Category Archives: Political Prisoners

Beating the US “Veto”: Palestinians Need Urgent Protection from Israel

What is taking place in Palestine is not a ‘conflict’.  We readily utilize the term but, in fact, the word ‘conflict’ is misleading. It equates between oppressed Palestinians and Israel, a military power that stands in violation of numerous United Nations Resolutions.

It is these ambiguous terminologies that allow the likes of United States UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, to champion Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’, as if the militarily occupied and colonized Palestinians are the ones threatening the security of their occupier and tormentor.

In fact, this is precisely what Haley has done to counter a draft UN Security Council Resolution presented by Kuwait to provide a minimum degree of protection for Palestinians. Haley vetoed the draft, thus continuing a grim legacy of US defense of Israel, despite the latter’s ongoing violence against Palestinians.

It is no surprise that out of the 80 vetoes exercised by the US at the UNSC, the majority were unleashed to protect Israel. The first such veto for Israel’s sake was in September 1972 and the latest, used by Haley, was on June 1.

Before it was put to the vote, the Kuwaiti draft was revised three times in order to ‘water it down’. Initially, it called for the protection of the Palestinian people from Israeli violence.

The final draft merely called for “The consideration of measures to guarantee the safety and protection of the Palestinian civilian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in the Gaza Strip.”

Still, Haley found the language “grossly one-sided.”

The near consensus in support of the Kuwait draft was met with complete rejection of Haley’s own draft resolution which demanded Palestinian groups cease “all violent provocative actions” in Gaza.

The ‘provocative actions’ being referred to in Haley’s draft is the mass mobilization by tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, who have been peacefully protesting for weeks, hoping that their protests will place the Israeli siege on Gaza back on the UN agenda.

Haley’s counter draft resolution did not garner a single vote in favor, save that of Haley’s own.  But such humiliation at the international stage is hardly of essence to the US, which has wagered its international reputation and foreign policy to protect Israel at any cost, even from unarmed observers whose job is merely to report on what they see on the ground.

The last such ‘force’ was that of 60 – later increased to 90 – members of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH).

TIPH was established in May 1996 and has filed many reports on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian city, especially in Area H-2, a small part of the city that is controlled by the Israeli army to protect some of the most violent illegal Jewish settlers.

Jan Kristensen, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Norwegian army who headed TIPH had these words to say, following the completion of his one-year mission in Hebron in 2004:

The activity of the settlers and the army in the H-2 area of Hebron is creating an irreversible situation. In a sense, cleansing is being carried out. In other words, if the situation continues for another few years, the result will be that no Palestinians will remain there.

One can only imagine what has befallen Hebron since then. The army and Jewish settlers have become so emboldened to the extent that they execute Palestinians in cold blood with little or no consequence.

One such episode became particularly famous, for it was caught on camera. On March 24, 2015, an Israeli soldier carried out a routine operation by shooting in the head an incapacitated Palestinian.

The execution of Abd al-Fattah al-Sharif, 21, was filmed by Imad Abushamsiya. The viral video caused Israel massive embarrassment, forcing it to hold a sham trial in which the Israeli soldier who killed al-Sharif received a light sentence; he was later released to a reception fit for heroes.

Abushamsiya, who filmed the murder, however, was harassed by both the Israeli army and police and received numerous death threats.

The Israeli practice of punishing the messenger is not new. The mother of Ahed Tamimi, Nariman, who filmed her teenage daughter confronting armed Israeli soldiers was also detained and sentenced.

Israel has practically punished Palestinians for recording their own subjugation by Israeli troops while, at the same time, empowering these very soldiers to do as they please; it is now in the process of turning this everyday reality into actual law.

A bill at the Israeli Knesset was put forward late May that prohibits “photographing and documenting (Israeli occupation) soldiers”, and criminalizing “anyone who filmed, photographed and/or recorded soldiers in the course of their duty.”

The bill, which is supported by Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, demands a five-year imprisonment term for violators.

The bill practically means that any form of monitoring of Israeli soldiers is a criminal act. If this is not a call for perpetual war crimes, what is?

Just to be sure, a second bill is proposing to give immunity to soldiers suspected of criminal activities during military operations.

The bill is promoted by deputy Defense Minister, Eli Ben Dahan, and is garnering support at the Knesset.

“The truth is that Ben Dahan’s bill is entirely redundant,” wrote Orly Noy in the Israeli 972 Magazine.

Noy cited a recent report by the Israeli human rights organization ‘Yesh Din’ which shows that “soldiers who allegedly commit crimes against the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories enjoy near-full immunity.”

Now, Palestinians are more vulnerable than ever before, and Israel, with the help of its American enablers, is more brazen than ever.

This tragedy cannot continue. The international community and civil society organizations, – independent of the US government and its shameful vetoes – must undertake the legal and moral responsibility to monitor Israeli action and to provide meaningful protection for Palestinians.

Israel should not have free reign to abuse Palestinians at will, and the international community should not stand by and watch the bloody spectacle as it continues to unfold.

Rebuffed Parliamentary Bills Foil Efforts to End Israeli Apartheid

For most of the seven decades after its establishment, Israel went to extraordinary lengths to craft an image of itself as a “light unto the nations”.

It claimed to have “made the desert bloom” by planting forests over the razed houses of 750,000 Palestinians it exiled in 1948. Soldiers in the “most moral army in the world” reputedly cried as they were compelled to shoot Palestinian “infiltrators” trying to return home. And all this occurred in what Israelis claimed was the Middle East’s “only democracy”.

An industry known as hasbara – a euphemism for propaganda – recruited Jews in Israel and abroad to a campaign to persuade the world that the Palestinians’ dispossession was for the good of mankind. Israel’s achievements in science, agriculture and medicine were extolled.

But in a more interconnected world, that propaganda campaign is swiftly unravelling. Phone cameras now record “moral” soldiers executing unarmed Palestinians in Gaza or beating up children in Hebron.

The backlash, including a growing international boycott movement, has driven Israel’s right wing into even greater defiance and self-righteousness. It no longer conceals its goal to aggressively realise a longed-for “Greater Israel”.

A parallel process is overtaking Israel’s traditional left but has been far less noticed. It too is stubbornly committed to its ideological legacy – the creation of a supposed “Jewish and democratic state” after 1948.

And just as the immorality of Israel’s belligerent rule in the occupied territories is under ever greater scrutiny, so too is its claim to be a democracy conferring equal rights on all citizens.

Israel includes a large minority of 1.8 million Palestinian citizens, the remnants of those who survived the expulsions required for its creation. Although Palestinian citizens have the vote, it was an easy generosity after Israel gerrymandered the electoral constituency in 1948 to ensure Palestinians remained a permanent and decisive minority.

In a system of residential apartheid, Palestinian citizens have been confined to ghettos on a tiny fraction of land while Israel has “nationalised” 93 per cent of its territory for Jews around the world.

But after decades of repression, including an initial 20 years living under military rule, the Palestinian minority has gradually grown more confident in highlighting Israel’s political deficiencies.

In recent days, Palestinian legislators have submitted three legislative measures before parliament to explode the illusion that Israel is a western-style liberal democracy.

None stood the faintest chance of being passed in a system rigged to keep Palestinian lawmakers out of any of Israel’s complex but entirely Zionist coalition governments.

The first measure sought to revoke the quasi-governmental status of major international Zionist organisations like the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Jewish Agency.

Although they are treated like state bodies, these organisations are obligated through their charters to discriminate in allocating state resources and rights to Jews around the world rather than to Israelis. The aim is to exclude Palestinian citizens from major state benefits.

The JNF bans access for non-Jews to most land in Israel and develops new communities exclusively for Jews, while the Jewish Agency restricts immigration and associated perks to Jews alone.

The bill – designed to end decades of explicit discrimination against one fifth of Israel’s citizenry – was defeated when all the Jewish parties voted against it. Zuheir Bahloul, the sole Palestinian legislator in Zionist Union, the centre-left party once called Labour, was furiously denounced by Jewish colleagues for breaking ranks and voting for the bill.

That was no surprise. The party’s previous leader, Isaac Herzog, is the frontrunner to become the next chair of the Jewish Agency. Israel’s left still venerates these organisations that promote ethnic privileges – for Jews – of a sort once familiar from apartheid South Africa.

Mr Bahloul also found himself in the firing line after he submitted a separate bill requiring that for the first time the principle of equality be enshrined in all 11 Basic Laws, Israel’s equivalent of a constitution. The proposal was roundly defeated, including by his own party.

The third measure was a bill demanding that Israel be reformed from a Jewish state into a state of all its citizens, representing all equally. In a highly irregular move, a committee dominated by Jewish legislators voted to disqualify the bill last week from even being allowed a hearing on the parliament floor.

The parliament’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, warned that the measure would alter Israel’s character by giving Jewish and Palestinian citizens “equal status”. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein called the bill “preposterous”. “Any intelligent individual can see it must be blocked immediately,” he said.

Law professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, meanwhile, conceded that the bill exposed Israeli democracy as “fundamentally flawed”.

These three bills from Palestinian legislators might have redressed some of the inequities contained in nearly 70 Israeli laws that, according to Adalah, a legal rights group, explicitly discriminate based on ethnicity.

Paradoxically, the number of such laws has grown prolifically in recent years as Adalah and others have challenged Jewish privileges in the courts.

The Israeli left and right have joined forces to shore up these threatened racist practices through new legislation – secure that an intimidated supreme court will not dare revoke the will of parliament.

The reality is that left-wing Israelis – shown beyond doubt that their state is not the liberal democracy they imagined – have hurried to join the right in silencing critics and implementing harsher repression.

Palestinian citizens who peacefully protested against the massacre of demonstrators in Gaza by army snipers were assaulted in police custody last month. One arrested civil society leader had his knee broken. There have been barely any objections, even on the left.

Today, Israelis are hunkering down. Boycott activists from abroad are denied entry. Unarmed Palestinian demonstrators have been gunned down in Gaza. And critics inside Israel are silenced or beaten up.

All these responses have the same end in mind: to block anything that might burst the bubble of illusions and threaten Israelis’ sense of moral superiority.

First published in The National

Diagnosing the West with Sadistic Personality Disorder (SPD)

Western culture is clearly obsessed with rules, guilt, submissiveness and punishment.

By now it is clear that the West is the least free society on Earth. In North America and Europe, almost everyone is under constant scrutiny: people are spied on, observed, their personal information is being continually extracted, and the surveillance cameras are used indiscriminately.

Life is synchronized and managed. There are hardly any surprises.

One can sleep with whomever he or she wishes (as long as it is done within the ‘allowed protocol’). Homosexuality and bisexuality are allowed. But that is about all; that is how far ‘freedom’ usually stretches.

Rebellion is not only discouraged, it is fought against, brutally. For the tiniest misdemeanors or errors, people end up behind bars. As a result, the U.S. has more prisoners per capita than any other country on Earth, except the Seychelles.

And as a further result, almost all conversations, but especially public discourses, are now being controlled by so-called ‘political correctness’ and its variants.

But back to the culture of fear and punishment.

Look at the headlines of the Western newspapers. For example, The New York Times from April 12. 2018: “Punishment of Syria may be harsher this time”.

We are so used to such perverse language used by the Empire that it hardly strikes us as twisted, bizarre, pathological.

It stinks of some sadomasochistic cartoon, or of a stereotypical image of an atrocious English teacher holding a ruler over a pupil’s extended hands, shouting, “Shall I?”

Carl Gustav Jung described Western culture, on several occasions, as a “pathology”. He did it particularly after WWII, but he mentioned that the West had been committing terrible crimes in all parts of the world, for centuries. That is most likely why the Western mainstream psychiatrists and psychologists have been glorifying the ego-centric and generally apolitical Sigmund Freud, while ignoring, even defaming, Carl Gustav Jung.

Poster of human zoo at Military Museum in Paris (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

The extreme form of sadism is a medical condition; it is an illness. And the West has been clearly demonstrating disturbing and dangerous behavioral patterns for many centuries.

Let’s look at the definition of sadism, or professionally, Sadistic Personality Disorder (SPD), which both the United States and Europe could easily be diagnosed with.

This is an excerpt of a common definition of the SPD, which appears in and on many other on-line sites:

…The sadistic personality disorder is characterized by a pattern of gratuitous cruelty, aggression, and demeaning behaviors which indicate the existence of deep-seated contempt for other people and an utter lack of empathy. Some sadists are “utilitarian”: they leverage their explosive violence to establish a position of unchallenged dominance within a relationship…

It is familiar, isn’t it? The Empire’s behavior towards Indochina, China, Indonesia, Africa, Latin America, Russia, the Middle East and other parts of the world.

