Focusing on punishment and imprisonment across three time periods, this essay explores the two-pronged attack on Palestinian politics that has characterized the settler-colonial project in Palestine over the past one hundred years. This double move entails an attempt to deny or destroy Palestinian political community, while simultaneously identifying Palestinians as political actors, specifically as bad actors. The aim is to undermine Palestinian political capacity by disrupting connection and organizing, while still deploying the weapon of categorizing Palestinians, individually and collectively, as enemies—under labels such as insurgents, terrorists, and enemy combatants. The struggle over elimination in Palestine has continued through multiple changes in governing regime and across territorial reconfigurations. The different tactics deployed against Palestinians over these decades are a product both of these changes and of the continuing Palestinian refusal to acquiesce to their elimination.
“We have the honour to congratulate His Majesty’s Empire for the decisive victory which His Forces has recently achieved.” So opened a May 1945 petition to the High Commissioner for Palestine from three Palestinians requesting clemency. They had, they said, been banished from their village of Beit Daras to Khan Yunis “for political doubts.” These political doubts almost certainly meant presumed participation in the Palestinian struggle for self-determination—a goal that required the end of both British Mandate rule and Zionist settlement in Palestine. Saying that they considered themselves subjects of the king, that they wished to “feel some of the happiness of such a great victory,” and furthermore that no crime had been proved against them, the men asked that the banishment order be canceled to let them “feel free under the recent victory, to return to our families and to be more loyal.”1 The charge against them was that they were oppositional political actors. Their petition tried to reject that categorization, asking that they be viewed instead as loyal, docile, and, therefore, free subjects. The fate of these individuals is not recorded in the file, but the punishment of Palestinians for political activity and the concomitant effort to render them docile subjects have been at the center of the now hundred-year-long settler-colonial condition in the country.
Patrick Wolfe (2006: 388) has famously argued that the “elimination of the native” is a central aim of settler colonialism, and he further underscores that colonial invasion is a “structure rather than an event.” As he explains, elimination entails the dissolution of native societies and their replacement by a new colonial society. This replacement is sometimes accomplished through genocide, but it also occurs through a range of other techniques that destroy communities. Banishment (as described in the petition) and imprisonment have been key tactics for separating people from their homes and communities. In the case of colonial rule and anticolonial rebellion, of occupation and resistance to it, the prison and the imprisoned subject are at the center of a contest within politics. The struggle over elimination in Palestine has been ongoing for one hundred years. It has continued through multiple changes in governing regimes and across territorial reconfigurations. The different tactics deployed against Palestinians over these decades are a product both of these changes and of the continuing Palestinian refusal to acquiesce to their elimination.
A double move has been central to this project—an attempt to deny or destroy Palestinian political community, while simultaneously identifying Palestinians as political actors, specifically as bad actors. This double move seeks to undermine Palestinian political capacity by disrupting connection and organizing, while still deploying the weapon of categorizing Palestinians, individually and collectively, as enemies—under labels such as insurgents, terrorists, and enemy combatants. Such efforts to simultaneously destroy and weaponize the political have not, though, succeeded in ending resistance to the settler-colonial project in Palestine. As J. Kehaulani Kauanui (2016) puts it, indigeneity “endures.” Repeated attacks on Palestinians, and modifications in tactics deployed against them, reflect the failure to complete the elimination project. But the fact that Palestinians have not been eliminated—either as a community or as a population—does not mean that they have not been grievously harmed by the century-long effort to make them choose between docility and expulsion.
Violence directed against Palestinians takes many forms—including military assault, bureaucratic torture (Lavie 2018), and dispossession. This essay focuses on punishment and imprisonment, which also take multiple forms. Imprisonment includes both formal incarceration in prisons and confinement in place. In addition to punitive imprisonment—meting out harsh sentences for criminal acts to punish nearby political activity—punishments directed at Palestinians have included destruction of property, material deprivation, and collective punishments of various kinds. Forms of punishment and categories of imprisonment clearly reveal the two-pronged attack on politics. As Palestinians have struggled against different forms of colonial occupation and for control over their political destiny for over a century, confinement has been a central weapon in the arsenal deployed against them. Palestine is by no means the only place where imprisonment is a tactic of elimination. The “carceral condition” (Fassin 2017) is global. Working in another settler-colonial space, Kelly Lytle Hernández (2017: 1) has shown that “incarceration operates as a means of purging, removing, caging, containing, erasing, disappearing, and eliminating targeted populations from land, life, and society in the United States.”
