The Memoirs of a PrisonerOn January 3, 2009 by Mona Abouissa
How was 25 years in an Israeli prison?
Published in Russia Today, 2009
Back-room negotiations between Hamas and Israel continue over the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange. The only video proof of life of Shalit was aired earlier in October by Hamas, and in return, Israel released 20 Palestinian women and two Druze men prisoners. Torn between Israel and Syria and unwittingly linked to the conflict in Gaza – Bisher Suleiman Maqt and Assem Mahmud Wali have returned to the Golan Heights after 25 years in prison.
“Prison was a school of life,” says Bisher, 44, who spent more than half of his life in Israeli prisons. Above him is a photo of him with his brother, smiling, with a background of waterfall wallpaper taken by an Israeli prison photographer. It took them 15 continuous days of hunger strike for this photograph and others to be allowed, he says. Beside the photograph is a needlework of the Syrian flag. His brother Sedky Al-Makt is still behind bars.
Assem, 42, loves painting. He is adept with colours in his symbolic paintings, which have a certain naïve charm. “The horse is red symbolizing revolution,” he says of his painting where Hafez Al-Assad, the late Syrian president’s spirit is carried by an eagle to space, eternity, leaving a rainbow and small planet Earth behind him. It was one of the works that Assem did while inside.
A month ago, Bisher Maqt and Assem Wali walked out of Gilboa prison gates after 25 years of imprisonment. They received a heroes’ welcome in the Golan village of Majdal Shams riding in an open-roof car, Syrian flags and crowds lined each side of the road. The Syrian media heaped praise on their patriotism and their loyalty.
Prisoners for a glimpse
In exchange for the Gilad Shalit video aired by Hamas, the Israeli government freed 20 Palestinian women and the Druze security prisoners, both sentenced to 27 years. Osama al-Muzaini, a senior Hamas member responsible for the prisoner exchange negotiations, said that the Druze detainees were on the prisoners’ list to be released in exchange for the videotape. However, the Israeli government claimed that the two Druze prisoners were released before completing their sentences as a “goodwill gesture to the Druze sector”.
On the videotape, Gilad Shalit, now 23, spoke of his memories of the Golan Heights with his family when he served there in 2005 and his hope for freedom. In 2006, Shalit was captured by Hamas when he served on the Gaza border in a rare cross-border raid, in which 4 people died. Then Shalit can have had little idea of how his life would become linked to Bisher, Assem and hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Shalit’s family received only three letters as proof of life since his captivity. The Red Cross (ICRC), which is in charge of prisoners’ humanitarian protection, said it was trying in vain to establish contact between Shalit and his family.
The Shalit case became a cause to celebrate in Israel owing to posters, demonstrations, and newspaper articles. Reflecting on the situation, Assem Wali drew a caricature of Nicolas Sarkozy holding the Eiffel Tower in one hand and Gilad Shalit in the other, Shalit is heavier. “The media balances the scale,” Assem said that the media alters the prisoner exchange “scale” by its attitude toward Shalit’s symbolism. “Gilad Shalit does not equal a thousand Palestinian prisoners,” Assem explained it is not that Israel needs the return of Shalit as much as the pressure that mounts on Israel to recover Shalit, at any cost.
Israel has a history of unequal prisoner exchanges. Since 1983, Israel exchanged around 7000 Palestinian detainees for 10 Israelis and retrieved the bodies of eight others, according to Israeli Media Central. Israel holds around 6,800 Palestinian security prisoners in its jails, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. There are currently eight Druze prisoners still in Israeli prisons, according to the Red Cross ICRC.
Active talks are being held between Israel and Hamas sponsored by Egypt and mediated by Germany to release Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1000 Palestinian prisoners. Hamas prisoner list included West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is seen as a possible future Palestinian president, and Ahmed Saadat, secretary-general of the Popular Resistance for the Liberation of Palestine – who are the sticking point of the deal.
The deal is currently pending Israel’s approval. Israeli MP Daniel Ben Simon said optimistically that the prisoner swap deal could go ahead in the next “week or two”. Hamas, who recently celebrated its 22nd anniversary, hopes that the prisoners will return home by next week when the Muslims mark the new Hijri year (Muslim lunar calendar).
Between two countries
Bisher was born in the Syrian Golan in 1965, Assem was born in the Israeli-occupied Golan in 1967. Both men attended the same Elementary school in Majdal Shams watching their families fighting for the return of the occupied Golan. They saw their land ruled by Israel, cutting them off from what they knew as a motherland – Syria. Bisher Maqt and Assem Wali joined the Secret Movement for the Liberation of Golan while high school students. They grew up on insurgency, patriotism and the smell of gunpowder. In 1985, the two young men were arrested for participating in military actions.
Back in the 1980s, it was a turning point for the Golan Druze political and military resistance; the annexation of the Golan to Israel in 1981 and the public strike of 1982 against Israeli citizenship. The end result was Golan Druze to this day are ruled by Israeli law, but for the most part, refuse Israeli citizenship. Most of the Golan Druze families are separated from their relatives on the Syrian side. The state of war between the two countries makes family reunions near to impossible except in special cases – education, pilgrimage and medical emergencies.
Bisher’s father, Soleiman Maqt, lived in both countries – Syria and Israel – without leaving his village, Majdal Shams. “We are Syrians and under Syrian law even though being here [in Israel],” he declared. Bisher’s father has his own lengthy security file with the Israeli security services and five sons, including Bisher, with prison numbers.
Days behind bars
“Most of the prisoners’ rights were won by hunger strikes!” said Bisher who recalled the most memorable hunger strike in 1992 when all prisoners in Israeli jails went on a hunger strike for 15 days. Assem remembers the longest hunger strike in 2005 which was for 18 days, “you take salt and water only in the beginning and if the conditions don’t change, you stop taking salt and just stay on water.”
Bisher said, “we asked for stoves, fans, open education, to extend the period of family visits, we did succeed to increase it from 30 minutes to 45, fifteen minutes extra.” He added, “do you see these photographs of prisoners, we arranged to be photographed in jail for our families since 1993 through these hunger strikes. There were no prisoners’ photographs between 1967 to 1993, you could die in jail and your family [in Syria] would not even recognize you.”
Sameh Auby, who was in and out of Israeli prisons in the 1970s and 1980s for his involvement with the Syrian secret service, talked about the “prison literature”. He explained that the literature which bloomed in Israeli prison cells was by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist secular political party, starting from 1972. The prison literature focused on political sciences, foreign languages, and Marxist philosophy. “In the prisons, it was more of an intellectual resistance,” Sameh said.
Assem said that he used to read a lot in jail on philosophy, politics, literature and languages, “now I want to continue my studies, I want to study philosophy, I would like to explore the world, meet different people, paint and learn languages.” Assem is eager to catch up with the quarter of a century he spent behind bars, watching the world change in front of him through television and newspapers. Bisher still doesn’t have definite plans for the future. He is thinking of starting up his own apple business, apples are the prime source of income for the Golan Druze.
“I don’t feel that Majdal Shams has changed after 25 years of separation, people’s patriotism and pride are still the same,” Assem reflected. Both Bisher Maqt and Assem Wali feel that only the appearance of Majdal Shams has changed but not people’s spirit. They feel that prison was a school of life. They had their own resistance behind bars, they were put in solitary confinement, they adapted, they went on hunger strikes, they learned literature and languages and they kept on growing up. Now they want to catch up with the world that went on without them.