Reframing the conversation on Palestine after Amnesty’s ‘apartheid’ report: the case for abolition

On 27 October 2020, Hisham Abu Hawash was arrested and faced a six-month administrative sentence detention without charge. This detention was subsequently extended and he began a hunger strike in protest. After 141 days of hunger strike, he was released. 

Hisham’s story is not isolated. It is well documented that the state of Israel uses administrative detention exclusively against Palestinians to incarcerate individuals in the absence of charges or trials. This was documented in a recent Amnesty International report in which arbitrary detention was highlighted as a tool of apartheid employed by the state of Israel.

It is also well documented that states and settler colonies around the world have used and continue to use incarceration as a tool for colonial domination. As we write this, we learn that the police officer who shot and killed Warlpiri teenager Kumanjayi Walker has been found not guilty at his trial. The violent, ongoing legacy of the colonial state and its brutal and relentless attempts to eliminate the Native is clear and irrefutable: from Palestine to Blak australia.

Incarceration and policing as colonial tools

The prison system is not a symbol of justice, nor a system of accountability. Rather, it is a legacy of imperial and colonial violence. It is hiding behind rhetoric of legality and justice but, when we expose it, its reality as a symbol of violence and colonial domination is irrefutable.

During the British Colonial period, there was an inseparable history of jails and colonialism, the legacy of which remains to this day. In the Australian context, Palm Island was established as a penal settlement in 1914; it housed children removed from their families as part of the Stolen Generation and continued to exist under control of the Australian government in various forms until 1975. In Guyana, after the end of slavery, the colonial state took on the role of ‘punishment’ through the development of prisons in the 1830s and 1840s. Emancipated slaves and their descends were regularly imprisoned for non-violent offences, including breaches of unjust labour laws such as unauthorised absence from home. This was a remodelled form of colonial domination—slavery ended but was replaced with prison incarceration. The structures of these prisons were modelled after Europe and America’s prison system, and resulted in inmates being used as labour for colonial building projects. Much of this infrastructure, rules and regulations from the British colonial period still operates today and there is still an active debate about the purpose of prisons in Guyana. 

Policing has been a standard tool of ‘civilisation’ and colonial domination employed by colonisers to control native Indigenous populations. For example, the Barbados police Force was established in 1835 to control, police and ‘civilise’ native populations, who were perceived as ‘savage’. This police force was directly modelled after the London Metropolitan Police. Its methods of militarised policing were developed for the sole purpose of colonial control and exported from one colony to another until they became widespread across the imperial metropole. Today, policing is still actively perceived as a system of justice and safety, but it is a clear form of racial and colonial domination, where Indigenous and Black populations, from so-called Australia to Ferguson and Palestine, are routinely targeted, monitored, assaulted and killed. 

Weapons of policing, such as tear gas, have also been adopted across borders as tools of colonial suppression. The British frequently used tear gas in India and the Caribbean and then again, in 1969 to suppress Irish protestors in Northern Island and during anti-racist Black uprising in Liverpool in the 1980s. We saw the use of tear gas in Ferguson in 2014 and again during Black Lives Matters protests in the United States in 2020. Palestinians began tweeting tips to Black Americans on how to deal with tear gas that aimed to suppress their resistance: policing may be a global tool of suppression, but solidarity is a global tool of resistance. 

The criminal justice system is a tool of colonial domination and we cannot have Palestinian freedom, Indigenous Freedom or Black Freedom until the carceral system and the colonial structures that it upholds are abolished. 


The incarceration of Palestinians

Human rights organisations have reported that administrative detention is used extensively and routinely for the purpose of holding Palestinians for an extensive and indefinite period of time, ranging from several months to several years. Palestinians are tried in military courts but are rendered incapable of defending the allegations against them in the absence of evidence, charges and procedural law. The issue becomes starkly evident in the conviction rates in Israel’s military court, where 99 per cent of charges are upheld. 

Incarceration is not limited to adults. Every year, approximately 500-700 Palestinian children, some as young as twelve, are detained by Israeli authorities and are the only children in the world systematically prosecuted through military rather than civilian courts. The most common charge is throwing stones against armed military personnel, a crime with a sentence of up to twenty years in prison. Both children and adult prisoners have reported gruelling prison conditions, where they are subjugated to physical beatings, strip searchers, lack of access to healthcare, and at times, denial of contact with a lawyer. 