The importance of locating Palestine in a settler-colonial paradigm has been increasingly recognized. Following this move, and its insistence on the importance of avoiding the analytic and political traps of both exceptionalism (in which Palestine appears sui generis and utterly incomparable to any place else) and localism (where different Palestinian populations are considered entirely separately) (Salamanca et al. 2012), this essay considers imprisonment in three periods of Palestinian history, and in three overlapping, yet distinctive, geographies of Palestinian experience. Each is part of the long history of colonial dispossession and ongoing efforts toward the elimination of the native in Palestine. These periods—the British Mandate over Palestine (1922–48), the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (1967–), and the period since the pullout of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip (2005–)—illuminate related but distinctive use of punishment and imprisonment in this effort (Khalili 2013).
Like other aspects of policing, imprisonment is a work of sorting. It sorts licit from illicit, legal from illegal, public morality from social impropriety, obedience from dissidence. The distinctions of imprisonment are not just between the jailed and the free but also among different sorts of prisoners. The categorization of crimes (and therefore of prisoners) as either “ordinary” criminality or political action is an obvious way in which authorities claim to mark the boundaries of politics, but these categorizations are themselves deeply political. Furthermore, the proliferation of prisoner and punishment categories is not only or always a mechanism of distinction. Policing also operates through indistinction (Feldman 2007, 2015b), by making it difficult for people to know precisely where they stand in relation to the line of illegality, guilt, and, even, proper politics. Prisoner of war, security detainee, and unlawful enemy combatant are all political detention categories, but they reflect different judgments about the meaning of the politics they punish. The enduring importance of collective punishment in the effort to put down political unrest in Palestine makes clear that even as Palestinian political community may be denied, collective Palestinian culpability for the actions of individual “bad actors” is continually asserted.
Intercessions on behalf of prisoners—sometimes from the detained themselves, as in the petition described above, and sometimes from family members or organizations—engage the punishment categories of governments and also try to give weight to other, sometimes competing, ways of describing prisoners. Categories that are used by international observers—such as protected persons or even victims—try to situate prison categories within a broader field of humanity law (Teitel 2011). Palestinians engage with all these categories—demanding recognition as political prisoners, seeking sympathy as victims. They also identify prisoners as national subjects and national heroes. In so doing, Palestinians not only identify prisoners as good political actors, they locate them as central to Palestinian political community.
On the Subject of Palestine
The British Mandate for Palestine (1922–48) was an instance of late colonialism, internationally sanctioned through the League of Nations. The terms of the Mandate committed the British government to supporting settler-colonialism by promoting the development of a Jewish national home in Palestine. In this effort, “nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” (Palestine Mandate 2019). Notably absent from this formulation was a recognition of a Palestinian national community with political rights. The Mandate itself, therefore, was structured toward the political elimination of the Palestinian native by the a priori disavowal of the existence of such a political community. The Zionist settlement project worked not only toward usurping the Palestinian place in Palestine but also toward occupying the position of the native in this territory.
In 1948 Palestine was divided, not according to the terms proposed by the United Nations (UN), which offered 56 percent of the territory to a Jewish state, but along the armistice lines that marked the end of fighting between Zionist (and after May 15 Israeli) forces and Arab armies. The majority of the native population was displaced, many people becoming refugees in nearby countries. The parts of Palestine that became the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under Jordanian and Egyptian control respectively, the former annexed to Jordan. Even as the nakba (catastrophe) marked the end, thus far, of a Palestinian political entity, it did not in fact mean the end of Palestinian political community, which became, if anything, more vibrant in exile.
