Truth, Lies and Palestinian Prisoners

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With Palestinian prisoners in the news – two highly-publicized deaths and a hunger striker – Israel's response was to open the doors of a prison to scrutiny. More than 50 journalists from the world's media were this month given a rare four-hour visit to Ofer prison, a half-hour drive from Jerusalem on Road 443, with briefings from officials and limited access to prisoners and cells.

As a journalist in apartheid South Africa I wrote a series of reports exposing abusive conditions and torture involving blacks and political prisoners in prisons. My editor, the renowned Laurence Gandar, and I were prosecuted and the trials went on for four years. I was deprived of a passport for more than five years. I have since visited prisons in Israel, the United States, Britain and Germany.

Getting to the truth about prison conditions on a short press visit is difficult because it's in everyone's interests to exaggerate – officials to claim they are beyond reproach and captives to say the opposite. Seeking truth grows more hazardous when the divide between jailor and jailed is political and greater still when it's between bitter enemies, Israeli and Palestinian.

The day before the visit it was mocked by the Palestinian Authority's Minister of Prisoner Affairs, Issa Qaraqe. He predicted the visit would be an attempt to alter the truth about conditions for Palestinian prisoners: Israel would try to present the prison as a luxurious five star hotel."

However, no such attempt was made. Judging from the visit, physical conditions in Ofer are clean but spartan. The rules governing prisoners are detailed and extensive.

The prison is a hulking structure of high grey concrete walls and holds 710 prisoners, mostly on trial or awaiting trial, plus "administrative detainees," those held without trial. Previously, prisoners were kept in tents inside the walls; but in 2008 they rioted and burnt the tents so buildings went up, complete with thick wire netting and razor wire. There are still large tents - "for emergencies," officials explained, which no doubt means in case of future mass arrests of Palestinians.

About 100 juveniles, aged between 14 and 18, are kept in the prison, but in a separate section. Ofer is the only Israeli prison on the West Bank and is alongside a military court which, officials said, enables rapid trials. Stone-throwing is the main charge faced by the juveniles. Some in Israel say that throwing stones at cars is a legitimate means of protest against Israeli occupation of the West Bank but others reject that, arguing it can be lethal, as in the deaths of Asher Palmer and his infant son in 2011 when he lost control of his car when hit by a stone; a military court last week sentenced a Palestinian man, Waal al-Arjeh, in the military court alongside Ofer to two life sentences plus 58 years for the murders. Last month, three-year-old Adele Biton suffered critical injuries through stone-throwing.

Juveniles awaiting trial wear their own clothes. Officials said cells are 25 sq metres in size. Each houses ten bunk beds. That is cramped, but officials said the juveniles spend eight hours a day outside their cells, inside a large courtyard with a roof of wire netting. They are provided with food and do their own cooking and can also buy food and toiletries in the prison.

Schooling is provided, but is clearly inadequate and lessons are taught by only one teacher; older prisoners help with the teaching. Officials spoke of budget problems and said a second teacher was about to start work.

The visiting journalists clustered around the juveniles, questioning them in Arabic, Hebrew or English. There were no restrictions on who could be interviewed and no interference with the interviewing. But tape-recorders and cameras were barred. Some of the juveniles complained that they are not allowed to have cell phones and do not see their families enough. I was just walking down the street when they grabbed me and arrested me, said Salama Indidoon, 16. They took me to court and said I threw stones and gave me a month in jail. I just want to go home and see my family. There was no way to check his story.

Adults are separated in sections according to their political affiliation. Officials said about 30 percent are Fatah, 30 percent Hamas, 15 percent Jihadist and the rest from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The journalists were allowed into another large courtyard said to be designated for Hamas but were not permitted to enter the cells. They could speak to prisoners but the conversations were hasty and were soon terminated. That might have been due to official nervousness about possible consequences of letting in the world's media. Yet, interestingly, prison officials and prisoners mingled and shook hands. And there was no sign of resentment from prisoners when officials formed a line in front of them to block further interviewing.

Mohamed Ghazal, 57, of medium height, with grey stubble on his face and dressed in a dark-brown prison uniform, said he was a civil engineer from the university in Nablus. In a matter-of-fact voice he said he had been held without trial for the past 17 months but had not been told why. That morning he had been given a letter telling him his detention was being extended for a further period. He had previously also been detained. He said he had had few visits from his wife because she had "security" problems. Asked whether he was Hamas he replied, "I am from Nablus." The question was repeated and the same answer was given.

