Arifa Salman is a former Palestinian political prisoner and student activist at Al-Quds Open University, in the West Bank city of Nablus. In 2004, Arifa was charged with the ambiguous and common Israeli claim used against Palestinians of ‘helping wanted people.’ While crossing the Jordanian border into Israel, Arifa was told she had to go to prison. After being held in Ramle prison for 6 days, she was taken to Petah Tiqwa detention centre for a 74-day interrogation, and then finally sentenced to 6 months in Ramle prison. Arifa was eventually released with a fine of 1000 Israeli shekels. She left prison without any charge proven.
Q: Can you please introduce yourself?
A: My name is Arifa Salman from Balata camp in Nablus. I’m 26 years old. In 2004, I was imprisoned. On September 27, 2004, they took me to the border of Lanbi on my way back from Jordan. They troubled me at the border and they told me that I have to go to prison.
They put me in Ramle prison for 6 days. I didn’t know where I was, what the problem was or the reason that they were holding me. They put me in interrogation at the border for about 6 or 7 hours with Israeli intelligence. They were asking me my name, where I’m from, and about my family. Of course, I felt lost, you know when you don’t know the time, you don’t know what day it is, and you don’t know where you are. The situation was very difficult.
I spent 6 days in Ramle prison with the other women, and then they told me I have a court date. So they took me to Petah Tiqwa detention centre where I was to have an interrogation. I spent 74 days in interrogation. The interrogation was a little bit difficult. They took my sister in as well. They took my sister so that they could try and get her to talk.
After the interrogation they took me back to Ramle prison. I had three court appearances. After the time I spent there I had to pay another 1000 shekels so that they wouldn’t change the court date. From there I left.
Q: Can you tell me about the interrogation?
A: The process begins with the interrogation period. After interrogation there is your trial where you get sentenced. During the detention/interrogation period, you are always going to court on a regular basis for bail hearings, usually to get your detention extended or to be released. Basically to get your detention extended, to be realistic. I went to a special court 12 times to get my detention extended. I went to the regular court for my trial three times also had many interrogations while I was in prison.
In regards to my parents, they didn’t know that I was going to the West Bank. I was in Jordan and I was put in prison in the West Bank for interrogation and no one knew that I was there. I asked them if I could call my parents. They didn’t allow me to. The interrogator said that they called parents. In reality, it wasn’t until 15 days later that my parents knew that I was being held by the Israelis.
The conditions of the interrogation were very bad. They threatened that they would demolish my family’s house, that they would bring my parents for interrogation, ban me from studying, and ban me from traveling. I’m actually banned from traveling now. Last week I tried to travel and they banned me without a reason.
Q: What were the charges against you?
A: The charges were general: helping wanted people, knowing wanted people. He kept telling me they want to hear the story. I would ask, “What story?” He would say, “You know.” And he would say to me “I know everything about you. I know what you ate. I know where you were on this day and whom you were with,” and so on.
The charge that was mainly used against me was helping wanted people. I do know wanted people, but I knew them before they were wanted. I knew them when they were kids, we grew up together. It’s a small place, so they could have been my neighbors, friends, people I met in university – people I knew before the intifada.
Q: Can you tell me more about the interrogation?
A: During the interrogation there was shouting at us, especially swearing. I spent 17 days in a room that was about 1 metre and the bathroom wasn’t even a real bathroom. The water was very bad; it was yellow as though it had sand and dirt in it. The food was very bad. The rice wasn’t cooked. They would bring me something that looked like steak, but I didn’t know what it was, and if you tried to order other food they wouldn’t let you.
Their methods to try and get you to talk are very forceful and intimidating. There would be seven to ten interrogators pressuring me to talk, telling me that if I did, they would release me. I would tell them that I didn’t have anything to confess. They claimed that I did. They put me in a chair with my hands tied and my feet tied for long periods of time, my hands and feet would turn blue and the ropes would cut my blood circulation. In terms of doctors, there were none. We would want to see us such serious pain before they gave us a painkiller.
The interrogation was 74 days. Before that I spent 6 days in Ramle prison, then I went to the detention centre in Petah Tiqwa for the 74 days. They told me it was possible for them to ruin my life, my education and my family. They said they would bring in my whole family to the prison for interrogation and they did end up bringing my sister one month later, asking her what she knows about me, who I am friends with and so on. They held her for 43 days in interrogation until they finally let her go.
After my time in Petah Tiqwa I was taken to Ramle prison and I had three court appearances. At the third trial I demanded a decision as to whether I was going to stay or whether I was to be let out. They only gave me the sentence because I demanded it. When I first went to court they said 4 years.
Seems like the Shabak (Israeli internal security service) wanted me to stay in prison. So I was ordered four years. I didn’t have a lawyer, but the Israeli lawyer said that there was nothing to charge me with to justify a four-year sentence. They ended up sentencing me six months and a fine of 1000 Shekels ($230US)
One thousand Shekels is really good. Some people pay 10 000 Shekels or 20 000, or even 100 000. I was happy with that sentence because they could have kept delaying it for one year, or two years, without having anything against me. I left prison without any charge proven.
Yes, I am a student activist with Fatah, but I am part of the political movement of Fatah. They said that I might have a military affiliation because I know a lot of people. But my role is to help students. If a student asks for help I will help, similar to how other centers help with community work, I do the same.
Q: Is it true that Palestinian female political prisoners are held in the same facilities as Israeli Jewish criminals?
A: Yes, Israeli criminals are held in the same prison. They are non-political criminal prisoners, jailed for marijuana, cocaine, or heroine; they can be killers or thieves. Some of the prisoners were coke addicts, and killers. They would go crazy and scream at times, and we wouldn’t sleep all night. Between them and us there was just one door.
The cells were right next to one another, we were in the last cell of six or ten cells. The rest were Jewish prisoners, criminals from the city. We had an agreement among the Palestinian women where we decided that we wouldn’t talk to the Israeli prisoners. One day we asked to be in the first cell, because when something happened in regards to the political situation outside the prison, the guards would take it out on us. If there was a suicide bombing, they would throw hot water on us, or even hot oil. Sometimes they would insult us in a very humiliating way, swear at us, swear at our brothers, or our parents. We asked that they put us in the first room, but they denied our request, based on the reason that they are afraid for the Israeli prisoners. They are scared that when they pass by us, we will harm them. Because they are Israelis they get this treatment. Even though they might be drug addicts, killers, or thieves, they are scared for them because they are Israelis.
Q: What is the health situation like in the Israeli prisons you were in?
A: In regards to food, sometimes they would bring us food with worms in it. Living worms that are swimming in the food. We went on strike for that. Demanding that they give us something else. In prison they would also bring us bananas with worms in it and would tell us, “if you don’t like it don’t eat it.” We did a hunger strike for a day for that.
In terms of health it’s very difficult. They don’t give us any medicine, and if someone is sick they tell them to drink water. Some people have diabetes, some people have heart attacks, or high blood pressure. There are a lot of sicknesses in the prison as a result of the poor conditions such as the dirty water. But they don’t care. Until you die, that’s when they might look at you. There were many cases where a woman would be so sick and in such pain that she would be yelling and crying, and she couldn’t move. And the guards would come and watch her and laugh. Many women experienced pressure and stress, but the guards were not doing anything to help these women. So we would do what we could in order for them to get some medical support. For example, we wouldn’t eat if one of the women needed something. Or sometimes we would refuse to go to our three hours of outdoor time.
Q: You were given three hours of outdoor time per day?
A: Yes. And this is the prison I am talking about. In the interrogation, I spent 74 days without seeing the sun. I only saw the sun in the court and in the interrogation room. I never knew what time it was, what day it was, what month.
Q: Was there abuse?
A: Abuse varied from Israeli to Israeli. Just being in jail is abuse. But others would hit, swear, and so on. Others would just yell. And others would swear at me, my mother, father, brother, sister. Terrible words.
Yes. Some women were abused, yes. Some were shocked with electricity. But not all the time. When we demanded something – if one girl needed medicine, if the food was not edible, the water was not good, and so on, they would deny us food, salt, sugar, even cigarettes. During these strikes they would ban everything. All you can do is wait to die. Some strikes would last 15 days or 20 days, even longer. The last strike among the women was 20 days. During those 20 days we only had water.