In 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, along with the Sinai and the Golan Heights, the territory of historic Palestine came once again under a single ruler. But Palestinians who lived in different parts of this territory were governed differently. Some lived as second-class citizens—those who resided inside the Green Line and were Israeli citizens—and more were governed as an occupied population. For Israel the occupation entailed a reencounter with the native—now more politically organized and primed to resist. The occupation also brought a new phase in territorial elimination. Confiscation of land for Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza and for military installations began shortly after the occupation (Weizman 2017; Pappe 2016). The infrastructure required to sustain and protect these settlements took still more land. This process has expanded and intensified as the years have passed.
The different parts of Palestine remain divided—by their territorial status, by the treatment of their population, and, as the years have gone by, increasingly by checkpoints, walls, and a permit system. It is these developments that Achille Mbembe (2003: 27) references when he describes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as the site of the “most accomplished form of necropower.” Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, which brought a measure of autonomy to Palestinian population centers under the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank and Gaza have been further separated. And Palestinian movement between these territories has been increasingly disallowed. In 2005 Israel removed its settlers and soldiers from Gaza, changing the nature of occupation from the clear settler-colonial model still pursued in the West Bank to one in which this occupied area was declared “enemy territory.” For the past ten years Gaza has been subjected to a punishing blockade. The siege on Gaza represents the widest generalization of imprisonment. It has gone from a punishment to which some persons are subjected to a condition under which the entire population lives. And it represents the latest phase in elimination—in which livability itself is targeted for destruction.
Even as the denial of native Palestinian political community was built into the Mandate, British rule in Palestine was underpinned by the conviction—despite persistent evidence to the contrary—that Mandate governance could inculcate a shared political community between the native population and Zionist settlers, thus enabling Mandatory authorities to fulfill their contradictory obligations. This belief was repeatedly shattered by the outbreaks of violence in the country, including riots in 1921, 1929, 1933, and full-scale rebellion in 1936–39 (by Arabs) and 1946 (by Jews). Even as this ongoing opposition challenged the fictions of Mandate rule, it was not until the end of the Mandate that its lessons were recognized. In the face of this recognition, the British basically gave up, handing the Palestine matter to the United Nations.
Since Palestinians did not acquiesce to the elimination of their political community, denial had to be repeated throughout the Mandate. Palestine was thus a particular instance of a broader colonial dynamic. Repeated efforts by colonized populations to liberate themselves from colonialism put a lie to the pretense that natives can be convinced that governing themselves is beyond their capabilities and not in their interest. Hence counterinsurgency is often at the center of colonial rule. Police responses to Palestinian anticolonial resistance showcase the variety of forms of denial. Refusing to acknowledge resistance as resistance, as organized political action by a collectivity, was an instance of denial. So too was the considerable indistinction in categories of imprisonment.
Mandate officials also failed to recognize the actual impossibility of eliminating Palestinian political community simply by repeatedly denying its existence. The response of police personnel when faced with political violence is a case in point. The Palestine Police were composed of a relatively small British section and a much larger Palestinian contingent, mostly Arab. Outbreaks of violence were nearly always followed by investigations and recommendations for reorganization of the force. These reports were devastating in their evaluation of the existing state of things, forcing Mandate officials to acknowledge that the police had not yet been able to transcend their positions as members of communities in conflict and act for the general public good. Plans for reform were based, though, on the continued belief that this purpose could be produced in and for the future.
When the 1936–39 Palestinian uprising—the most sustained resistance to British rule—confirmed the continued failure to develop a “professional” police force that would rise above the national politics in which police officers were personally immersed, the British response was to deploy an increasingly militarized form of policing. There was no formal imposition of martial law, but British military personnel were engaged in quelling the revolt. Collective punishment, execution, and imprisonment were all used in this effort. Collective punishment was sanctioned by Mandate ordinances and incorporated into the instructions provided to soldiers (Hughes 2009: 317). Tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were detained (Khalili 2010: 423). The categorical terms of imprisonment reflect the British refusal to acknowledge the nature of the uprising. Matthew Hughes (2009: 318) indicates that Britain “classified the Arab revolt as an internal insurrection and not an international war and so denied POW status to Arab fighters. Thus it treated captured Arab guerrillas as civilian criminals subject to the ordinary civil law modified by any conditions of martial law, such as the death penalty for carrying ammunition or a firearm, and for whom international law did not apply.”