That the Israeli Prison Service wasn't quite sure how to handle the visit was evident. Officials gave a lengthy briefing and were open to questions, repeatedly stressing, "We have nothing to hide." But they were sometimes uncertain about relevant statistics and also when questioned about Arafat Jaradat, said to have died of a heart attack in February although Palestinians say he was tortured; and Maysara Abuhamdiyeh, who died in hospital early in April of cancer of the esophagus amid allegations of medical neglect. Officials had little to offer, merely saying that investigations were still underway and that Ofer had not been involved. Meanwhile, Samer Issawi last week won his struggle for freedom after reaching a deal with Israel that he will end his eight-month hunger strike and in return will be released from prison after serving another eight months.

Officials did provide extensive information about conditions at Ofer and in the prison system. They said that among the country's 23,300 prisoners, 4,998 are Palestinian "security" prisoners - compared with 9,850 in 2007, reflecting the 1,027 released in exchange for Gilad Shalit and a decrease in political violence.

Among existing prisoners, 64 percent are convicted, 2,325 are described as having "blood on their hands", meaning they took part in terror attacks which caused deaths, 532 are serving life sentences, 33 percent are "detainees" who are on trial or awaiting sentence, and three percent are administrative detainees. There are also 2,356 illegal immigrants, mainly if not all from African countries.

Ofer is a "detainment facility" and 80 percent of its prisoners are detainees of one sort or another. Officials said that the rules are the same as at other prisons. But of course the atmosphere and tensions in a prison holding sentenced prisoners found guilty of extreme violence and serving long sentences for a political cause must inevitably be different.

According to officials, the same rules apply to Palestinian prisoners and to criminal prisoners: they can have family visits once every two weeks for 45 minutes a time; three close family members are allowed plus unlimited numbers of children, and during the last ten minutes of a visit there is contact with children up to the age of eight. Lawyers visit, as do diplomats, members of parliament, monitoring officials from the Ministry of Justice - and the International Red Cross. A Red Cross official was seen with a juvenile during the media visit.

In addition to the food supplied by the prison, prisoners receive NIS400 a month from the Palestinian Authority and can get up to NIS1,300 from their family, to be spent in the prison store on food and toiletries. They can receive unlimited mail, they have TV and a library, get newspapers and can receive videos from their family. Medical doctors are on hand five days a week and medics over weekends. Dental care is provided. Pressed on accusations of delays in getting specialist medical care, officials said prisoners faced the same delays as any Israeli in queuing for hospital treatment.

We try to preserve respect for prisoners and all of their rights, the prison's chief, Colonel Yaakov Shalom, said. But they also know that they have obligations as well as rights. They are punished for every transgression, usually by being locked in their cells. A hunger strike is viewed as a transgression and can result in solitary confinement and loss of privileges such as television and family visits.

In contrast to Ofer, conditions in another prison, Ramle, which also houses Palestinian prisoners, were recently described by a former Palestinian prisoner as a "slaughter house". Ekrem Sellame, 40, who was freed in the Shalit deal, says he spent 22 years there.

In an interview reported by Turkish Weekly this month, he says: "The hospital was dirty and its windows were covered with wires or large iron boards. Neither air nor sunlight could enter the hospital. There were insects everywhere Doctors at times treated patients as if they were guards. It was not possible to receive mercy nor transparency from the doctors When a patient had to be treated outside the prison, Israeli officials only wasted time. Most of the deaths took place due to the Israeli bureaucracy which delayed the processThe doctors prescribed the same medication to all patients There was only one doctor per 200-300 prisoners."

Is there truth in Sellame's accusations? Or are they propaganda lies? Are the differences within the Israeli prison system so extreme according to which facility a prisoner or detainee is sent? The Turkish Weekly report was given to a Prison Service spokesperson who was asked for comment. That was on 14 April. Unlike the transparency offered by the Prison Service in the visit to Ofer, no response has yet been received.

South African-born, Benjamin Pogrund was deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail, Johannesburg, and later chief foreign sub-editor of the U.K.'s Independent newspaper. After moving to Israel in 1997 he founded Yakar's Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem. He is writing a book about Israel and apartheid. 

Palestinian hunger striker Samer Issawi's case reached the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court in 2012.Credit: Oren Nachshon