Some women were hit while I was there. One girl, a guard grabbed her by her hair, dragged her across the hallway and wiped the floor with her. Then he threw her back in an isolated room where she stayed for two days. This room is much more difficult than the regular cells. There are no mattresses. If the weather is cold than so is the room. It’s in complete isolation so you get sworn at, possibly hit and no one will know.
Q: The latest statistics I read state that there are 120 women political prisoners at present in Israeli jails. How many Palestinian women were in the prison with you?
A: Other than the interrogation centers, there are two prisons for women, Tel Mond (Hasharon Prison) and Ramle (Neve Tirza). In Ramle where I was at first, there were 74 women in total. But that’s the one I was in, I don’t know about the rest. When I left and came back there were 25-30 women. They moved the rest to Tel Mond. They don’t like to keep you in one place otherwise you will get somewhat used to the situation, so they move you from one place to the next to make things more difficult. They don’t even give you a warning that you’re leaving. They just come and take you in a small bus and don’t tell you where you are going. You’re not allowed to ask. It’s not until you arrive that you realize they took you to another prison.
Q: What was it like for your family, having their daughter and sister in prison?
A: In regards to my family, it was very difficult. What affected me most in prison was my parents. A woman in this society marks the dignity of a family. To be a Palestinian woman in prison for a family is very difficult. Also, you never know what can happen in jail. The guards can abuse and rape, and no one will know. It’s hard for a man as well, but it is still easier. A man remains a man. During the interrogation, I found out after I was released, they used to call my mother and put her on the phone with sounds of women crying and screaming. They would say that this was me. Before I was put in prison, they had destroyed our house. They went into my brother’s house and blew it up. The house was empty. They went in the house and destroyed everything.
Q: Have you changed as a person since being in prison?
A: After I was released from prison, everything changed. My personality became much stronger. It was a very hard experience but human beings learn a lot more from this type of experience. It shows human beings how they can stay strong. Despite the occupation and the situation, Palestinians have to be strong, this is what my experience taught me. Maybe my religion also helped me. In Islam, patience is a very cherished value, and my religion helped me a lot during my prison days. In a dungeon, instead of getting mad you can pray to God and ask God to help you endure this torture and go on with your life. When you leave prison it’s possible that you will have a memory problem, and this is what I have now. I can’t concentrate anymore, can’t remember names, I remember that I have seen someone, but I can’t remember their names.
When someone talks about prison it’s as though there is something so painful and dark in your heart. And as much as you learn from it, it hurts you. It changes everything about you and your life, even your thoughts. I felt like a completely different person.
My friends and family would tell me that I’ve changed and I would say that I haven’t. In terms of university, I couldn’t resume my studies. Since I left prison I haven’t been able to finish, even though my grades in school were very good before. Now I can’t even open a book, I try to read and to study but I’ll read something 10 times and it’s as though I didn’t even read it. But I am not going to give up, I am going to get my degree. God willing.
After I was released from prison, I had to leave for a bit, so I went to Ramallah. After being released, you feel that you are a stranger. Even among your parents, in the house you were raised in, you feel strange. I couldn’t associate myself with that society. When you get out of prison you become a stranger to that society. There is an expression that says “a prisoner cares for his prison.” I say it’s not true. A prisoner does not care for prison, it’s just that he becomes a stranger to the outside world.
You’re not the same person before prison, in your thoughts and in your actions. I became angrier. Sometimes my sister would frustrate me and I would hit her. Once my sister was yelling, I don’t know why, and I threw a chair at her. Had it been my mother she would have died. This is what prison does to you.
It was difficult for my family and friends as well to see me like this. They would say that this is not Arifa. ”You never used to think like this Arifa,” they would say I lost the human side of me that feels pain. I don’t react to things the same way most people do. When I used to see someone go through pain I used to feel for them. Now, it doesn’t bother me like it used to. When I see pictures of people dying, or of martyrs, it’s normal to me. This human feeling inside of me, maybe, has died.