Jailed MPs symbol for Palestinians

THE HAMAS-LED Palestinian government was inaugurated on Wednesday, but not all those elected to the new parliament are able to take up their seats. For some, the best they can do is have a life-sized photograph of themselves propped up in their place.

About 10 members are represented in this way. They are absent because they are in Israeli jails.

As the parliament’s debates rage, the silent presence of the photographs is meant to serve as a constant reminder of those Palestinians behind bars. Detentions have always been among the most hated aspects of the Israeli occupation, and Palestinians will demand that the release of all prisoners be part of any final peace deal.

At the moment, there are about 9,000 Palestinians in prison for breaching security laws. It is an experience shared over the years by a huge number of men in the occupied territories. In a 1999 survey conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, 45 per cent of Palestinian males under the age of 40 said they had been in jail at some point in their lives. The new Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya, his foreign minister, his interior minister and a number of their Cabinet colleagues, have all known the inside of an Israeli prison. The finance minister, Omar Abdul Razeq, was released just a few days before taking up his post.

All the main Palestinian groups have launched attacks on Israeli civilians, not just in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, but also in Israel itself. Among those in prison will be Palestinians who have plotted to send suicide bombers into buses and cafes in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. And jailing fighters may have saved many Israeli lives.

But down the decades, the detentions have gone much further than simply rounding up would-be bombers. They have been used to suppress resistance in the occupied territories. Before the Oslo peace accords, flying the Palestinian flag was enough to get you jailed. You could end up behind bars for displaying a poster of Yasser Arafat or participating in a demonstration or throwing stones at soldiers. Possession of a weapon in the occupied territories can now earn you several months in prison. And so can membership of the governing party, Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel.

Many Palestinians regard all those in jail as heroes, whatever they have been sentenced for. Analyst Toufic Hadad says electing prisoners to parliament “is a fitting symbol for what the Palestinian people truly are — an imprisoned nation, fighting for their freedom.”

More than 700 of those in jail at the moment are in what is called administrative detention. They are held without charge or trial and this can go on for more than two years.

Israeli officials point out that administrative detention in occupied territories is authorised in international law, under the Fourth Geneva Convention. And in its defence, the Israeli government says: “In recent years, other democracies such as Britain, Italy and Canada have used administrative detention when faced with the threat of terrorism or large scale civil disorder.”

But the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, says: “While detainees may appeal, neither they nor their attorneys are allowed to see the evidence.

“Israel has therefore made a charade out of the entire system of procedural safeguards in both domestic and international law regarding the right to liberty and due process,” the group says.

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