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How should one regard prisoners? Depends…

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Since last week, Palestinian prisoners in Israel are on a hunger strike. Why, and what are their demands you may read at length in the Israeli media.
Uri Avnery has his own take.
Give it a thought. It’s an universal issue.

A Very One-Sided War — Uri Avnery

“For all I care, they can starve to death!” announced Tzahi Hanegbi,
after Palestinian prisoners declared an open-ended hunger strike against
prison conditions. Thus the Minister for Internal Security added another
memorable phrase to the lexicon of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hanegbi became famous (or infamous) for the first time when, as a
student activist, he was caught on camera with his friends hunting Arab
students with bicycle chains. At the time I published a photo of him that
would not have shamed German or Polish students in the 1930s. With a
small difference: in the 30s the Jews were the pursued, now they were the
In the meantime, Hanegbi has changed like many young radicals – he
has turned into an unrestrained careerist. He has become a minister,
wearing elegant suits even on hot summer days and walking with the
typical, self-important gait of a cabinet minister. Now he even supports
Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan, much to the distress of his mother,
Geula Cohen, an extreme-right militant who has not changed her spots.
But beneath the minister’s suit and the statesman’s robe, Tzahi has
remained Tzahi, as evidenced by the total inhumanity of his statement
about the prisoners for whose well-being he is officially responsible.
His influence is not limited to words: the current prison crisis was
caused by his appointment of a new Director of Prisons, who immediately
proceeded to create intolerable conditions for the Palestinian prisoners.
Let’s not dwell too much on the personality of the honorable
minister. It is much more important to turn our thoughts to the strike
Its basic cause is a particularly Israeli invention: the one-sided
The IDF generals declare again and again that we are at war. The
state of war permits them to commit acts like “targeted eliminations”,
which, in any other situation, would be called murder. But in a war, one
kills the enemy without court proceedings. And in general, the killing
and wounding of people, demolition of homes, uprooting of plantations and
all the other acts of the occupiers that have become daily occurrences
are being justified by the state of war.
But this is a very special war, because it confers rights only on
the fighters of one side. On the other side, there is no war, no
fighters, and no rights of fighters, but only criminals, terrorists,
Once there was a clear distinction: one was a soldier if one wore a
uniform; if one did not wear a uniform, one was a criminal. Soldiers of
an invading army were allowed to execute local inhabitants who fired at
them on the spot. But in the middle of the 20th century, things changed.
A worldwide consensus accepted that the members of the French resistance
and the Russian and Yugoslav partisans and their like were fighters and
therefore entitled to the international protection accorded to legitimate
fighters. International conventions and the rules of war were amended
So what is the difference between soldiers and terrorists? Well,
the occupiers say, there is a tremendous difference: Soldiers fight
soldiers, terrorists hurt innocent civilians.
Really? The pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and
killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians – was he a soldier or just
a criminal, a terrorist? And what were the pilots who destroyed whole
cities, like Hamburg and Dresden, when there was no valid military
necessity anymore? The declared aim was to break the will of the German
civilian population and compel them to capitulate. Were the commanders of
the British and American air forces terrorists (as the Nazis indeed
called them, inventing the term “Terrorflieger”)?
What is the difference between an American pilot who drops a bomb on
a Baghdad market and the Iraqi terrorist, who lays a bomb in the same
market? The fact that the pilot has a uniform? Or that he drops his bomb
from a distance and does not see the children he is killing?
I am not saying this, of course, to justify the killing of
civilians. Indeed, I strongly condemn it, whoever the perpetrators may be
– soldiers, guerrillas, pilots above or terrorists below. One law for all.
Soldiers who are captured become prisoners-of-war, entitled to many
rights guaranteed by international conventions. A particular
international organization – the Red Cross – oversees this. P0Ws are not
held for punishment or revenge, but solely in order to prevent them from
returning to the battlefield. They are released when peace comes.
Underground fighters captured by their enemies are often tried as
criminals. Not only are they not entitled to the rights of POWs, but in
Israel their prison conditions are even worse than the inhuman conditions
inflicted on Israeli criminals. The American have learned from us, and
President George W. Bush has been sending Afghan fighters to an infamous
prison set up for them in Guantanamo, where they are deprived of all
human rights, both the rights of POWs and the rights of ordinary criminal
Years ago, when the Hebrew underground organizations were fighting
the British regime in Palestine, we demanded that our prisoners be
accorded the rights of POWs. The British did not accept this, but in
practice prisoners were generally treated as if they were POWs. The
captured underground fighters could enrol for correspondence courses, and
in fact, many of them completed their studies in law and other
professions in British prison camps.
One of the prisoners at that time was Geula Cohen, Tzahi Hanegbi’s
mother. It would be interesting to know how she and her Stern Group
comrades would have reacted if a British police commander had declared
that he didn’t give a damn if she died in prison. Probably they would
have tried to assassinate him. Fortunately, the British behaved
otherwise. They even brought her to a hospital for treatment (where she
promptly escaped with the help of Arab villagers.)
Towards the Irish underground fighters, the British took a different
line. When they declared a hunger strike, Margaret Thatcher let them
starve to death. This episode, on top of her attitude towards workers and
the needy, contributed to her image as an inhuman person.
A humane treatment of political prisoners is preferable even for
purely pragmatic reasons. Ex-prisoners are now filling the upper ranks of
the Palestinian Authority. Men who have spent 10, 15 and even 20 years in
Israeli jails have become political leaders, ministers and mayors. They
speak fluent Hebrew and know Israel well. Almost all of them now belong
to the moderate Palestinian camp, advocating co-existence between Israel
and a Palestinian state. They also head the forces seeking democracy and
reforms in the Palestinian Authority. The fair treatment they got at the
time by the prison personnel must have contributed to this.
But for me, the main thing is that the State of Israel should not
look like Tzahi Hanegbi and his ilk. It is important for me that human
beings – Palestinians as much as Israelis – should not starve to death in
Israeli prisons. It is important for me that prisoners – whether Israelis
or Palestinians – should be accorded humane conditions.
If Tzahi Hanegbi were in prison, I would be demanding the same even
for him.