US sponsored coup in Chile on 9-11-1973 (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

What about the symptoms?

…Sadistic individuals have poor behavioral controls, manifested by a short temper, irritability, low frustration tolerance, and a controlling nature. From an interpersonal standpoint, they are noted to be harsh, hostile, manipulative, lacking in empathy, cold-hearted, and abrasive to those they deem to be their inferiors. Their cognitive nature is considered rigid and prone to social intolerance, and they are fascinated by weapons, war, and infamous crimes or perpetrators of atrocities. Sadists classically are believed to seek social positions that enable them to exercise their need to control others and dole out harsh punishment or humiliation…

Just translate “sadistic individuals” to “sadistic states”, or “sadistic culture”.

Is there any cure? Can a sadist be effectively and successfully treated?

Treating a sadistic personality disorder takes a long time…

And many sites and publications carry a clear disclaimer:

The above information is for processing purpose. The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency…

And humanity is right now clearly at the crossroads, facing annihilation, not only a ‘medical emergency’. The world may soon have to literally fight for its survival. It is because of the SPD of the West and its Empire.


So, what is in store for us now; for instance, for Syria?

What will the sadistic psychopath do to a country that refused to kneel, to prostitute itself, to beg for mercy, to sacrifice its people?

How horrible will the “punishment” be?

We have just witnessed 103 missiles being fired towards Damascus and Homs. But that is only what the Empire did to entertain its masses. It has been doing much more evil and cruel things to the nation which constantly refuses to glorify the Western imperialist and its neocon dogmas. For instance, the Empire’s ‘professionals’ have been manufacturing, training and arming the most atrocious terrorist groups and injecting them into the body of Syria.

The torture will, of course, continue. It clearly appears that this time the script will be based on some latter adaptation of the Marquise de Sade’s work, on his novel Juliette, not Justine. You see, in Justine, women were ‘only’ tied up, slapped and raped. In Juliette, they were cut to pieces, alive; they were burned and mutilated.

While Justine can still be read, no normal human being could go through the 700 pages of pure gore that is Juliette.

But our planet has somehow got used to the horrors that have been administered by the sick Western Empire.

People watch occurrences in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or Libya as ‘news’, not as the medical record of a severely ill psychiatric patient.

The most terrible ‘novel’ in the history of our Planet has been written, for centuries, by the appalling brutality and sadism of first Europe and then by its younger co-author – the United States.

And the human beings in many parts of our Planet have gotten so used to the carnage which surrounds them that they do not throw up anymore; they do not feel horrified, do not revolt against their fate. They just watch, as one country after another falls; is violated publicly, gets ravaged.

The mental illness of the perpetrator is undeniable. And it is contagious.

Names of, and photos of, murdered Chilean people by pro-US military junta (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

In turn, the extreme violence that has been engulfing the world has triggered various neuroses and mental conditions (masochism, extreme forms of submission, to name just two of many) among the victims.


Exposure to the constant and extreme violence ‘prescribed’ and administered by the West, has left most of the world in a neurotic lethargy.

Like a woman locked in a marriage with a brutal religious fanatic husband in some oppressive society, the world has eventually stopped resisting against the Western dictates and tyranny, and ‘accepted its fate’.

Many parts of the planet have developed ‘Stockholm Syndrome’: after being kidnapped, imprisoned, tormented, raped and humiliated, the victims have ‘fallen in love’ with their tyrant, adopting his worldview, while serving him full-heartedly and obediently.

This arrangement, of course, has nothing to do with the healthy or natural state of things!

Poster of Human Zoo at Military Museum, Paris (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

In Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia, bizarre things are happening! People from those nations that have been robbed and devastated for centuries by the European and North American despots, have been flying happily and proudly to Paris, Berlin, London, Madrid, New York and other Western cities, in order to ‘learn’, to ‘study’ how to govern their own countries. There is usually no shame, and no stigma attached to such obvious intellectual prostitution.

Many victims are still dreaming about becoming like their victimizers, or even more so.

Many former and modern-day colonies of the West are listening, with straight faces, to the Europeans preaching to them (for a fee) about ‘good governance’, an ‘anti-corruption drive’ and ‘democracy’.

The media outlets of non-Western nations are taking news reports directly from Western press agencies. Even local political events are explained by those ‘wise’ and ‘superior’ Europeans and North Americans, not by the local thinkers. Locals are hardly ever trusted – only white faces with polished English, French or German accents are taken seriously.

Perverse? Is it perverse? Of course, it is! Many servile intellectuals from the ‘client’ states, when confronted, admit how sick the continuous global dictatorship is. Then they leave the table and continue to do what they have been doing for years and decades; the oldest profession in short.

Freedom Equality Brotherhood. For French maybe but not for colonized Vietnamese (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

Such a situation is truly insane. Or at least it is extremely paradoxical, bizarre, absurd. Even a mental clinic appears to make more sense than our beloved planet Earth.

However, clinical psychiatrists and psychologists are very rarely involved in analyzing the neuroses and psychological illnesses of the brutalized and colonized planet. They hardly ever ‘analyze’ the perpetrators, let alone expose them for what they really are.

Most of psychologists and psychiatrists are busy digging gold: encouraging human egotism, or even serving big corporations that are trying to ‘understand their employees better’, in order to control and to exploit them more effectively. Other ‘doctors’ go so far as to directly serve the Empire, helping to oppress and to ‘pacify’ the billions living in the colonies and new colonies of the West.

In 2015, I was invited as one of the speakers to the 14th International Symposium on the Contributions of Psychology to Peace, held in Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa (hosted by legendary UNISA).

During that fascinating encounter of the leading global psychologists, I spoke about the impact of wars and imperialism on the human psyche, but I also listened, attentively. And I learned many shocking things. For instance, during his chilling presentation, “Human Rights and U. S. Psychologists’ Wrongs: The Undermining of Professional Ethics in an Era of ‘Enhanced Interrogation’”, Professor Michael Wessells from Columbia University, New York, spoke about U.S. psychologists and their participation in torturing political prisoners.

Instead of diagnosing the Empire with SPD and other violent and dangerous conditions, many psychologists are actually helping to torture those who are opposing this unacceptable arrangement of the world.


Those who refuse to ‘learn from the West’, to fall in love with it, or at least to serve it faithfully, are being brutally punished.

Lashes are hitting exposed flesh. Entire nations are being destroyed, genocides distributed to all continents. East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq: it never stops.

I follow the discourses of the US and especially British UN delegations, ‘discussing’ Syria and even Russia. What comes to my mind is Punjab in India. I recall those old, historic photos of Indian men being hanged by the Brits, pants down, and flogged in public.


They have been doing this kind of stuff for centuries. They like it. It clearly excites them. This is their democracy, their respect for human rights and for other cultures!

If someone refuses to take his or her pants down, they catch the person, rape him or her, then do the flogging anyway.

I also recall what my Ugandan friend used to tell me:

When the Brits came to Africa, to what is now Uganda, their army would enter our villages and first thing they’d do was to select the tallest and strongest man around. They’d then tie him up, face towards the tree. Then the British commander would rape, sodomize him in front of everybody. This was how they showed the locals who is charge.

Brits enjoying Africa

How symbolic!

How healthy is the culture that has been controlling our world for centuries!

One of the most frightening things about mental illnesses is that the patient usually does not realize that he or she is suffering from them.

It is about the time for the rest of the world to treat the West as a mental patient, not as the ‘leader of the free and democratic world’.

We have to think, to gather, to develop a strategy of how to deal with this unfortunate, in fact, terrible situation!

If we refuse to understand and to act, we may all end up in the most dangerous situation: as complacent servants of the perverse whims of a frustrated, extremely aggressive and truly dangerous SPD patient.

Israel’s Shin Bet to Face First-Ever Torture Probe

For the first time in its history, an interrogator from Israel’s secret police agency, the Shin Bet, is to face a criminal investigation over allegations of torture.

It will be the first probe of the Shin Bet since Israel’s supreme court issued a landmark ruling nearly two decades ago prohibiting, except in extraordinary circumstances, the use of what it termed “special methods” of interrogation.

Before the ruling, physical abuse of Palestinians had been routine and resulted in several deaths in custody.

According to human rights groups, however, the supreme court ban has had a limited impact. The Shin Bet, formally known as the Israel Security Agency, has simply been more careful about hiding its use of torture, they say.

More than 1,000 complaints from Palestinians have been submitted to a government watchdog body over the past 18 years, but this is the first time one has led to a criminal investigation.

Many Palestinians are jailed based on confessions either they or other Palestinians make during Shin Bet questioning. Israeli military courts almost never examine how such confessions were obtained or whether they are reliable, say lawyers, contributing to a 99.7 percent conviction rate.

Last month, in freeing a Palestinian man who was jailed based on a false confession, an Israeli court accused the Shin Bet of using techniques that were “liable to induce innocent people to admit to acts that they did not commit”.

‘Exception proves the rule’

But rights groups have told Al Jazeera the current investigation of the Shin Bet agent is unlikely to bring an end to the long-standing impunity of interrogators, or a change in its practices.

Instead, they noted, an updated decision last month on torture from the Israeli supreme court, revising the 1999 landmark ruling, had moved the goalposts significantly in the Shin Bet’s favour.

Hassan Jabareen, director of Adalah, a legal rights group representing Israel’s large Palestinian minority, said: “This case is the exception that proves the rule – one investigation after many hundreds of complaints have been ignored.

“It will be promoted to suggest – wrongly – that the system has limits, that it respects the rule of law.”

That view was shared by Rachel Stroumsa, head of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, which has submitted many of the 1,100 complaints of torture filed against the Shin Bet.

She told Al Jazeera that Israel was “highly unusual” in making legal justifications for interrogation practices that clearly violated the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which Israel ratified in 1991.

The convention forbids intentionally inflicting “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental” on those in detention to gain information.

The 1999 ruling by the Israeli supreme court banned torture except in extremely rare cases of “necessity”, or what it termed “ticking bombs” – suspects from whom it was essential to gain information quickly.

But Stroumsa said the large number of complaints from Palestinians submitted to Mivtan, a watchdog body in the justice ministry, indicated that the Shin Bet had never stopped using torture.

Mivtan’s consistent failure

The justice ministry has refused to divulge details of the criminal investigation, apart from saying it refers to “a field interrogation” in 2015. Field interrogations are usually conducted moments after a Palestinian has been seized by security forces.

Speaking of the case at the weekend, Emi Palmor, director general of the justice ministry, said that this was “the first case that will be translated, presumably, into an indictment”.

Stroumsa said the investigation was not in response to a complaint her committee had filed. Israeli media have speculated that the case may have progressed only because it was supported by testimony from another Israeli intelligence agent.

Rights groups have been harshly critical of Mivtan over its consistent failure to investigate Palestinian complaints of torture.

For most of its history, the unit was part of the Shin Bet and employed only one investigator.

But following criticism in 2013 from a state inquiry, the Turkel Commission, Mivtan was transferred to the justice ministry. Last year it recruited a second investigator, who reportedly speaks Arabic.

Prisoners ‘feel buried’

Before the 1999 ruling, the Shin Bet was regularly accused of violently shaking prisoners and beating them, including by banging their heads against a wall.

According to testimonies, the Shin Bet still uses physical violence, though less routinely, including choking, forcing victims into stress positions that cause intense pain, and tightly cuffing their hands to prevent blood flow.

But the Shin Bet is reported now to prioritise mental torture that does not leave tell-tale signs doctors could identify. These include threats of physical and sexual violence, including against family members, interrogation lasting for days, sleep deprivation, and prolonged exposure to loud music.

Palestinians are often denied access to daylight, sometimes for weeks, so they become disoriented. “They are completely isolated – they feel buried. They don’t know when their interrogation will end or how it will end,” Anat Litvin, a researcher for Physicians for Human Rights Israel told Al Jazeera.

She added that it was often hard to prove torture because the Shin Bet denied requests for doctors to inspect prisoners. “That creates a vicious circle – those who are tortured cannot prove they were because there is no documentation.”

Even so, she said, doctors usually only recorded bumps and bruises without noting claims from Palestinians that their injuries were inflicted by their interrogators.

Last year an unnamed senior interrogator confirmed that the agency uses torture to the Haaretz newspaper. He said agents were required to record details of how many blows they inflicted and what painful positions they used on detainees. Interrogators concentrated on sensitive regions such as the nose, ears and lips.

In an indication of high-level support for torture in Israel, he said logs were sent afterwards to the attorney general, Israel’s chief law officer.

