Adalah's Newsletter, Volume 33, February 2007
Objects or Subjects?
Theoretical Comments on the De-Politicization of the Issue
By Dr. Anat Matar*
I would like to open this session dealing with the question of how to define these prisoners with a proposal by Walid Daka, a prisoner who received a life sentence.
Walid has been in prison for over twenty years and his life sentence was only recently commuted to forty-five years. In an article which he published in Adalah's Newsletter several months ago,1 Daka argues that the term "political prisoners" rather than "security prisoners" is more appropriate for Arab prisoners who have been convicted of crimes against state security, but that this term is not appropriate,
for example, for Jewish prisoners like Yona Avrushmi, Yigal Amir and Ami Popper.
Daka's argument is simple: a review of the data indicates that the political motive and the political background for their acts are not the criteria for classifying so-called "security" prisoners as "political". The political nature of this classification stems from the total
collaboration of the system against the Arab prisoners, from the
structured discrimination against them at every stage, starting with the arrest and trial, and continuing through the conditions for their release. In fact, our entire conference centers on the thesis which Daka presents. I would like to briefly propose an extension of Walid Daka's idea here. But first, I will quote a few words from his article illustrating the importance of the question of classification:
…We must clarify the issues to be addressed. Is it in the power of one or another definition to worsen the conditions of incarceration, to ease the difficulty of those conditions or to free those prisoners we are intent on releasing? My answer is:
yes! We wish to replace the current legal definition with a political definition derived from not only a theoretical, evaluative stance but also a practical political position. The definition “security prisoner” established by the security system, lead by the Israel Prison Service (IPS or Shabas in Hebrew). The concept evolved from the rather vague term “administrative” needs incorporated in an IPS directive, and given a new legal status in selected instances. This status currently justifies the more severe conditions of incarceration imposed on “security prisoners” as compared with "criminal prisoners."
Daka's correct remarks illustrate the twofold importance of the question of classification: its pragmatic and political importance. Here, support for the argument of the importance of classification can actually be found in the ostensibly opposite remarks made by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni following her conversation with Abu Mazen in New York on 18 September 2006: "Semantics do not interest me. Terror must be denounced even if one calls it resistance." It takes no more than a second to realize that Livni is indeed very interested in semantics. The reason why Livni did not use the reverse wording: "Resistance must be denounced even if one calls it terror," is that this wording sounds completely absurd. And compare the strength of the following two tautologies: "Terror is terror, even if one calls it resistance," and "Resistance is resistance, even if one calls it terror."
Several hours of research at the British Library in London on the use of the term "political prisoner" yielded the following data: the dozens of books and hundreds of articles discussing political prisoners include in this category, among others, the rebels against the Generals' Regime in Greece, the dissidents in Russia, the opponents of Apartheid in South Africa and despotic regimes in Asia and South America, the prisoners of the Irish underground, and " closer to home " the prisoners of the Jewish underground in Palestine under Ottoman and Mandate rule, and the
Palestinian prisoners resisting the Israeli occupation, but not the Jewish prisoners who murdered Palestinians. That is, those who are called political prisoners are perceived as freedom fighters, those who resist foreign rule or a despotic regime.
The opposition to classifying them as such reflects a deep-rooted, usually institutional, denial of the justice of their struggle. However, as the Irish precedent illustrates, the acknowledgement that these are indeed political prisoners is a first and important step towards a solution. 2 Thus, what stands behind the term "security" is first of all the desire to erase the political element, and clearly, there is nothing more political than the desire to erase the political. However, we must not suffice with this, and must also examine how this erasure operates via the phrase "security prisoner." Amira Hass recently wrote about the systemic zigzag between dealing with these prisoners on an individual versus a collective basis. Regular criminal prisoners receive individual treatment; there is no group attribution that affects their conditions. If the so-called “security prisoners” were to receive such treatment, the structural discrimination Walid describes would not be so apparent. However, if these prisoners were classified, for example, as prisoners of war – many Palestinians indeed speak of them as such – their treatment would be entirely collective. They would not be brought to trial, but rather held as a uniform bloc, without any internal distinctions. Israel, though, chose a zigzag approach. Therefore, it is also significant that this was an indirect choice, made incidentally as the result of a
bureaucratic, administrative consideration on the part of the Israel Prison Service.
