Ms. Aisling Byrne, Project Coordinator of the Conflicts Forum in Beirut, was subjected on March 8 2011 to a wave of angry attacks by the PNA delegation to the “The Urgency of Addressing the Plight of Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israeli Prisons and Detention Facilities” meeting at the UN in Vienna. The unjustified attack on Ms. Byrne followed her substantive speech about the issue of the Palestinian political prisoners and the Israeli-Palestinian political process, which she delivered on the second day of the meeting.
Harsh words and accusations were leveled at Ms. Byrne while commenting on her speech, a violent and disrespectful tone was used by Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club in Ramallah, and Mr. Issa Qaraqe, Minister for prisoners Affairs at PNA, who accused her of “trying to subvert the meeting in favor of the Israeli occupation” and “changing the issue of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails”.
These hare-brained accusations, as well as their nervous tone while denying that the PA is owned by the US more than confirm the credibility of the information reported by Ms. Byrne, which shook the confidence of the Palestinian delegation to the meeting at the UN, where they had come to eagerly urge the international community to work for the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails ,while at the same time the PA and its institutions are running to re-arrest and torture of prisoners freed by Israel without having the legal rights and grounds.
I am still shocked in disgust at the mendacity of these people who come to Vienna dressed in suits which cost thousands of Euros, more than several years of income of an many Palestinian families, to shed crocodile tears over the israelis, only to forget that they themselves are engaged in the same or worse practices of torture, rape and murder, actually doing the dirty work of the occupation but only cheaper.
The text of the speech of Ms Aisling Byrne is below.
The issue of Palestinian political prisoners and the Israeli-Palestinian political process
I am going to outline a few points as to why, I believe, so many Palestinians are intentionally held absent from the political process – detained as political prisoners. It is because we have seen a militarisation of the ‘peace process’ since 2003, and the premise that delivery on ‘security’ will ultimately yield a state. Militarisation has displaced politics which necessarily demands security collaboration to clamp down on opposition to the ‘solution’ that is being constructed. Palestinians in the OPT who differ are de-humanised, labeled ‘terrorists’ and emptied of political significance – a process that continues even in detention: as one Palestinian political prisoner explained, “the prisoner is emptied of his human content and humanity”. This is because their resistance is a struggle against occupation — a struggle for justice, for dignity and rights. It is not some abstract struggle for the institutions of a ‘state’ or pseudo-state.
It is due to this securitisation of the political process we see the increasing numbers of
Palestinian political prisoners are being held in Palestinian jails. This is because although initially set up as a temporary authority for 5 years in the transition to statehood, the PA, as the Guardian has described, “has become an open-ended authoritarian quasi-state, operating as an outsourced security arm of the Israeli occupation it was meant to replace, funded and effectively controlled by the US, Britain and other western governments”.
The current political process is a process focused on creating a ‘state’ where ‘statehood’ no longer means an end to occupation: it now veils the opposite – a move towards ‘benign’ occupation. This end was implicit in the Oslo Agreement from the beginning: the displacement of politics by the primacy of Israel’s self-determination of its security needs. Inevitably such an implicit premise implies detention and imprisonment of political opponents – no less.
Disguised as state-building and good governance, what we are seeing in the West Bank is the assiduous construction of a police state. This is the level to which statehood has descended: it no longer signifies independence or any sense of a just solution to the conflict, but rather “alleviated occupation” that is essentially a management strategy of containment. The basis of this ‘state-building’ project is Israel’s self-definition of its own security needs, and by extension, Israel’s definition of the requirements for Palestinian security collaboration – a principle to which the US, the EU and Quartet more widely has acquiesced.
It was a pre-requisite of Oslo and subsequent agreements that the PA should work with the IDF … , “with the participation of US security officials” — to defeat and dismantle any opposition to the political project being implemented. The Oslo Agreement implicitly condones political imprisonment – and we have witnessed a number of cases of revolving door imprisonment where Palestinian political prisoners are released from an Israeli prison, only to be arrested by Palestinian security forces, and vice versa. The current police/security to- population ratio in Palestine – 1:80 – is one of the highest in the world, and with over 60% of the PA’s GNP coming from the US, the EU, the UN and the World Bank — is also financially unsustainable.
References are increasingly being made to this ‘police state’: The Financial Times recently quoted a European diplomat asking: “If we are building a police state — what are we actually doing?” and the General Commissioner of the Palestinian Commission for Human Rights, Dr. Mamdouh al-Aker, has warned since 2007 that the state being constructed in the West Bank increasingly resembles a police state.
Of course the creation of a police state inevitably means de-politicization and dedemocratization. Unsurprisingly then, the democracy, which was once a key component of the state-building project, has all but disappeared. With elected Hamas officials removed from office under the guise of faulty performance (or conveniently detained by Israel), and with accountable democratic bodies suspended, the PA effectively operates an ad-hoc and unaccountable legislative process: the rule of law is administered by decrees issued by a President whose own legitimacy is contested – Abbas’ official mandate ended in January 2009 – and the Prime Minister and cabinet are appointed by the President, effectively operating with no constitutional basis.
Across the board, donors — including the US, the EU and the UN — are financing and implementing the construction of the infrastructural matrix for this security project. This includes prisons: the EU is providing the bulk of funding for 52 prisons that are being constructed (“more prisons that schools”, a security analyst told me on a recent trip to the West Bank) and UNOPS (UN Office of Project Services) is one of a number of agencies that has constructed a number of prisons.