British denial of internationally recognized and, therefore, protected status to Palestinian fighters was part of the project of elimination through denial of political community. This denial did not mean that Palestinians were not recognized as political actors, but that their politics was deemed improper. Treating fighters as individual bad actors and categorizing them as “civilian criminals” had the further effect of also rendering criminality politically suspect. Evidence of this effect can be found in many petitions submitted to the Mandate government by family members seeking clemency for their imprisoned relatives. Often these prisoners appear to have, in fact, been ordinary criminals whose punishment was caught up in the politics of Palestine. Not only did the boundary between civil crime and political action become increasingly murky as the Mandate went on, but the use of collective punishment further ensured that, even as collectivity in the form of political community was denied, Palestinians as a whole were deemed responsible for the political actions of particular individuals.
Among the petition files from this period are many requests for clemency for people convicted of weapons possession charges. Weapons possession was a crime adjudicated by a military court, even if the possession and/or use of the weapon was not evidently political. The wife of a prisoner from Isdud, a village in southern Palestine, sent two petitions in 1945. Her husband had been convicted by a military court, but his apparent purpose in possessing the firearm was robbery. The other crime for which he was convicted was housebreaking. The petition asked for compassion for the all-female household left behind: “Our present state of living deserves your sympathy as it is misery,”2 and “we all become destitute and our living conditions are getting worse from one day to the other owing to the absence of our supporter, my husband, in whose absence we find no body to look after us and cultivate his lands from which he used to maintain us.”3 Clemency was not granted. Rejection appears to have been the most common response to such petitions. Whatever the result, these cases confirm that possession of a weapon was politically relevant, no matter the intent behind it. This absorption of criminality into the domain of the political was part of the wider denial that Palestinian politics was proper politics.
In 1945 village leaders from Iraq al-Manshiyya asked for clemency for a village resident who was halfway through a ten-year sentence for “intimidation and looting.”4 Asserting that the prisoner was innocent and a “straight-forward man and of good character,” they asked for pardon on compassionate grounds. The petition stated that he had been convicted by a military court, but notations on the documents by Mandate officials indicate that this was not in fact the case. The crime was not political—it was an attempted theft through intimidation—but the politics of Palestine entered into the deliberations about a possible release. This was a case not only of political considerations affecting the punishment of criminality but of the radiating effects of collective punishment. The district commissioner initially recommended against release because “Iraq el Manshiya village had a bad record during the disturbances [when the crime occurred] and has lately been showing signs of renewed unrest.”5
The attorney general then commented, “I cannot help by feeling that the sentence would have been much lighter but for the fact that the offence was committed at the time of the disturbances.” Acknowledging the district commissioner’s judgment of the village as a site of “unrest,” he went on, “be that as it may, I think that the six years odd which the prisoner has served is sufficient punishment and he should be released.”6 This argument ultimately convinced the relevant persons (including the district commissioner), and the prisoner was released in March 1946. Even as this prisoner found an escape from the matrix of a simultaneous denial of Palestinian political community and the expanding identification of Palestinians as improper political actors, the two-pronged counterinsurgency survived. And it continued beyond the end of the Mandate.
The legal apparatus established during the Mandate was never overturned in any of the territories of historic Palestine. For two decades after 1948, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt each made slightly different use of these colonial mechanisms in the parts of Palestine they controlled. The results of the June 1967 war brought all of historic Palestine under Israeli control. And it brought governance of this territory into contested relation with international law. Israel argued that the West Bank and Gaza Strip were not “occupied territories” in a legal sense and that, therefore, Article 4 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which governs the management of such territories, did not apply (Aruri 1978). Occupation denial—an ongoing feature of occupation governance (Shafir 2017)—both rests on and furthers the project of eliminating Palestinian political community.