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About Corinna Hasofferett

  • Please…. sure I agree give them humane treatment…. but. How do you explain this. While hundreds of Palestinian prisoners are allegedly on a hunger strike. What is their “esteemed leader” doing?

    While hundreds of Palestinian prisoners were on a hunger strike, their ostensible leader, Marwan Barghouti, had himself a meal behind a curtain. The guards caught it on tape:

    Prison Services spokesman Ofer Lefler said Barghouti asked wardens for the food and ate without knowing that a camera was filming from a small hole in the wall. Israel wanted to show fasting prisoners how their leader was behaving, Lefler said.

    “I want to show the world and the Palestinians that we are dealing with terrorists,” Lefler said. “Barghouti is sitting on a pot of meat and he sends his friends to die.”

    Yea… let them starve… While he becomes an even bigger slob of a terrorist gorgeing himself like the pig his is.

    There is no better example of what is wrong with Palestine than this.

  • Dear Marc,
    Are we sure the photo was taken during the strike and not previously?

    Is the strike the issue here?

  • AH

    “The Arab terrorist prisoners’ hunger strike entered its second week today, and they have not yet reduced their astonishing list of demands. Public Security Minister Tzachi HaNegbi, who said at the beginning of the strike that as far as he’s concerned, “they can starve until they die,” said that he had not changed his stance. The Israel Prison Service and police sources explained that the imprisoned terrorists have arranged many terror attacks in the past, thus necessitating the many restrictions on the prisoners and their visitors.

    The terrorists, most of whom are imprisoned in Israel for murder and other terror crimes, disseminated their list of demands on the ADDAMEER Prisoners Support and Human Rights Association website. The list includes no fewer than 144 demands, divided into 15 sections. Excerpts:

    * To remove the glass/plastic barrier between prisoners and visitors
    * To allow all family members and relatives to visit
    * To bring in families to visit as soon as they arrive to the prison. No delays either at the prison or at checkpoints.
    * To allow prisoners to be in plain clothes during the visit and not restricted to uniforms of certain colors or design
    * To install pay phones or allow mobile phones in every cell or for every prisoner
    * To end all practices and policies accompanying counting the prisoners
    * To allow all those prisoners in isolation back to regular sections
    * To end all collective punishments
    * To allow prisoners to study at Palestinian, Arab, and International Universities
    * To allow all cells to have access to a computer and not only students
    * To restore recreation time to four hours a day
    * To allow university students to choose recreation time suitable for them
    * To allow having events, debates, celebrations in the recreation areas and yards as in the past
    * To install air conditioning in the cells and section
    * To provide an electric toaster, refrigerator and fruit knife for each cell
    * A small photocopier and cameras for group photos in each section
    * To end the practice of body search by hand and to restrict it to electronic scanning
    * To stop searching children 14 years old and under during visits
    * Not to handcuff prisoners during the search
    * To limit the overall general search to once every 6 months
    * To raise payment for workers
    * To allow prisoners in the upper beds not to step down at the morning count and to limit to them just raising themselves up in their beds
    * To change seats in the buses to more comfortable ones
    * To allow prisoners representatives to meet newly transferred prisoners at the bus as they arrive
    * To remove the darkened windows of the buses
    * To increase the number of allowed TV channels
    * To remove one bed in each cell
    * To end the use of the special classification of certain prisoners “prisoners sentenced for serious offences” and end all unjustified punishments against them and to allow them to be able to work at various facilities in the prisons.”

    Uh huh. Maybe we should call Amnesty.