You can imprison Palestinians but not their struggle

You can imprison Palestinians but not their struggle, Barghouti proves it
5 min read
15 Apr, 2021
Comment: With Barghouti and thousands of other Palestinians behind bars, imprisonment has become a defining part of the Palestinian national consciousness, writes Emad Moussa.
The history of political imprisonment began with the British Mandate in Palestine [Getty]
Chosen in 1974 by the PLO's National Council as the annual day of support for Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons, Prisoners' Day this year comes at a critical time in Palestinian history. 

Seemingly overshadowed by the upcoming Palestinian elections, this year's anniversary is also - ironically - emphasised by them. With Marwan Barghouti taking an active part in the parliamentary election, he spotlights the plight of the thousands of Palestinian political detainees in Israel.

In 2016, Haaretz reported that there was a split in the Israeli civilian and military leadership on whether to keep Barghouti in prison. Ehud Barak, Israel's former PM, then questioned the purpose of keeping Barghouti detained as part of "fighting terrorism." Nevertheless, he pointed out that keeping him locked up may glorify him as a leader. "He will fight for the leadership from inside prison, not having to prove a thing. The myth will grow constantly by itself," Barak said.

Barak seems to understand the role of detention in political mobilisation. While his purpose is probably tactical, or at least academic, his comment strikes close to home for many Palestinians, pointing to prison as a defining component in the Palestinian national consciousness. 

This is why, even if Barghouti wakes up every morning in a prison cell for the rest of his life, his ideals, although shared by a broad spectrum of the Palestinian collective, will always bear a special sense of prominence and legitimacy; simply because they come out of a prison cell.

Barghouti's ideals will always bear a special sense of prominence and legitimacy; simply because they come out of a prison cell

The history of political imprisonment began with the British Mandate in Palestine (1917-47), during which the British troops detained and tortured thousands of Palestinians who resisted the British authorities or opposed the Zionist plans for their country.

With the Zionist project morphing into a state in 1948, the Israeli authorities inherited and reutilised some of the British laws, particularly administrative detention - incarceration without trial or charges - re-adapting them to fit the new settler-colonial reality. As Israel completed its occupation in 1967, political imprisonment became a long-standing trope in the conflict.

Building on the self-image as a beleaguered and forever threatened community, Israel has since redefined Palestinian political detainees as "security prisoners". This meant removing them from the conflict context; no longer individuals with grievances or fighting for a just cause, but simply 'mechbalim' (saboteurs/terrorists) only concerned with the destruction of the state of Israel. That effectively denied them any rights under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The PLO estimated in 2015 that at least 850,000 Palestinians since June 1967 were detained by Israel. This makes a staggering 20 percent of the total population in the Occupied Territories, and 40-percent of the adult male population. As of December 2020, Palestinian WAFA News reported, there are 4,400 Palestinian detainees in Israel, including 170 children, 40 women, and 543 with one or more life sentences. Many suffer from chronic or terminal diseases, others have already passed away in detention. 

Read more: Israel re-arrests Palestinian man one day after release from 20-year imprisonment

Of these detainees, 380 are held in "administrative detention," a euphemised term that - like all other Orwellian constructs in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including "collective punishment" as "security measures", or "settlements expansion" as "demographic necessities" - is just a thin shell hiding a callous reality.


This apparently "inoffensive term," to quote Rashid Khalidi, means "potentially indefinite detention without charge, trial, or sentence for renewable three- or six-month periods…sometimes for years, or for a decade or more." 

These statistics reflect a phenomenon so dominant that it penetrates nearly every aspect of Palestinian life. In our Gaza refugee camp during the First Intifada, almost every family had one or more of its members in Israeli prisons. Almost every family took part in hiding siblings, relatives, friends, or neighbours assumed at risk of Israeli arrest. 

Despite the risk, coupled with the anguish over loved ones, most, at least as a means to make do with an abnormal reality, wore imprisonment as a badge of honour and a defining mode of resistance. It was so defining, in fact, that families who didn't have members in Israeli prisons were sometimes deemed inferior on the patriotic scale. 

Without the experience of imprisonment, it might be difficult to fully understand the Palestinian struggle. Prison is a colonial site that represents brute power and aims to redesign the roles of the coloniser and the colonised in a fashion that benefits the former. 

To borrow from American philosopher Judith Butler, by virtue of being a settler-colonial endeavour, the Zionist carceral policy is never meant to produce a system aimed at reforming and rehabilitation; rather, it is designed to "de-constitute the Palestinian subject," thus breaking her/his will to resist. This exact dynamic is what turns imprisonment into a posture of defiance and a tenacious refusal to surrender to the settler-colonial mode of existence.

This is what turns imprisonment into a posture of defiance and a tenacious refusal to surrender

That said, behind defiance and the narratives of resistance, there are thousands of fragmented families, burdened wives, pained mothers, deprived children, and social and economic hardships.

Consumed by the need to stay afloat, Palestinian society assigns a higher value to the act of 'sumud' (steadfastness) than it does to the prisoners' physical and mental plight.

Complaining may be interpreted by some as a sign of weakness, one that may contradict the notions of resistance, masculinity, and heroism, all existential values that ensure Palestinian spiritual survivability. Even if clinging to such values leads to society-wide psychological fatigue. 

With the lack of sufficient rehabilitation and mental health programmes in the Occupied Territories, many released or freed prisoners, especially those who had served long sentences, are destined to live their lives dealing with the anguish of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions. Their families bear the brunt as well. Life after detention is never the same.

George Habash, the PFLP's founder, once said: "Revolt! You'll only lose the chain and the tent," a reference to life as a refugee under occupation. 

Clearly, on the path to liberation, what you lose is a lot more.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.  

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.