As anti-colonial and liberation movements developed, incarceration remained the classic method settler-colonial authorities used for controlling and containing native peoples. Inside Palestine, but also in surrounding countries where the Palestinian revolutionary movements were establishing their presence, cadres were seen as a direct threat to the established status quo and subject to constant arrest and internment. As such, POWs and political prisoners constitute a major phenomenon in modern Palestinian history. In the West Bank and Gaza alone, over 800,000 Palestinians have been put under lock and key since 1967 (approximately 20% of the total population and 40% of the male population). This does not include the high number of Palestinians interned by Israel between 1948 and 1967, or the substantial numbers of Palestinians arrested in various Arab countries since the Nakba.
The experience of Palestinian prisoners in Arab jails was shared with other Arab political prisoners, as many were incarcerated together for their joint participation in pan-Arab parties and movements in the aftermath of the Nakba, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. In Egypt, as our first source illustrates, Palestinian communists experienced internment alongside Egyptian communist comrades. In Syria, Palestinian officers in the Syrian army were imprisoned en masse following the establishment of the UAR. In Jordan, the most active founders and cadres of the Palestinian revolutionary movement had already suffered arrest and imprisonment for their role in the Jordanian national movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. This is illustrated here with Hamdi Matar (one of the founders of the PFLP in Jordan), who was confined for his participation in the clandestine cells of the Movement of Arab Nationalists. Matar’s account offers a glimpse of urban prisons and interrogation centres, and recounts the experience of interrogation and torture. Although a generation of Palestinian revolutionaries were subjected to these harrowing psychological and physical experiences, a story of resistance is also offered in this account. The ways in which prisoners under extreme pressure constantly held their ground are described in detail, whilst not omitting more painful episodes of the collapse and surrender of other cadres.
Dhafi al-Jam’ani (one of the Jordanian officers accused of attempting a coup in 1957 and a future founder of al-Saiqa) sheds light on a different type of jail: Al-Jafar desert prison. Al-Jafar was the best known penal institution in Jordanian history: once prisoners passed through the infamous interrogation phase in urban detention centres, they were sent to serve out their sentences in the desert. Thousands of leaders and cadres from the Palestinian revolution (including East Bank Jordanians like al-Jama’ani) were sent there, often for long periods of incarceration. Al-Jam’ani reconstructs the design, layout, and physical environment of the prison in great detail, and provides an intimate portrayal of the political, social, and cultural life of its community, reflecting on political prisoners’ quest to maximise their freedom within the confines of Al-Jafar.
He also gives a compelling account of what ultimately proved to be an unsuccessful escape. The significance of this story lies not simply in its source of inspiration (a WW2 British POW story), the historic personages involved (including renowned figures such as Wadie Haddad), or its gripping details. The account sheds light on similar attempts regularly undertaken by imprisoned Palestinian revolutionary cadres, reflecting determination and no little ingenuity on their part. A few of these escapes were spectacularly successful, most famously in the case of George Habash’s escape from a Syrian jail.
There is a profound difference in the way Palestinians conceived of their imprisonment in Arab countries and that inside Israeli jails. In the former, they were political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. In the latter, they viewed themselves, and were widely recognised across the Afro-Asian world, as prisoners of war (asra). POWs were subjected to interrogation, often featuring legally sanctioned torture by the Israeli authorities throughout the period. The Israeli legal system refused to recognise Palestinian resistance as prisoners of war, and considered them outside of the laws of war, describing them as saboteurs and terrorists. A few Israeli lawyers attempted to defend them. However, as Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel explains, they were swimming against the overwhelmingly hostile tide prevailing in their society.
Given the exceptionally high numbers of Palestinian prisoners at any given moment (especially following the 1967 occupation of East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank), Israeli prisons became major centres for artistic production, intellectual debates, education, and political organisation. Prison writings became an important component of Palestinian literature. Some of them, such as the early poems in Mahmoud Darwish’s collection A Lover from Palestine, have achieved canonical status. Darwish himself was imprisoned for writing poetry challenging Israeli rule, and in his poem ‘Defiance’, he evokes the difficulty, but also the importance, of maintaining intellectual freedom despite physical incarceration.
Beyond avant-garde literary work, Israeli prisons were also sites of production for more popular forms of prose. Palestinian prisoners produced their own magazines, and these were handwritten in notebooks, carefully copied, and distributed across the cells. They featured poems, literary criticism, reflective columns, and political analysis. Classics of anti-colonial thought, such as Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, were reproduced by hand. Prisoners carefully transcribed patriotic radio shows from the Voice of Palestine, such as Yahya Rabah’s Words for Palestine the Homeland and the People, after listening to them on smuggled radio sets.
Above all, Palestinians organised their own educational programmes in Israeli prisons. These included political segments (prepared by each party), as well as lessons covering diverse subjects such as economics, history, and foreign languages, including Hebrew. In the Occupied Palestinian territories, although the vast majority of prisoners joined parties before their arrest, they were afforded the opportunity to reflect on their philosophies and doctrines only after their internment. Behind bars, party literature and education was widely produced and disseminated. One anonymous handwritten document is a study of the Israeli prison system and its machinery by a longtime Palestinian political prisoner.
Important battles fought by prisoners were over the right to complete their high school and university examinations. Hunger strikes also played a fundamental role in Palestinian prisoners’ experience, and were organised for political protest as well as to gain better conditions or medical treatment for ill prisoners. Especially strong was the participation in hunger strikes by women prisoners, as reflected on by Therese Halaseh.
