‘Administrative detention’ (Wednesday 8 February)
Previous: A tale of two townships
We spent Wednesday mostly in and around Ramallah, in one of the more formal days of the programme, seeing a bit more of the infrastructure of a – perhaps temporary – national capital emerging from a provincial town. Unlike some other new capitals like Chisinau, Bratislava or Tallinn, Ramallah does not inherit imposing state buildings but instead has had to build them in the last 20 years. The result is that the government areas of Ramallah are all marble, plazas and large windows, and look very much of our time. We visited the Al-Amary refugee camp in the morning, which was different from the new areas of Ramallah but perhaps not as different as I had pictured in my mind.
The term ‘refugee camp’ suggests a temporary settlement made of tents, but Al-Amary in Ramallah has long outgrown those roots. In the early 1950s UNRWA built rows of simple single storey structures, but few of these remain. Over the decades they have been built over and upwards and the result is a densely-populated urban neighbourhood based around a maze of alleyways. Some of the houses are shakily built out over the alleyways, and it looks inadvisable to shelter from a storm under them. Most of the residents now were born here, but their families come from Haifa, Lydda and Jaffa originally. It is not a rich place, but it has developed a strong community spirit as Al-Amary, and has one of Palestine’s best football teams. Politically, it is a Fatah stronghold and the local party is outward-looking, having developed links with France in particular.
A fair bit of the programme was with Fatah, but we also met a number of Non-Governmental Organisations working in Palestine, including advocates for prisoners (www.ppsmo.org in Arabic) children (http://www.dci-pal.org/ Arabic and English) and human rights and legal procedure (http://www.alhaq.org/ English). Each briefing was in its own way profoundly depressing and enlightening. I won’t trudge through each of them now, but some of the findings are interspersed in other things I’ve written here and it is worth reading what they, and other organisations such as OCHA, have written and researched. There is a mass of evidence, which satisfies many international organisations, that even leaving aside the basic injustice of the occupation there are many things about the way it is being done which are wrongs in themselves.
For instance, it is difficult to get much sympathy for the rights of people in prison, and I must admit that I approached the question of Palestinian prisoners with some scepticism. But it is a serious matter, and criminal justice goes to the heart of the problems of life on the West Bank. People are quite simply not being treated fairly, and that discrimination runs along ethnic-political lines. One must first grasp the meaning of the phrase ‘administrative detention’. Its slight Orwellian ring is probably not an accident, as it is the product of British colonial law enforcement as practiced in the Palestine Mandate and in Burma by police officers including Orwell – a country whose rulers continue to use it against political opponents like Aung San Suu Kyi. ‘Administrative detention’ simply means locking people up without trial. It is usually a matter for the Israeli military, and there seems to be little to stop the six-month detention period being extended time after time. I had naively believed before I came to the West Bank that the Palestinian Authority had full control over at least the urban areas, but there are regular Israeli raids that result in people being arrested and being incarcerated by administrative detention, without their legal advisers having access to evidence.
Detention has very occasionally been used against Israeli citizens, usually for short periods, but it is overwhelmingly a tool of the occupation authorities to lock Palestinians up for indeterminate times. Some of the people locked up will be terrorists, but we do not know because there has not been a transparent legal process to prove it. Many will not be. In most democratic countries that have detention of some sort without trial, it is used as a last resort against a small number of people and hedged around with restriction and monitoring. But it is used on a large scale in the occupied territories, apparently in a routine fashion. In January 2012 there were 309 people in the Israeli prison system under administrative detention (http://www.btselem.org/administrative_detention/statistics) and an indeterminate number held by the Israeli military. This is the largest number since October 2009. The length of imprisonment can be very long – Israeli NGO B’Tselem recorded in 2009 that 26 people had been locked up for over 2 years, 93 between one and two years and 103 for between six months and a year. When confined in the Israeli prison system family visits are usually impossible – remember that you can’t travel without a permit? There have been several recent hunger strikes by Palestinians who have been subjected to administrative detention, which have occasionally been successful.
B’Tselem makes a powerful and disturbing point in showing that there are parallel legal systems in operation on the West Bank. Settlers – and indeed peace protesters coming over from Israel proper – are subject to Israeli law as if they were in Israel, which gives suspects the sort of rights that one would expect from a democratic country. Getting arrested is a hazard for Israeli leftists who go to demonstrations like Bi’lin, but it is the same sort of risk as one runs by getting involved in civil disobedience in many countries. Settlers tend to be treated even more leniently, even for violent crime. Palestinians are processed under occupation military law with its repressive features like administrative detention, and their lives subject to arbitrary state control. Settlers outside the East Jerusalem ring are also generally heavily armed and some have perpetrated violence and abuse of Palestinians with impunity. Palestinians attack settlers too, of course, but they are much weaker because they are not allowed weapons and they face the full force not just of the appropriate legal sanctions but the unfair application of occupation law.
The effect spreads wider than just the people who have been detained. It creates a climate of fear and uncertainty more generally. Another NGO working in the Palestinian Territories is DCI (Defence of Children International), which has compiled worrying evidence of the way the Israeli army is treating children in Palestine. There seem to be frequent midnight raids, indiscriminately carried out, utterly disproportionate to the offences alleged, and amounting in practice to abduction. I do not wish to minimise the fact that throwing stones is stupid and can hurt people, and parents and other people in the community generally try to discourage it. But the consequences are so grossly out of line with the offence – midnight abduction and perhaps 2 to 10 months in prison, probably deepening childish trouble-making attitudes into deep, hateful militancy in the process.
But it seems strange that people can get so worked up about children – by their nature not very responsible – throwing stones while heavily-armed soldiers firing plastic bullets into a crowd at a demonstration hardly rates a shrug. It does Israel’s defenders no credit at all to reflexively conflate perfectly valid human rights and international legal concerns with anti-Semitic prejudice or wishing the destruction of Israel. That is merely intellectual bullying. It is for true friends of Israel to tell their friend that she should act according her own and universal human values, and that the conduct of the occupation – and the occupation itself – are unacceptable. I know this is not a simple story, and that there is wrong on both sides, but I come back to the fact that there is such a gross imbalance in strength between the two sides and the principle that it is first the place of the stronger party to act with dignity and propriety. I know that Israelis are full of fear as well. But from seeing the other side of the Wall, it feels to many ordinary decent Palestinians that the occupation, in its harshness, arbitrariness and little inhumanities like the ploughing up of olive groves is another image from Orwell: a boot stamping repeatedly on a human face.
Next: Meeting Fatah