“Israel is a torturing society,” said Litvin. “It requires that all levels of the system turn a blind eye – the Shin Bet, investigators, government officials, the courts, and doctors. There has to be a climate that allows this to happen.”

Interrogations not recorded

A global survey by the International Red Cross in 2016 found more support for torture in Israel than any other country apart from Nigeria. Half of Israelis backed its use, with only a quarter opposed.

Stroumsa said: “The fact is many Israelis can live with these things as long as they are being done in the dark, out of view, without any documentation. They assume all cases of torture are ‘ticking bombs’.”

Efforts to prove torture have also been hampered by an emergency order passed in 2002, in the wake of the supreme court ruling, that exempts Shin Bet interrogations from being recorded on video.

In 2015 the cabinet justified the exemption on the grounds that video recording “could cause real damage to the quality of the interrogation and the ability to investigate security offenses”.

Stroumsa noted that, aside from the moral problem, research has shown that torture is ineffective. A US Senate report, published in 2014, concluded that it was “not an effective means of obtaining accurate information”.

Ticking bomb ‘loophole’

Nonetheless, the signs are that the Israeli courts are rolling back the restrictions on torture they put in place at the end of the 1990s.

Last month the supreme court issued a ruling in the case of Assad Abu Ghosh, a Hamas activist who, the Israeli state admits, was subjected to “special methods” of interrogation in 2007.

According to a petition to the court from the Public Committee, he was beaten and repeatedly slammed against a wall, and forced into the “banana position”, putting extreme pressure on his back. Abu Ghosh was left with neurological damage as a result.

Human rights groups had hoped the court would close the ticking bomb “loophole”, which has allowed the Shin Bet to carry on torturing prisoners, or at least more tightly control the kinds of methods they use.

Instead, said Jabareen, of Adalah, the ruling appeared to give greater licence to the Shin Bet to use torture.

“It is now enough that the [Shin Bet] agent believes subjectively that the prisoner is a ‘ticking bomb’, even in the absence of objective facts to support that belief,” he said. “His actions will not be treated as criminal in nature because they are assumed to be done in good faith.”

Stroumsa said she found the judges’ ruling in the Abu Ghosh case “astonishing”, given the injunction in international law against torture.

“The court ruled that, even if technically in international law interrogation methods were considered torture, in Israel they were not regarded as such. The judges effectively gave the Shin Bet a green light to continue with torture.”

• First published in Al Jazeera

A Moment of Significance and Opportunity for Ethiopia

Since November 2015 unprecedented protests have been taking place in Ethiopia: angry and frustrated at the widespread abuse of human rights and the centralization of power in the hands of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) tens of thousands have taken to the streets. The ruling party’s response to this democratic outpouring has been consistently violent; hundreds have been killed and beaten by security forces, tens of thousands arrested and imprisoned.

In an attempt to gag the people, a highly repressive State of Emergency was imposed in August 2016. It failed, the protests continued, the movement strengthened. The regime then tried to inflame ancient ethnic differences amongst various groups by staging attacks using plain clothed security personnel. In the border region of Oromo and the Ogaden Tesfaye Robela of the Ethiopian Parliament claims that over 10,000 people have been killed. ESAT News (the sole Ethiopian independent broadcaster) quotes the findings of a parliamentary report into the ethnic clashes, which concluded that: “based on interviews with victims of the violence, squarely puts the blame on Somali Region Special Police, local police and militia for perpetrating the killings.” The Liyu Police is controlled by the Ethiopian military.

Despite these attempts to extinguish the movement for change, the people of Ethiopia are continuing to demand freedom, justice and democracy; this time they will not be silenced. The minority powers within the ruling EPRDF coalition – The Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) have been empowered by the popular uprising and there are signs that they are at last standing up to the majority TPLF members. Under pressure from the OPDO and ASDM and in a further attempt to distract attention from the protests and undermine the protestors’ claims, on 3rd January the government put out a convoluted statement relating to political prisoners.

The Prime-Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said that the regime would release “some political prisoners”, prisoners that for the last 27 years they have denied even existed. ESAT News (which is based in Europe and America) reports he went on to announce that, “members of political parties and other individuals would be released to widen the political and democratic space” and that “the government would review the cases of certain individuals affiliated with political parties, including party leaders, [and] in some cases, charges would be dropped or people would be released or pardoned, depending on investigation results.”

His words, which have been widely reported in mainstream media, were not only disingenuous, they were ambiguous and inconclusive. He failed to acknowledge that those imprisoned for expressing political dissent had been falsely incarcerated; repeatedly stating they were behind bars because they were guilty of breaking the law.

Whilst the release of any political prisoners at all would be a move in the right direction, in its present form the policy, if indeed it is a policy and not simply a public relations exercise aimed at international benefactors, is an insult to the thousands languishing in prison for no other reason than they disagree with the ruling TPLF. The statement is inadequate and needs clarification: who will be considered for release and when? Does it include opposition politicians charged with fictitious terrorist offences under the universally condemned Anti-Terrorist Proclamation of 2009? Will this long-overdue gesture mean that politicians who have been forced to live in exile for fear of arrest and imprisonment can safely return home?

These and other pressing questions need to be raised by opposition groups and human rights organizations, and indeed Ethiopia’s major donors — America, Britain and the European Parliament, all of which have allowed the TPLF to trample on human rights and the people for decades. Intense pressure must be applied on the government to articulate its intentions and, for once in their tyrannical reign, do the right thing and release all political prisoners, including journalists, bloggers, protestors and activists of all kinds.

It was also announced by the PM that Maekelewi prison in Addis Ababa, which has been used as a torture chamber by the TPLF for years, will be closed down, and rather bizarrely, turned into a modern museum, unless common sense prevails and it is demolished. This is a positive development but is again short on detail. There has been no mention of what will happen to the inmates. All political prisoners held there should be released unconditionally, and an independent international monitoring group established to oversee the release and or transfer of all other detainees.

The current of change

Despite being enshrined as rights within Ethiopia’s liberally worded constitution, for over two decades all forms of freedom of speech and political dissent have been virtually outlawed. Anyone who openly disagrees with or questions the ruling party is seen as a threat, and persecuted, arrested, imprisoned and, commonly, tortured. The Anti-Terrorism Act, together with The Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSP), both passed in 2009, are the primary tools of suppression within the regime’s Arsenal of Control.

Both laws have been widely criticized by Human Rights groups; responding to the CSP in 2012 Amnesty International said that, “The law has had a devastating impact on human rights work, both in terms of the practical obstacles it creates for human rights defenders, and in exacerbating the climate of fear in which they operate.” This is, of course, precisely what it was intended to do. Commenting on the Anti-Terrorist Proclamation when it was drafted, Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that it provided “the Ethiopian government with a potent instrument to crack down on political dissent, including peaceful political demonstrations…It would permit [indeed has facilitated] long-term imprisonment and even the death penalty for ‘crimes’ that bear no resemblance, under any credible definition, to terrorism.”

For 27 years the TPLF group within the coalition have dominated all life in the country and like all such tyrannical regimes they have ruled through violence and fear. But we are living in new times; the days of tyrannical regimes are all but over, those that persist are sustained by the polluted energies of the past and are on their death bed. The people of Ethiopia sense that this is their time, that change is not only possible, but is coming.

The government’s half-baked move to release a few political leaders will not appease anyone, but should embolden many. It reveals a crack in the democratic facade presented by the regime, which must be split open under the force of sustained political activism, civil disobedience and public protest.

The minority members of the coalition — the OPDO and ANDM — now have an opportunity, indeed a responsibility, to act boldly, to stand up and take a lead. As representatives of the two largest ethnic groups in the country they are in a position to do a number of things: demand The Anti-Terrorism Act, and The Charities and Societies Proclamation be immediately repealed, compile a comprehensive list of all political prisoners (working in cooperation with Amnesty International or The Ethiopia Human Rights Project), and vigorously press for their immediate release. Then, providing opposition politicians are released and political groups outside the country — including Ginbot 7 — are allowed to operate freely, work vigorously to campaign for fair and open elections (such a thing has never taken place in Ethiopia) to be held sometime in late 2019. This is a moment of significance in the country. There is an unstoppable force for justice and freedom sweeping across the world and Ethiopia is firmly within that current of change.

The “Last Martyr”: Who Killed Kamal Al-Assar?

When I learned of the death of Kamal al-Assar, a few years ago, I was baffled. He was only in his 40s. I remember him in his prime, a young rebel, leading the neighborhood youth, armed with rocks and slingshots, in a hopeless battle against the Israeli army. Understandably, we lost, but we won something far more valuable than a military victory. We reclaimed our identity.

Kamal al-Assar’s mother, Nuseirat Refugee Camp

At every anniversary of the First Palestinian Intifada, a popular uprising that placed the Palestinian people firmly on the map of world consciousness, I think of all the friends and neighbors I have lost, and those I have left behind. The image of Ra’ed Mu’anis, in particular, haunts me. When an Israeli sniper’s bullet plunged into his throat, he ran across the neighborhood to find help before he collapsed at the graffiti-washed walls of my house.

“Freedom. Dignity. Revolution,” was written in large red letters on the wall, a pronouncement signed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Only later I learned that Kamal was the one who carried Ra’ed out of the firing zone. But it was too late. Ra’ed, a skinny and feeble teenager, with a distinct black mark on his forehead had bled alone at the steps of my home. When he was buried, hundreds of refugees descended on the Martyrs Graveyard. They carried Palestinian flags and chanted for the Intifada and the long-coveted freedom. Ra’ed’s mother was too weakened by her grief to join the procession. His father tried to stay strong, but wept uncontrollably instead.

Kamal was revitalized by the Intifada. When the uprising broke out, he emerged from his own solitude. Life made sense once again.

For him, as for me and many of our generation, the Intifada was not a political event. It was an act of personal – as much as collective – liberation: the ability to articulate who we were at a time when all seemed lost. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) languished in Tunisia after being forced to leave Lebanon in 1982. Arab governments seemed to have lost interest in Palestine altogether. Israel emerged triumphant and invincible.

And we – those living under protracted military occupation – felt completely abandoned.

When, on December 8, 1987, thousands took to the streets of Jabaliya Refugee Camp, the Gaza Strip’s largest and poorest camp, the timing and the location of their uprising was most fitting, rational and necessary. Earlier on that day, an Israeli truck had run over a row of cars carrying Palestinian laborers, killing four young men. For Jabaliya, as with the rest of Palestine, it was the last straw.

Responding to the chants and pleas of the Jabaliya mourners, the refugees in my refugee camp – Nuseirat – marched to the Israeli military barracks, known as the ‘tents’, where hundreds of soldiers had tormented my camp’s residents for years.

In the morning of December 9, thousands of Nuseirat youth took to the streets and vowed to avenge the innocent blood of the Jabaliya victims of the previous day. They swung large flags made of silky fabric that swayed beautifully in Gaza’s salty air and, as the momentum grew and they became intoxicated by their own collective chants, they marched to the ‘tents’ where the soldiers were uneasily perched on the tops of watchtowers, hiding behind their binoculars and automatic machine guns.

Within minutes, a war had started and a third generation of refugee-camp-born fellahin peasants stood fearlessly against a well-equipped army that was visibly gripped by fear and confusion. The soldiers wounded many that day and several children were killed.

Kamal was on the front lines. He waved the largest flag, chanting the loudest, threw rocks the furthest and incessantly urged young men not to retreat.

Kamal hated school as well as his teachers. To him they seemed so docile, adhering to the rules of the occupier which decreed that Palestinians not teach their own history, so that the fellahin were denied even the right to remember who they were or where they came from. The Intifada was the paradigm shift that offered an alternative – however temporary, however chaotic – to the methodical humiliation of life under occupation.

Within hours, Kamal felt liberated. He was no longer tucked away in a dark room reading the works of Marx and Gramsci. He was in the streets of Nuseirat fashioning his own utopia.

The Intifada was that transformational period that saved a generation from being entirely lost, and Palestine from being forgotten. It offered a new world, that of solidarity, camaraderie and wild youth who needed no one to speak on their behalf.

Within weeks of bloody clashes in which hundreds of youth fell dead or wounded, the nature of the Intifada became clearer. On one hand, it was a popular struggle of civil disobedience, mass protests, commercial and labor strikes, refusal to pay taxes and so on. On the other hand, militant cells of refugee youth were beginning to organize and leave their mark, as well.

The militancy of the Intifada did not become apparent until later, when the repression by the Israeli government grew more violent. Under the banner of the ‘Iron Fist’ campaign, a new Israeli stratagem was devised, that of the ‘broken bones’ policy. Once captured, youth had their hands and legs broken by soldiers in a systematic and heartless manner. In my neighborhood, children with casts and crutches seemed to outnumber those without.

