Birzeit Diary
Early March 1996
"After the bus bombings", Birzeit students in Palestinian detention, part 1
Photo: The Subbah brothers in prison - Bassim, Fakhri, Zaher (L-R)

After the bus bombings

Following the four late-February/early-March bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, we witnessed a two-month long Palestinian Authority (PA) arrest sweep of around 900 people, now a common feature of the landscape here.

The international media reported the bombings and subsequent arrest sweep without ever questioning exactly how they were actually related.

The Subbah brothers, one of whom I knew from his time at Birzeit University before he graduated, and many others like them, had quite a time of it during this period.

Bassim (far left in photo), a physics teacher in a Ramallah school since his graduation from Birzeit University last summer, was arrested by Palestinian Police on 8 March.

Two days later, they came looking for his brother Fakhri (centre in photo), who graduated at the same time to become a computer teacher in another school. Instead, the police found their younger brother (far right in photo), an electrical engineering student in his 5th year at Birzeit.

"Are you Fakhri Subbah?" they asked him.

"No, I'm Zaher," he replied.

"You'll do," they told him, "Get in the jeep."

Fakhri was arrested later that day. All three were taken to the Ramallah Muqata'a (District Headquarters) of the Palestinian Authority, and incarcerated in this former Israeli prison along with around 85 others. There they have remained, without charge or trial. On their third day a member of the Mukhabarat (Intelligence) told all the prisoners:

"You are here because you fall into three groups. Group A are those Israel wants in prison. Group B are those the Palestinian Authority want in prison. Group C are those to make up the quota to keep Israel happy. Most of you are Group C."
With the proximity of the Israeli elections, this did not bode well for a quick release.

Photo: Bassim's shoes - see caption below
Above: Bassim Subbah's shoes, with laces removed by the prison guards.
"Other people were allowed to keep theirs," he told me,
"there is no reason for it. The Palestinin guards just did
what they had seen Israeli prison guards do".

The arbitrary nature of their detention was underlined when bearded Ramallan Mustapha Jarra' visited the prison in early April to bring a friend some food. "You look like a HAMAS member," said a guard, "you can stay." Stay he did, for one month, until relative Bourghan Jarra' on the Palestinian Legislative Council managed to secure his release. I am not making this up.

During the first few days of their detention, the prisoners were told by PA officials that they were there for their own protection from Israel. "Now," says Fakhri Subbah, "it is clear that we are prisoners." Around the same time, Sa'eb Abu Walid, Political Officer for the Ramallah Area, reportedly told representatives from the prisoners' committee: "We are one people, we must cooperate with each other. The PNA does not have much money, you must pay for the cost of your food. You are our guests here at your own expense."

The prisoners are required to pay for their own medicine and many who were slightly ill when they came have seen their condition worsen during their detention. One guard told them to "first dampen and then toast" stale bread they had been given, to make it edible. Another time, the guards brought them fruit, bragging it had been confiscated from villagers selling without a license in the Ramallah market. The prisoners refused to take the food. On more than one occasion, the prisoners have been given rotten vegetables, although recently some have been given short furloughs to shop at the market. "We do not rely," said Fakhri Subbah, "on the food provided by the authorities."

Generally, the prisoners bear no ill feeling towards their guards. Many stated that, "They are our brothers. They did not put us here. It is the highest officials that have made this decision." Nevertheless, intra-Palestinian relations have been further strained by these kind of Israel-placating measures, with many detainees having brothers and cousins who work for the Palestinian Authority. "It's difficult for our families to understand," said one, who wished to remain anonymous. His mother is convinced, he added, that "at least a Palestinian prison is better than an Israeli one."

Photo: See caption below
Above: A student stares out from behin a barred cell in the Muqata.

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