Why Humiliation Became a Routine Tactic in Israeli Prisons

Is there an order to Israelis stipulating the wasting of the Palestinians’ time? Is there some supreme order: Be cruel, be heartless, humiliate?

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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A military tribunal at the Camp Ofer prison near Ramallah
A military Tribunal at the Camp Ofer prison near Ramallah.Credit: JINI
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Visitors to Ofer Prison cross two waiting rooms before meeting with their loved ones, separated by glass. Nothing may be brought into the second room, where they wait for half an hour to an hour before entering the visiting room itself. Not even Kleenex, related a regular visitor who was asked to discard the tissue in her hand before she went in. “Just imagine, in winter there are people with colds, in spring allergies, they have to wipe their nose on a sleeve.”

To continue functioning as the imposed, foreign ruler it is, Israel created circles of imprisonment: from harsh incarceration in an Israel Prison Service or Shin Bet security service facility, to looser imprisonment between the fences and the blocked roads around Ramallah. Cruelty is a necessary element of imprisonment. To explain it to ourselves, the security excuse is not enough. Gradually we tell ourselves that the imprisoned aren’t really human beings like us. They don’t need tissues. That’s how humiliation becomes a routine tactic.

There aren’t enough chairs in the second waiting room. Some visitors stand, some sit. It’s crowded. There are more women than men; the Israeli authorities issue fewer visitor permits to men. There are also many old women; the authorities are stingy with permits for young women. Grandmothers come instead of mothers, for example. Recently a woman felt ill — from the crowding, the lack of air or maybe the shouts of the guards as they did their security checks. Or perhaps from the invasive hands that searched her body. Someone pressed the panic alarm, but it took the guards 10 minutes before they came to let her out.

To activate the multiplying circles of imprisonment, Israel trains generations of prison guards: from the soldier in the observation tower outside the world’s biggest detention camp, the Gaza Strip, through the interpreter of drone images to the architect who excludes the legal owners of the land from the master plan. Their collective role is to impress upon the Palestinians in Gaza, Ramallah and Gilboa Prison their everlasting legal status: “detainess.” In addition to barbed wire, the prison guards also make use of malignant hard-heartedness.

Ofer Prison is around seven kilometers from central Ramallah, a 10-minute drive, with the lights and heavy traffic. Ofer — a prison, army camp and military court — is in the West Bank, on the land of the Palestinian town of Bitunia, next to Route 443. But Israel has skillfully created the impression that Ofer is in its territory. The expanse alongside Route 443 and surrounding the settlement bloc of Givat Ze’ev was de facto annexed to Israel long ago. It’s beyond the pale for Palestinians, except for laborers in the settlements and visitors to the prison.

The seven kilometers turn into a journey of around three hours. You leave Ramallah at 6:30, travel south and west on rural roads that circumnavigate the Givat Ze’ev expanse. At the Beit Sira checkpoint, on 443 North, you get off the Palestinian buses and board the Israeli buses. They take the families a few kilometers to the east, to the prison compound that’s surrounded by high concrete walls. It’s 9:30.

It would be easy to arrange a route through the Bitunia checkpoint (some 500 meters from the prison), sparing visitors the exhausting long-short journey. But no. The disregard for the time of those you subjugate is also an integral part of the education and training of every Israeli prison guard.

Is there an order stipulating the wasting of the Palestinians’ time? Is there some supreme order: Be cruel, be heartless, humiliate? Was it secretly passed out to the road planners and to the security companies at the checkpoints, to soldiers in the observation towers and to clerks in the Interior Ministry and the Civil Administration and the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories? Or is it that over time such behavior becomes part of the DNA of the prison-guard nation?

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