Central to the Israeli argument that the territories are not occupied is the claim that they were not part of an independent (Palestinian) state and therefore had no recognized political status. In a world made up of nation-states, territorial control is closely connected to recognition of political status. There is circularity in this argument. The West Bank and Gaza Strip should not be viewed as occupied territories because Palestinians did not exercise sovereignty over these lands. And Palestinians are not a political community, in part, because they did not have sovereignty over territory. The effects of efforts to eliminate Palestinian presence are presented as evidence of their political absence. But just as the British Mandate could not, in fact, eliminate Palestinian political community by denying its existence, the denialist Israeli position neither dissolved the occupation as a category through which Palestinians and international observers understood Israeli rule in the territories nor dissipated Palestinian politics. The persistence of Palestinian politics is one reason that Israel turned toward increased repression, what Baruch Kimmerling (2003) terms “politicide.”
Denial of occupation and refusal of international legal authority shaped the forms of punishment and confinement Israel used in governance of the territories. As Lisa Hajjar (2005: 54–55) explains, the Israeli government indicated that they would respect the “humanitarian provisions” of the Convention, but they did not specify what they viewed those to be. As Hajjar further notes, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) views the conventions in their entirety as humanitarian. One outcome of the Israeli stance was its “refusal to receive any international commission to investigate the conditions of the inhabitants of the occupied territories or allow an Israeli investigation with an international observer” (Aruri 1978: 52). During the occupation incarceration became a central feature of the Palestinian experience, as did the radiating effects of imprisonment on families and communities. The close connection between forms of territorial control and categories of imprisonment was evident in the first years of the occupation, as Israeli officials staked out their position, often in confrontation with international organizations such as the ICRC. And prisoners have been key subjects in the contest between Israel and the occupied population over proper political life for Palestinians.
The ICRC never accepted the Israeli position about the status of the territories and continued to seek acknowledgment of the authority of international law. The specific issues that the ICRC brought up repeatedly with Israeli government officials included expulsions of people from the territories, destruction of houses, conditions of detention, and recognition of the ICRC as a substitute protective power. Expulsion from the country of people “suspected of activities detrimental to state security”7 and destruction of houses as a form of collective punishment were both tools in the eliminationist project of occupation. The ICRC complained about each practice. In an April 1971 letter to Prime Minister Golda Meir, the president of the ICRC expressed his concern about reports that 140 houses had been destroyed in the territories. The ICRC, he said, “considers itself duty bound to address to your Government a further pressing appeal to abandon this method of combat against subversive activities.” Acknowledging the “humanitarian” decision of the Israeli government not to apply capital punishment for security offenses, he went on to say, “We wish to point out that such collective punishment as the destruction of houses is a serious infringement of the principles of humanity and justice to which the Israeli government has often demonstrated its adherence and which it has actively supported in other circumstances.”8
The Israeli response to this missive, and to similar letters about other matters, was to insist on both the legality and the righteousness of its actions: “The measures referred to are based on and are in conformity with the local law as laid down in the Defence (Emergency) Regulations of 1945. . . . The Regulations permit penal sanctions against any house or structure situated in any area where acts of terror or violence have been perpetrated.”9 Israeli discourse and practice confirm that even as international law was not fully applied to the occupied territories, colonial law certainly was. Meir rejected the argument that Israel’s house demolitions constituted collective punishment under the terms of international law. She insisted that even as “regrettably such measures affect also members of the criminal’s family,” the fact that the houses demolished were the homes of perpetrators made the punishment specific. She further averred that they “have proved their value in combatting indiscriminate acts of murder and outrage perpetrated against the civilian population and members of the armed forces.”
The terms of both the practice and the defense of home demolitions shed additional light on the two-pronged eliminationist project. Meir’s letter indicated that demolitions were intended to punish “acts of terror and murder” that were designed to “undermine secure and normal life in the areas concerned.” She continued, “The suffering this would involve for innocent, women, and children requires no emphasis.” Foregrounding the claimed Israeli concern for the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of other Palestinians (a trope that has continued through the years), the Israeli position denies the existence of a Palestinian community engaged in resistance to Israeli occupation, identifying only Palestinian terrorists seeking to harm innocent Palestinians and Israelis. But even as community is denied, relatives of these “bad actors” had to, however “regrettably,” shoulder responsibility.
