Khalida Jarrar—Fashioning Hope Out of Despair: How to Resist and Win inside Israeli Prisons

15 October, 2021
C. Gaza­leh, “Flight Over Jerusalem” (2015), Ink on paper, 11 x 14 in. (Cour­tesy of the artist)

The fol­low­ing text by Khal­i­da Jar­rar first appeared in These Chains Will Be Bro­ken: Pales­tin­ian Sto­ries of Strug­gle and Defi­ance in Israeli Pris­ons, by Ramzy Baroud (Clar­i­ty Press, 2019).


Ramzy Baroud


Khal­i­da Jar­rar was born in the city of Nablus in the north­ern West Bank on Feb­ru­ary 9, 1963. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion and a Master’s degree in Democ­ra­cy and Human Rights from Birzeit Uni­ver­si­ty. She served as a Direc­tor of Addameer Pris­on­ers’ Sup­port and Human Rights Asso­ci­a­tion from 1994 to 2006, when she was elect­ed to the Pales­tin­ian Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil (PLC)—the Pales­tin­ian Par­lia­ment. She now heads the PLC’s Pris­on­ers Com­mis­sion, in addi­tion to her role on the Pales­tin­ian Nation­al Com­mit­tee for fol­low-up with the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court.

Khal­i­da Jarrar’s high pro­file as a Pales­tin­ian leader ded­i­cat­ed to expos­ing Israeli war crimes to inter­na­tion­al insti­tu­tions has made her a tar­get of fre­quent Israeli arrests and admin­is­tra­tive deten­tions. She has been arrest­ed sev­er­al times, first in 1989, on the occa­sion of Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day. She spent a month in prison for tak­ing part in the March 8 rally.

In 2015, she was detained in a pre-dawn raid by Israeli occu­pa­tion sol­diers, who stormed her house in Ramal­lah. Ini­tial­ly, she was held in admin­is­tra­tive deten­tion with­out tri­al but, fol­low­ing an inter­na­tion­al out­cry, Israeli author­i­ties tried Khal­i­da Jar­rar in a mil­i­tary court, where 12 charges, based entire­ly on her polit­i­cal activ­i­ties, were made against her. Some of the charges includ­ed giv­ing speech­es, hold­ing vig­ils and express­ing sup­port for Pales­tin­ian detainees and their fam­i­lies. She spent 15 months in prison.

Khal­i­da Jar­rar was released in June 2016, only to be arrest­ed again in July 2017, when she was also held under admin­is­tra­tive deten­tion. The Israeli raid on her home was par­tic­u­lar­ly vio­lent, as sol­diers destroyed the main door of her house and con­fis­cat­ed var­i­ous equip­ment, includ­ing an iPad and her mobile phone. She was inter­ro­gat­ed at Ofer Prison before being trans­ferred to HaSharon Prison, where many Pales­tin­ian female pris­on­ers are held. She was released in Feb­ru­ary 2019, after spend­ing near­ly 20 months in prison.

Once more, Khal­i­da Jar­rar was arrest­ed from her home in Ramal­lah on Octo­ber 31, 2019. Dur­ing her lat­est impris­on­ment, one of her two daugh­ters, Suha, passed away at the age of 31. Despite an inter­na­tion­al cam­paign to allow Khal­i­da to attend her daughter’s funer­al on July 13, 2021, the Israeli gov­ern­ment reject­ed all appeals. How­ev­er, a let­ter by Khal­i­da was smug­gled out of prison to serve as a farewell to Suha. In the let­ter, she wrote:

“Suha, my precious.
They have stripped me from bid­ding you a final good­bye kiss.
I bid you farewell with a flower.
Your absence is sear­ing­ly painful, excru­ci­at­ing­ly painful.
But I remain stead­fast and strong,
Like the moun­tains of beloved Palestine.”

Khal­i­da Jar­rar is one of many exam­ples where Pales­tin­ian resisters have tak­en their stead­fast­ness (sumud) and resis­tance with them inside Israeli pris­ons, find­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties to fight back, despite their con­fine­ment, despite the phys­i­cal pain and the psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ture. More­over, instead of see­ing prison as a forced con­fine­ment, Khal­i­da Jar­rar has used it as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to edu­cate and empow­er her fel­low female pris­on­ers. In fact, her achieve­ments in prison changed the face of the Pales­tin­ian female pris­on­ers’ movement. 

Pales­tin­ian law­mak­er Khal­i­da Jar­rar vis­its her daugh­ter’s grave in the occu­pied West Bank after her release from an Israeli jail on Sept.  26, 2021, where she spent two years in deten­tion (pho­to: Abbas Momani/AFP).

Khalida Jarrar

Prison is not just a place made of high walls, barbed wire and small, suf­fo­cat­ing cells with heavy iron doors. It is not just a place that is defined by the clank­ing sound of met­al; indeed, the screech­ing or slam­ming of met­al is the most com­mon sound you will hear in pris­ons, when­ev­er heavy doors are shut, when heavy beds or cup­boards are moved, when hand­cuffs are locked in posi­tion or loos­ened. Even the bosta—the noto­ri­ous vehi­cles that trans­port pris­on­ers from one prison facil­i­ty to another—are met­al beasts, their inte­ri­or, their exte­ri­or, even their doors and built-in shackles.

