'Only Our Mothers Supported Us': former Palestinian Prisoner
Illustration by Mohammed Saba'aneh for The Electronic Intifada.
Electronic Intifada: Rula Abu Duhou, a 46-year-old lecturer at the Institute of Women’s Studies at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank, describes the nine years she spent in Israeli prison as the “the most important years” of her life.
Then a member of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Abu Duhou was initially imprisoned and sentenced to 25 years by a military court for allegedly being a member of an armed cell and an illegal organization.
She recounts a long history of Palestinian women imprisoned by Israel who launch struggles against Israeli prison authorities. Abu Duhou, who was locked up in 1988, refers to herself and her fellow prisoners at the time as “the generation of the first intifada,” the popular uprising that spanned from 1987 till 1994.
“I was only 19 years old,” she told The Electronic Intifada. “I was in my third year in university.”
At the time, dozens of women were in Israeli lockup.
Abu Duhou said that female Palestinian political prisoners have a long history of struggles. “Our first struggle was to be separated from Israeli common law prisoners,” she said. “We always launched struggles to be separated [from them] and recognized as political prisoners.”
“We refused to go out of our cells, to eat with common law prisoners [and] to deal with the prison authorities,” Abu Duhou said. “We were treated differently [from other male political prisoners] because we didn’t have prison representatives or a committee to deal with the prison authorities.”
In 1988, after three months of refusing to do mandatory prison activities and cooperate with prison officers, Abu Duhou’s group of prisoners was transferred to Hasharon, where all Palestinian female prisoners are held till today. “We were like any other Palestinian political prisoner after that,” she said. “That was our first major achievement.”
In 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization concluded the Oslo accords, which created the Palestinian Authority and stipulated that prisoners should be released. Yet, Abu Duhou said that “the prisoners released were mostly from Fatah [and] didn’t include those who were sick, the ones with long sentences or females.”
“During holidays, they used to release prisoners as a ‘goodwill gesture,’” she said.
“But even then, the female prisoners were not released.”
In response to their continued detention, the women in Israeli jails launched a “collective struggle,” according to Abu Duhou. “Our mothers formed a committee on our behalf to serve as our eyes and ears outside the prison and advocate for our freedom,” she added.
The committee began to lobby Palestinian leaders, including Yasser Arafat. “Our mothers used to go protest in front of Arafat’s headquarters and send letters to international groups” such as Amnesty International, Abu Duhou said. “We were outraged because the leaders came back from exile and many of the soldiers were left in prison,” she added.
When leaders of the newly-formed Palestinian Authority came to visit, the female prisoners refused to meet them. “And then we escalated our struggle — more hunger strikes, more sit-ins in the prison, more leafleting and more harsh statements and letters,” Abu Duhou said.
In 1996, as the Palestinian leadership geared up for the first legislative elections, the women learned that many of the female prisoners would be freed by Israel. “We found out that five of us were going to stay behind bars, and I was one of them,” she said.
“Release us all”
“We took a vote and decided that we would all be released or none of us would leave,” she said, explaining that there were around forty female prisoners at the time. “It was a very difficult decision because everyone had lives outside of prison. Some of us had families, some were mothers, and we all needed to go home,” Abu Duhou recalled.
One day, when Israeli prison authorities attempted to forcibly release many of the women, the prisoners locked themselves in two cells and blocked Israeli guards from entering. “They turned on the alarm system and it was very loud,” she said.
“They also brought tear gas. We told them they would kill the prisoners who were pregnant,” said Abu Duhou, explaining that the guards backed down.
A few days later, 16 months after they first learned that five women were supposed to remain in prison, they were told that they were being released. “They put us in a bus to drop us off at the Muqataa [Palestinian Authority headquarters] in Ramallah,” she said. “We were dropped off at two o’clock in the morning.”
“It was the first time in history that there were no Palestinian women in prison,” she said. “It was our collective freedom and the result of our collective struggle.”
Abu Duhou, who was about to turn 28 when she was released, reflects on her time in prison as the most formative years of her life. “These nine years made me who I am now,” she said. “I am very proud of our struggle. This experience made me stronger.”
“In general, the experience of Palestinian political prisoners is very unique when compared to others throughout history,” she said. “And for women, we never had support from anyone other than our mothers — not the political leaders, not the [Palestinian] Authority.”
The Ramallah-based prisoner advocacy group Addameer estimates that at least 5,820 Palestinians are currently held by Israel. At least 22 Palestinian women are among them.
Khalida Jarrar, a PFLP lawmaker in the Palestinian Legislative Council, was arrested in April. She has been hit with a dozen charges related to her prisoner advocacy work and political speech. Arrested by Israeli occupation forces in December, Malak al-Khatib, a 14-year-old girl, was accused of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and carrying a knife.
She was sentenced by an Israeli military court to two months in prisons and her parents were fined 6,000 Israeli shekels ($1,543). Al-Khatib was released in February.
Earlier this month, Israeli prison authorities put five female prisoners held in Hasharon in solitary confinement, the Ma’an News Agency reported at the time. “The five prisoners had recently been banned from receiving visits for a period of one month after they raised a Palestinian flag in the prison yard,” the report stated.
On 8 March, International Women’s Day, Addameer condemned Israel’s practice of transferring Palestinian women from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip into prisons inside present-day Israel, in violation of international law.
In addition to harsh conditions, torture and psychological abuse, Addameer decries the women’s “ill treatment at the hands of Israeli forces, including gender-based violence, physical and verbal assault, and degrading strip searches used as a punitive measure.”
Though hunger strikes and prisoner solidarity campaigns have gained increased attention in recent years, Israel still targets for arrest influential political leaders, community figures, academics and activists.
According to Abu Duhou, the Palestinian Authority is a barrier to justice for political prisoners. Referring to the small allowances that the PA gives to prisoners, she said: “The Palestinian Authority just pays for the prisoners, allowing Israel to jail Palestinians for free. Other than that, they are doing nothing.”
(Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist)