Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

The photograph fetched from a back room in the narrow two-story house on the edge of Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp shows a precociously handsome adolescent, posing in a baseball cap and sports jacket against a faux backdrop of the Versailles palace gardens. A kaffiyya is tucked around his neck; his smile is mildly self-conscious. “He was 16 when they arrested him; his seventeenth birthday he spent in prison,” says Marwan’s older brother Maher as the picture is passed around. “He liked acting.”

In the summer of 2003, Marwan performed in a play staged by the camp’s youth center: a dramatization of arrest and interrogation enacted throughout the months leading up to Prisoner’s Day, marked each April 17 across the West Bank and Gaza in honor of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. For Marwan, as well two other cast members, Hamza and Ahmad, the play proved a rehearsal. “Marwan became a prisoner on March 18,” recounts his mother. “They took him at 4 a.m. We opened the door for them. The soldiers told the men to come out. They gave them permission to put on their clothes.” She looks down. “He played the role in the play and now he is playing it for real,” muses Maher. “There are many like Marwan.”

Over the course of two uprisings against Israeli occupation, imprisonment has become a rite of passage for successive generations of Palestinians. As of spring 2004, between 6,000 and 8,000 — the vast majority of them men — were interned in some 20 holding facilities across Israel and the Occupied Territories. The numbers mark a low tide in ongoing waves of arrests and releases that briefly swelled the ranks to around 12,000 after Israel’s spring 2002 invasion of the West Bank.

Currently, Aida camp boasts the highest incarceration rate in the West Bank. Some 60 residents have been arrested since the beginning of 2004 — two thirds of them under 18. A total of 350 Palestinian minors are currently held in Israeli jails. Theirs is a particularly abrupt plunge into manhood. In Marwan’s not atypical case, it began on the night of his arrest with an hour-long beating outside the camp.

Palestinian teens are seen by some as “soft targets” for Israeli authorities, easily yielding grist for their military intelligence mill. “They took a lot of children here and the children speak quickly,” says Bassem Sbeih of the Prisoner’s Club, one of several prisoner support organizations in the Occupied Territories. Preparing for prison is accordingly part of social pedagogy in Aida. In the plays staged by the youth center, children simulate arrest and interrogation, as well as interactions with collaborators planted in prison. Nidal, 14, imparts the main lesson: “To teach the kids who will go to prison not to confess.”

Marwan’s father sees a double intent behind Israel’s targeting of the camp children: “They want to break this generation.” Indeed, “most of the children were involved in the intifada when it was at its strongest,” notes a volunteer with Aida’s youth center. Many detainees are drawn from the stone throwers who dog Israel’s soldiers throughout the Occupied Territories. Though only a nuisance to the heavily armored troops, their protests discomfit the construction crews who are pushing Israel’s “separation barrier” into Bethlehem, where it will eventually envelop the nearby Rachel’s Tomb complex and so seal off the camp from the outside world. Like most others of his generation, Marwan is going to prison because he did not want to live in one.

It is said that, while in detention, Ahmed and Hamza were both interrogated and tortured, and ultimately “confessed” to collaborators. Marwan confessed after one week of interrogation. Like the others, Marwan was charged with “possession of a small bomb.” It is expected that he will be given a one-year sentence; the others, three to five years.

The walled world to which they will return offers itself only as an expanded prison. Like prison, occupation imposes choices between acquiescence, collaboration and limited and largely futile resistance — symbolic or otherwise. “You find a lot of resistance type of discourses, but on a daily basis there is a lot of accommodation. At a checkpoint, every day you let your time and space be controlled,” comments Palestinian anthropologist Ismail Nashif. Occupation, then, is a condition in which Palestinians negotiate ever more circumscribed roles in a theater not of their own choosing. “We are all in a prison of a kind,” concludes Sbeih. “I have not left Bethlehem for three years. What is the difference between the smaller prison and the bigger prison? Here, I can drive around in a car.”

How to cite this article:

Peter Lagerquist "Doing Time in the Theater of Occupation," Middle East Report 231 (Summer 2004).
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