50 years of Israeli Occupation and Palestinian Resistance: Whither the Movement of Palestinian Political Prisoners?

By Maya Rosenfeld
Submitted to Session P5005 (Criminalizing Resistance: Producing Palestinian (in)Security, 2017 Annual Meeting
Israel; Palestine; West Bank;
Nationalism; State Formation;
LCD Projector without Audio;
On the fiftieth anniversary of Israel's military occupation in the Palestinian territories, prison continues to be an indivisible component of Palestinian existence and resistance. Tens of thousands were detained and imprisoned over the past decade; approximately 7000, almost all male, are currently being held in Israeli jails, among them men of diverse age groups, statuses, political affiliations and activism records. Their imprisonment causes much harm to their families, distresses their communities and overburdens the Palestinian authority, which continues to support them with its meager resources. Yet, while the "prisoners' issue" remains part and parcel of the Palestinian experience, the prisoners' movement – the organization of Palestinian political prisoners inside Israeli prisons - once a major pillar of the Palestinian national movement in the OPT, is enduring an ongoing decline. This is amply manifested by the absence of a central, representative prisoners' leadership, the repeated failures to organize and maintain collective prisoners' strikes, and the disintegration of the "education enterprise", formerly the "jewel in the crown" of the movement. Based on a socio-historical research (in progress) on the prisoners' movement and its changing impact on the political sphere in the OPT, my presentation attempts to point at underlying factors that affected the movement's decline. To that end I return to the establishment of the PNA in 1994 and to the state building process, albeit limited and circumscribed, which followed in its wake. Specifically I look at a) the incorporation of tens of thousands of former political prisoners – indeed a substantial portion of two generations of OPT activists - into the PNA's security apparatus and public administration, b) the accelerated development of higher education and its spread to all sectors of society, and c) the disintegration of popular formations and their displacement by NGOs. I argue that these processes contributed to the emergence of new social strata, which ultimately developed distinct inclinations, interests and aspirations, all of which distanced their constituent populations from militant activism against the Israeli occupation forces, and thereby also from imprisonment. At the same time, the rise of Hamas as a violent opponent of the Oslo scheme and fierce rival of the PNA led to an increased involvement of its (West Bank-based) members in armed action and hence to their further exposure to imprisonment. It is in light of these social and political transformations that prison has ceased to be a vital arena for a unified Palestinian struggle for independence.