Writing Palestinian Politics in Israel's Prisons Before Oslo

by Rebecca Granato
published in MER275

Since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, around three quarters of a million Palestinians have been arrested, sometimes for actions taken against Israeli soldiers or civilians, but at other times for association with others or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the early days of the occupation, thousands of Palestinians were rounded up, many serving sentences of ten years or more.

Many of these thousands were already aligned with a political movement before entering prison, and all but a handful without any such ties ended up joining a faction within weeks of arrival. More than half identified with the Fatah movement, which at the time controlled the Palestine Liberation Organization and now dominates the Palestinian Authority formed in 1994 after the Oslo agreements with Israel. The emphasis on political affiliation made the Israeli prison of the 1970s a notable site of Palestinian institution building, a place to work together within the factions to develop the capability to govern outside the prison walls.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, and through the early 1980s, prisoners put pen to paper and carefully inscribed their activities into notebooks provided to them by the Israeli prison authorities. The notes include entire books studied by prisoners at self-organized educational sessions and hand-copied verbatim, as well as responses to political events and documentation of each faction’s structures, rules and regulations. The circulation of these writings had profound implications, transforming thousands of men into politicized beings, a kind of citizenry. Through the documents the prisoners learned the craft of politics and helped to fashion factions inside the jails into well-oiled machines. These places intended as sites of punishment thus allowed Palestinian movements to become more efficient. More significantly, the introduction of accessible study and discussion materials meant that incarcerated persons could develop political careers—and via an educational system rather than just personal connections. Inside Israeli prisons arose the basis for a post-Oslo state-in-waiting.

From Individuals to Institutions

Two Fatah-affiliated ex-prisoners who helped to build the political structures described in the surviving documents are Radi Jara‘i and Ibrahim Khrishi. Jara‘i was arrested in 1976, having joined Fatah just two years earlier and received arms training in Beirut. A high-school teacher from Jerusalem, he and two of his students were captured in Netanya with an explosive device he says they intended to use against civilians. Thereafter Jara‘i spent 15 years in prison, during which time he took a leading role in transcribing the internal political conversations into notebooks. Khrishi presents a different, but equally interesting, picture. Prior to his first arrest in 1982, Khrishi insists he was not formally involved in Fatah or any political group. He was enrolled at Birzeit University, and focused on his studies, when the soldiers came in search of him at his family home. But upon his release from jail he returned to Birzeit as a leader of Shabiba, the student arm of Fatah. Today, 30 years later, Khrishi remains an active member of the faction, holding the position of secretary-general in the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Interviews with Jara‘i, Khrishi and other ex-prisoners reveal a major shift over time in how Palestinians organized themselves in Israeli jails. During the first years of the occupation, when the political prisons started to fill up, leaders were informally appointed—without any rules or regulations—to organize the lives of the prisoners and maintain a certain calm. The early leaders, such as Abu ‘Ali Shahin, who had been an officer in the PLO army, were always well connected. Social life inside the prisons closely resembled the outside, replete with neighborhood or family disputes and alliances. One gained the trust of others through social networks rather than accomplishments.

But this “individual leader” system, as many ex-prisoners call it, was not practicable for overseeing a rapidly expanding prison population under great stress. Conditions, many interviewees say, were “atrocious,” with severe overcrowding. One recalled that prisoners had to sleep like sardines in a can, with one man’s feet next to his neighbor’s head and brushing up against the head of the person on his other side. In such uncomfortably close quarters, it is not surprising that physical violence sometimes erupted. These tensions, too, frequently corresponded to factional divides. An oft-recounted clash broke out in the early 1970s between members of Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), leading a member of the latter to slash at a Fatah man’s face with a razor. Abu ‘Ali Shahin, the informal “boss” of Fatah in the prison, not only demanded an apology from the PFLP, but also organized an attack against the assumed leaders of that faction. According to Jara‘i, this confrontation led the informal leadership to realize that their differences would be better resolved by talking. The Palestinians understood that the jail administrators could exploit inter-factional divisions to the disadvantage of all the prisoners. They agreed that some written rules were needed.