Kamal was eventually detained from his home. He attempted to escape but the entire neighborhood was teeming with soldiers, who arrived at night as they always do. They commenced the torturous rite in his living room, as his mother – the resilient, Tamam – shoved her body between him and the ruthless men.

When Kamal regained consciousness, he found himself in a small cell, with thick, unwashed walls that felt cold and foreign. He spent most of his prison time in the torture chamber. His survival was itself nothing less than a miracle.

When the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, officially ending the Intifada, Kamal’s generation felt betrayed. Nothing good came out of that ‘peace’, except that a few rich Palestinians grew even richer.

Kamal died a few years ago. I learned that his revolution never ceased. He became a teacher, laboring to reconstruct the history of his people at a local Gaza university. His mother, now an old refugee in Nuseirat, is still heartbroken over her son’s death. She told me that Kamal’s wounds and physical ailments from prison never healed.

Kamal was a martyr, she told me. Perhaps the last martyr in an uprising that was not meant to liberate land, but liberate people from the idea that they were meant to exist as perpetual victims; and it did.

“Ain’t No Such Thing as A Just War”: Ben Salmon, WWI resister

Several days a week, Laurie Hasbrook arrives at the Voices office here in Chicago. She often takes off her bicycle helmet, unpins her pant leg, settles into an office chair and then leans back to give us an update on family and neighborhood news. Laurie’s two youngest sons are teenagers, and because they are black teenagers in Chicago they are at risk of being assaulted and killed simply for being young black men. Laurie has deep empathy for families trapped in war zones. She also firmly believes in silencing all guns.

Lately, we’ve been learning about the extraordinary determination shown by Ben Salmon, a conscientious objector during World War I who went to prison rather than enlist in the U.S. military. Salmon is buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Carmel Cemetery, on the outskirts of Chicago.

In June, 2017, a small group organized by “Friends of Franz and Ben” gathered at Salmon’s gravesite to commemorate his life.

Mark Scibilla Carver and Jack Gilroy had driven to Chicago from Upstate NY, carrying with them a life size icon bearing an image of Salmon, standing alone in what appeared to be desert sands, wearing a prison-issue uniform that bore his official prison number. Next to the icon was a tall, bare, wooden cross. Rev. Bernie Survil, who organized the vigil at Salmon’s grave, implanted a vigil candle in the ground next to the icon. Salmon’s grand-niece had come from Moab, Utah, to represent the Salmon family. Facing our group, she said that her family deeply admired Salmon’s refusal to cooperate with war. She acknowledged that he had been imprisoned, threatened with execution, sent for a psychiatric evaluation, sentenced to 25 years in prison, a sentence which was eventually commuted, and unable to return to his home in Denver for fear of being killed by antagonists. Charlotte Mates expressed her own determination to try and follow in his footsteps, believing we all have a personal responsibility not to cooperate with wars.

Bernie Survil invited anyone in the circle to step forward with a reflection. Mike Bremer, a carpenter who has spent three months in prison for conscientious objection to nuclear weapons, pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and stepped forward to read from an article by Rev. John Dear, written several years ago, in which Dear notes that Ben Salmon made his brave stance before the world had ever heard of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, or Mohandas Gandhi. There was no Catholic Worker, no Pax Christi, and no War Resisters League to support him. He acted alone, and yet he remains connected to a vast network of people who recognize his courage and will continue telling his story to future generations.

Had his wisdom and that of numerous war resisters in the U.S. prevailed, the U.S. would not have entered WW I. The author of War Against War, Michael Kazin, conjectures about how WW I would have ended if the U.S. had not intervened. “The carnage might have continued for another year or two,” Kazin writes, “until citizens in the warring nations, who were already protesting the endless sacrifices required, forced their leaders to reach a settlement. If the Allies, led by France and Britain, had not won a total victory, there would have been no punitive peace treaty like that completed at Versailles, no stab-in-the back allegations by resentful Germans, and thus no rise, much less triumph, of Hitler and the Nazis. The next world war, with its 50 million deaths, would probably not have occurred.”

But the U.S. did enter WWI, and since that time each U.S. war has caused a rise in taxpayer contributions to maintain the MIC, the Military-Industrial complex, with its vise-like grip on educating the U.S. public and marketing U.S. wars. Spending for militarism trumps social spending. Here in Chicago, where the number of people killed by gun violence is the highest in the nation, the U.S. military runs ROTC classes enrolling 9,000 youngsters in Chicago public schools. Imagine if equivalent energies were devoted to promoting means and methods of nonviolence, along with ways to end the war against the environment and creation of “green” jobs among Chicago’s youngest generations.

If we could share Laurie’s revulsion in the face of weapons and inequality, imagine the possible results. We would never tolerate U.S. shipment of weapons to opulent Saudi royals who use their newly purchased laser guided munitions and Patriot missiles to devastate the infrastructure and civilians of Yemen. On the brink of famine and afflicted by an alarming spread of cholera, Yemenis also endure Saudi airstrikes that have wrecked roadways, hospitals and crucial sewage and sanitation infrastructure. 20 million people (in regions long plagued by U.S. gamesmanship), would not be expected to die this year from conflict-driven famine, in near-total media silence. Just four countries, Somaliland, Southern Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen are set to lose fully one third as many people as died in the entirety of the Second World War. None of that would be a normal occurrence in our world. Instead, perhaps religious leaders would vigorously remind us about Ben Salmon’s sacrifice; rather than attend the annual Air and Water show, (a theatrical display of U.S. military might which turns out a million “fans”), Chicagoans would make pilgrimages to the cemetery where Ben is buried.

At this point, Mount Carmel cemetery is known for being the burial place of Al Capone.

The small group at the grave site included a woman from Code Pink, a newly ordained Jesuit priest, several Catholic Workers, several couples who were formerly Catholic religious and have never stopped ministering to others and advocating for social justice, five people who’ve served many months in prison for their conscientious objection to war, and three Chicago area business professionals. We look forward to gatherings, in Chicago and elsewhere, of people who will take up the organizing call of those who celebrated, on July 7th, when representatives of 122 countries negotiated and passed a U.N. ban on nuclear weapons. This event happened while warlords wielding hideous weapons dominated the G20 gathering in Hamburg, Germany.

Laurie envisions building creative, peaceful connections between Chicago youngsters and their counterparts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Gaza, Iraq, and other lands. Ben Salmon guides our endeavors. We hope to again visit Salmon’s grave site on Armistice Day, November 11, when our friends plan to set up a small marker bearing this inscription:

“There is no such thing as a just war.”
— Ben J. Salmon
Oct. 15, 1888 – Feb. 15, 1932

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Ben Salmon, Patron of Conscientious Objectors, Courtesy of Father William Hart

Marwan Barghouti and the Battle of the Empty Stomachs

Perhaps it was fitting that the most significant act of organized mass resistance by Palestinians to the occupation in many years was launched from behind bars. In April of this year more than 1,500 political prisoners began an indefinite hunger strike against their increasingly degrading treatment by the Israeli authorities. Some called it a prison “intifada,” the word Palestinians use for their serial efforts to “shake off” Israeli oppression.

Over the past five decades, Israel’s incarceration industry is reported to have locked away some 800,000 Palestinians, amounting to 40 per cent of the male population. At any moment, there are few families that do not have at least one close relative in jail.

More generally, Palestinians often characterize the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank as giant prisons. Checkpoints, permits, walls, fences, settlements, Jewish-only roads, closed military areas and blockades restrict movement so severely that most Palestinians are effectively confined to open-air cells of varying size. The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s latest book, a history of the occupied territories due out this summer, is titled The Biggest Prison on Earth for that very reason. An act of mass defiance by Palestinian prisoners resonates far beyond the concrete walls of Israel’s three dozen detention centers.

Israel’s treatment of Palestinian prisoners has significantly deteriorated in recent years, with only cursory objections from the International Committee of the Red Cross. A surge in Palestinian inmate numbers over the past 18 months – to 6,500 detainees – has brought the prison population to levels not seen since the early years of the second intifada, some 15 years ago. Overcrowding has pushed the mood among political prisoners to boiling point.

The hunger strike, under the banner “Freedom and Dignity,” was initiated by Marwan Barghouti, the most senior Palestinian official behind bars. One of the leaders of the ruling Fatah movement and the head of its armed resistance at the start of the second intifada, he was sentenced to multiple life terms following his capture in the West Bank in 2002. He has since become the figurehead of the Palestinian prisoners. But more significantly, his status has grown to almost mythic proportions during his long years of incarceration, making him the most popular contender to succeed the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. He is possibly the only Palestinian leader who has the power to unify the Palestinians under occupation in the way the late Yasser Arafat once did.

At the time of writing it is too early to know what course the hunger strike will take. It could lead to the deaths of prisoners, even Barghouti himself, and the eruption of a new intifada. Or Israel could make enough concessions that the prisoners either relent or split sufficiently that the strike becomes ineffective. It has not helped that the prisoners have struggled to attract much visible concern from the international community. As Arundhati Roy, the award-winning Indian writer, has observed, all acts of non-violence, including hunger strikes, work only as spectacle, or theatre. It “needs an audience. What can you do when you have no audience?”

For this reason, it has been difficult for the Palestinians to find an auspicious moment to conduct mass protests. The world’s attention has been elsewhere: on Cairo’s failed Tahrir Square uprisings and the re-consolidation of military rule in Egypt; on the catastrophic fallout from the proxy wars across Israel’s northern border, in Syria; on Washington’s revival of a Cold War with Russia; and most lately, the drama of the US elections and the arrival of a wealthy reality TV star in the White House.

But there are reasons why Barghouti has invested his energies in promoting what Palestinians call “the battle of the empty stomachs.”

Not least, political prisoners face increasingly degrading conditions – a plight that resonates deeply with the Palestinian public. Among the demands are a halt to Israel’s frequent use of detention without trial, and its routine use of torture and solitary confinement as punishment; an end to lengthy and difficult transport between prison and court hearings, when inmates spend hours in the back of sweltering vans without food or water, and are forced to urinate into plastic bottles; the installation of pay phones so that inmates can maintain contact with their families, who increasingly struggle to get permits into Israel for visits; the opportunity to pursue academic studies while in jail, as well as greater access to TV and other media, rights Israel has overturned in recent years; and treatment in hospital, rather than prison clinics, for those with serious medical conditions.

But beyond the justice of the prisoners’ cause, the hunger strike offered a disillusioned, divided and weary Palestinian populace a model of how again to struggle against Israel’s oppressive rule. It offered a kind of struggle that might ultimately unify them.

Journalism as ‘terror attack’

Barghouti explained the reasons for the hunger strike in an opinion piece smuggled out of his cell and published in the international, though not domestic, edition of The New York Times. It was a publishing coup that enraged Israel. One government minister, Michael Oren, likened it to a “journalistic terror attack.”

The Times’ article was a rare break in Barghouti’s enforced silence. Since the Oslo process was initiated in the early 1990s, he is known to have continued as a supporter of the two-state solution, winning him allies on the Israeli left. But his ideas about how to achieve Palestinian statehood appear to have undergone a significant revision during his time in jail.

As one of the leaders of the armed uprising that began in late 2000, he was originally a fervent supporter of the right of Palestinians to use violence to liberate themselves from the occupation, though he stated that armed resistance should take place only in the occupied territories. Since then, watching events unfold from his prison cell, he has become a leading advocate for new strategies of non-violent resistance. His article in The New York Times offers insights into his changed thinking.

The refusal of food was, he wrote, a protest against Israel’s system of “mass arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners” – many of them at the forefront of the armed Palestinian struggle against the occupation. Israel, he added, had constructed an “inhumane system of colonial and military occupation [designed] to break the spirit of prisoners and the nation to which they belong, by inflicting suffering on their bodies, separating them from their families and communities, using humiliating measures to compel subjugation.”

Underscoring the point that the thousands of Palestinians currently in Israeli jails are suffering only a more severe form of confinement than their families outside, he continued: “Freedom and dignity are universal rights that are inherent in humanity, to be enjoyed by every nation and all human beings. Palestinians will not be an exception. Only ending occupation will end this injustice.”

In line with his new approach, he described the hunger strike as “the most peaceful form of resistance available. It inflicts pain solely on those who participate and on their loved ones, in the hopes that their empty stomachs and their sacrifice will help the message resonate beyond the confines of their dark cells.”

Barghouti noted his own, typical experiences of detention, including at age 18 being beaten on the genitals during an interrogation. His tormentors mocked him, saying it would be better if he did not have children because Palestinians “give birth only to terrorists and murderers.” He defied his captors, although he was again behind bars when his first son was born. Qassam was named for Izzeldin al-Qassam, the leader of the Palestinian revolt against British rule in Palestine in the late 1930s. Qassam would begin his own rite of passage in an Israeli jail shortly after his own 18th birthday.