Palestinians, including children, are also subject to regular night raids and arrests, a repetitive practice, which does not just violate international law but also the military’s own policies. 

The Middle-east Eye received testimonies from Palestinians who experienced night raids. one from a forty-year-old mother of three from a village in the southern West Bank, Beit Ummar, is just one of hundreds. 

Loud screaming in Hebrew and banging on the door woke us up at 5am. I opened the door. Six soldiers accompanied by dogs entered the house. I told the soldier my husband just underwent open-heart surgery. It made no difference. My 10-year-old reacted with a severe asthma attack; the eight-year-old has been wetting his bed since the soldiers first came to the house two years ago. Now, he did it again… The soldiers pushed us all into one room. I tried to find a blanket to cover the children but the soldiers threatened me and would not let me … They left about three hours later, said nothing, explained nothing.

The systemic targeting of Palestinians through incarceration and administrative detention and torture is not just a representation of one of Israel’s many violations of International law, but a clear attempt to maintain domination and control over the Palestinian population as part of Israel’s broader settler colonial project. 


Limitations of the Amnesty Report

Amnesty International’s recent report highlights Israel’s use of political, legal and military systems to exercise control over every aspect of Palestinian life through the institutionalisation of segregation, fragmentation, deprivation and dispossession. Indeed, a section of the report’s findings of apartheid was focussed on Israel’s discriminate use of arbitrary detention. We welcome these findings but note that Amnesty’s analysis fails to consider the role of settler colonialism in the system of racial domination against Palestinians—a criticism already articulated by many Palestinian thinkers and scholars, such as Lana Tatour and Yara Hawari.

Amnesty states that Israel imprisons ‘political opponents of the occupation’ but for Israel, every Palestinian is a political opponent of the occupation because Palestinians are perceived as demographic threats to the very existence of Israel. This is why we see the imprisonment of children who throw stones, the routine arrests of peaceful Palestinian protestors and the labelling as Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organisations. Our mere existence is perceived as a threat to the state of Israel. This is not a contentious point—we have seen statements from political leaders stating that the Nakba is incomplete. Apartheid, occupation and other human rights abuses are employed by Israel as tools to not only maintain, but extend its settler colonial project of eradicating the Native. The state of Israel’s’ intention in the carceral project goes beyond criminalising dissent. Rather, it is about annihilation—eliminating Palestinian people, culture, history, and humanity. 

Amnesty testifies that arbitrary detention and imprisonment are tools of apartheid. However, apartheid is only necessary to maintain the settler colonial project which was not complete. Lana Tatour recently argued in Middle East Eye that

Apartheid is a feature of the Israeli state structure and core ideology, but not its sole feature. Apartheid serves a broader purpose, which is the advancement of Zionist settler colonisation in Palestine. Apartheid, alongside occupation, are thus modes of colonial domination.

Abolition calls for dismantling the structures that maintain oppression. Amnesty International calls for dismantlement of apartheid, and one of the ways of doing so would be to eliminate arbitrary detention. However, colonial states have proven that the removal of apartheid and explicit forms of racial domination, such as arbitrary detention, will only lead to obsolete forms of colonial domination. This manifests through the western prison system, a clear form of colonial structural oppression.

In the US, Canada, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, Indigenous and Black populations are systematically targeted, overpoliced, and over-represented in the criminal ‘justice’ system. In the Australian context, the Indigenous incarceration rate has continued to increase. Many crimes Indigenous populations are charged for are non-violent, ranging from public drunkenness to failure to pay fines. In addition, there is an unequal application of law, where Indigenous communities are disproportionately policed and charged for these offences, whilst non-Indigenous, particularly white communities are not. Since 1991, there have been over 500 Aboriginal deaths in custody, and many of these instances have been linked to systemic neglect. The absence of apartheid structures on the Australian continent has not ended colonial domination, nor has it ended over-policing or over-incarceration. Instead, the colonial project has been absorbed into legal structures of this settler colony, and other settler colonies around the world.

