Palestinian museum showcases prisoner misery

Abu Jihad Museum highlights woes of inmates - past and present - as Palestinians mark Prisoners' Day.

    Palestinian museum showcases prisoner misery
    The mother of Samer Issawi, a Palestinian prisoner who has been on a hunger strike for more than 230 days [AFP]

    Abu Dis, West Bank - Several mammoth slabs of concrete and a metal gate - a miniature replica of the Israeli separation wall - greet visitors to the Abu Jihad Museum for Prisoners Affairs.

    Step inside and you're immediately met with metal bars and pictures of Palestinian detainees in tents waving across coils of barbed wire, and a map outlining all Israeli prisons and detention and interrogation centres where Palestinians are held and questioned.

    The museum, based in the West Bank city of Abu Dis, just 6kms from Jerusalem, tells the story of Palestinian prisoners from the British Mandate era to modern day Israel. Today, there are some 4,700 Palestinians - including 169 held without charge under the "administrative detention" clause, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

    "Jesus was the first Palestinian prisoner," says Fahd Abu El-Haj, the museum's director, as he starts his tour outside in the museum's garden, pointing to steps made of stone taken from the Old City of Jerusalem, which he says resembles the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus took on the way to his crucifixion.

    "Prisons are a microcosm of Palestinian society ... We want to ensure this heritage is documented and preserved."

    - Fahd Abu El-Haj, museum curator

    Once inside, Abu El-Haj introduces some of the site's exhibits: pictures of blindfolded, shirtless men being taken away by armed soldiers, plaques with information about child detainees, and posters by different factions marking Palestinian Prisoners Day, commemorated widely on April 17 each year.

    The museum is named after Ahmad Al Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad, a Fatah leader who was assassinated in Tunis by Israeli commandos in 1988. The centre is Abu El-Haj's brainchild; he opened the site housed at Al Quds University after spending 10 years in Israeli prisons, starting when he was just 17.

    "I wanted to salvage the wealth of information and literature made by prisoners," said Abu El-Haj, whose museum is also working on the largest archive for letters, notes and books written and read inside Israeli prisons.

    'Heinousness of prison'

    On the bottom floor of the three-story museum is a corner with six concrete beams built on plastic green grass encased in a base made out of red tiles. "The pillars represent the heinousness of prison, the ground is green because our land is fertile, and the red base resembles the blood of Palestinians," Abu El-Haj explains.

    There are billboards telling tales of prisoners who escaped from Israeli prisons. An entire wall is dedicated to pictures and names of those who perished inside Israeli jails starting in 1967.

    The museum, however, makes no mention of the charges made against Palestinian detainees. It also omits the stories of members held in the prisons of rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas.

    In one corner is a glass casing with a noose inside, a grim reminder of the Palestinians executed under British rule. A letter dating back to that era tells the somber story of a man who writes to his family after British soldiers inform him he would be hung the next day.

    Protesters hold portraits of Samer Issawi and Ayman Sharwanah [EPA]

    Upstairs, in addition to an array of handicrafts made by prisoners, a large exhibition of letters is on display. The second floor, which overlooks the Israeli separation wall, is dedicated to notes sent by prisoners to their families and loved ones. One of the letters was written on behalf of Abu El-Haj when he couldn't read or write. An adjacent one was the first he ever wrote to his family after learning to write.

    Abu El-Haj, who was imprisoned for commanding a Fatah group, was illiterate when he was sentenced to 15 years. He left behind a family that he helped with agriculture and sheep-herding in Kobar, a village just outside of Ramallah. Throughout his time inside, he learned to read and write. Today, Abu El-Haj holds a PhD in political science.

    "Prisons are a microcosm of Palestinian society," he says. "We had doctors and farmers and each had his own level of education that was different. But everyone read, wrote and learned. We want to ensure this heritage is documented and preserved."

    A different view

    Israelis offer a different narrative to the prison life depicted by many Palestinians, including Abu El-Haj. In a rare move on Sunday, the Israel Prison Service opened Ofer prison in the West Bank to allow journalists a glimpse of life behind bars for Palestinians. Journalists were shown small but clean cells, a room with a flat-screen TV, and a yard with a ping-pong table.

    Ofer Prison Warden Yakov Shalom said prisoners are treated fairly, allowed a family visit every two weeks, and given access to medical care.

    "Palestinian prisoners' access to medical care is better than what I can get as a citizen," Shalom told the media. "There are some complaints about long waits for certain operations in hospitals. But in truth, hospitals aren't really happy to get our detainees so they often bump them up on the lists [even before Israeli citizens]."

    Back at the museum, the collection of letters, documents, artifacts and diaries make up the bulk of the 450-square-metre site. Abu El-Haj recalls how prisoners back in the 1970s and '80s had to write tiny letters on tracing paper and roll them into small capsules that would be smuggled out by visitors. Samples of these capsules were also on display.

    Fahed Abu El-Haj,  museum curator [Dalia Hatuqa/Al Jazeera]

    More than 800,000 Palestinians have been detained or imprisoned since the 1948 war, according to Abdullah Zghari, executive director of the Palestinian Prisoners' Club. One-hundred and six of these have been in prison since before the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1994, he said.

    Zghari says some Palestinians, such as the recently released Khader Adnan and still-held Samer Issawi, have resorted to long hunger strikes to protest the Israeli use of "administrative detention".

    The museum held an event last week to raise awareness about Issawi, a resident of Jerusalem who has been on hunger strike since August 2012 - more than 230 days. To pay tribute to him and other striking prisoners, a cup of water and a bowl of salt are on display.


    Doctors say Issawi's heart could stop beating at any moment. He is suffering from breathing difficulties, kidney and abdomen pain, and dizziness, said his lawyer Fawaz al-Shalawdi.

    Issawi, 33, was first arrested in 2002 and sentenced to 26 years after being convicted on several counts of attempted murder, possession of weapons, and belonging to a terrorist group.

    Issawi was one of 1,027 prisoners freed in the October 2011 prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel, but soldiers rearrested him on July 7, accusing him of violating the terms of his release by leaving Jerusalem.

    Issawi said last month his death would be a victory for refusing to surrender to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

    "Despite my critical health situation, and all that I suffer from, I promise everyone that my health situation will not affect my decisions," Issawi said in a letter. "I will continue my open hunger strike, and will not retract my steps. My life is not more precious than the blood of Palestinian martyrs."

    "We agreed to send him to Europe for a few months to receive medical treatment and then come back again, but they refused."

    - Issa Qaraqe, prisoners minister

    Israel has offered to deport Issawi to another country, but he strongly rejected the proposal.

    Palestinian Minister for Prisoners Affairs Issa Qaraqe said on Friday that Israel had refused to release Issawi into Palestinian Authority custody.

    "We proposed that they release him to Ramallah for a while and they refused," Qaraqe said. "We agreed to send him to Europe for a few months to receive medical treatment and then come back again, but they refused."

    The Palestinian Authority issued a statement on Prisoners Day urging the international community to: "assume their legal, political and moral obligations in compelling Israel to respect and implement international law and covenants in relation to the rights of prisoners, including the need to immediately release prisoners on hunger strike, especially Samer Al-Issawi, who faces the imminent threat of death".

    Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @daliahatuqa

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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