Babylon & Beyond

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ISRAEL: Prisoners as icons, and museum fodder

November 1, 2007 |  1:01 pm

Patriotic steadfastness is exalted in the Palestinian imagination, and no one personifies this more than a Palestinian prisoner — there are an estimated 11,000 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. Prisoners are esteemed across Palestinian society, and a jail stint buys instant street cred.

Haj A new West Bank museum focusing on prisoners gives a strong taste of the iconography around jailed Palestinians, if not deep scholarship or much explanation. The six-month-old Abu Jihad Center for Political Prisoners’ Affairs is a collection of artifacts — letters, photos of prison life and the like — and a comment on life under occupation. Mainly, it’s a salute to Palestinians jailed by Israel. (That’s 800,000 people since 1967, said museum director Fahed Abu Haj, an animated, stocky man who spent 10 years in jail for his activities in the Fatah movement.)

The museum was built with $750,000 from Kuwait and named after Khalil Wazir, a former deputy of Yasser Arafat killed in Tunisia in 1988, apparently by Israeli agents. Housed at Al Quds University in Abu Dis, the collection pays careful attention to symbolism and design (crenelated walls and worn stone tiles are meant to evoke Jerusalem’s Old City, for example).

There are many lists: of 27 Israeli detention facilities; of 76 “forms of torture" inside Israeli jails; of 220 Palestinians who died in custody. Another roster lists 64 “old prisoners” jailed more than 20 years. The most immediate artifacts are those from prisoners’ daily lives, such as the letters written in minuscule Arabic script and rolled into candy-sized pellets to be smuggled out by prison visitors.

Israelis are welcome, Abu Haj says, but even dovish Israelis may be appalled that the museum never says what deeds these inmates committed. A Palestinian’s act of resistance is usually an Israeli’s act of terrorism.

Still, samples of prisoner art, including Dome of the Rock sculptures crafted from cardboard, beads, colored silk and other household materials, help show that inmates are people, too, said Salah Takatka, who was visiting on a recent day. Takatka, 33, was freed in September after serving 8 1/2 years for activities that, he said, included attacking Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem with stones.

“When they see the work that we do, they will see we are not all terrorists,” Takatka said. “We are also artists.”

— Ken Ellingwood in Abu Dis

Photo: Fahed Abu Haj, a Palestinian former prisoner, runs a new museum in the West Bank devoted to the experience of Palestinians jailed by Israel. Credit: Ken Ellingwood