Barghouti, aged 59 and a father of four, has served most of his sentence in Hadarim prison, not far from the Israeli coastal city of Netanya. But in an attempt to break up the hunger strike, the Israeli authorities immediately transferred him to another jail, Kishon, near Haifa, where he was placed in solitary confinement.

All but one of the prisons holding Palestinians are located inside Israel. This is a serious, though rarely mentioned, violation of international law, which defines the transfer of prisoners out of occupied territory as a war crime. As Barghouti observed, by moving Palestinian prisoners out of the occupied territories Israel has been able to “restrict family visits and to inflict suffering on prisoners through long transports under cruel conditions.” He speaks from bitter personal experience. He is allowed to see each of his four children once a year on average, and has never been permitted to see his grandchildren because they are not “first-degree relatives.”

Despite Israel labeling Palestinian prisoners “terrorists,” Barghouti noted that the occupation army can seize anyone: “children, women, parliamentarians, activists, journalists, human rights defenders, academics, political figures, militants, bystanders, family members of prisoners. And all with one aim: to bury the legitimate aspirations of an entire nation.”

Once arrested, imprisonment is largely a foregone conclusion in a military court system enforcing “judicial apartheid.” Inside prison, Palestinians “have suffered from torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, and medical negligence.” As many as 200 prisoners have died because of such abuses since 1967, wrote Barghouti. He himself has been placed in isolation more than two dozen times in the past 15 years – a punishment the United Nation’s special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, wants banned as “cruel and degrading.”

Comparisons with Mandela

Since his jailing in 2002, Barghouti has been repeatedly described as the Palestinians’ Nelson Mandela, the black African National Congress leader who led the long and ultimately successful struggle against South Africa’s apartheid regime. It is a comparison he has been understandably happy to cultivate in a Palestinian national movement that is, at present, desperately short of icons.

In his New York Times article, he called the hunger strike part of the Palestinians’ “long walk to freedom,” the title of Mandela’s autobiography. He also noted that the International Campaign to Free Marwan Barghouti – backed by eight Nobel peace laureates, including former US president Jimmy Carter and South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu – was launched four years ago from Mandela’s former cell on Robben Island. His wife Fadwa, a lawyer, has been a pivotal figure in the campaign.

Barghouti has not concealed his political ambitions, which are intimately tied to his prison activism. Early last year, he announced that, should the increasingly unpopular Abbas step down, he would enter the succession race from his prison cell. In a related document released by friends, he derided the Palestinian president’s signature policy of pursuing peace talks with Israel while campaigning for statehood at the United Nations. “This is a pathetic policy disconnected from the reality on the ground,” he wrote.

He criticized the Palestinian Authority’s “security coordination” with Israel, and the failure to reach a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the rival Islamic resistance movement that rules Gaza. He singled out Abbas for his authoritarianism, corruption, weakness and refusal to cultivate a new generation of leaders in Fatah. The political vacuum created by Abbas’ policies, Barghouti warned, had encouraged support for extremist Islamic groups among some youth and spawned the so-called lone-wolf intifada, a spate of disorganized stabbings and car rammings by individuals since late 2015. Barghouti urged “a revolution in the education system, in the way we think, in culture, and in our legal system.”

Concurrently, the Times of Israel website reported that Barghouti had reached a secret agreement with jailed Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders for a renewed Palestinian struggle, this time drawing on the principles of popular non-violent resistance espoused by Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. The plan, to be implemented after Abbas’ departure, is for a “People’s Peaceful Revolution” to pressure Israel into withdrawing from the occupied territories and conceding a Palestinian state.

The website reported that the participants had “agreed on having Palestinian civilians block all access roads to settlements, via an influx of Palestinians onto the main roads; damage to the infrastructure of the settlements, such as electricity, telephone and internet; and organized mass protests across Jerusalem. … Other steps laid out for the campaign are aimed at damaging Israel’s image in the world and its ability to continue ruling over the West Bank and even East Jerusalem.”

Qadura Fares, a senior figure in the Palestinian Prisoners’ Association and a friend of Barghouti’s, has expanded on such thinking:

The idea is to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people, who will march to Jerusalem. Another way is for tens of thousands of people to sit on the bypass roads [in the West Bank] from dawn to sunset. … I am talking about an intensive popular revolution that will disrupt the settlers’ lives. … We will sit on the road. Someone wants to have a wedding celebration? It will be held on a bypass road.

Barghouti is reported to have devoured books on the history of non-violent struggle while in prison. According to his lawyer, Elias Sabbagh, Barghouti believes the only obstacle to this new strategy is the absence of an Israeli partner. “No [Charles] de Gaulle or [F. W.] de Klerk has yet arisen in Israel,” he told Sabbagh, referring to leaders who oversaw the end of French colonial rule in Algeria and apartheid in South Africa.

Israel’s nightmare scenario

The hunger strike clearly reflects Barghouti’s preference for acts of collective non-violent resistance. Israeli analysts have long warned that mass civil disobedience – the disruption of the occupation’s smooth running – is the Israeli military’s nightmare scenario. It was therefore entirely expected that Israel would seek to crush the protest. The leaders were put into isolation, while prisoners refusing food were denied family visits, dispersed to different jails, and barred from contact with their lawyers. Gilad Erdan, the minister of Internal Security, Strategic Affairs and Hasbara, told Army Radio: “These are terrorists and incarcerated murderers … My policy is that you can’t negotiate with prisoners such as these.” Erdan and other ministers have applauded the hardline response of the British government to a hunger strike by Provisional IRA prisoners in the 1980s that resulted in the deaths of 10 inmates, including Bobby Sands.

In a further sign of panic, Israel turned its fire on The New York Times, threatening to shut the paper’s bureau in Jerusalem as punishment for publishing Barghouti’s article. On Facebook, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu fumed against the paper: “Calling Barghouti a ‘political leader’ is like calling [Syria’s Bashar] Assad a ‘pediatrician’ [sic – he meant ophthalmologist]. They are murderers and terrorists.” Behind-the-scenes pressure led the paper’s editors to include online a footnote post-publication, “clarifying” that Barghouti had been convicted of “five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organization.” They also allowed Erdan to write a response that used the term “terrorist” and “terrorism” no less than 18 times.

Despite Israel’s alarm, this is not the first time Palestinian prisoners have refused food. In the years before Arafat and the Palestinian leadership were allowed to return from exile in 1994 under the terms of the Oslo accords, such protests were used sparingly, and usually short term. Since Oslo, collective action by prisoners has proved more difficult to organize. During the second intifada, western audiences were generally more sympathetic to Israeli deaths than to protests by Palestinians defined by Israel and much of the media as “terrorists”. And then for the past decade, Palestinian politics has been scarred by a territorial and ideological split between Abbas’ Fatah party in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

Israel has inflamed these tensions in prison by giving Hamas detainees worse conditions than Fatah inmates, especially in relation to family visits and spending allowances in canteens. According to early reports, Barghouti struggled to win over Hamas prisoners to the strike, apart from those with him in Hadarim. And there was the further difficulty of controlling the largely non-affiliated prisoners arrested for their part in the so-called “lone-wolf intifada.” But by early May, there were reports that leaders from all the Palestinian factions had begun refusing food, in an indication that the strike was spreading.

Israel has reason to be deeply concerned by the potential of mass actions like the hunger strike. Barghouti may have hoped to tap into that longing for new forms of collective action. Palestinians have grown increasingly frustrated by the terminal impasse in negotiations, and by the failure of their leaders to unite. Even if the strike ultimately proves unsuccessful, it presents Palestinians with a timely alternative model of protest, when the idea of Israel as an apartheid state is gaining ground. The danger for Israel is that a hunger strike could inspire other forms of civil disobedience by wider Palestinian society.

The power of protest

It is not difficult to understand why a hunger strike appealed to Barghouti. The handful of prisoners who have in recent years refused food – mostly individuals detained without trial – have deeply embarrassed Israel, and in a few cases managed to extract an early release from the authorities. Israel has been so discomfited by the pressure of these isolated protests that it passed legislation in 2015 empowering prison authorities to force-feed inmates, despite objections from the UN and human rights groups that force-feeding constitutes torture. The World Medical Association has also barred doctors from forcibly feeding prisoners since 1975.

As the legislation was being voted on, minister Erdan equated hunger strikes with “a new type of suicide terrorist attack through which [prisoners] will threaten the State of Israel”. Notably, Israel quickly established “field hospitals” in the grounds of its main prisons, in what the inmates assumed was preparation for their force-feeding. At the time of writing, in early May, as some prisoners started to grow weak, the Israeli health ministry warned doctors that if they refused to force-feed striking inmates it would be their responsibility to find a replacement who would do so. Other reports suggested that Israel was considering flying in foreign doctors to force-feed prisoners.

Not only does a hunger strike challenge head-on Israel’s industrialized system of incarceration, but it has the potential to draw almost the entire Palestinian population into a highly charged confrontation with Israel. Too many families have a loved one at risk of death.

Whether the strike is maintained, succeeds or peters out, it hints at the latent power in Palestinian collective action – a power that has gone largely untapped since the mass civil disobedience of the first intifada in the late 1980s. It reminds Palestinians of their strength in numbers, of the complicity of their official leadership in Israel’s system of security control, and of their ability to disrupt the well-oiled machine of the occupation by direct action. A “battle of the empty stomachs” – this or a future one – could unleash a wave of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance outside the prisons. That could strip away the obfuscatory security pretexts employed by Israel, laying bare the occupation’s colonial nature.

Further, despite the decade-long split between Hamas and Fatah, the two movements are aware of the pressing demands from the Palestinian public for them to resolve their differences. Both have been damaged by the discord. Prison makes the ideological and strategic differences between Fatah and Hamas – differences Israel has richly exploited – far less relevant. Acts like refusing food offer a platform of resistance both factions can unify around. And unity is a precondition for Palestinian struggle to be effective, as Qadura Fares of the Prisoners’ Association has noted. The prisoners’ struggle “opens a door to the start of a popular intifada for Palestinian national unity and the rights of the Palestinian people.”

From his cell, Barghouti has repeatedly tried to push for unity. In 2006, in the immediate wake of Palestinian elections in which Hamas triumphed, he and leaders from rival factions published the so-called Prisoners’ Document calling for reconciliation and creating a political platform shared among the main factions for a two-state solution. A year later, he helped to broker the Mecca Agreement, which urged the various factions to put aside their differences and form a national unity government. Months later, the deal was torpedoed when the feud between Hamas and Fatah led to the Islamic movement taking power in Gaza.

As previously noted, there are reports that Hamas leaders have agreed with Barghouti to shift the struggle in the post-Abbas era to non-violent resistance. The unveiling by Hamas in May of a new charter – replacing one from 1988 – is a further sign of that ideological evolution. The new document jettisons the anti-semitic rhetoric of the original, severs historic ties with the Muslim Brotherhood movement and concentrates on Hamas’ role in a national struggle rather than a religious one. It accepts the Palestinian Authority as a vehicle to “serve the Palestinian people and safeguard their security, their rights and their national project.” Most importantly, while rejecting the “Zionist entity,” it declares Hamas is prepared to accept “a formula of national consensus” that would establish a “a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state” in the occupied territories only. This brings it close enough to Fatah to make reconciliation – under Barghouti, if not Abbas – a real possibility.

Barghouti’s ambitions to bring Palestinians together has only served to intensify the Israeli authorities’ desire to keep him locked up. As Uri Avnery, a veteran leader of Israel’s small peace movement, has observed: “A free Barghouti could become a powerful agent for Palestinian unity, the last thing the Israeli overlords want.”

Unsurprisingly, most Israeli analysts cast a largely cynical eye on Barghouti’s role in the hunger strike, arguing that this was nothing more than a move to strengthen his credentials as Abbas’ successor. As evidence, they noted that privately Abbas was discomfited by the strike, even if official statements were supportive.

Certainly, Abbas’ increasingly authoritarian and sclerotic rule in the West Bank has opposed any signs of popular resistance and the emergence of grassroots movements. Abbas’ security forces regularly prevent protests in the main cities, where Israel allows the Palestinian Authority, a supposed government-in-waiting, to operate most vigorously. Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar was told by a senior source in Fatah that Abbas’ security forces had been “ordered to allow only modest demonstrations in support of the hunger strike” in the hope that the lack of visible solidarity would starve the protest of momentum. Despite the restrictions, Palestinians staged regular rallies, marches and protests in support of the prisoners.

