A PALESTINIAN village, somewhere in the West Bank.
In the middle of the night, banging on the door and shouts in Arabic: “Israeli army. Open up!”
Somebody – most often the mother – opens the door. The heavily armed soldiers rush in and drag the victim out of bed. They throw him to the floor in full view of his wife and children (or parents and siblings), blindfold and handcuff him behind his back, and drag him to a jeep. The victim may be 15 or 70 years old or any age in between.
After several days of interrogation, with or without “moderate physical pressure” (as a High Court judge delicately put it), if no satisfactory confession is forthcoming, the prisoner is consigned to “administrative detention” which may last six months and can be renewed for year after year . The judicial overview is a farce. The prisoner is not informed of what he is accused and by whom, evidence is kept secret from both the prisoner and his or her lawyer.
In the course of the occupation, tens of thousands of Palestinians have experienced this procedure. At present, some 300 are in administrative detention (among the ten thousand or so who were judged by military or civilian courts.)
Now one of them has said: Enough!
* * *
KHADER ADNAN MUHAMMAD MUSA has been arrested several times before.
The 34 year old activist from the village of Arabba near Jenin in the northern West Bank has been an Islamic Jihad leader from his student days in Bir Zeit University. Easily recognizable by his especially long black beard, he has advanced to the front rank of the organization in the West Bank.
Islamic Jihad is the most extreme of the significant Palestinian groups, and Adnan has openly, on camera, preached armed resistance. He has called upon young Palestinians to put on explosive vests and carry out suicide attacks.
The occupation authorities have had their eyes on him for a long time, and so have the security services of the Palestinian Authority. No wonder, because Adnan has accused the latter many times of collaborating with the Israeli enemy and acting on their orders.
When he was arrested again last December, he demanded to be put on trial or released. When neither happened, he declared a hunger strike.
A hunger strike of 28 days is generally considered very long. Adnan fasted for 66 days, which may be a world record, except for the Irish freedom fighter (or “terrorist”) who was taunted by Margaret Thatcher and fasted to death. If a hunger strike lasts for 70 days, death is almost inevitable.
At the end he was transferred to a hospital, both his ankles and one of his hands shackled to the bed, though he could hardly stand. By now, his strike was attracting world-wide attention. In Israel itself, reaction in the media was limited, but peace and human rights groups came out in support of Adnan. Physicians for Human Rights, an Israeli organization founded years ago by the psychiatrist Ruchama Marton, led the struggle with special fervor. Media around the world, including the New York Times, took the case up.
At long last, Israeli diplomats and security officials became seriously alarmed. If Adnan fasted to death, no one could foresee the consequences. In the occupied territories, widespread riots could be expected, perhaps with further deaths. Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails could start a general hunger strike, which could easily spread to the Palestinian population outside. In the world media, Israel would be compared to Syria and Iran. Worse, the very practice of administrative detention would come under international scrutiny.
So the political and security establishment swallowed their pride and offered a compromise: if Adnan abandoned the strike at once, the security authorities would not renew the administrative arrest warrant after April, when it is due to expire.
Adnan, who has already gained the status of a national hero, accepted. He has certainly achieved his main purpose: to draw attention to the practice itself.
ADMINISTRATIVE DETENTION is not an Israeli invention. Israel inherited it from the British colonial regime, as part of the Emergency Regulations, which were described by the future Israeli Minister of Justice as “worse than the Nazi laws”. But when Israel came into being, the regulations remained in force or were supplanted by similar laws ”made in Israel”.
Successive security officials have maintained that administrative detention is absolutely essential in the “fight against terrorism”.
Their point of view can be illustrated by a case in which I was involved. When I was the Editor in Chief of the Haolam Hazeh news magazine, an Arab Israeli journalist – let’s call him Ahmad – who was working for our Arab edition, disappeared. After searching for some time, I learned that he had been taken into administrative detention. Since I was a Member of the Knesset at the time, I was allowed to speak with a senior officer of the Security Service (Shabak or Shin Bet), who disclosed to me, in confidence, the reason for the arrest.
It appeared that the service had caught a member of Fatah from abroad, who was carrying a message to two Arabs in Israel, asking them to set up Fatah cells in the country. Fatah, at the time, was considered a dangerous terrorist organization. One of the two was Ahmad.
“Frankly,” the Shabak officer told me, “We have no idea whether your man is a terrorist or was chosen at random by the Fatah people in Jordan. We have no evidence that could stand up in court. We certainly cannot disclose in court that we have caught the messenger. But we also cannot leave Ahmad free, because he may well be a dangerous terrorist. What would you do in our position, bearing the responsibility we have?”
Frankly, I don’t cherish the idea of being blown to pieces by a suicide bomber. But I answered that under these circumstances, Ahmad should be released at once. However, they kept him in prison for months. When he was finally released, he emigrated to America. That may well have been a condition for getting out of prison.
I have already written about a different case that concerned me directly and which taught me the inherent danger of this practice. In his first extensive interview after coming to power in 1977, Menachem Begin disclosed that 20 years earlier, when Isser Harel (nicknamed “little Isser”) was in charge of all Israeli security services, he proposed to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to put me in administrative detention as a Soviet spy. Harel had a pathological hatred for me and later wrote a whole book about it.
The accusation was quite ridiculous, because I have never in my life been a communist, nor even a Marxist. At the same time that Arthur Koestler wrote his ground-breaking book “Darkness at Noon” I, then a teenager, thought that something must be very wrong with a system which condemns almost all its founders as imperialist spies. Later, whenever an Israeli delegation was invited to Soviet Russia, the KGB struck my name out. (Viewers of the excellent British TV series “Spooks” will recognize at once that this is exactly the hallmark of a master spy.)
Ben-Gurion was not one of my greatest fans, or, to put it simply, he hated my guts. Since I attacked him every week, that was quite understandable. However, he was also a shrewd politician and was afraid that my arrest might cause a scandal. Therefore he told Harel that before arresting me, he should enlist the support of Begin, the leader of the largest opposition party.
Begin told him: “If you have evidence, please show it to me. If not, I shall fight against your scheme tooth and nail.” Ben-Gurion dropped the idea, and Begin sent his most trusted lieutenant to warn me.
If Begin had supported my arrest, who would have doubted that the Shabak had solid proof of my treachery? My voice would have been silenced, my magazine destroyed.
IN A democratic state, there is no place for administrative detention, nor even for trials in which vital evidence is withheld from the accused and defense lawyers. There must be better ways of protecting informers and other secret sources of information. For example, allowing defendants in such cases to choose lawyers only from a restricted list of those with the highest security clearance.
This, by the way, did indeed happen in the most sensitive security trial of all: that of the nuclear whistleblower (or “spy”) Mordechai Vanunu.
The deal worked out in the Adnan case exposes the irrationality of the system. If Adnan was so dangerous that he had to be imprisoned without charge or trial, how can he be released? And if he was not so dangerous, why was he held in the first place?
IN THE end, Adnan has created a paradox for himself and his comrades.
The very essence of his and his organization’s ideology is that there is no effective method of resistance to the Israeli occupation and oppression but violence of the most extreme kind. Non-violence, in their view, is nonsense. Worse, it means capitulation and, in the end, betrayal. Islamic Jihad now accuses Hamas of flirting with this idea.
Yet a hunger strike is the ultimate form of non-violence. Ghandhi used it frequently, relying on its moral impact.
Khaled Adnan’s achievement is exactly that: a shining victory for non-violence.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.