Israeli jails are being redefined by their prisoners from a living hell to a space of resistance through organized education.
While the organization of Palestinians within jails is not limited to detained students, the high rate of arrests in An-Najah University of Nablus forges a link between academics, politics, and imprisonment for these university students.
The arrest of Mahmoud Talahmah was the most recent among students from An-Najah University. Mahmoud was arrested during an Israeli night raid on July 10, 2013. Israeli soldiers stormed student dorms, searching rooms while firing tear gas, sound bombs, and rubber bullets at students.
Arrests like Mahmoud’s are a usual occurrence in universities and cities across the West Bank. Abdel Al A’nani of the Palestinian Prisoner Society reported there are around 4,700 Palestinians in Israeli jails today. According to international humanitarian law, a resident of an occupied territory can be held by the occupying power under administrative detention in cases of exceptional threats to national security (Fourth Geneva Convention Article 78).
There are around 4,700 Palestinians in Israeli jails today
In practice, Israel uses administrative detention to hold Palestinians indefinitely without trial. According to prisoner rights group Addameer, administrative detention of Palestinians is used illegally for collective and criminal punishment. Illegal treatment of prisoners includes routine torture, isolation, denial of family visits, medical negligence, and the withholding of information regarding the rationale for their detention.
Raed Amer, Chairman of the Palestinian Prisoners Society in Nablus, explained that students are often arrested at the height of their academic careers, immediately before taking final examinations that would allow them to graduate and attain degrees. The only threat they pose is holding the tools for a promising future.
Students of the university explained to Palestine Monitor that being Palestinian is the only basis on which they see arrests being made.
“It’s just about us being Palestinian and living here. Any Palestinian is a target...not because we have a certain political idea or were part of resistance activity, just because we are Palestinian.”
“They want to destroy us from the inside”
Arrests and treatment of prisoners like Mahmoud aim to break Palestinians down from the inside out.
One ex-prisoner, who wished to remain anonymous due to security concerns, reflected on the nature of his psychological and physical torture in the jails, “It seems to me like there are Israelis sitting in offices at desks smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, thinking of different ways to torture us.”
Any Palestinian who has spent time in the jails will tell you about the brutality with which Israeli authorities in the jails abuse both the minds and bodies of prisoners. Finding someone to tell you this isn’t hard, either. Around 25% of the Palestinian population has been arrested, and over 70% of Palestinian families have had at least one family member detained.
Around 25% of the Palestinian population has been arrested, and over 70% of Palestinian families have had at least one family member detained.
While the An-Najah students expressed frustration with the ignorance of the international community in regards to the suffering of Palestinian prisoners, they also explained another reality of Israeli jails: They become a place where Palestinians actively resist the occupation through education.
“Israel thought when they arrested Palestinians and put them in the jail, they destroyed us, and made us empty from inside. But we changed the jail into a university.”
Education as resistance: Prisoner potential
Saad Joudeh is currently president of the student council at An-Najah University. After high school, he was about to begin a four-year BA program, when he was abruptly arrested by Israeli forces. Saad spent the next eight and half years of his life in prison.
“The jail was a school for me. It helped to build my person and my character. The Israelis try to make the jails a grave for the Palestinians, but we made it as a school and university that educated prisoners. I read 300 books in the jail about political issues and about Palestine. I still remember all of my friends who were in the jail, and now they are brothers with me. If history was back to me again and I could chose the way of my life... I would choose to go back to the jail.”
The education systems created by prisoners are complex and well organized. Classes begin in the morning and last all day. Topics include Palestinian history, political history between Israel and Palestine, history of Zionism, history of the Fatah movement, English, Arabic, and Hebrew.
The defining factor of this system is that Palestinians teach Palestinians. Israeli incarceration of bright minds, political leaders, and resistance activists results in a prison community driven to cultivate an educated resistance force. The jails are transformed into a space where political ideology and strategy are discussed, and well-informed minds of resistance are developed.
The jails are transformed into a space where political ideology and strategy are discussed, and well-informed minds of resistance are developed.
A seemingly positive attribute to imprisonment, this revolution behind bars remains helpless to liberate its prisoners and their families from the inescapable impacts of inhumane treatment. Families of prisoners often face physical assault by Israeli security. The psychological impacts of demoralizing treatment remain with prisoners and their families long after their release, and recent reports show an increase in mental disorders in detainees.
An-Najah students told Palestine Monitor that once you are in the jails, you will be changed forever. One ex-prisoner explained, “I am scared to have children, because of what could happen to me and also to my children if the Israelis came after me again.”
Education as politics
In an environment where Israeli aggression may be at its most depraved and direct, education related to the occupation becomes both formative and uniquely relevant for prisoners. Inhumane circumstances inevitably foster a deep-rooted hostility towards Israeli authorities in the jails. This hostility is channeled into an ever more pressing need to educate, in order to resist the current policies used by Israel against Palestinian society.
The result is a markedly unified and empowered collective of prisoners.
In a society cluttered with political disunity and disillusionment with past forms of resistance, the educational organization of prisoners appears to be an underestimated and vital seed for the future growth of Palestinian society.
For Saad, education is politics. His experiences in the jails shaped his understanding of and approach to resisting the occupation. Academic work is political work, because the future of Palestine stands in the cultivation of the minds of the Palestinians.
Despite possible Israeli intentions for imprisonment, a man or woman released from the jail is not a person completely broken by the Israeli prison system, but a person educated, supported by his peers, and mentally equipped to carry on the Palestinian cause. If you look at Palestinian leaders today, almost all have spent time in Israeli prisons. Palestinians enter as prisoners, and leave as leaders in the resistance.