Exploiting Abbas’ difficulties, Netanyahu called on him to stop paying salaries to “terrorists” in Israeli jails shortly before the Palestinian leader met US President Donald Trump at the White House in early May. Republicans in the US Congress, meanwhile, were reported to be drafting legislation to condition American aid – worth roughly $500 million annually – on the PA halting payments to political prisoners, and possibly their families too.

In Abbas’ view, he needs both to prove to Israel and Washington that he is a “responsible” leader who can maintain order and deserves the chance to lead a state, and to dissipate popular anger against the occupation in case it quickly turns against the Palestinian Authority and its complicity in Israel’s repression.

A Palestinian icon emerges

Barghouti’s long imprisonment has fueled the growth in his stature, both among Palestinians and in the international community. Paradoxically, his very absence has in many ways made him more visible.

Barghouti alone among the Palestinian leadership has not been tarnished by the national liberation movement’s catastrophic failures of the past 15 years. First, the vision of Palestinian statehood – either in its truncated Oslo form, or its much less accommodating Islamic version – floundered on the rocks of the armed intifada. Then it slowly sank into the dark waters of international indifference. Uniquely, Barghouti, locked away in an Israeli cell, could not be blamed for any of this. It is worth briefly plotting the dramatic changes to the Palestinian landscape since Barghouti disappeared from view.

Yasser Arafat, the man who did more than anyone to create a united Palestinian struggle for nationhood, died in mysterious circumstances in 2004. Many assumed he was assassinated by Israel, with Washington’s blessing. Both had grown frustrated by his failure to deliver their goal: autocratic rule over a series of Palestinian Bantustans that guaranteed quiet for Israel and its colonizing population in the settlements.

Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, looked more to their liking. He not only forswore the armed resistance of the second intifada that Barghouti was so closely associated with, but then refused to replace it with any other form of popular struggle. In fact, quite the contrary. Abbas’ primary commitment has been not to resistance but to security coordination with Israel – effectively allowing Israel to co-opt the Palestinian security services as a subcontracted police force. Abbas has described that role as “sacred”.

Whatever his failings, Arafat understood the precarious nature of Palestinian struggle – and most especially the need to maintain a loose balance and consensus between the various Palestinian factions to prevent tensions reaching dangerously explosive levels. But the consensus prioritized by Abbas was one forged in Washington – and thereby implicitly in Israel. The change of strategy to near-absolute accommodation with the occupying power quickly brought long-standing grievances to the surface, particularly from Hamas.

Strains between Fatah and Hamas surfaced most strongly in Gaza because that was the one place in historic Palestine where Israel briefly gave the Palestinian movement a little room to breathe. The so-called disengagement of 2005, Israel’s withdrawal of its soldiers and settlers from Gaza, was followed a short time later by a Palestinian general election – one that, to the consternation of Israel and Washington, was decisively won by Hamas. Abbas continued to rule in the West Bank, now with a deeply compromised mandate, and paid little attention to Hamas’ political demands. In Gaza, the friction exploded into violence in 2007, as Hamas swept to power.

The consequence was a central fissure in Palestinian strategy and territory that remains to this day. Aided by Israel, Abbas’ Fatah movement entrenched its rule in the West Bank against Hamas, becoming more obviously authoritarian and repressive. And in Gaza, Hamas created a tiny Islamic fiefdom, a toehold from which it aspired to much greater things. A vision of Palestinian statehood – either of the diminished (Fatah) or comprehensive (Hamas) variety – faded as the two factions greedily protected what little they had, both from each other and from Israel.

Fatah sought to disband its armed groups and invested its energies instead in the diplomatic arena. Both the popular and armed struggles were renounced in favor of lobbying western states at the UN over statehood and issuing threats to pursue Israel for war crimes at the International Criminal Court. Western governments – those that had allowed Palestine’s colonization over many decades – were treated as though they could now be trusted to act as honest brokers between the Palestinians and Israel.

Gaza, meanwhile, suffered under a double hammer blow. On the one hand, it faced a long-term war of attrition through an Israeli-enforced siege of the enclave to starve the population into submission. And on the other, it endured a succession of vicious Israeli attacks that devastated Gaza’s infrastructure and killed and maimed thousands of Palestinians in each round.

Israel’s combined policy of isolating and intermittently pulverizing Gaza was more successful than is often acknowledged. Hamas’ fiery rhetoric became more hollow, then largely evaporated. It fired fewer rockets itself and then became more repressive in preventing other groups from firing them. Its problems only intensified as Egypt’s generals restored their rule in 2014, and blamed Hamas for aiding the Islamic opposition. Gaza lost its only partial access to the world through its border with Sinai.

As a result, Hamas in many ways came to mirror the compromises of Abbas’ Fatah movement in the West Bank. It sought quiet from Israel by enforcing quiet in its own territory on Israel’s behalf.

The Palestinian leaderships have not been entirely insensitive to the damaging effect of these changes on their credibility. But their efforts at unity have repeatedly failed for the simple reason that the structural conditions engineered by Israel and the US encourage discord and feuding between the two factions, not compromise or unity.

While the national movements have turned into hollow shells, Barghouti has remained an icon of better times. Prison has maintained him as a perfectly preserved relic from another era – a golden era, when Palestinian leaders were seen to be with the people, offered a vision, and personally struggled for national liberation. Barghouti is a fighter unbowed, a hero, a Nelson Mandela waiting his moment. He is a blank canvas on which Palestinians can pour their dreams and hopes.

Awaiting assassination

Barghouti was the topic of one of the first commentaries I wrote after arriving in the region as a reporter. It was published by the International Herald Tribune, a daily now known as the International New York Times. My piece was published in September 2002 under the title “Marwan Barghouti: A Nelson Mandela for the Palestinians?”. My analysis was prompted in part by a commentary Barghouti had written earlier, in January of that year, for the Washington Post. Fatah’s general secretary on the West Bank and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, he was one of the leaders of the then 15-month-old armed struggle of the second intifada.

Reading Barghouti’s article now, one can see both how little has changed for the Palestinians in terms of their dilemmas, and how rarely their leaders speak today with the kind of forthrightness Barghouti employed then about the right to resist. The 2002 article also offers a revealing counterpoint to the commentary Barghouti published 15 years later in the International New York Times. It indicates that, locked in Hadarim prison, Barghouti has had the time and distance to rethink the nature – if not the aims – of the Palestinian struggle. It also suggests that, unlike those outside prison active in Hamas and Fatah, he is not trapped in a damaging turf war.

In his 2002 commentary, Barghouti pledged his commitment to two principles: a peaceful resolution of the conflict based on the two-state solution; and the harnessing of violence to force Israel to make the concessions needed for peace. The article serves as a difficult balancing act, trying to appeal to two very different constituencies. Barghouti hoped to maintain the relations he had cultivated with the Israeli left while at the same time satisfying a Palestinian public exasperated by the Israeli leadership’s bad faith.

He wrote of the Oslo process:

Since 1994, when I believed Israel was serious about ending its occupation, I have been a tireless advocate of a peace based on fairness and equality. I led delegations of Palestinians in meetings with Israeli parliamentarians to promote mutual understanding and cooperation. I still seek peaceful coexistence between the equal and independent countries of Israel and Palestine based on full withdrawal from Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 and a just resolution to the plight of Palestinian refugees.

But he noted that Israel’s intransigence was backed by US arms designed to crush any resistance to the colonization of Palestinian territory.

If Israel reserves the right to bomb us with F-16s and helicopter gunships, it should not be surprised when Palestinians seek defensive weapons to bring those aircraft down. And while I, and the Fatah movement to which I belong, strongly oppose attacks and the targeting of civilians inside Israel, our future neighbor, I reserve the right to protect myself, to resist the Israeli occupation of my country and to fight for my freedom. If Palestinians are expected to negotiate under occupation, then Israel must be expected to negotiate as we resist that occupation.

He added:

I am not a terrorist, but neither am I a pacifist. I am simply a regular guy from the Palestinian street advocating only what every other oppressed person has advocated — the right to help myself in the absence of help from anywhere else.

That “regular guy” image is a strong part of Barghouti’s appeal. But it was also why he expressed fears in the article that his days were numbered. Israel had tried to assassinate him the year before, when it fired on a convoy of cars, killing his bodyguard. He pointed out that in the previous 15 months some 82 Palestinians leaders had been killed in “targeted assassinations” – Israeli extrajudicial executions. He assumed he would join them. His commitment to resistance, he wrote, “may well lead to my assassination.”

As I noted in my subsequent commentary for the Tribune, Barghouti was wrong. He was not to be a victim of Israel’s assassination campaign. Instead Israel launched a daring military raid into the West Bank in April 2002 to capture him alive.

‘Don’t liquidate him’

Barghouti’s reprieve struck me as strange, even as a relative newcomer covering the conflict. But I was more surprised that Israel then chose to make a show trial of Barghouti rather than subject him to a military tribunal in which much of the evidence would have been heard in secret. As I wrote at the time:

He is on trial, surrounded by the world’s media, charged with terrorism offenses. He is unique among Palestinian resistance leaders in being given months in which to make his case in the three languages he has mastered — Arabic, Hebrew and English — to his target audiences: the Palestinian people, the Israeli left and world opinion. … His lawyers will be able to portray him as the real leader of Palestinian resistance to the occupation. In the eyes of the Palestinian people, he will end the trial an imprisoned hero.

It is worth recalling that at the time Barghouti was taken captive his popularity did not extend far outside his Fatah circles in the West Bank. He was certainly no icon. All that changed during his trial.

It now appears I was far from alone in my suspicions. In a lengthy profile published in Haaretz in 2016, Israeli security officials and politicians recounted their surprise at the decision to capture Barghouti alive. It was Benjamin Ben Eliezer, the then defence minister, who overruled the generals’ plans to kill him. “I don’t want him liquidated – just arrest him,” Ben-Eliezer told a disgruntled military chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz. A captain involved in the undercover operation told the paper he believed the order “was a directive of the prime minister, Ariel Sharon.”

Afterwards, the justice minister at the time, Meir Sheetrit, proposed televising Barghouti’s court hearings “like the Eichmann trial” – Adolf Eichmann being a leading Nazi war criminal, who Israel managed to capture in Argentina in 1960. Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel’s domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, said the trial made no obvious sense. “If I believed in conspiracy theories, I would think that possibly it was an Israeli conspiracy aimed at forging a leader who believes in the two-state solution,” he told the paper. Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the Oslo process, concurred. “The trial was a mistake. Even the presiding judge, Sara Sirota, thought it was wrong. The trial turned him into Mandela.”

It is possible that Israel believed it could use the trial as a way to discredit Barghouti, to prove that he and Arafat were implicated in what Israel then grandly called the “infrastructure of terror.” But if that was their intention, they not only failed to make their case against Barghouti, they also grossly misread the wider political context. Barghouti’s stock rose throughout the trial, among Palestinians, international solidarity activists and even to a degree among Israel’s left. He leapfrogged more visible Palestinian leaders, including the Hamas spiritual guide Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who would soon be assassinated, to become the main political rival to Arafat himself.

When Arafat departed the scene, Barghouti stood alone as his natural heir, a more credible choice than Abbas, who was derided by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon at the time as no better than a “plucked chicken.” If Israel had wanted to make an icon of Barghouti, as Ami Ayalon noted, they could not have gone about it more effectively.

A long walk to freedom?

Possibly I contributed in a small way to the Mandela comparison with my commentary in the International Herald Tribune.

Today, calling Barghouti a “Mandela” is meant to convey his credentials as a former “terrorist” turned peace-maker and reformer, as a bridge between two warring communities, and as the credible leader of a people seeking self-determination. His youngest son, Arab, meant it that way when he told Israeli journalist Gideon Levy recently: “My father is a terrorist exactly like Nelson Mandela. To the Israelis I want to say: If you admire Mandela, you should know that my father is repeating Mandela’s story.”

Back in 2002, however, I intended the comparison to be understood slightly differently. Mandela was held in jail to serve as a trump card if the apartheid regime ran out of steam. He was an escape hatch, providing an option for the white government to switch direction if international isolation grew too fierce. Back in 2002, it seemed that Barghouti could offer similar opportunities for Israel if its back was against the wall. The failure of the second intifada was not yet clear, and the Israeli economy and public morale was creaking under the strain of Palestinian resistance, especially the suicide attacks.

It is worth considering how Israel might have thought it could benefit from keeping Barghouti in jail rather than killing him. Just as South Africa eventually “rehabilitated” its own trouble-maker, Israel may have pondered a similar fate for Barghouti.