Another key provision of the Mandate-era Emergency Law provided for “administrative detention” of designated security risks without charge and for an indefinite period of time (generally in six-month increments). Facing a politicized, organized, and actively resisting population in the occupied territories, Israel has made significant use of this provision—along with a military court system that has handed down long prison sentences for a wide array of political activities. Despite the political reasons for mass imprisonment, Palestinian prisoners were often not recognized as political prisoners. As Naseer Aruri (1978: 61) described, “No distinction is made between common criminals and civilians detained for political or ‘security’ offences.” Aruri further described systematic discrimination between Arab and Jewish prisoners. Both equal treatment and recognition of their political status have been demands of prisoners undertaking hunger strikes over the years.
The ICRC, for its part, was concerned to have information about and access to Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. Even if agreement could not be reached on the framework for governance in the territories (Article 4) or the status of the ICRC (as possible substitute protective power), the ICRC continued to seek “pragmatic” implementation of international humanitarian law provisions. In a 1972 memo to Israeli officials with the subject heading “various tasks the ICRC would undertake following the new practical approach of the Israeli Authorities towards its humanitarian mission,” it laid out its expectations in regard to “protected persons,” a category that included prisoners. When and how would the ICRC be notified of detentions? Where are they detained? With what charges and what status? The memo went on to note that “at the moment, the ICRC does not carry out any significant activity in the judicial field, except for visits to detainees after a certain period of time” and expressed hope that this situation could change.10 In its negotiations with Israeli authorities, the ICRC tried to politely insist on maintaining regular lines of communication for “security detainees,” as Israel refers to Palestinian political prisoners (Latte Abdallah 2015: 39). The ICRC stressed the “preventive and not punitive motives of administrative detention”11 and underscored that “the basic principles for the treatment of non-criminal and non-convicted detainees is that their relationships with the exterior [visits with friends and family] should be enlarged.”12 Even as the ICRC complained about certain policies—such as a refusal to allow prisoners to serve as interpreters for each other, meaning that ICRC delegations could meet only with English-speaking detainees—it expressed its “satisfaction over the frank and constructive working relationship we have established.”13
At stake in these negotiations were the categorization and related treatment of prisoners. The above correspondence was about the category of administrative/security detainee. Israel also held prisoners of war, even if, like the British before, it did not always acknowledge them as such. After the battle of Karameh in 1968, the ICRC immediately asked that Israel grant the Fatah prisoners it had captured prisoner-of-war status.14 The Israeli government refused, saying that it “cannot grant the thousands of members of Palestinian Terrorist organizations whom it has captured the status of prisoners of war. . . . They are not official members of any Arab State’s army.”15 This position repeats the claim that without sovereignty there is no political community. The ICRC continued to press the matter of these prisoners. In a letter to General Gazit the following year, the head of the ICRC delegation summarized their recent conversation: “Upon my request that the Israeli authorities take a decision on the status of the 66 ‘Karameh prisoners’ in Jenin you explained why this was not possible at present. The politico-military situation does not allow Israel to liberate potential fighters and—in your opinion—times are not yet ‘ripe’ for a break up of their group into different categories of detainees, allowing some of them to be liberated. I expressed the hope that our intervention would accelerate the ‘ripening’ process in cause.”16
This dispute between Israel and the ICRC about prisoner status was not the only clash over categories. Palestinians have also engaged these categories, insisting on the recognition of detainees as political prisoners. Protests around official categories of imprisonment take place both inside prisons, often in the form of hunger strikes, and outside. Beyond contests about categories, Palestinians have also identified prisoners through their own terms—viewing them as central actors and heroes in the national community and in its struggle. Imprisonment—its networks, educational apparatus, and community building—has been a key part of Palestinian politics and political subjectivity under occupation (Bornstein 2001). As Esmail Nashif (2008: 9) puts it, prison has been a “social space for building a Palestinian national community” (see also Rosenfeld 2011). The effects of detention extend far beyond the walls of the prison. Rita Giacaman and Penny Johnson (2013) call attention to the gendered features of the radiating prison experience (see also Segal 2016). Wives and mothers of prisoners are the principle navigators of the carceral terrain that links, and separates, Palestinian prisoners and their communities.
