What a Palestinian Parliament Member Learned in an Israeli Prison

Khalida Jarrar knew a lot about prisoner issues, but her 14 months behind bars offered plenty of surprises.

Palestinian lawmaker Khalida Jarar after her release from prison.
Majdi Mohammed/AP

In her first few days after being released from prison on June 2, Khalida Jarrar still described things in the present tense.

“We go to the yard twice a day, from 10:30 A.M. to 1 P.M. and from 2:30 to 5 P.M.,” she told friends. Or: “We are 61 women and girls, minors, in prison — 41 in Hasharon Prison and 20 in Damun Prison.”

The women who are still awaiting trial are in Damun Prison, while those who have been sentenced, the minors and the wounded — usually by Israeli bullets while they were waving a knife or trying to stab a soldier (one was seriously burned by a gas-cylinder explosion) — are in Hasharon.

Ten wounded prisoners were with Jarrar in the wing, five adults and five minors. At the press conference immediately after her release she didn’t explain what that meant — to live with the shooting victims in the same room or wing.

In personal conversations she said a little more, always careful not to infringe on the privacy of the women. And she constantly praised the longtime prisoner Lena Jerboni, who took on the difficult and sensitive jobs such as washing the wounded, accompanying them to the infirmary and to physiotherapy, and cooking.

Jarrar, a Palestinian member of parliament, also spoke in the plural. She didn’t speak of her own difficulties during her 14 months in prison. The cameras and journalists focused on her, the “famous” one, but she spoke in the name of the collective, where the intensive living gave her the chance to use her abilities, political experience and status as a public figure.

As part of this status, for example, she and Jerboni demanded from a prisoner who was an Israeli citizen and who supported the Islamic State organization to keep her dangerous opinions and thoughts to herself and not share them with the other women.

After she was convicted on two of 12 charges (relating to incitement and providing services to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), Jarrar used the last five months of her term to conduct a field study of her fellow inmates, from the perspective of gender.

Palestinian society, which estimates that some 800,000 of its sons and daughters have been imprisoned in Israel since 1957, doesn’t lack research on and testimonies from prison. But mostly this research describes the experience from the perspective of the prison majority: men.

Jarrar focused on gender in the process of arrest and imprisonment from two perspectives: the prisoner’s and the jailer’s. She interviewed 36 women at length and about many aspects: the period before the imprisonment, the arrest (and injury), the investigation, the trial and the imprisonment. Some told her she was the first to ask them about their lives and listen so attentively.

She can suggest some generalizations because of the dramatic rise in the number of Palestinian women who entered Israeli prisons during her own term. This is the rise of the phenomenon of women who were pushed into being arrested for “social reasons.” This is also what brought a delegation of four representatives of Israel’s Justice Ministry to Hasharon Prison, Jarrar told Haaretz.

“They asked what could be done for those women,” she said. “I told them their place wasn’t in prison; they should be freed, and our role in Palestinian society was to treat and take care of them and the issues that motivated them.”

Women activists are certain that if these women are not sent to prison, the “social reasons” phenomenon would be reduced.

An example of “social reasons” could be heard last week at the military court in Ofer, near Ramallah. A woman we will identify only by her initials, A.B., was arrested early in the week near a checkpoint in Hebron. She had a 15-centimeter-long knife in her bag and did not resist arrest.

In her interrogation and at two detention hearings (on Monday and Tuesday), the circumstances were brought up: She quarreled with her husband, who does not help to provide for their children.

Nitza Aminov, a left-wing activist who monitors the Ofer military court, reported that the prosecutor, Capt. Elhanan Dreyfus, said the prosecution knows that many women come to the checkpoints with knives because of problems at home. Nonetheless, he requested that A.B. remain in custody.

The judge, Maj. Naftali Shmulevich, agreed and wrote in his ruling that the understanding in the region was that “possessing a knife outside the home is for purposes of carrying out a crime.”

Rocky ride in the bosta

Even before her arrest, Jarrar devoted a great deal of time to political and social activities relating to Palestinian prisoners. She ran Addameer, a human rights group supporting Palestinian prisoners. She was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 as a member of the left-wing slate of Abu Ali Mustafa, the Popular Front’s secretary-general assassinated by Israel in August 2001. And she heads the monitoring committee on prisoners.

Asked whether anything surprised her in prison, Jarrar told Haaretz: “I was surprised there were things that various [prisoners’ rights] institutions hadn’t managed to solve,” she said, emphasizing the transportation of detainees to court, hospitals and other prisons.

“Why is it impossible to solve this problem? After all, all the prisoners complain about it — Jewish and Palestinian, criminal and security [prisoners] — and Israeli institutions have criticized it too.”