The result of these conversations was a gradual move away from the “individual leader” period toward a more institutionalized and—notably—documented approach to political organizing in prison. The prisons at Beersheva and Ashkelon, both with relatively stable populations of hundreds of Fatah inmates serving substantial sentences of more than five years, were the places where most of the foundational political documents were written. With very little to do in the way of work for the prison administration, the prisoners themselves largely set the rhythm of daily life. The initial organizational efforts were not driven by a clearly centralized leadership; rather, they happened organically, coming out of the regular meetings between individual leaders.

Starting around 1973 or 1974, the conversations focused on how to develop a clear administrative structure in the interest of improving inmate safety. At first, before hunger strikes won inmates access to writing implements, they wrote with smuggled pens on cardboard from packets of cigarettes or margarine. The extant documentation of the agreed-upon rules and regulations consists of tidy penmanship on the pages of small notebooks intended for examining Israeli schoolchildren. It cannot have been lost on the prisoners that they were drawing up their guidelines in booklets adorned with Hebrew letters, which somehow marked them as permissible by the Israelis.

The creation of written records was not premeditated, but its value was quickly embraced as a way to inspire participation, unity and support for the Fatah movement. Indeed, recording in writing how a system should work and how participants therein should behave is a process newly emerging or changing states undergo. Texts outlining rules and regulations serve as a kind of contract between leaders and participants, as well as a standard by which to judge success and failure. So, too, documentation gave the prisoners a basis from which to work, a starting point from which they could pursue political development. Most significantly, however, documentation enabled the establishment of a prisoner’s movement. Inscribing beliefs, practices and codes in ink ensured that the system would survive beyond a particular leader’s release.

Jara‘i and others say that the written records of organizational principles were first “published” in the late 1970s. One must look to oral sources for confirmation since the notebooks are hardly ever dated or credited to an author. The lack of dates suggests timelessness—that the documents are intended to transcend the historical moment and to govern prison organization until amended. The obvious reason for the anonymity was to escape detection by Israel, since many jailhouse leaders remained connected to Fatah after their release, some for decades. Khrishi, for example, became head of Shabiba within a month of his release in 1991 and would not have wanted such writings traced back to him. During the 1970s and 1980s, not unlike today, it was difficult to avoid rearrest. Almost every person I interviewed went to prison at least twice. Unassigned authorship can be read another way as well: The documents were the instructional record for leadership and political engagement, and a clear reflection of the democratic, participatory intentions of the prisoners. This newly designed structure was a far cry from the top-down, static leadership of Fatah in the diaspora. Because every single Fatah member within a given prison had a voice when it came to deciding on representatives and approving the governing rules of the space, the anonymity of the documents reflects a community spirit and collective responsibility for the circulated written material.

Equal participation, however, did not mean there was a complete lack of centralization. On the contrary, the most important thing accomplished during this period was the codification of a strong, elected leadership. The prisoners’ starting point for designing an internal political system was to look to Fatah in the diaspora, which had created something of a state-in-waiting, as a model. The hierarchy inside at first glance resembles that of the outside, including a Central Committee and a Revolutionary Council. But additions were made to accommodate the realities of incarceration, including an education committee to oversee the book lists and promotion of prisoners from one “grade” to the next, and a security committee to monitor the Israeli authorities, as well as to watch out for and punish spies or informers. This structure assigned specific tasks to each position. Thus, centralization did not mean concentration of power in a few hands.

From 1977 onward, the process by which the committee-based leadership was chosen was also agreed upon and enshrined in the prisoners’ notebooks. Even in the largest prisons, with hundreds of Fatah members, completely democratic elections became the norm. Everyone was a candidate. If Fatah had 250 prisoners at a given location, all 250 names would appear on the election roster. One copy of each roster would be sent to each room and the prisoners would vote secretly, with the election committee counting the votes at the end.

