The movie Midnight Express has a lot to answer for. The title became a synonym
for hellhole jails with sadistic guards, brutal cellmates and mental
torture. It’s probably still the image that springs to mind when talking
about prisons anywhere in the Middle East. Israeli penitentiaries are
certainly no picnic, but neither are they a Midnight Express-like
Many years ago, police at a local station in the North asked
me to serve as an interpreter when they were questioning a foreign volunteer who
had been arrested for theft on the kibbutz where he was staying. The scene was
occasionally close to farcical. The volunteer came from Scotland and had the
strongest Glaswegian accent I had ever heard; at times I thought I’d also need a
translator to turn what he was saying into something more recognizable in the
London suburb where I was raised.
Adding to the confusion, his name was
Hugh – hopelessly inconvenient when you’re translating between two languages in
which the words “who” and “hu,” meaning he, are bound to feature a lot in an
Most of the details escape me, but one memory has firmly
stuck along with the recollection of the difficulties of simultaneous
interpretation. The hapless burglar could not stand the food. It was Passover
and the entire police station was in kosher-for-Pessah mode. The non-Jewish
Scotsman clearly considered matza a cruel and unusual punishment and begged me
to intervene and get him some “real bread.”
I have no doubt that today
the incident would have headline-making potential – in the right hands. Imagine
that, instead of being a young Scotsman who had carried out a petty theft, he
had been a young Palestinian detained on terrorist-related charges – and then
forced to abide by a Jewish-dictated diet while police were trying to extract a
Sound absurd? So do many of the claims by Palestinian
prisoners that were the official cause of their recent hunger strike.
an Israeli prison conjures up an image of a scene from Midnight Express, then
the term “hunger striker” has been granted a glamorous status through the
posthumous global glory awarded to Bobby Sands, among others.
Sands was a
member of the Provisional IRA who starved himself to death in a British jail as
leader of the 1981 hunger strike protesting the removal of Special Category
Status for Irish “political prisoners.”
The status of Sands was so
elevated after his death that he became the subject of several songs and movies,
including most recently Hunger, which won Steve McQueen a Cannes Film Festival
award in 2008 as a first-time director.
Hunger-striking is automatically
considered noble. It’s the bread and butter of civil protest, perfect for an age
when Palestinian public relations clashes with Israeli public
And Israel, again, lost on the battlefield of psychological
warfare. The country felt it could not risk a Palestinian prisoner dying and, in
return for a promise to refrain from “any security activity inside Israeli
prisons,” the committee on improving the conditions for the Palestinian
prisoners began its deliberation on returning their lost “rights.”
rights are like whipped cream in the prisoners’ world: Access to Arabic-
language cable television stations, further education, family visits for
prisoners from the West Bank and Gaza, and – on occasion – conjugal
Consider the case of Samir Kuntar, given four life sentences in
1980 for his role in the deaths of a policeman and three members of the Haran
family in Nahariya the previous year. (He was convicted of killing the father,
Danny, and the four-year-old daughter, Einat, whom he bludgeoned to death; the
other daughter, two-year-old Yael, died of suffocation while her mother tried to
keep her quiet in hiding during the attack.) Kuntar, from a Druse Lebanese
family, entered prison an uneducated, unmarried teenager and left with a degree
from Israel’s Open University and an Israeli-Arab wife (whom he later divorced).
He was released to a hero’s welcome in Lebanon in 2008 as part of a prisoner
exchange in return for the bodies of kidnapped IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser
and Eldad Regev.
Take into account that the privileges of the Palestinian
prisoners were removed in an attempt to place pressure on their leaders after
years in which another abducted soldier, Gilad Schalit, was hidden in Gaza
without access to visits even by the Red Cross.
Schalit did not see
sunlight for more than five years, as became evident after he was released –
pale and pathetically thin – in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian
The recent hunger strikers are not innocents, even though the
protest started over the controversial issue of administrative
Khader Adnan months ago managed to gain world sympathy of the
type reserved solely for Palestinian detainees, even members of terror
organizations like Islamic Jihad – and to hell with the terrorized children of
Sderot and elsewhere in the South struggling to grow and thrive amid the
constant Kassam missile attacks.
Following Adnan’s taste of success,
another Islamic Jihad member, Hana Shalabi, joined the struggle: Not only a
hunger-striking Palestinian, but a hunger-striking Palestinian woman – what
could be better? I’ll tell you what: 1,600 hunger strikers “languishing” in
Israeli prisons, denied even Facebook access. I don’t know exactly which inmates
participated in this peaceful protest, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the list
included those prisoners released in the Schalit deal in October 2011 and
recaptured after they returned to terror activities (in spite of their
Many of these prisoners are not hungry for bread, they’re
thirsty for more Jewish blood.
The hunger strike ended on May 14 but its
specter continues to hover over the country. It will be back – in this form, or
some other similarly headline-grabbing civil protest shape.
as a means of resistance is almost irresistible, especially if it
Handling such a protest is a complicated matter. Administrative
detention is problematic (ask the British, who even after the IRA hunger strikes
did not do away with it). Israelis need to ensure they don’t automatically
assume every case of administrative detention for a Palestinian is justified,
the same way that it cannot be assumed that every jailed Palestinian is the
victim of an Israeli injustice.
Nonetheless, the vast majority of
Palestinian prisoners (like Jewish inmates) not only had their day(s) in court,
they continue to have access to lawyers. Former Prisons Service chief Yaacov
Ganot told The Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz in 2005, for example, that Fatah
leader Marwan Barghouti was running a political campaign from his cell with the
help of his legal advisers.
Incidentally, Ganot also successfully brought
an end to a hunger strike by thousands of Palestinian prisoners the previous
year by releasing footage showing Barghouti surreptitiously eating in his
Food for thought, indeed.
The writer is editor of The
International Jerusalem Post.