By 1989, in the middle of the first intifada, the number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel reached a peak of thirteen thousand (Latte Abdallah 2015: 40). As part of the Oslo Accords, and the subsequent establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, most Palestinian prisoners were released in the late 1990s. With the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, the number of prisoners began to tick up again, but it has never quite reached its pre-Oslo level. During the Oslo years Israel moved almost all Palestinian political prisoners from prisons in the occupied territories to prisons inside Israel. Giacaman and Johnson note that this move contravenes international law. It is a further tactic in the disruption of community that is key to elimination. With the Green Line (the boundary between Israel and the occupied territories), the separation barrier, numerous checkpoints, and a complicated permit regime now lying between prisoners and their family, prisoners’ “relationships with the exterior”17 are impeded not only by the prison and its regulations but also by the restrictions on mobility to which all Palestinians are subjected. The Israeli closure policy creates barriers to family visits, as it disrupts most aspects of Palestinian life. For Palestinians such conditions only underscore the centrality of the prisoner as a political figure.
Collective Punishment Expands
The Israeli relationship to the territory of the Gaza Strip changed with the 2005 pullout of soldiers and settlers. And Israeli categories of imprisonment changed as well. Gazan prisoners were henceforth designated “unlawful enemy combatants.” According to Stephanie Latte Abdallah (2015: 45), Israel first applied this categorization (one widely familiar to anyone who has followed the US “war on terror” since 2001) to Lebanese Hizbullah fighters in 2002. After the 2005 pullout, it declared the occupation over—a view not shared by the United Nations and other international observers—and Gaza’s population therefore residents of a “foreign country.” A number of Gazans who were in Israeli prisons as administrative detainees were placed under new detention orders in the category of unlawful combatant. In response to a challenge to this categorization, in 2008 the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the Israeli government’s position: “In view of the fact that the Gaza Strip is no longer under the effective control of the State of Israel, we are drawn to the conclusion that the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip constitute foreign parties who may be subject to the Internment of Unlawful Combatants Law in view of the nature and purpose of this law.”18
Along with the development of new prisoner categories, a different sort of imprisonment has gained renewed prominence in Israeli practice since the outbreak of the second intifada: the confinement of the entire population. Population-level confinement is not a new tactic deployed against Palestinians. It was central to Israeli rule over Palestinians who remained in Israel after 1948, who were subjected to military rule for twenty years (Robinson 2013). Today confinement is deployed in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The closure policy that first began in the 1990s has been significantly expanded. Palestinian movement across the Green Line requires a permit, increasingly few of which are granted (Berda 2017). Checkpoints and road closures have regularly and significantly restricted movement inside the territories.
In the Gaza Strip confinement has been taken to new heights over the past decade. The 2005 pullout initially created freer movement within Gaza, even as movement across its borders was evermore restricted. After Hamas’s victory in national parliamentary elections in 2006, followed by its assumption of full control of Gaza in 2007, Israel declared Gaza an “enemy entity” and imposed a siege on the Strip. The blockade bans the import of a wide array of goods and further restricts movement. Along with the siege, the last decade has witnessed three devastating assaults on the territory, each marked by further confinements—as parts of the Strip are declared “no-go zones” by the Israeli military (Smith and Isleen 2017)—and a persisting problem of the inability to rebuild, per the above-mentioned blockade.
The conditions that have obtained in Gaza over the past decade did not mark the beginning of talk of Gaza as an “open air prison,” but they have certainly confirmed the aptness of this appellation (Feldman 2015a). They take collective punishment far beyond what was imagined by British Mandate ordinances, and also beyond how Israel used shared culpability to underwrite house demolitions in an earlier stage of occupation. The docile Palestinian subject that was envisioned in the Mandate and earlier in the occupation presumed that even if many Palestinians were “bad actors,” some Palestinians could disassociate themselves from this category—whether by announcing themselves as loyal subjects, as with the petitioners with whom this essay opened, or by acting as civilians interested only in “seeking a livelihood for themselves and their families,”19 as Israel described those Palestinians it claimed to defend through house demolitions. The blockade on Gaza envisions no such separation. Even as they are still denied recognition as a political community, all Gazans are deemed part of a mass of enemies.