Unequivocally, prisoner transport was the most difficult experience for Jarrar during her arrest and imprisonment, and the only one for which she occasionally mixes an “I” into the description.

For the eight months of her trial she was transported in a bosta, as the prison vehicles are known, about 40 times. She joked that she knew all the members of Nahshon, the security unit that accompanies prisoners.

But with serious tone she said, switching from “I” to the collective: “If we, the healthy ones, were sick for two or three days after every transport, what can we say about those wounded by gunfire?”

The medical treatment for the wounded and sick women prisoners is good, said Jarrar, as opposed to the initial treatment in Israeli hospitals immediately after their arrest. One of the seriously injured women fell ill one night, was rushed from her cell to a civilian hospital and the next day was brought to a court hearing. And all of it in the bosta.

The bosta is a kind of bus or truck whose passenger cabin is divided into several two-person compartments. They leave the prison at about 2 A.M. The iron benches are not padded, and every rock, pothole and bend in the road sends waves of pain through the bouncing body of each passenger.

A guards cuff the prisoners’ hands and feet before they enter the vehicle, so they must hop carefully up the steps. When they also have baggage, such as when being transferred between prisons, this maneuvering becomes an art.

After a few trips, Jarrar stopped reminding the guards that the prison doctor had instructed that she not be placed in restraints because of her chronic blood-vessel disease.

Jews, Arabs, common criminals, religious people, women and men, all may ride together in the bosta. Jerboni has filed a number of complaints with the prison service on behalf of women who complained of sexual harassment and racist abuse during these rides, Jarrar said.

After the prisoners are placed in the iron cells, they are driven to the prison in Ramle, where the “transfer center” is located, the place where inmates are gathered from various detention facilities on their way to the military courts, hospitals and other prisons. They wait three, four, five hours, which feel like 50. They are kept shackled in the bosta, without being able to go to the bathroom. As a result, many women prefer not to eat or drink before the transport.

One can decide to spend the waiting time at Ramle Prison, in a room divided into iron cells, instead of in the boosta. The humiliating search before entering a waiting “cage” in Ramle prison, instead of waiting in the bosta, discourages many women from choosing this option.

Time in the ‘refrigerator’

At the Ofer military court, southeast of Ramallah, the detainees are kept for hours in a sort of cell they call the zinzana or the “refrigerator,” until they are taken to the prefab building that serves as the military courtroom. It’s cold there even in summer. In the winter it’s freezing and “we all shiver,” Jarrar said. It’s also filthy.

After the court session, the detainees are returned to the “refrigerator” and wait for the return trip, first via Ramle, where the shackled human cargo waits again in the bosta for hours. Then they are returned to the prison — sometimes at midnight, sometimes at 2 A.M.

Jarrar began to learn Hebrew in prison, so she could understand the guards and communicate her requests and protests.

In the “refrigerator” she met other Palestinian women who were detained in Ashkelon or Ramle prisons, for lack of space in the women’s prisons.

It was clear they had not been allowed to shower for days or change out of the clothes they were wearing at the time of their arrest. Some had bloodstained pants, as they were not provided with menstrual products.

“I was shocked. I didn’t expect to witness such prison conditions in the 21st century,” Jarrar said. Jerboni informed the prison authorities that the Hasharon prisoners were willing to sleep on mattresses on the floor if they would only transfer the other prisoners there, said Jarrar.

Later the wing in Damun was opened, with its own problems — over 10 prisoners in a cell, with a single toilet, and for a long time, until a female deputy was assigned, a male warden. The overcrowding problem was partially solved, and in March the women at Hasharon were moved to a different wing.

It was in an old building and it was filthy, crawling with roaches, dripping with water and lacking essentials such as shelves and wardrobes. There were also bees, and everyone was stung.

Jarrar said that when the women complained that the place was unfit for human habitation, they were told “everything is fine.” They returned their lunches in protest, and workers were sent immediately to fix the situation.

“All told, the time in prison wasn’t particularly difficult,” Jarrar said. She got the impression that the administration at Hasharon didn’t want to increase tensions, and some problems could be solved through negotiation. Jerboni was the main negotiator for the prisoners.

The administration also allowed a Palestinian teacher from Israel to teach the minors for a few hours, three days a week. Jarrar taught them English and instructed the adults on how to prepare youths for the matriculation exams. They were also busy cataloguing the books they had.

Near the end of her sentence, Jarrar met with one of the senior wardens. Jarrar said she told her that the problem was the occupation, and will end with its end. Her impression was that the warden agreed.