Common Political Language

The repeated written emphasis on cooperation and democratic decision-making practices extended outward to other factions as well. The prisoners’ texts concerning other factions emphasized unity rather than competition as a guiding principle. One notebook full of writing, which, according to interview subjects, was circulated from one prison to another, set out to answer the question, “What is Fatah and what are its features?” In so doing, it served as a kind of set of bylaws for interactions with other groups. From the very first sentence, the language of inter-factional cohesion is employed. The phrase “national unity” is repeated throughout, and is said to be “the common denominator” of all public interests and of Palestinian nationalism itself. 

To that end, prisoners established general detainee institutions, committees that cut across party lines. One example is the “struggler committee,” responsible for a kind of public relations and issues such as hunger strikes that required inter-prison communication and mass participation. Another is the “reception committee,” which welcomed each prisoner to his new home, oriented him to the prison and invited him to choose a political faction with which to align.

The documents suggest at least a desire to cooperate on issues related to the general prison experience, rather than focusing on ideological differences between factions. This inclination toward unity is confirmed in the rhetoric of ex-prisoners. Both Jara‘i and Khrishi emphasized the cooperative spirit that developed alongside the political structures. In describing interactions with, say, PFLP members, they spoke in glowing terms about the warmth that developed across factional lines, often noting that prison was the only place they experienced such frictionless politics. Likewise, both men stressed that factions strove not to undermine one other by poaching members or hatching other devious schemes.

The notebooks were widely shared among prisoners in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, allowing for a common political language to evolve. By the end of the 1970s, even the smaller facilities housing only 50-100 prisoners mimicked the leadership structure and spirit established in places like Ashkelon and Beersheva. Information was trafficked via kabsula, a tiny piece of paper wrapped in plastic, swallowed and later passed around in a new location. The most common site of exchange was the Ramla hospital, where prisoners from all over were transferred for treatment. The relocation of prisoners further supported consistency in Fatah politics. In times of turbulence, such as large hunger strikes, the Israelis would move the suspected ringleaders elsewhere, sometime hundreds of miles away. The idea was to weaken the faction, but the effect was usually that the relocated leader was elected to another top position in his next prison residence.

Prior to the late 1970s, the prison experience was contained only in oral stories. The transition to written records and the resulting replication of structures and systems across prisons created a common sense of belonging to something larger; the circulation of written and reproducible rules, regulations and ideology bound together seemingly disparate and discrete spaces. Out of this circulation and widespread adoption came the birth of a formal political organization inside the prisons. It was at this point that one could truly talk about “the prison experience” and “the prisoners’ movement.”

Moving Up

The biggest impact of the documentation in the prisons is that it led to more diversity in political participation inside, and eventually outside. Khrishi is an excellent illustration of someone who had next to no political interest, and certainly no experience prior to prison, but who now plays a significant role in the Palestinian Authority. Transitions like Khrishi’s were made possible by written materials, which served as tools for obtaining a political education. Upon his arrival at Junayd jail in Nablus, he was welcomed by the “reception committee” and joined Fatah. This decision came not out of any particular urge to be part of a faction, but was the norm. As Khrishi pointed out, “Less than one in 100”—usually only the very religious—“remained unaffiliated.” Having joined Fatah, he was immediately included in its educational programming, much of which dealt with the question of Palestine.

Khrishi was not an individual who could have risen to the top in the late 1960s or early 1970s. In prison, as he tells it, he fell in love with the written word and vowed to read everything available to him, from social and cultural works to novels and poems. It was through text that Khrishi was drawn into the history, politics and, most importantly, policies of Fatah. Then, it was via the study of Fatah’s new documentation that he ascended the political chain of command, serving as head of the Central Committee by the time of his release. Through his encounter with the texts codifying Fatah, Khrishi was able to develop a political understanding and ignite the flames of a political career.

By the mid-1980s, these documents were well established as signposts for the Fatah movement’s political structure inside the prisons. Today, looking back, many of the prisoners who experienced the production of the notebooks, as well as those who entered prison in the 1970s, remember that period as the “golden years,” a time when a spirit of democracy and cooperation prevailed in the written word and beyond.

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