Israeli mass-imprisonment of Palestinians has been such a long-term phenomenon that it has produced its own patterns of repression and resistance. Prisoners gained cumulative knowledge about the prison authorities and their mode of functioning, and the authorities closely monitored prisoners and their leaderships. Protracted battles unfold between them, sometimes leading to advancements in prisoner conditions, and at other times setbacks and loss of rights. After 1967, and into the 80s, at least fourteen major hunger strikes took place, starting with the eleven day Ramleh Prison hunger strike of 18 February 1969 and culminating with the 15 day General Hunger Strike of 27 September 1992. Some strikes lasted a few days and others for far longer. For instance, the Asqalan (Ashkelon) Prison hunger strike of 11 December 1976 lasted for 45 days, and was followed by a 20 day follow-up prison labour strike starting on 24 February 1977. These two famous strikes led to enormous improvements in prisoners’ conditions, including the end to forced labour. Hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners continue until today in the Israeli prison system.
External circumstances and the general political atmosphere played a major role in determining outcomes, highlighting why solidarity was exceptionally important. Whenever a hunger strike took place, Israeli authorities were aware that a rebellion within prisons could rapidly spread outside. This was always a likely prospect given the extent of external mobilisation sparked by prisoner action. From the earliest days of hunger strikes, the organisations of the Palestinian revolution reacted quickly to support them. Immediately, appeals for solidarity would appear signed by popular committees and parties, and distributed for international attention, an early example of which is a response to the 28 April 1970 women’s hunger strike in Neve Tirza prison.
In later years, more advanced forms of mobilisation in solidarity with prisoners developed within the Occupied Palestinian Territories and beyond, as can be seen in a first-hand account of the thirty two day Nafha Desert Prison Hunger Strike of July 1980. This strike ended with a brutal suppression, and four prisoner deaths. In response, huge popular pressure was placed on the Israeli authorities. A rich visual record emerges from this and other similar mobilisations, as this poster captures. At the same time, the diplomatic campaigns for prisoners’ cases reached international institutions, such as the United Nations.
Prison mobilisation clearly influenced events outside; equally the external political situation could have an impact on the prisons. Prisoners responded to the outbreak of the Intifada with a hunger strike in solidarity with their compatriots outside. This coordination between cadres of the revolution inside and outside prison took place by means of ongoing communication. This was managed by ingenious means such as miniature letters that were placed in capsules and swallowed to avoid detection. Prisoners relied on their connections with revolutionary structures outside, as the revolution’s party and national networks supported families and many party sections as well as official institutes of the revolution were responsible for prisoners and ex-prisoners, and undertook constant actions to free them. Several prisoner exchanges took place with the Israeli authorities. The largest, on 23 November 1983, freed 4700 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners interned in Ansar concentration camp, and 65 prisoners held elsewhere, in return for the release of six Israeli soldiers captured during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Although there is a focus on prisons within historic Palestine, as highlighted above, the Israeli prison system extended well beyond its boundaries. Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, more than 15,000 Palestinian men were interned in Lebanon. Thousands were sent to the Ansar concentration camp, in Southern Lebanon. By the time the campaign for the freedom of the Ansar prisoners was established, the institutions of the Palestinian revolution were experienced at supporting prisoners in many spheres. On the global level, pressure was exerted on international institutions (such as the ICRC and the UN) to fulfil their humanitarian responsibilities towards the prisoners. More locally, the Ansar concentration camp became a site of political organising. This resulted in the launch of a battle against the Israeli military authorities by the prisoners, and the leader of the prisoners at Ansar, Salah al-Tamari, recounts this episode in moving testimony.
In addition to internment inside and outside historic Palestine, Israeli authorities (especially after their occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in 1967), used the practice of forcibly deporting Palestinian leaders and organisers from their home. This included the President of the General Union of Palestinian Women, Issam Abdel Hadi (exiled in 1968) and the President of the Arab Women’s Union in Jerusalem, Zulaikha al-Shehabi (exiled in 1968); prominent political figures such as Dr Haidar Abdel Shafi (exiled in 1970); senior academics including Professor Hana Nasser, then President of Bir Zeit University, and today’s head of the Central Elections Commission (exiled in 1974); elected mayors such as Abdel Jawad Saleh (exiled in 1973) and Fahd al-Qawasmeh (exiled in 1980); along with religious figures such as Sheikh Abdel Hamid al-Sayeh (exiled in 1967), Bishop Elia Khouri (exiled in 1969), and Archbishop Hilarion Capucci. The latter was imprisoned in 1974 and then exiled in 1978, becoming an iconic figure for exiled Palestinians, as can be seen in a poster featuring a famous quote by the Archbishop on the Palestinian right of return.
These leading community figures were exiled for supporting resistance in the Occupied Palestinian territories. However, the majority of those deported were party cadres who were punished for belonging of one of the revolution’s parties. In a newspaper interview with Akram Haniyeh (exiled in 1986),the young journalist and Fateh cadre at the time gives a sense of the political context of forcible exile, and is representative of the revolution’s commitment to this issue during the 1980s. By the end of that decade, the first Intifada was launched, and a new era in the prisoners’ and exile movement, as well as the Palestinian struggle as a whole, began.