Al-Ahram Weekly – 3 October 2002
Damon sits atop a wooded ridge of the Carmel mountain overlooking the shimmering blue of the Mediterranean near the northern Israeli city of Haifa. The view is the most pleasant part of a visit to the prison, an old farmhouse-turned-jail that was closed three years ago after the government deemed it unfit for human habitation. During the Intifada it has been hurriedly pressed back into service.
Visiting times are fixed — sessions on Tuesday morning — but not strictly observed. A metal three door bars entry, leaving visitors to sit on the dusty ground by the whitewashed outer wall in the heat and glare of the late morning.
It is difficult to know precisely how many Palestinians are currently being held in Israeli detention. Estimates from the International Red Cross suggest that the current figure is around 7,500, a substantial proportion of them administrative detainees jailed without trial or even being charged.
The numbers have rocketed since Israel’s massive invasion of the West Bank in April and its effective reoccupation of the main cities since June. In that time many thousands of Palestinians have been rounded up and sent for interrogation to Ofer camp near Ramallah and then on to Israeli jails, from Damon in the north to Ketziot in the south.
Israel’s decision to transfer these prisoners out of the occupied Palestinian territories and into Israel violates the Fourth Geneva Convention and constitutes a war crime.
The trials of Palestinians are little more than a formality: even the army admits the military court system is “an assembly line” and, according to a recent report in the Haaretz daily newspaper, is considering reforms. During the Intifada hardly any Palestinians on trial have been acquitted.
To cope with the surge in the Palestinian prison population Israel has moved criminals out of existing jails and hastily reopened old ones. Ketziot, a “tent city” in the blistering heat of the Negev that can hold up to 8,000 prisoners, was reopened in April.
Damon was reopened a few months earlier after it had been given a fresh lick of paint. It now holds some 400 inmates, mostly low-security prisoners such as Palestinian workers illegally found in Israel.
There are rarely more than a handful of visitors to Damon. The prisoners’ families are locked up themselves, in the occupied territories. With most Palestinians in the West Bank under almost continual curfew, just stepping out of their homes is an offence which may result in them being shot. And in any case, given the general closures on the occupied territories, it would be illegal for any of them to cross into Israel to visit a relative in jail.
Human rights groups have denounced this violation of the prisoners’ right to see their families. The only contact most inmates are allowed with their relatives is via the telephone — and then only if the families can send them the money to buy a phone card.
The International Red Cross has been trying to make a small dent in Israel’s blocking of family contact. In a recent week, for example, it reported that it had secured travel permits for 174 people from Gaza. However, it also noted that another 67 were refused permission even though they fitted the official criteria for a prison visit.
Among the small group waiting outside the prison is 17-year- old Ahmed. He, like everyone else, refuses to give his full name, worried that the authorities might curtail his visiting rights.
Three times in the past year Ahmed has made the long and costly journey from his home in Beersheva, in Israel’s far south, to visit Said, a 28-year-old labourer from Hebron. He says the two of them became friends while working on a construction site in Beersheva, where Said was working illegally to earn money to send back to his wife and three young children. Said has another two years before his release.
In more normal times the bond between the two would probably have been quickly broken. But given the profoundly confined world created for the Palestinians by the military invasion of the occupied territories it has acquired a more significant and enduring value.
Most of Damon’s inmates will serve out their terms of months or years with no visits at all. Some will struggle even to speak to their relatives regularly by phone. The lack of contact takes its toll on the prisoners when so much hardship and danger is being experienced in the territories.
Only the lucky few who know an Arab citizen of Israel or an east Jerusalemite, both of whom have Israeli ID cards, stand a chance of seeing a friendly face.
However tenuous or distant the link, Palestinian inmates are desperate for the human contact offered by distant relatives, brief acquaintances or charitable strangers.
It is not an negligible sacrifice these visitors make to see the inmates. All are subjected to humiliating security checks. Ahmed points to his groin to warn that the guards insist on the most intimate body searches.
One elderly woman, originally from the West Bank city of Qalqilya but who married an Israeli Arab in the Negev, is here visiting a second cousin after a call from her family in Qalqilya. She only manages a trip when she can save up the $150 it costs her. She is armed with photographs of her cousin’s young children and of his brothers and sisters.
When the Druze prison guard, Abdullah, opens the metal door and ushers us in she shows him a coffee pot, frying pan and some small speakers she has brought with her. Abdullah repeats “Not allowed” as each item is presented, telling her to take the plastic bags away.
A middle-aged businessman in the queue is here because friends in the West Bank asked him to visit someone they know. He says he comes to see strangers when asked to do so.
After the security checks there is a “shop” — a guard at a desk — where visitors can buy cigarettes, lighters and phone cards that are bagged up to be given to the inmates later. Underwear and T-shirts can be brought in from outside. The authorities allow the prisoners little else: just shaving kits, a towel, toothpaste and a bar of soap once a month.
The two prisoners I meet are from Deheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem.
“Mohamed”, 28, was arrested while looking for work in Jerusalem and is just over half way through a two-year sentence. He has a brother who is also in jail, arrested in the April invasion because he was a policeman.
“Ehab”, a shy 21-year-old, was jailed for 30 months early in the Intifada after he shared a taxi with another youngster who minutes later blew himself up at a checkpoint. He jokes that if the same thing happened today, with the more militant mood in Israel, “I would be locked away for 30 years not 30 months”.
Since his detention, Ehab has become almost fearful to talk to his family. Two of his three brothers have joined the 21,000 Palestinian casualties of the past two years. In the June invasion one lost his hand to an Israeli bullet; another, according to Ehab, was outside fixing his car when a tank on patrol shot him three times in the back. He survived but a friend next to him was killed.
The guards say the prisoners live in comfortable conditions but the two inmates dispute this. Both say inmates are crammed into the cells, with between three and four people sleeping on the floor because of lack of space.
They say they have only just emerged from a dispute with the prison authorities about cockroaches infesting their food. Mohamed says when they complained the chief warden withdrew the few privileges they enjoyed, such as visits and making telephone calls.
After a Red Cross visit, they say the meals improved and they stopped their protest. But both claim they are again finding cockroaches in the food.
Every day the inmates are locked into their overcrowded cells from 4pm until the next morning.
Life in Damon is far easier than in Ketziot or Ofer detention camps, where prisoners live in metal huts or tents, often without basic facilities like toilets. But it is a soul-destroying routine nonetheless.
Mohamed says: “There is no library, no work, no education classes, not even in Hebrew, to break up the monotony of the day. Most of the men here sit around all day feeling bored or frightened, and aggrieved at the injustice of their detention.”
He says despite the wall Israel is building Palestinians will continue finding ways past it when there is so much unemployment and misery in the towns and villages of the West Bank. He is pessimistic about the future. “Is locking us up for a few years how Israel thinks it can ensure its security?”
Al-Ahram Weekly – 3 October 2002