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An article by Toufic Haddad
Palestinian Prisoners: In the Shadows of Ramallah’s Nationalist Narrative

The West Bank’s de-facto financial and political capital, Ramallah, is abuzz with the spectacle of prosperity and statehood. Enormous portraits of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas holding his government’s statehood application at the United Nations bedeck multiple billboards about town. Construction on government ministries, hotels, and large-scale commercial real estate projects continues around the clock.

27 November 2011

Right on the picture : Fakhri Barghouti (Photo : Toufic Haddad)

Markets are overflowing with people and cars, many recently purchased thanks to newly relaxed credit leasing programs. Roads once infamous for the scars of Israeli tank treads, are now repaved with well-defined painted curbs and designated fenced-in sidewalks. There are even pre-paid parking meters thanks to an income generation scheme concocted between the local municipality and the World Bank.

But if one travels the short distance separating the bustle of Ramallah from the tiny farmer’s village of Kobar, 13kms to the city’s northwest, the statehood mirage quickly fades.

Every Palestinian who regularly travels this road recalls the days during the second intifada when Israeli army bulldozers ripped it up to cut the surrounding villages off from the city that acts as their main source of markets and supply. Likewise, everyone knows Israel can do it again, and with equal impunity. Army jeeps routinely set up ‘flying checkpoints,’ stopping cars and harassing and arresting passengers, while intersecting access routes that connect to distant villages have long been shut off to Palestinian traffic and handed over to the occupation army and Jewish settlers.

Entering Kobar is like entering a time warp. Some of its roads haven’t been repaved since the time of Jordanian rule, before 1967. Donkey’s are just as much a preferred form of transportation here as cars. Kobar’s landscape of rolling, terraced olive groves are a reminder of a livelihood meticulously preserved over hundreds, if not thousands of years, and is now threatened by the encroachment of Jewish settlements on not so distant hilltops.

But Kobar is a time warp in another sense as well. This village of 5,000 boasts a heritage of dozens of its sons and daughters imprisoned throughout the history of Palestinian struggle to end the Israeli occupation.

Many have heard of Marwan Barghouti, the Secretary General of Fateh in the West Bank, who is currently serving a multiple-life sentence in an Israeli jail. He grew up here in an unassuming home near the village’s entrance.

But before Marwan there were others, most notably Fakhri and Nael Barghouti – Marwan’s cousins – who spent a combined 66 years in Israeli prison, and recently returned as part of the prisoner exchange deal between the Israeli government and Hamas, struck on 11 October 2011.

Reflecting on the prisoner swap several weeks after its passing raises a series of uncomfortable questions about how the mainstream western media covered the prisoners exchange and events in the region at large.

The world knows much about the figure of Gilad Shalit and his family’s struggle to free him. His Wikipedia page is translated into 23 languages and his face could be seen as far afield as the sides of London taxicabs.

But no comparable examination of Palestinian prisoners exists, despite their far larger numbers, and often startling and remarkable life stories. Instead the overwhelming majority of western media chose to reduce the Palestinian prisoners released to mere statistics, with little effort put into looking deeper into their lives and thoughts.

The ironies and racism of the contemporary Western knowledge production process on Palestine are starkly revealed when examining the case of Fakhri Barghouti, whose personal story is both telling and touching.

Barghouti was in prison eight years before Gilad Shalit was even a twinkle in his father’s eye. (Fakhri was imprisoned in 1978, Shalit was born in 1986.) He spent 33 years behind Israeli bars – five years more than African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, with only ten other prisoners released in the swap able to boast prison seniority. Unlike Mandela however, there were no international rock concerts demanding his release.

Fakhri and his comrades were not released from Israeli prison to international jubilation signifying the end of apartheid; they were released in the midst of international silence and a 21st century form of apartheid, embodied in the Israeli settler colonial enterprise.

Fakhri Barghouti’s name was passed over on no less than seven occasions in prior prisoner exchanges. While he was in prison, his brother Rawhi, sister Haniya, and both parents, died. The story of his children, Shadi and Hadi is equally dramatic, though his own words are more expressive than any description can provide. (See exclusive interview with Fakhri Barghouti)

Both sons would be arrested by Israel and encountered their father in prison. One was accused of attempting to capture an Israeli soldier with the apparent intention of seeking a prisoner exchange that would secure the release of his father and other prisoners.

This is the fate of Fakhri Barghouti, and thousands of others who came before him. With an estimated 700,000 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel since the start of the 1967 occupation, it is the Israeli prison system that functions as a true Palestinian national institution.

Israeli army officers even implicitly acknowledged this in their justification for agreeing to release Palestinian prisoners in the Shalit deal to begin with. Israeli army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz noted before the cabinet vote endorsing the deal that, “I send soldiers to battle, and it is my duty to share my professional position on the matter. The deal is the only way [to free Shalit]. It is possible that we will encounter some of those released in future military activities, but according to our assessments we think releasing the prisoners is acceptable in terms of security.” (Haaretz 13/10/2011).

It was a backhanded way to acknowledge that the entire Occupied Palestinian territories function as an extended theater of Israeli maneuver, with only degrees of regulation distinguishing between life inside and outside Israeli prison walls.

No one knows this more than Fakhri Barghouti, whose worn features reflect an existence far older than his actual 57 years. Between the waves of Palestinian delegations that still come to wish him well since his release, Fakhri stares out into the surreal world of ‘freedom’ – a pained existence of loss, fortitude, and the struggle for human dignity.

Toufic Haddad
english.al-akhbar.com, 15 November, 2011.

Toufic Haddad is the co-author and editor of “Between the Lines : Readings in Israel, the Palestinians and the US ‘War on Terror’” (Haymarket Books, 2007). He is currently a PhD candidate in Development Studies at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London.