Black and Indigenous activists have called for the abolition of the prison system, which will begin with the decriminalisation of non-violent offences, the reinvestment of funding from the prison system into communities and the abolition of the carceral structure and the prison industrial complex, with a movement towards a rehabilitative approach to crime. 

In the context of Palestine, failing to adopt an abolitionist lens and, instead, focusing on apartheid isolates the Palestinian question from the broader settler colonial project of which it is subjected, and ignores what we know about the use of prisons and incarceration in older settler colonial projects. The fall of apartheid without abolition of the entire Zionist settler colonial project, and settler colonialism more broadly, will see Palestinians continue to be over-policed, over-surveilled, and over-incarcerated, as has been the fate of our Black and Indigenous siblings from Turtle Island, so-called Australia, Aotearoa and beyond. This is why transnational movements are so important: we must learn from the consequences of colonialism in other states that have legally subjected populations for far too long, and we must work to dismantle these structures that exist across borders.


Changing the narrative: where we are and where we need to go

Adopting an abolitionist approach to settler colonialism in Palestine requires a paradigm shift in how we think and talk about imprisonment but also about Palestinian liberation more broadly.

At present, the Palestinian prisoner narrative insists on distinguishing Palestinian prisoners from other types of prisoners using disclaimers such as ‘administrative’ or ‘political’. We saw this in the discourse around the six Palestinian prisoner who liberated themselves from Gilboa Prison in September 2021. People were quick to explain that these prisoners were not ‘typical’ prisoners involved in a notorious prison break but Palestinians who were imprisoned for resisting their own oppression. While such arguments intend to highlight Israel’s breaches of international law, they do a disservice to the global anti-racist, anti-imperialist abolitionist movement by both ignoring the histories of imprisonment and colonialism and perpetuating colonial narratives.

The distinctions between different ‘types’ of prisoners confuse colonial subjects into thinking that ‘our prisoners are the good kind’ and thus feeding into the ‘divide and conquer’ narrative that underpins colonial projects. This ‘good’ and ‘bad’ binary is antithetical to abolitionist thinking that calls for the dismantling of such socially constructed binaries that reinforce carceral logic and perpetrate violence. An abolitionist framework understands all imprisonment to be political and that no one ‘deserves’ to be imprisoned nor are prisons solutions to ‘crime’ or a vehicle for restoring communities of care.

An abolitionist framework adopts a systems-change approach that is underpinned by the understanding that the root causes of harm are the systems that drive people to commit ‘crime’, the creation of discriminatory laws, the courts and legal processes that defend these laws and uphold unequal application of the law, the corporations and capital owners that benefit from imprisonment, and the racism that over-incarcerates minoritised and racialised communities. An abolitionist framework understands that it is the system that is violent, that these systems were constructed with violence as the end-game, that these systems are working exactly as they were intended to, and that they therefore need to be dismantled.

Amnesty’s report calls on the International Criminal Court to consider the crime of apartheid in its current investigation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and calls on all states to exercise universal jurisdiction to bring perpetrators of apartheid crimes to justice. However, these very states, systems and structures have for decades enabled the state of Israel to act with impunity. While these systems may, at best, be able to achieve accountability, they will not bring true, sustained justice to Palestinians. Justice requires a radical reframing of the attainment of justice, away from its current, narrow understanding that is limited by carceral binaries and punitive logic.

Centring apartheid in our conversations on Palestine is not dissimilar to centring ‘crime’ in our conversations on prisons: it enables remedies to continue to be superficial and fail to adopt a systems-change approach that tackles the root of the problem. This is why frameworks of settler colonialism, decolonisation, and Indigenisation need to be centred in our narratives. Such frameworks underpin our pursuit for Palestinian justice by acknowledging, respecting, and honouring Palestinian sovereignty over the land and themselves and thus work to both decolonise and Indigenise historic Palestine.


The ends and the means to attaining justice for Palestine

The anarchist political activist and writer Emma Goldman argued that ‘the means cannot be separate from the ultimate aim’ because

the means employed become, through individual habit and social practice, part and parcel of the final purpose; they influence it, modify it, and presently the aims and means become identical.