What are the consequences of imprisoning not just a segment of a population but its entirety? The United Nations (2017: 7) has objected that “these measures are contrary to international law in that they penalize the entire population of Gaza, without regard to individual responsibility and thus amount to collective punishment.” In addition to encompassing the entire population, today’s collective punishment extends far beyond the destruction of houses and targets the entire sphere of livability: shelter, livelihood, water, and electricity. A UN report issued in July 2017 described the effects of ten years of siege on all aspects of life: “Gaza has been facing a downward spiral of de-development, while the people in Gaza are caught in a cycle of humanitarian need and perpetual aid dependency” (28). About the restrictions on movement it notes, “The effect of not having contact with people outside of Gaza has significant social, economic and even psychological consequences as the population remains essentially cut off from the rest of the world” (9).
Israel targets livability to affect Palestinian politics. And in so doing it identifies Palestinian politics—whether voting for Hamas, pursuing nonviolent resistance, or engaging in armed struggle—as a punishable act. The UN response to Israel’s brutal imprisonment of Gaza’s population, and sometimes the Palestinian response as well, have been to highlight its devastating humanitarian effects. Part of the discursive struggle that has occurred around the Gaza blockade has been about into what categories Palestinians in Gaza fit. Are they bad political actors—terrorists, jihadists, and enemy combatants—per Israel and its supporters? Or should they be seen as humanitarian subjects—victims, “‘regular’ citizens” (as the UN report puts it ), and humans? But a decision about whether they are viewed as political or humanitarian subjects is not a real choice for Palestinians. As I have explored elsewhere (Feldman 2009), and as the Mandate-era petition with which this essay opened also shows, it is nearly impossible for Palestinians to disavow their status as political subjects even if they wanted to. The Palestinian struggle—their ongoing fight against elimination—is instead to have their status as political actors be recognized as proper. Resolution of their situation demands recognition of both political subjectivity and political community.
Israel State Archives (ISA), RG 2 O/72/45, Petition to High Commissioner, May 18, 1945.
ISA, RG 2 346, OP/39/46, Petition for clemency, December 29, 1945.
ISA, RG 2 346, OP/39/46, Petition for clemency, May 4, 1945.
ISA RG 2 345, OP/8/46, Petition for clemency, n.d.
ISA RG 2 345, OP/8/46, from District Commissioner, Gaza, to Commissioner of Prisons, January 1, 1946.
ISA RG 2 345, OP/8/46, from Chief Secretary to District Commissioner, Gaza, February 15, 1946.
International Committee of the Red Cross archives (ICRC), B AG 202 139 036, letter from Marcel Naville to Golda Meir, February 24, 1971.
ICRC, B AG 202 139 036, letter from Marcel Naville to Golda Meir, April 30, 1971.
ICRC, B AG 202 139 036, letter from Golda Meir to Marcel Naville, August 20, 1971.
ICRC, B AG 202 139 036, letter from Guy Deluz to General Gazit, January 16, 1972.
ICRC, B AG 219 102-012, letter to General Gazit from ICRC, June 2, 1969.
ICRC, B AG 219 102-012, letter from ICRC to General Gazit, April 27, 1969.
ICRC, B AG 219 102-012, letter from ICRC to General Gazit, April 27, 1969.
ICRC, B AG 219 102-012, letter from ICRC to Jordanian Red Crescent Society, May 20, 1968. The battle of Karameh, in which the Israeli military encountered unexpectedly strong resistance from Palestinian fedayeen (guerillas) when it attacked their base in the Jordan valley, is remembered as an important event in Palestinian national history.
ICRC, B AG 219 102-012, AFP Telex of April 30, 1968.
ICRC, B AG 219 102-012, letter from ICRC to General Gazit, May 9, 1969.
ICRC, B AG 219 102-012, letter from ICRC to General Gazit, April 27, 1969.
Supreme Court of Israel, Iyad v. State of Israel, CrimA 6659/06, June 11, 2008. casebook.icrc.org/case-study/israel-detention-unlawful-combatants (accessed July 26, 2017).
ICRC, B AG 202 139 036, letter from Golda Meir to Marcel Naville, August 20, 1971.