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Tel Aviv University
Anat Matar (TAU, linguistics) thinks terrorists are "political prisoners"

Protest Inside the Israeli Occupation Ofer Prison Camp

Gush Shalom, September 1, 2006

By Adam Keller

Protest inside the occupation maze

In the past two months, the Ofer Prison Camp has become the de-facto new seat of the Palestinian Legislative Council as well as the Palestinian Cabinet. Quite a few of the legislators and ministers were brought here already in the army's first late-night sweep back in July, among them Sheikh Abu-Tir whose East Jerusalem home hosted a first hopeful effort by Gush Shalom activists to open a peaceful dialogue with the new Palestinian government, and his fellow Palestinian M.P. Atun. Ofer - once an innocent Hebrew first name. When the army invaded Ramallah in April 2002, many hundreds of its inhabitants were detained and taken off to the army camp which bore this name and which until then housed only soldiers. The Palestinians were initially kept in the mud and exposed to pouring rain. Human rights organizations protested - and the army made Ofer into a full-fledged prison camp, complete with cells and enclosures and high walls and prominent guard towers easily visible to Israeli motorists on the new Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem Highway (use of which is forbidden to Palestinians).

Behind these walls, hundreds of Palestinians are incarcerated, and new ones added in the raids the army conducts every night. Many are held there without any semblance of a judicial process. Others do get some sort of a trial in the courtroom which is part of the prison complex - but the verdicts delivered by the military justices are always very predictable.

The fact of occupation was laid starkly bare, stripping off the last thin pretence that the Palestinian Authority is a sovereign body, when in the beginning of August it was proudly announced that the fugitive Speaker Dweik of the Palestinian Parliament had been nabbed, having been incautious enough to spend one night in his Ramallah home. Subsequently, Dweik was duly charged at the Ofer courtroom with "being a member of an illegal organization" - the incontrovertible evidence being that he had presented himself to the electors as a candidate of (yes) the Hamas Party, and been actually elected on that party's ticket and was subsequently nominated and sworn in as Speaker of the Palestinian parliament.

Today, he and fifteen of his fellows (including the Palestinian Vice Prime Minister) were to be remanded in custody - and several Israelis accepted the invitation of the Palestinian Parliament's Committee on Prisoners to come and hold a joint protest vigil outside the prison.

Easier said than done. As we soon found out, the whole area in front of these prominent prison walls and guard towers is a trackless maze of lesser walls and fences and barbed wire entanglements.and barriers dividing and cutting off areas where Israelis may go but not Palestinians from where Palestinians may go but not Israelis, and some where Israelis of one category may go but not another, and some which are reserved to military personnel alone. There was no evident logic, and no map of the maze exists (it would probably be classed a military secret if it was ever drawn).

Even with the help of mobile phones, it took quite some effort for the activists who came from Jerusalem to locate those who came from Tel-Aviv, and for both to unite with the handful of journalists who took an interest in the event.

Uniting with the Palestinian protesters who had set out from the center of Ramallah (a short distant away as the crow flies) proved more difficult. In fact, it was impossible. The idea - quite feasible in theory - was to get to a certain fence, whose other side is known to be accessible for Ramallah Palestinians, and to stand together where we could see and hear (even if not touch) each other. But to get there we had to take a certain road - and we found a massive iron barrier slammed down in our faces.

"What is this? Why are you blocking us?". Above the closed barrier was a big sign, declaring in Hebrew and Arabic "Passage for Israeli cars only, by order of the Military Commander". "We are Israelis, you can see our licence plates." "Sorry, this road is reserved only for trucks. Private cars are not allowed." The guard grinned broadly, as if telling the finest of jokes. The gun and the closed gate were on his side, our Palestinian friends an inaccessible half a kilometre away.

So we spread out the signs, there on the desolate road with the barbed wires under the blazing August noon sun: "Freedom for the Political Prisoners!" and "Prisoner Exchange - Now!" and "Democracy is not an Israeli monopoly!". Uri Avnery was there with his white beard and the perennial two-flag symbol, and Khulood Badawi who organized so many of the past month's anti-war protests, and Dr. Anat Matar of Tel-Aviv University with her decades-long involvement with Palestinian (and Israeli) prisoners, and Ya'el Lerer who took up the translating from Arabic and publishing of books which no mainstream publisher dare touch, and Thierry - a Swiss activist residing in Jerusalem who arrives to all demonstrators and protests on his motorcycle...

"This is the half missing from the rally scheduled for tonight in Tel-Aviv, where families of the captured Israeli soldiers will call for their release. I have every sympathy for these families, but there are very many Palestinian and Lebanese families who feel the same. The only way is a prisoner exchange" Avnery tells the journalists present. "We demand that Israel respect the democratic choice of the Palestinian voters, that all elected representatives be set free at once and the shameful hunt after them be stopped" adds Badawi.

"Wait a minute, the process is still going on. Why don't we try to get into the courtroom itself? It is supposed to be an open court!" says Gamila Biso, an immigrant from Syria and a tireless daily opponent of the occupation.

"Supposed to be" is the right expression, as we soon find out. "Sorry, I can't let you in, I have to consult with my superiors" says the soft-spoken lieutenant at the entrance. And ten minutes later "The court is in recess now, you can go in after it resumes".

Meanwhile, we make some contact with the Palestinians waiting outside - not connected with the VIP trials, it turns out, but just with ordinary cases which this court sees every day. An elderly woman with a traditional headdress has tears in her eyes, telling of a favourite grandchild charged with stone-throwing and very likely to spend considerable time behind bars.

Suddenly Adv. Osama Sa'adi, one of the detained parliamentarians' attorneys, appears from inside and immediately catches all attention. "It's all over for today. They refused to recognize the authority of the court and were taken back to their cells. It will resume in three weeks".

"Can you tell them that we have come from Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem to protest this travesty, that it is shaming us as Israeli citizens?" "I will, they will be happy to hear it" says the lawyer with a sudden smile.

Two TV cameras - one of Reuters, the other of a local station - and a single Israeli press photographer catch the handshake with the lawyer, which is intended in proxy for his clients

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