My argument at the time was that the Israeli army and the Shin Bet were deeply unsure of the second intifada’s endgame, especially in a period before Washington provided an alibi with its own, similar abuses in Iraq. In those, more difficult days for Israel, prime minister Sharon had to create increasingly improbable pretexts for refusing to engage with Arafat, including his infamous “seven days of quiet” before Israel would talk to the Palestinian leadership. The goal was to be rid of Arafat, but what would come next? Military assessments were that Hamas or even Islamic Jihad would emerge triumphant – as indeed the former did in the 2006 Palestinian elections.

Israel’s security services, I noted in 2002, might “need to engineer the emergence of a popular, pragmatic and non-Islamist Palestinian strongman to take charge of the West Bank and Gaza. Barghouti could fit the bill. He is not tainted by corruption or by suspicions of collaboration with Israel or America.” The task, on this assessment, would have been to break Barghouti’s spirit in jail but cultivate his image to the outside world as an independent Palestinian leader. Then if the moment arose, Barghouti could make his “long walk to freedom,” to rule over whatever fragments of a Palestinian state Israel conceded.

Crystal-ball predictions are notoriously unwise. But aside from whether this assessment of Israeli intentions was right or wrong, it is important to understand why it seemed plausible at the time – not least, because it reveals much about what has changed in Israeli calculations.

It is the job of intelligence services everywhere to prepare for multiple scenarios, including ones that never materialize. Shortly after Barghouti’s arrest, Sharon and his deputy, Ehud Olmert, began formulating the “disengagement” from Gaza and the related, if widely-forgotten, “convergence” plan for the West Bank. That would have created a bogus Palestinian state out of slivers of the West Bank and all of Gaza. That phantom state, which Israeli policy was directed towards achieving for several years, would need a leader.

A section of Israel’s political and security elite harbored such hopes for Barghouti at the time. According to Haaretz, the Labor party’s Ehud Barak, who had recently lost the premiership to Sharon, called the military chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, incredulous at the decision to imprison Barghouti. He warned it only made sense “if it’s part of a grand plan to make him a future national leader of the Palestinians. … He will fight for the leadership from inside prison, not having to prove a thing. The myth will grow constantly by itself.”

Today, Barghouti still has a few supporters in the Israeli security establishment who cling to the idea of a two-state solution. Yitzhak Gershon, an army commander closely involved in Barghouti’s capture, has said recently: “He should be released unconditionally at this point. And not as a collaborator with us, but as someone who will see to the [future of the] Palestinian people. … Peace is made with powerful enemies whose honor has not been trampled.” Similarly, former cabinet minister Haim Ramon has told Haaretz: “There is no doubt that he will be the next Palestinian president. He’s the consensus. He is very much accepted by Hamas. When that happens, strong international pressure will be exerted on Israel, which will be forced to release him.”

However, such voices have been largely sidelined in Israel. Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s successor, shelved the convergence plan after he found himself politically weakened by criminal investigations and after the Gaza withdrawal exposed the fragility of the Palestinian national movement, opening up new possibilities for divide and rule. Ultimately Olmert was ousted by Benjamin Netanyahu, who had other ideas of what to do with the Palestinians.

Today, Barghouti appears largely surplus to Israeli requirements. Carmi Gillon, a former director of the Shin Bet who now heads the Peres Center for Peace, has said: “There is nothing to release him for now, because there is no momentum toward an agreement.” Israel no longer has an interest in unifying the West Bank and Gaza, or installing a Palestinian leader of a “converged” Palestinian state. The hunger strike of 2017 and his advocacy of confrontational non-violent resistance underline that Barghouti now poses more of a threat than a benefit to Israel.

Leading the second intifada

Barghouti was born in a village close to the West Bank city of Ramallah in 1959, as Palestinians were still digesting their massive dispossession a decade earlier during the Nakba. He was just eight years old when, in 1967, Israel captured the rest of historic Palestine. By 15, as the occupation entrenched, he had joined Fatah and was one of the founders of its youth movement, Shabiba. Three years later he was jailed, spending four years behind bars on charges of belonging to what was then defined by Israel as an illegal organization.

He put the time to use learning Hebrew, the language of the occupier, as most of his generation of local political activists did. In 1983, he began a history and political science degree at Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah, and was elected head of the student union. A year later he married a law student, Fadwa Ibrahim. However, he had to break off studies in 1987 with the eruption of the first intifada.

Barghouti took a prominent role in the early planning of the popular uprising. His current ideas about non-violent resistance are doubtless rooted in the lessons learned from the campaign of civil disobedience that characterized the initial stages of the first intifada.

Among the actions organized by Palestinians were protest marches, the closing of roads, boycotts of Israeli goods, the burning of ID papers, resignations from government and police positions, the refusal to pay taxes, and general strikes. Israel closed hundreds of schools to prevent youths from organizing, forcing Palestinians to set up “underground” classrooms. Meanwhile, popular committees were established to create an alternative welfare system, providing health services, childcare, education and food, to reduce the Palestinian public’s dependence on the occupation authorities. In one notable example of civil disobedience, highlighted in the 2014 feature film The Wanted 18, a Palestinian village created its own secret dairy plant, hiding the cows from the Israeli authorities, to end their reliance on Israeli milk supplies.

The first intifada occurred before Arafat and the other leaders in exile were allowed to return from Tunisia in 1994. Instead, the Palestinians in the occupied territories relied on a diffuse leadership. Barghouti was among those seized pre-emptively by Israel in 1987 and expelled to Jordan. He was only allowed back under the terms of the Oslo accords seven years later. Like most in Fatah, he was a strong supporter of the new peace process, even if he remained skeptical of Israel’s good faith. He cultivated contacts with Israelis in the peace camp, while rising through Fatah’s ranks in the West Bank. He was elected in 1996 to the new Palestinian parliament, the Legislative Council, and proved his independence by launching a campaign against human rights abuses by Arafat’s security services and corruption in the Palestinian Authority.

But with the collapse of the Oslo process in 2000, Barghouti was forced into a reassessment. He foresaw that another intifada was coming and correctly believed it would combine elements of the first intifada’s popular resistance with new forms of military struggle.

Insiders and Outsiders

Barghouti’s popularity among the Palestinian public has to be understood partly in the context of what is sometimes referred to as the split between Palestinian “insiders” and “outsiders”. Barghouti was one of the home-grown leaders, raised either in the West Bank or Gaza, who earned their stripes fighting on the front lines in the period before the Oslo accords. The “outsiders,” epitomized by Abbas, were the Palestinian leaders in exile, an elite who had often grown rich in Jordan, Lebanon and later Tunisia as they directed the struggle from afar. After their return in 1994, they imposed their rule on local leaders, often insensitively and with little experience or understanding of Israel’s machinations.

“The Tunis group viewed us as soldiers, and Marwan wanted them to see us as partners,” Qadura Fares observed. “He had been deported and was familiar with both worlds, so he was acquainted first-hand with the huge disparity between the standard of living of the leadership in Tunis and the poverty in the territories. He fought for equality and democratization. He worked to integrate people from the territories into the PA apparatus.”

The Tanzim, a civilian militia loyal to Barghouti that took a high-profile role in the second intifada, was designed with that end in mind. It stood apart from Arafat’s security services that were known for their brutality and corruption. It gave Barghouti his own power base, making it difficult for Arafat and the returnees to ignore him.

Also unlike the returnees, Barghouti took a visible early role in the second intifada, confronting the army by leading mass marches to the checkpoints, the infrastructure of imprisonment Israel had established during the supposed peace-making of Oslo. His fiery speeches, like his later Washington Post commentary, provided the rationale for a militarized uprising against the occupation.

However, Barghouti soon found events taking on a logic of their own. Palestinian civilians died in ever larger numbers as Israel crushed the resistance with overwhelming military might. In the face of Israel’s arm’s-length aggression – the F-16s and helicopter gunships Barghouti mentioned in his opinion article – Fatah fighters scored few military victories. Some units became either reckless or indifferent to civilian casualties on the Israeli side. According to the Israeli media, during his Shin Bet interrogations, Barghouti admitted “things lurched out of control.” Aware too that Hamas’ suicide attacks on buses and pizza parlors were getting more attention than failed operations against heavily armed checkpoints, elements within Fatah started to dispatch their own human bombs.

Israel grabbed Barghouti in spring 2002 as this turmoil was playing out among Fatah activists. Barghouti was accused of founding the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a claim he has denied, and directing its attacks on civilians and soldiers. The trial ended in the summer of 2004, with Barghouti convicted of ordering three attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek Orthodox priest, and of a failed car bombing in Jerusalem. Less often remembered is that the Israeli court acquitted him of 33 other charges listed by the prosecution. The judges argued that the evidence showed these attacks were carried out by the Brigades, but not that he had personally directed them. Barghouti was given five life sentences, plus 40 years for the car bombing attempt.

Barghouti refused to cooperate with the court from the outset, saying it was a political trial, and he offered no legal defense. He maintained only that, while he supported armed resistance, he repudiated attacks on civilians. As the verdict was handed down, he called out to the judges: “I’m no more involved in these attacks than you are.”

Israeli officials have exploited Barghouti’s conviction to decry suggestions that he could ever be a partner for negotiations. It is impossible for Israel to deal with someone who has “blood on his hands,” they say. Gush Shalom, a peace movement in Israel, has noted how blind such assessments are to Israel’s own past. If the principle of holding Barghouti personally responsible for the actions of members of his organisation was to be extended to the Israeli leadership, several would have found themselves serving very long sentences. For example, Israel’s prime minister in the late 1970s, Menachem Begin, led the Irgun in 1946 when it blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people. Under the rules that applied in Barghouti’s trial, observed Gush Shalom, Begin should have been sentenced to 91 consecutive life sentences for that single attack alone.

The battle with Abbas

Barghouti’s credibility among Palestinians and outsiders grew not only because jail removed him from the increasingly tarnished world of Fatah politics. His work upholding the rights of Palestinian political prisoners has earned him much credit among the wider Palestinian public on an issue that most care deeply about.

And his continuing commitment to a peaceful solution to the conflict, as well as his criticisms of Palestinian corruption, have won wide approval. Last year Palestinian officials and human rights groups launched a campaign to have him nominated for the Nobel peace prize, a move that most notably won backing from the Belgian parliament. A sympathetic Palestinian documentary, titled simply “Marwan,” premiered in the West Bank early this year, with distribution planned across the Arab world.

Barghouti has become the chief challenger to Abbas’ visionless and increasingly autocratic rule. Back in 2004 he threatened to stand against Abbas following Arafat’s death, only relenting after he was dissuaded by his wife, Fadwa, and close friends – a decision he is reported to have come to bitterly regret. Following a series of threats by Abbas to retire, Barghouti has gone public with his intention to stand for election when Abbas departs.

Surveys of Palestinian public opinion indicate that Barghouti is well ahead of his rivals. Last year surveys showed he was twice as popular as Abbas, and outpolled Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ most respected politician. He has won allies in unlikely places in Fatah. Mohammed Dahlan, an ambitious arch-opponent of Abbas who was forced into exile in 2011, has said he will drop out of the succession battle if Barghouti contests it. Saeb Erekat, a long-time Fatah apparatchik who is closely identified with Abbas, has also backed Barghouti. Both seem to have recognized that the popular mood is with the imprisoned Fatah leader.

The contrast between Barghouti’s and Abbas’ philosophies could not be starker on the key issues: reconciliation with Hamas, security coordination with Israel, and support for grassroots activism, including non-violent protest and boycotts. Those differences were on display when Abbas met US President Donald Trump at the White House in early May. Trump might have given Abbas’ campaign for statehood a small fillip by stating of a peace deal: “We will get it done.” But only if one believes Trump is serious in his extravagant claims. He also lavishly praised the Palestinian security forces’ cooperation with the Israeli army, saying: “They work together beautifully.” Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas leader, decoded that statement, tweeting that Trump had confirmed that the PA effectively received economic aid in exchange for crushing Palestinian opponents like Hamas.

At the same time as Trump is pruning foreign aid to many countries, Washington has announced that assistance will be increased to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian analyst Ramzy Baroud pointed out that the money was little more than a bribe, rewarding the PA for “ensuring Israel’s security and … preserving the status quo.”

Abbas doubtless hoped that a meeting so early in Trump’s presidency would bolster him against critics and potential challengers like Barghouti. But the very fact that Abbas could travel to Washington and be feted by the Trump administration while Barghouti was in solitary confinement refusing food is unlikely to have made a good impression on many Palestinians.

Barghouti has reportedly told a confidant:

The [Palestinian Authority] can proceed in one of two directions today: to serve as an instrument of liberation from the occupation, or to be an instrument that validates the occupation. My task is to restore the PA to its role as an instrument of national liberation.