The security designation facilitates a convenient vacillation between the individual and the collective. These prisoners are grabbed, identified, arrested and judged as individuals. But as members of a group the
dangerousness of which has been proven through individual judicial proceedings, they are subject to a discriminatory approach at all levels and sweepingly denied of such basic rights as furloughs, and visits by friends and relatives who are not first degree relatives, telephone calls, conjugal visits, and commutation of prison sentences, including life sentences. The collective approach enables treatment of these prisoners as a unified group that poses a security risk, and hence the infringement of the fundamental rights that every criminal prisoner deserves as a single individual, as measured against his individual dangerousness.
Thus the term "security" combines two benefits: it enables political prisoners to be stripped of their basic rights as diverse individuals, and simultaneously enables the de-politicization of their acts and the blurring of their political aims. What is common to both of these benefits is the rejection of the prisoners' subjectivity, both as individuals who deserve personal treatment, and as rational and essentially free beings who aspire to realize their freedom. The term "security" erases the fact that they are subjects and turns them into objects: an object – like a collapsing wall, a roof on fire, a sling stone or a knife or fingernails – can pose a security risk from which we must protect our lives. A subject, on the other hand, is political, always political.
Denying the political nature of these prisoners and referring to them collectively as "security" prisoners strips them of their humanity on both of the levels noted earlier by rejecting their individuality and their political nature. It is important to note here, however, that the latter – their politicization – is not individual. Rejecting the Palestinian political prisoner's political essence is a rejection that goes beyond denying his particular act of resistance; it is necessarily a rejection of the entire
Palestinian political experience, a denial that Baruch Kimmerling astutely termed "politicide." The de-politicization, therefore, is not only of the prisoners themselves:
the entire Palestinian struggle is denied via the "security" label. The entire political existence is fossilized and turned into a type of dangerous object for the "only individual subject" in its proximity. Thus, their resistance is not resistance and their struggle is not a struggle, because these are words that characterize subjects.
Here we can return to the words of Walid Daka. He turns to
institutionalized discrimination to explain why, despite their apparent "nationalistic motivation" common denominator, Arab "security" prisoners are political prisoners, while Jewish "security" prisoners like Avrushmi, Amir, Skolnik and Popper are not. This is not a matter of simple bigotry, but rather a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate politics. It is enough for us to recall in this context the repeated political arrests of those who refuse to perform military service in the IDF on the basis of their opposition to the occupation compared with the soft and considerate institutional treatment received by those who refused to implement the “disengagement.” Our guest of honor today, Tali Fahima, provides the ultimate proof of the correctness of
Walid Daka's differentiation. The "security" label was attached to Tali and she was treated in a shocking way. This treatment, which is usually reserved only for Palestinians, includes bizarre false accusations, the judicial branch's absolute subjugation to the considerations of the Shin Bet (the GSS or the secret services), and abuse at the hand of Prison Service personnel. She was accorded this treatment because the struggle she joined was the denied struggle of Palestinian subjectivity, a
subjectivity that fights precisely to be recognized as such. As noted above, the first step towards such recognition can be, as in the case of Ireland, the removal of the label "security prisoner" and replacing it with the label "political prisoner."
