The dismal lives of students locked in Israeli prison

Throughout Palestine, prisons are a major site in which the struggle for education, among other basic human rights, is tirelessly waged. Roughly 20% of Palestinians have been incarcerated, constituting as….

Throughout Palestine, prisons are a major site in which the struggle for education, among other basic human rights, is tirelessly waged. Roughly 20% of Palestinians have been incarcerated, constituting as much as 40% of the male population. Many are students whose right to an education suffer enormously once imprisoned.

Palestinian political prisoners are charged with offences under Israeli military law and tried in military courts. Multiple abuses and violations of international law take place in the process of arrest and detention. Palestinians are frequently arrested at checkpoints, border crossings, off the street and from their homes in the middle of the night. It is common practice for them not to be informed of the reason for their arrest, nor told where they will be taken. This was the experience of Saba, a Journalism student at Bizeit University who was arrested on January 2004 and imprisoned for nine years for attending demonstrations during the Second Intifada. Israeli soldiers broke into his house at 3 o’clock in the morning, where he was handcuffed and blindfolded; he recounted how he was dragged outside and left in the rain whilst his house was ransacked. He was then taken to Al Mascobiyya interrogation centre in Jerusalem, not knowing at the time where he was going and why.

All except one of the prisons are based in present day Israel, where the location of their imprisonment is in direct contravention of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids the transfer of an occupied population. It is a move that also isolates prisoners from family and lawyers due to the need for permits to enter Israel, which are rarely ever granted.

Military tribunals rarely adhere to international standards of fair trials, and given the 99.7% conviction rate, the odds are invariably stacked against Palestinian detainees. The conditions of detention are deliberately degrading, with sexual violence, torture and other forms of dehumanising treatment being systematically practiced. Intended to debilitate the Palestinian population, particularly as they resist oppression, the corrupt and arbitrary nature of imprisonment negatively encompasses all spheres of life, including education.

The right to education is numerously outlined in international law, including Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which was ratified by Israel in 1991. Article 94 of the Fourth Geneva Convention encourages the “Detaining Power” to “take all practicable measure to ensure the exercise” of “intellectual, educational and recreational pursuits.” It also states that, “all possible facilities shall be granted to internees to continue their studies or to take up new subjects. The education of children and young people shall be ensured; they shall be allowed to attend schools either within the place of internment or outside.”

In practice, these basic obligations are rarely met by the occupying power. For example, in 1997, the Israeli District Court in Tel Aviv ruled that Palestinian child prisoners were entitled to the same education rights as Israeli child prisoners, including a structured programme based on the Palestinian curriculum. However, this decision was made conditional on the grounds of ‘security,’ a maneuver that effectively paid lip service to such rights.

Since 2000, Israel has arrested and imprisoned over 7,000 children, with 156 currently in jail. Often handed down sentences for stone throwing, child prisoners are defined as being below the age of sixteen by Israeli military law, whilst being classified as under eighteen through civilian law. Only two out of the five prisons holding Palestinian child detainees provide some form of education, through a very limited teaching of Arabic, Hebrew, English and Mathematics. Geography and subjects related to the sciences are banned from being taught due to “security concerns

Those over 16, regardless of their status as students prior to detention, are not provided any formal education through the prison authorities. Since 2006, textbooks necessary to prepare for the final year secondary examination, known as the Tawjihi, are allowed to be issued to prisoners one month before their exams. However, as a report by Addameer Prisoners’ Support states, so called security checks regularly delay the distribution of such books, and they are insufficient in number. Typically meted out as punishment, many young detainees have also been denied the opportunity to sit for these important exams.

Arrest and detention constantly threaten academic and political freedom on university campuses. Students and faculty members who are members of political parties are susceptible to arrest, including those responsible for the provision of welfare and academic support, as all student groups associated with political parties are prohibited under military law. As of January 2014, 21 out of 40 cases represented by Birzeit University’s lawyer are political prisoners charged for belonging to student societies or political parties. Students attending demonstrations, or engaged in any activity considered to be resisting the occupation, have also been the target of mass arrest campaigns. A Birzeit student who wished to be anonymous described how during his 8 day interrogation period, he was presented with a list of charges based around him being a student activist, which included raising a Palestinian flag on campus.

A recent and high profile case is the arrest of Lina Khattab, a first year Media and Journalism student at Birzeit University, on 13 December 2014. Despite a lack of evidence, she has been charged for attending an illegal demonstration near Ofer military base and throwing stones at a military vehicle.

In an interview with the Electronic Intifada, Sahar Francis, executive director of Addameer, stated that throughout the hearing process “they treated Lina as if she is so dangerous, such a serious security threat — this is what makes us believe that they are using her case in order to frighten students from being involved in activism.” Lina has been fined and sentenced to 6 months in prison. Her requests for bail so that she continue with university were rejected, and her sentence now further jeopardises her studies and general well-being.

Aside from the inevitable disruptions when children and young adults are forced out of their conventional learning environments, the beleaguering experience of prison itself has long lasting implications for Palestinians–not only limited to the psychological–which adversely impact their educational possibilities. During his interview, Saba explained how after being in prison for 9 years, between the ages of 21 to 30, he gained an intimate understanding of the oppressive workings of the occupation and saw completing his higher education, which was put on hold, as a crucial form of resistance. He enrolled in a Journalism course at Birzeit University 8 months after his release and is now currently in his second year. He emphasised how he feels privileged compared to many student prisoners, such as those under administrative detention (where they are held without charge or trial, potentially indefinitely), or those under house arrest or constantly re-arrested, who thus may never have such opportunities.

Several suggestions have been put forward by academics, NGOs and others concerned by the plight of student prisoners. Broadly speaking, these include the introduction of quality education and training programs for detainees, accessible to all of them, as well as reminding Israel, as the occupying power, of its legal obligations in its treatment of political prisoners.

However, attempts to obstruct the educational aspirations of Palestinians as they enter and leave prison cannot be severed from its wider political context, a potential risk if one solely fixates on international law. In their Jacobin article “Against the Law,” Mezna Qato and Kareem Rabie warn against such a lens to expose Israeli violations, for it reproduces the chimera that Israel simply needs to be brought “back into the orbit of responsible nation-states,” a notion that fails to address the endemic violence of settler colonialism. Indeed, in a context where invasion, expulsion and segregation are carried out with no remorse, incarceration and its associated indignities are not blips on an otherwise virtuous state, but part of its very ontology. Education will always be heavily compromised for a population under colonial occupation, whether or not they are thrown in jail.

This is not to discount international law or human rights as crucial to seeking justice, as demonstrated through the BDS movement, and the Right to Education campaign among others. Rather, the issue is when it uncritically positions the state as the agent of social change, assuming a benevolence that is non-existent from a nation built upon the dispossession of an indigenous people. As Noura Erakat writes, legal strategy must not aim for “better” laws whilst the overarching political framework stays in tact, but used instead to demand full accountability and ultimately, to assist in the decolonization of historic Palestine. With prison forming only part of the carceral continuum that is Israeli occupation and apartheid, one cannot liberate education without liberating society. This requires at the very least, fighting for an education that is free from occupation.