In addition, we have seen the construction of new security facilities in 8 Palestinian cities (each intelligence agency has its own detention center in each town), an academy and a host of training colleges, security force barracks and other facilities that are being constructed. Reports also indicate that the US and various European countries continue to provide covert funding for various branches of the Palestinian security and intelligence agencies. This security apparatus’ being created has little to no domestic transparency or accountability: final control effectively rests with Israel, the CIA, and other external intelligence services.
Cynically dressed up and sold as statehood, this new form of remotely-managed occupation is not some unfortunate error. Against the backdrop of failed diplomacy, Europe and the other Quartet partners essentially acquiesced to a US-led counter-insurgency doctrine that dates back to the early 1900s when the US crushed the Filipino resistance – techniques that have been adopted by the US in subsequent conflicts, and are now being implemented in Palestine. So-called ‘moderates’ – including the elite who are partners in the implementation of this state of neo-occupation – are supported, while ‘extremists’ – those opposed to this political project and who continue to resist occupation, are marginalized, targeted and labeled terrorists (this of course includes Palestinian political prisoners). In order to create the necessary quiescence, a counter-insurgency strategy necessarily entails undermining criticism, and internment essentially requires legal exceptionality.
The Palestine Papers revealed the extent to which the co-operation between the Palestinian security services and their Israeli and foreign security partners had reached: in September 2009, Saeb Erekat, told a US official: “We have had to kill Palestinians to establish one authority one gun and the rule of law”. The papers also revealed that the PA’s strategy to crush Hamas and other resistance leaders – and which explicitly proposed to intern them – was originally drawn up by Britain’s intelligence service, MI6, thereby illustrating the role that foreign intelligence agencies have played in creating and bolstering the PA administration in the West Bank. The Guardian notes that the MI6 strategy has since “been largely implemented by the US and British-advised PA security apparatus”.
Although Hamas has been the principal target for this security infrastructure – most of those labeled opposed to peace –including, of course, the vast majority of Palestinian political prisoners – are in fact opposed more to Israel’s self-referencing security-led paradigm and the state of neo-occupation that is being created, than being opposed to a peaceful solution per se.
Hamas have also been targeted and excluded from politics and Palestinian national institutions: in the wake of their election victory in 2006, as the now-famous article by David Rose in Vanity Fair illustrated, the US was complicit in, and co-ordinated, covert plans to overthrow the democratically-elected government. In a similar vein, the former UN Quartet Envoy, Alvaro de Soto, highlighted in his end-of mission report that the Quartet conditions for engaging Hamas had been intentionally set at a bar too high for Hamas to be credibly able to meet them – thereby ensuring their political exclusion: a position that “effectively transformed the Quartet from a negotiation-promoting foursome … into a body that was all but imposing sanctions on a freely elected government of a people under occupation as well as setting unattainable preconditions for dialogue”.
This is the level to which statehood – as facilitated and sponsored by the current ‘peace process’ and its overseers, has descended – it is effectively no more than occupation by another name. The deputy Editor in Chief of Yediot Aharonot, a leading Israeli newspaper, wrote in January 2011 that Lieberman’s recent plan for a Palestinian state without borders on half of the West Bank was more or less Netanyahu’s plan too: “Netanyahu argued that the current situation on the ground in Judea and Samaria is stable and safe, and constitutes, for all intents and purposes, a solution to the conflict. The Palestinians already have three quarters of a state … they have a flag, an international telephone pre-fix … All that will remain for the government to do, hinted Netanyahu, is only to agree to a change in name of the entity from ‘authority’ to ‘state’ and to toss it a few more bones, a few token signs of sovereignty, such as the right to mint it its own currency – and peace will reign for 70 years to come”.
A political prisoner once said: “The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight. That time has now come … We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom … I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did”. This was Nelson Mandela in his statement at his trial in 1964 when he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Palestinian political prisoners have chosen struggle and resistance to the occupation as an expression of being — a way of asserting their dignity, their self-respect and their rights. As one Palestinian political prisoner, age of 20th year of imprisonment explained:
“The truth is that I did not plan to be a freedom fighter, and I didn’t plan to be a member of a faction or a party, or even to be involved in politics. Not because these things aren’t right … but because for me these are great and complex things … I could have continued my life as a painter or a gas station attendant, as I was doing until my arrest. I could have married a relative at an early age … All this was possible. But I saw the horrors of the Lebanon War [of 1982] and the massacres in Sabra and Shatilla, and they shocked me … Insensitivity in the face of horrors, any horrors, is like a nightmare for me. It’s the measure of my will and of my refusal to surrender”.
Both the US and the EU bear significant responsibility for this betrayal of Palestinian aspirations. It just isn’t possible to both build a viable democratic and sovereign state, while at the same time funding and overseeing a security-led and security-dominated project that is based on Israel’s self-definition of its security needs and dependent on Israeli satisfaction. The construction of a police state is the polar opposite of what the struggle for Palestinian liberation, for rights and dignity, has been about and for what Palestinian political prisoners have struggled for during the past decades. I will end with this quote from a teenage Palestinian political prisoner:
“I am a person who refuses to live with indignity or to see his brother being killed, and just to stand aloof. I am someone who refuses the sacrilege of our holy places and their destruction … I refuse also the demolition of people’s homes. I refuse to stand aloof. We have both integrity and courage. These are ordinary qualities in an ordinary person. I do not consider it exceptional to have these qualities. Everyone should have these ordinary qualities”.