* Senior Lecturer, Department of Philosophy, Tel Aviv University. This essay is based on a lecture given at a conference entitled: "Security Prisoners or Political Prisoners?" organized by the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, the Minerva Center for Human Rights, and Adalah,
which was held at the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law on 8 January 2007. 1 Walid Daka, “Security Prisoners or Political Prisoners,” Adalah’s Newsletter, Volume 24, April 2006. Available at:
2 Here I would like to note quickly and parenthetically the question that remains far from the quite liberal agenda of this conference – the question of the political nature of every prisoner in general and the question of the status of Palestinian criminal prisoners. But that is really a discussion for another time.
The following are excerpts from "The Democratic Constitution" proposed by Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
Adalah receives financial support from the New Israel Fund
The complete text can be found at:
www.adalah.org/ eng/democratic_ constitution- e.pdf
The Democratic Constitution
15. The laws of citizenship and immigration will be established on the basis
of the principle of anti-discrimination and will define the arrangements by which the State of Israel will grant citizenship to:
A. Anyone who was born within the territory of the State of Israel and whose
parent was also born within the territory of the State of Israel;
B. Anyone who was born to a parent who is a citizen of the state;
C. The spouse of a citizen of the state;
D. Those who arrive or remain in the state due to humanitarian reasons, including those who are persecuted on the basis of political background.
16. The citizenship of an Israeli citizen cannot be revoked.
Participation in decision-making in the Knesset
20. Model I
A. A parliamentary committee will be formed that will be called "the Parliamentary Committee for Bilingual and Multicultural Affairs." Half of the committee members will be members of parliament from parties that by definition and character are Arab parties or Arab-Jewish parties.
B. No laws will be enacted in the Knesset or statutes approved in parliamentary committees on issues related to the instructions of this Chapter without the prior consent of the Parliamentary Committee for Bilingual and Multicultural Affairs.
However, the Knesset plenum will be authorized to enact or approve such legislation, overruling the committee's decision, by a special majority of
no less than two-thirds of the members of the Knesset.
C. This article will come into effect during an interim period to be agreed upon in order to establish and implement the principles of this Chapter.
A. No bill will be approved by the plenum of the Knesset if 75% of the members of the Knesset who belong to parties which by their definition or character are Arab parties or Arab-Jewish parties vote against it under the
reasoning that the bill violates the fundamental rights of the Arab minority.
B. This article will come into effect during an interim period to be agreed upon in order to establish and implement the principles of this Chapter.
Restitution of private land
39. Every resident or citizen whose land has been expropriated or whose right to property has been violated arbitrarily or because of his or her Arab nationality under the following laws is entitled to have his or her property restored and to receive compensation for the period during which his or her right to property was denied: the Land Ordinance (Acquisition for
Public Purposes) of 1943, and/or the Land Acquisition (Validation of Acts and Compensation) Law of 1953 , and/or the Absentee Property Law of 1950, and/or article 22 of the Statute of Limitations of 1958, and/or Regulation
125 of the Emergency (Defense) Regulations of 1945.
Internally-displace d persons
40. All of the Arab citizens of the State of Israel who were uprooted from
their villages or from their place of residence during and after 1948 and were not permitted to return are entitled to return to their villages and original places of residence; a mechanism will be formulated in law to provide appropriate compensation for personal damages suffered by these individuals and their families since being uprooted, as well as assistance
for building villages and/or homes of an appropriate quality.
The Muslim Waqf
41. Muslim Arab citizens are entitled to the reinstatement of all assets of the Muslim Waqf, including its revenues, which were held by the Supreme Muslim Council and transferred as absentee property to the Custodian for Absentee Property pursuant to the Absentee Property Law of 1950.
42. The Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel are entitled to recognition of title
to land which is or was possessed by them based on their traditional patterns of ownership; none of these entitled persons shall be transferred
from their land except with their full and conscious consent.
Alternatives to restitution
43. In cases where there is an objective and genuine obstacle to
the right of restitution of land as defined in articles 39-42, an alternative and fair solution will be formulated with the consent of the rights holders; if no agreed solution is attained, the decision will be transferred to a special authority whose powers, working methods and composition will be established in law and subject to article 20.