Fearful for his own political survival, Abbas is reported to have conspired in keeping Barghouti in jail. He has not put pressure on Israel to release Barghouti as part of prisoner exchanges. Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, has said: “There were years when they didn’t want to hear his name in the Muqata” – Abbas’ headquarters in Ramallah.

The Palestinian president, it appears, is still plotting to deny Barghouti influence, even as speculation increases about how much longer the 82-year-old president can continue to rule. Last November, Fatah held a much-delayed congress at which it was hoped Abbas would share with potential successors some of the responsibilities of his three official posts – chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the Fatah movement. He declined to do so.

But more significantly, Barghouti and his many supporters have been sidelined in the wake of the congress. The imprisoned Fatah leader received an overwhelming majority of votes at the congress – 930 of the 1,400 delegates – for a place in the movement’s central committee. But Abbas forced out of the running most of Barghouti’s potential allies who had intended to stand for election. At the central committee’s meeting in February this year, members ignored the wishes of congress delegates and selected a relative unknown, Mahmoud al-Aloul, a former governor of Nablus, as Abbas’ number two. Jibril Rajoub, a former West Bank security chief and the current head of Palestinian Football Association, was appointed the committee’s secretary-general.

On Facebook, Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, accused the committee of giving every appearance of yielding to pressure from Netanyahu. In December the Israeli prime minister had condemned Barghouti’s election to Fatah’s central committee, saying it “radicalizes the culture of incitement and terrorism.” The decision to overlook Barghouti was also roundly criticized by Fatah cadres, former prisoners and members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

A poisoned chalice?

The question of Abbas’ heir is increasingly hard to ignore. The Palestinian president is said to be in poor health and his popularity likely only to sink further. One way or another, his days are numbered. Can a jailed Barghouti succeed him? Would Palestinians vote for a leader who cannot lead? A senior Fatah official has observed: “Perhaps his election will ultimately symbolize the Palestinian condition – a people under occupation with a president behind bars.” That symbolism would certainly be discomfiting for Israel. It would add to the pressure from Europe and the US to free him.

Should it happen, what would his own long walk to freedom look like? Certainly, not much like Mandela’s. The South African leader was released as the apartheid regime was collapsing. He soon became president of a “rainbow nation” that embraced all South Africans, rather than the supreme leader of the Bantustans. Israel, on the other hand, would be installing Barghouti in a deeply compromised vehicle for self-government, the Palestinian Authority, still operating under occupation. His rule would extend only to the archipelagos of nominal Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank, surrounded by settlements and military bases.

Barghouti would find he had been handed a poisoned chalice – one that defeated both Abbas and, before him, Arafat. As the Israeli reporter Amira Hass recently observed, the Palestinian Authority “is a project that the world supports for the sake of regional stability. And ‘stability’ has become a synonym for the continuation of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank without any serious diplomatic or military implications for Israel.”

Barghouti believes the PA can be reformed. But how credible is his view? Can the PA lead, or even condone, a chaotic national liberation struggle – a grassroots movement supporting non-violent resistance and civil disobedience – when its institutional structures are designed to stabilize and regulate the occupation? Tens of thousands of Palestinian families rely on the PA for salaries and allowances. Its security forces are there to keep order alongside, and in cooperation with, the Israeli army. How can Barghouti be Palestine’s Mahatma Gandhi when the institutional role of the PA’s president is more like that of Marshal Philippe Petain, head of France’s Vichy regime under Nazi occupation?

If the PA cannot be reformed, it would have to be overthrown before Palestinians could stand any chance of liberating themselves. That core contradiction would be a difficult one for a President Barghouti to resolve.

He would likely face a further difficulty. Reports of the audience reaction to the early screenings of the documentary Marwan were revealing. Its producer, Raed Othman, observed: “While the film was being screened, we noticed that many of the young people attending who have known Marwan as a symbol were excited when they heard excerpts of some of his fiery speeches, but were not thrilled to see him defend peace with Israel.”

Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, has expressed the problem in a different way: “My and Marwan’s generation still harbors a spark of a hope that the conflict will end with a two-state solution. My children don’t believe in that; they aspire to a single, democratic state.” Indeed, many young activists have come to view the two-state solution as an illusion, one that derailed the national struggle for more than two decades. They are increasingly interested in a one-state solution, harking back to the original aims of the Palestinian Liberation Organization under Arafat.

Barghouti has proved repeatedly that he is ready to rethink strategy and to respond creatively to changing circumstances. That is a cause for hope. Can he rise to a challenge that would have proved daunting even for the real Nelson Mandela?

Update/May 30:

On May 26, the hunger strike ended. Israel maintained that it had not negotiated with the prisoners. That, however, was widely denied by those close to the prisoners. They said Israel had spent 20 hours in intense talks with the strike’s leader, including Barghouti, to bring the hunger strike to a quick end.

Israeli authorities confirmed that they had conceded one of the prisoners’ main demands – that two family visits be allowed a month. However, the prison service emphasised that the extra visit would be funded by the PA and organized by the Red Cross.

The PA reported other concessions: prisoners will be allowed to meet their children without a glass partition; night-time searches will cease; medical treatment is to be improved; all women prisoners will be placed in a single prison and only female guards allowed to search them; daily exercise times are to be extended; and all the prisons will have a kitchen area. A prison official denied the PA’s claims, saying it had not agreed to such “perks”.

In addition, reports suggested that the prisoners will be allowed – some time later, when Israel can plausibly deny a connection to the strike – greater access to academic studies and the media. Whether Israel has made any concession on the other main demand – placing payphones in prison wings – remained unclear at the time of writing, at the end of May.

A less obvious victory claimed by the prisoners is that the Israeli authorities were forced for the first time to recognise them as a collective party. The media reported that, despite Israeli denials, the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, did negotiate with the strike leaders. A prisoners’ committee has reportedly been established under Karim Younes, a Fatah leader, that will oversee continuing negotiations. Implicitly, Israel has recognized both the status of Barghouti and other prison leaders and that it must talk to them to avert a renewal of the strike.

The Israeli authorities had worked hard to undermine the strike and discredit Barghouti personally. On May 7, the prison service released video footage, filmed inside a prison cell, of a man it claimed was Barghouti twice eating snacks. The Israeli media reported that the prison service had covertly smuggled the bar to Barghouti to damage his image. Amos Harel in Haaretz observed that the stunt had largely backfired: “It only strengthened his image as a leader who is feared by Israel – which resorts to ugly tricks in order to trip him up.”

• First published at Americans for Middle East Understanding (AMEU)

A Portrait of the CIA in Prison

John Kiriakou’s Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison paints a disturbing portrait of a U.S. prison in which Kiriakou spent time as retribution for having admitted that the CIA used torture. His ongoing whistleblowing on the state of U.S. prisons, as well as on the ways in which the U.S. government has gone after him, is as valuable as his opposition to CIA torture.

The prison as described in the book is largely unaccountable to the rule of law. Prisoners in need of medical attention are simply allowed to die, or hastened along toward death by sadistic or incompetent malpractice. Education for prisoners is nonexistent. Rehabilitation efforts are nonexistent. Slave labor is universal. Those who leave, leave having acquired additional skills and attitudes of criminals. This prison system serves not to protect, not to rehabilitate, not to compensate or make restitution, and not to reduce crime.

Kiriakou also paints what I find a disturbing portrait of himself. In his view, prison requires vicious and manipulative behavior to survive. Perhaps it does. And perhaps it is an act of significantly brave honesty for Kiriakou to show himself to us degraded by such behavior. Perhaps it is all the more so to the extent that he depicts himself enjoying it. Yet he describes his prison-survival techniques as having come straight out of his CIA work, which he engaged in for years and about which he claims unmitigated pride. In addition, Kiriakou describes his approach to writing and publishing as self-serving and manipulative, and repeatedly urges us to never trust anyone, all of which leaves one wondering.

Kiriakou is proud of having volunteered to fight in the War on Terror. His view of foreign policy, as his view of prison conduct, seems to condone killing, but not torturing. His prison skills include threatening various people with murder, but never torture. That neither murder nor torture is legal or moral, and that neither “works” on its own terms, is a blind spot in U.S. culture, not something unique to John Kiriakou.

Kiriakou claims that threatening to kill one fellow prisoner scared him into ceasing to slander Kiriakou, except for on one occasion when Kiriakou was present and the other prisoner unaware of it. But it could be the man was scared into slandering Kiriakou only when he wasn’t around, which was exactly what he’d been doing to begin with.

Anyway, it’s hard to find morality in the killing / torturing distinction. Maybe that’s the point. All is gray. Kiriakou writes that in his CIA work he didn’t mind “bending some rules,” just not the one on torture. And his prison conduct continually echoes the behavior of the government he is trying to reform.

When Kiriakou asked Senator John Kerry, for whom he had worked, to ask President Obama to commute his sentence, Kerry’s reply was “Do not ever attempt to contact me again.” When a fellow prisoner revealed to Kiriakou that he was a pedophile, Kiriakou’s reply was “Don’t ever try to speak to me again. Never. Understand?”

When the CIA proposed to in-source and escalate the use of torture, Cofer Black described what happened as “the gloves came off.” When Kiriakou wanted to escalate his attacks on a fellow prisoner, he says “it was time to take the gloves off.”

Kiriakou describes Middle Eastern countries he “served” in as “dumps.” He describes prisoners as “the scum of society,” “filthy pig,” “white trash,” “filthy midget rat,” and similar dehumanizing terms. But when Kiriakou explains why his CIA background came in so handy in prison, he refers to conflict among CIA employees, not between the CIA and foreign “enemies”:

“The CIA is full of aggressive alpha personalities. So is prison. The CIA is full of people constantly plotting against each other. So is prison. The CIA is full of people who are always jockeying for some better situation than the one they are currently in. So is prison. I’m the first to admit that in prison I was a serious jerk. I was arrogant, manipulative, and opinionated. But I was also adaptable to changing situations. I could think quickly, and I possessed a certain degree of ruthlessness necessary for self-preservation.”

That may very well be true. But was it always true in each of the examples related in the book? When Kiriakou frames a fellow prisoner for a charge of attempted escape, it’s because the prisoner is seriously annoying. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Kiriakou writes, but desperation is an emotion, not an analysis of the seriousness of a threat. The punishment Kiriakou earns the man he frames is solitary confinement for months — something that much of the world considers torture. Likewise, when Kiriakou writes that he loathed all child molesters in prison, that’s an emotion, not a survival technique.

One of the survival rules that Kiriakou borrows straight from U.S. foreign policy is: “If stability is not to your benefit, chaos is your friend.” This is working out oh so well in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria, et cetera. Kiriakou seems to model the same approach in prison. He confronts a prisoner named Schaeffer over his having lied about not being a child molester. When Schaeffer responds by spreading lies about Kiriakou, Kiriakou acts as if this were the first sign of trouble, as if he’d previously been uninvolved. This is the same worldview that must dominate CIA thinking in which presumably blowback does not exist. “Afghanistan? Where’s that? Saddam, who? Never met the man!” Later, as things escalate between Kiriakou and Schaeffer, the “time to take the gloves off” arrives, framed as defense against irrational and inexplicable aggression. “Why do they hate us?”

Maybe it was inexplicable. One could hardly get through a prison sentence without encountering irrational aggression — short of doing time in a civilized prison in Norway or someplace. But is it always unavoidable? It seems in Kiriakou’s account to often be enjoyable. Kiriakou writes: “Sometimes there is real satisfaction in passive-aggression.” “Sweet revenge.” “I just wanted to see the guy lying in a pool of his own blood.” Etc.

Torture is different: “At the CIA, employees are trained to believe that nearly every moral issue is a shade of gray. But this is simply not true. Some issues are black and white — and torture is one of them,” writes Kiriakou. Under great pressure in prison, of a sort I’ve never faced, Kiriakou never writes that he had to repress any urge to torture anyone, only to murder them.

What are we to make of an account of the brutality of prison by someone who claims to have survived it by mastering its brutality, yet seems to have taken pride in that and to have learned his brutality working on secret operations we aren’t supposed to know about for a government that is supposed to somehow represent us? It’s very hard to say.

One technique Kiriakou recommends for eliciting information is stating something false in order to be corrected. Yet he notes that in prison this often fails, because you can say the craziest things and people will simply nod. Kiriakou’s next paragraph includes this:

“Near the end of my sentence, Russia sent troops into Ukraine and captured the Crimean Peninsula.”

Is the author trying his techniques on us in print? I don’t know, but I do know that most readers in the United States will simply nod.