Ansar: A Testament to the Ugly Brutality of the Israeli Jailer
By Marion Kawas
April 17th marks a special day in the Palestinian calendar, that of Palestinian Prisoners Day. This year it takes on even more importance as the more than 5000 Palestinian political prisoners are incarcerated with the added threat of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Palestinian prisoners have long played a unique role in the fabric of Palestinian society and its collective resistance. They cross all factional and social barriers, and in many cases, represent the best of several generations of leaders. When some in the Western world repeatedly ask “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?”, we can confidently say that he or she has most likely been imprisoned (or assassinated) by the Israeli state.
Nearly every Palestinian family has a story of at least one member that has been imprisoned either by Israel or a neighbouring complicit regime in the region. As such, the issue of prisoners has historically been a unifying bond for the Palestinian people. Each prisoner is a microcosm of the Palestinian reality, be they arrested while under occupation, in a refugee camp in exile or under the thumb of the apartheid regime in the Galilee or Naqab.
Today, the political prisoners in Israeli jails comprise members of the legislature, children, and women; they also include over 430 administrative detainees. These are prisoners held without charge or trial for renewable periods of 6 months, who are often then re-arrested after being released. Not only is administrative detention void of due process, it is also profoundly cruel; these prisoners know that upon their eventual release, they can be (and often are) picked up at any moment in the future on the whim of Israeli security officials.
Ansar 1, 11, and 111
The Ansar prison camps run by the Israeli authorities give us a glimpse into the history and brutality of such incarceration. The original Ansar camp was established by the invading Israeli army in south Lebanon in 1982 and was infamous for its vicious treatment of prisoners. It gave birth to the even more notorious Khiam prison camp in Lebanon, that Israel handed over to the then South Lebanon Army. An interesting footnote here is that the “Butcher of Khiam”, Amer Fakhoury, was recently arrested in Lebanon and then magically released in a scandalous miscarriage of justice, praised by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Ansar 11, or the Beach Camp, was established by the Israeli occupation army in Gaza during their time there. And Ansar 111, also known as Ketziot prison, still exists as one of the more gruesome Israeli penal establishments for Palestinian prisoners. It is located in the Naqab/Negev desert and had its peak during the first intifada, at which time it was the largest detention camp run by the Israeli military.
Upon looking at archival reports and footage of the original Ansar camp, one is left with the feeling that it was a testing ground, a blueprint for what the Israeli military would later implement in 1987 in the occupied territories. The collective punishment, the “secret charges” that led to incarceration, all of this was refined and later “meted out” during both Palestinian intifadas.
Several foreign doctors, including Canadian Chris Giannou, were rounded up during mass sweeps in south Lebanon in 1982 and later gave eyewitness testimony at meetings and official hearings. This is a small excerpt of Dr. Giannou’s account:
”All the males were paraded in front of three parked jeeps. In each one was a man with a hood over his head and an Israeli seated beside him. As we walked by, certain people would be singled out and walked away, and ‘X’ or something in Hebrew written on their backs. And, thus, 5,000 or 6,000 people were arrested on simple denunciation by a hooded man.”
Palestinian prisoners, their suffering and their role in the broader society is a constant theme in Palestinian poetry and music. Palestinian-American composer and singer George Kurmoz had a song called “Ansar”, written in memory of the prison camps, which is both haunting and profoundly moving. His work is extremely difficult to track down nowadays, but here are a few of the lyrics of “Ansar” as well as a copy of the song produced specifically for this Prisoners Day by Voice of Palestine, Canada. The translation cannot do justice to the subtlety and complexity of the original version, but it offers some glimpse into the song’s essence.
“They come with the breath of the lonely grave
The bells tell a story of the new dawn
From Ansar, the prison,
From the villages of the hardened arms
From the bodies that vanish, where the screams of martyrs echo loudly,
The roses are my destiny, for the black earth…”
This year, for Prisoners Day 2020, with the concerns of the spread of COVID-19 in such unsanitary and overcrowded facilities, many advocacy and human rights groups are intensifying their efforts to free Palestinian political prisoners. Online and social media campaigns are being launched to put pressure on the Israeli government to finally end the incarceration of so many Palestinians, an abhorrent and inhumane practice that has stolen the best years of successive generations.