her third term behind bars ended. On the phone from home she told Haaretz: “In my first and second sentences I was told that we could ask for a pen between 1 o’clock and 4 o’clock in the afternoon. But the pen was given according to the commanders’ timetable. Sometimes only for 10 minutes,” she said. Conscientious objector Eran Aviv (who last week received an exemption from military service after 115 days in military prison) said that in the men’s wings there are pens on the table all the time for their use.

The new military prison Neve Tzedek, near the Sharon Junction in central Israel.Credit: Army Spokesperson

During Perets’ third term in prison “it had been decided that there would be a single writing time for all the women. From 20 minutes to half an hour, at times that the commanders decided. Every day it was different. Sometimes the commanders told us that today’s writing would be allowed only for women who want to write requests to the prison authorities. And so I didn’t get a pen on Sunday or Monday last week. You can only write in the yard, only on two benches, and everyone crowds onto them. Sometimes 20 girls come out to write, but there are only five pens. And still everyone has to go back to their cell after the half-hour. The commanders stand over us and read what we write. I wrote a letter to my boyfriend and one of the commanders asked me: ‘What, you have a boyfriend?’” After writing time is up, the commander-wardens count the pens to make sure all were returned.

“We can be in the yard and suddenly the commander says: ‘Who wants to write?’ It’s completely random. And I don’t have time to go back to my cell and get my sudoko booklet. It can be at 3 P.M. or 6 P.M. And it might not happen at all. When one day we mentioned to the commander that we hadn’t received pens, she answered ‘Right, and you won’t get any today.’ I tried to understand the reason for the ban. The main answer is that we might stab one another. So why is there a ban on felt-tip pens, which can’t stab? The commanders bring razor blades to the girls. That’s not dangerous? Another answer is that they don’t want us to scribble on the walls and the uniforms. There are cameras in every cell except in the showers and toilets. In the yard they are listening everywhere. All the time they can see what we’re doing and punish us. One of the commanders told me, angrily, that a pen is a privilege and not a right. I came here with sudoko and writing booklets, with all kinds of plans to document what goes on in prison. And I came home with everything almost empty.”

The defense minister’s aide wrote to MK Lasky that it had been decided to lift the ban on writing “as long as the prisoners do not make wrongful use of writing implements.” Perets will most likely return to prison this week, refusing for the fourth time to participate in the oppression of the Palestinians. Only then will we know whether the promise to lift the restriction on writing is kept.

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