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Palestinians Open Israeli Jail Replica in Gaza

  • Reuters

Palestinians visit prison cells in Gaza City that had been used by Israeli security services to keep Palestinian prisoners during Israel's occupation of Gaza Strip, April 11, 2013.

Palestinians visit prison cells in Gaza City that had been used by Israeli security services to keep Palestinian prisoners during Israel's occupation of Gaza Strip, April 11, 2013.

Palestinians opened a replica of a former Israeli prison in Gaza on Tuesday to help illuminate the plight of 4,800 Palestinians jailed in Israel after weeks of protests that have triggered clashes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Murals of famous leaders of Palestinian militant groups who were once held in the Saraya prison decorated walls at the site, along with a leather banner listing the names of 12 detainees who died in what locals dubbed "the slaughterhouse."

"Prisoner Day," an annual Palestinian national rite that commemorates the detainees, is set for Wednesday and more street violence with Israeli troops is anticipated.

Palestinians view compatriots held in Israel as heroes of their struggle for statehood, whereas the Jewish state says many are guilty of killing or hurting innocents and the detentions guarantee its security.

A hunger strike by a handful of prisoners and the deaths of two inmates in custody this year have touched off deadly clashes with Israeli security forces that some analysts say could snowball into a third Palestinian uprising.

Saraya was refurbished and opened to visitors by Waed, a prisoners' association loyal to Hamas.

The ex-prison spans the fraught history of Palestine. It was built by British colonial authorities in 1936 only to be used in turn by Israel during its post-1967 occupation, the Palestinian Authority under a self-rule deal from 1994, and finally Hamas for a brief period after it seized control of Gaza in 2007.

Many of Saraya's original concrete cellblocks and interrogation rooms were destroyed over the years by Israeli air strikes during conflict with Palestinian militants. In their place, Waed built rows of tents it says resemble detention camps still in use in Israel's nearby Negev desert.

Waed spokesman Abdallah Qandil said he hoped anger over the prisoners' plight would lead to another "armed struggle."

"When I came in I was overcome by the memories and the feelings of suffering prisoners are undergoing," said Zeyad Jouda, a former detainee at Saraya who was guiding visitors."By being here I am conveying my story to people who are visiting to increase their solidarity with prisoners. We are trying to explain to them what detention and what the cells were like." Jouda spoke as he showed around some 40 local women.

Local authorities say 800,000 Palestinians have been detained under Israeli military orders since the 1967 war when Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Palestinians want an independent state in those territories but negotiations with Israel have been frozen since 2010.

Allegations of torture have been directed against all of Saraya's former gatekeepers. Most recently, the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas movements accused each other of abusing fellow Palestinians there during their bloody rivalry.

Hamas says its militant attacks were key to making Israel withdraw from Gaza in 2005 and gaining the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011 in exchange for an Israeli soldier it held hostage.

Visitors to the site echoed this sense of triumphalism.

Salwa al-Mashharawi froze briefly at one of the prison room windows where she used to visit her two sons when they served time there during Israel's occupation. "I recalled the cries, the tears and the pain - but no regret," she said as women around her chanted, "God is Great."

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