With Goldman’s words in mind, apartheid cannot be separated from Israel’s broader settler colonial project, nor can liberation be achieved through the same tools or frameworks that create and reinforce Israel’s regime of oppression of, domination over, and attempted annihilation of the Palestinian people. Instead, we need to adopt means that operate within a systems-change approach and a praxis of transnational solidarity. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is one example of this.

The BDS movement adopts a systems-change approach that is committed to collective liberation within an abolitionist framework. The BDS movement understands that it’s the same institutions, corporations, and governments that continue to oil the global, neo-imperial war machine, and thus targets such entities. For example, the institutionalisation of violence through militarisation is the foundation upon which Israel is built and maintains its settler-colonial regime. In fact, the military industrial complex was birthed by empire through private companies that were created to perpetrate imperial violence, and have subsequently grown through the capitalist imperative to accrue wealth through violence and exploitation.

A current example of this is G4S, a war-profiteering ‘security’ company that is complicit in Palestine, in Aboriginal deaths in custody in the Australian colony, in the offshore detention of refugees and people seeking asylum by the Australian government, and in the over-policing of Black bodies on Turtle Island (the United States). Elbit Systems, another ‘security’ company targeted by BDS, is complicit in West Papua, Myanmar, the Philippines, Colombia, and Palestine. Abolitionist thinking is underpinned by an understanding of the interconnectedness of our struggles due to the shared history and subsequent interconnectedness of these systems.

Abolition calls for dismantling these systems. Abolitionist thinking requires us to transcend the confines of man-made structures that have been created to exclude people, whether it’s exclusion through language, walls or borders—all tools used by colonial and imperialist forces to reinforce division and domination. To transcend these man-made structures, we need to work to envision the kind of future we want to see. This is no small task for us as progressives, Palestinians, organisers, and researchers who spend so much time naming the problem and thinking and speaking about what we don’t want: abolish capitalism, abolish white supremacy, abolish patriarchy, abolish settler colonialism, abolish Zionism. We spend so much time and energy articulating what we don’t want and thinking and speaking about injustices of the past and the ongoing nature of them: the Balfour Declaration, the Nakba, the Oslo Accords, the First Intifada, the Naksa, the Second Intifada, the Unity Intifada, Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, Lifta, Gaza. We react and resist against the injustices faced in the here and the now—so it’s no surprise that we spend so little time thinking about what an abolitionist future could look like. What does the abolition of settler colonialism look like? What happens after the Zionist regime has fallen? 

Mahmoud Darwish said that the metaphor of Palestine is stronger than the reality: we feel a visceral connection to the Palestine of the past; the Palestine our parents and grandparents told us of; a Palestine we have only ever known through stories. When we talk about ‘return’, what we are often referring to is return to a time—pre-1948, pre-Nakba—rather than return to a place. We don’t spend enough time envisioning what this place could look like in a modern, contemporary, decolonial context—but we should.

We should be investing time and energy into dreaming of the future; of a liberated Palestine beyond the bounds that our oppression and colonisation places on us. We need to dream beyond the limitations and constraints placed on us by the everyday injustices that are all-consuming and rob us of the time and energy we need to imagine and create alternate realities beyond the bounds of our struggle. We need to invest in developing a language and a narrative that proactively focuses on liberation, freedom, and justice; a narrative that focuses on us, Palestinians, and our land, Palestine, and not a narrative that is merely a response to our coloniser.

In constructing alternate narratives, we can construct a future that is boundless. A future where we can enter Palestine as Palestinian and live on our land freely as our true and flawed and multi-faceted selves on our own terms and not on the terms of our coloniser. A future that transcends the colonial construct of borders: where statelessness is no longer a lived reality; where we can drive from ‘48 Palestine to the West Bank and the West Bank to Jerusalem without crossing a checkpoint; where we can drive from the Galilee to Beirut to Damascus without crossing a border.


Image: Montecruz Foto

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Jeanine Hourani is a Palestinian organiser, writer, and researcher who is currently employed as a research and teaching assistant at the University of Melbourne

Amal Naser is a Palestinian organiser living and working on unceded Gadigal Land. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at UNSW. She has strong interest in the intersection of the law and the rights of Indigenous persons.

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