No, prison is more than all of this. It is also sto­ries of real peo­ple, dai­ly suf­fer­ing and strug­gles against the prison guards and admin­is­tra­tion. Prison is a moral posi­tion that must be made dai­ly, and can nev­er be put behind you. 

Prison is comrades—sisters and broth­ers who, with time, grow clos­er to you than your own fam­i­ly. It is com­mon agony, pain, sad­ness and, despite every­thing, also joy at times. In prison, we chal­lenge the abu­sive prison guard togeth­er, with the same will and deter­mi­na­tion to break him so that he does not break us. This strug­gle is unend­ing and is man­i­fest­ed in every pos­si­ble form, from the sim­ple act of refus­ing our meals, to con­fin­ing our­selves to our rooms, to the most phys­i­cal­ly and phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly stren­u­ous of all efforts, the open hunger strike. These are but some of the tools which Pales­tin­ian pris­on­ers use to fight for, and earn, their very basic rights and to pre­serve some of their dignity.

Prison is the art of explor­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties; it is a school that trains you to solve dai­ly chal­lenges using the sim­plest and most cre­ative means, whether it be food prepa­ra­tion, mend­ing old clothes or find­ing com­mon ground so that we may all endure and sur­vive together.

In prison, we must become aware of time, because if we do not, it will stand still. So, we do every­thing we can to fight the rou­tine, to take every oppor­tu­ni­ty to cel­e­brate and to com­mem­o­rate every impor­tant occa­sion in our lives, per­son­al or collective.

The indi­vid­ual sto­ries of Pales­tin­ian pris­on­ers are a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of some­thing much larg­er, as all Pales­tini­ans expe­ri­ence impris­on­ment in its var­i­ous forms on a dai­ly basis. More­over, the nar­ra­tive of a Pales­tin­ian pris­on­er is not a fleet­ing expe­ri­ence that only con­cerns the per­son who has lived it, but an event that shakes to the very core the pris­on­er, her com­rades, her fam­i­ly and her entire com­mu­ni­ty. Each sto­ry rep­re­sents a cre­ative inter­pre­ta­tion of a life lived, despite all the hard­ship, by a per­son whose heart beats with the love of her home­land and the long­ing for her pre­cious freedom. 

Each indi­vid­ual nar­ra­tive is also a defin­ing moment, a con­flict between the will of the prison guard and all that he rep­re­sents, and the will of the pris­on­ers and what they rep­re­sent as a collective—capable, when unit­ed, of over­com­ing incred­i­ble odds. The defi­ance of Pales­tin­ian pris­on­ers is also a reflec­tion of the col­lec­tive defi­ance and rebel­lious spir­it of the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple, who refuse to be enslaved on their own land and who are deter­mined to regain their free­dom, with the same will and vig­or car­ried by all tri­umphant, once-col­o­nized nations.

The suf­fer­ing and the human rights vio­la­tions expe­ri­enced by Pales­tin­ian pris­on­ers, which run con­trary to inter­na­tion­al and human­i­tar­i­an law, are only one side of the prison sto­ry. The oth­er side can only be tru­ly under­stood and con­veyed by those who have lived through these har­row­ing expe­ri­ences. Quite often, miss­ing from the sto­ry of Pales­tin­ian pris­on­ers is the inspir­ing human tra­jec­to­ry of Pales­tin­ian men and women who have sub­sist­ed through defin­ing moments, with all of their painful details and challenges.

Only by delv­ing deep­er into the pris­on­ers’ nar­ra­tive, can you begin to imag­ine what it feels like to lose a lov­ing moth­er while being con­fined to a small cell, how to deal with a bro­ken leg, to be left with­out fam­i­ly vis­i­ta­tion for years at a time, to be denied your right to edu­ca­tion and to cope with the death of a comrade.

While it is impor­tant that you must com­pre­hend the suf­fer­ing endured by pris­on­ers, such as the numer­ous acts of phys­i­cal tor­ture, psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ment and pro­longed iso­la­tion, you must also real­ize the pow­er of the human will, when men and women decide to fight back, to reclaim their nat­ur­al rights and to embrace their humanity.

Fight­ing back can take on many forms. Through­out the var­i­ous stints of impris­on­ment as a polit­i­cal pris­on­er in Israeli jails, I, too, took part in the var­i­ous forms of resis­tance with­in the walls of the prison. For me, edu­ca­tion for Pales­tin­ian female pris­on­ers became an urgent priority.

Female pris­on­ers in Israeli pris­ons are treat­ed some­what dif­fer­ent­ly than males, not only in terms of the nature of the vio­la­tions com­mit­ted against them, but also in the degree of their iso­la­tion. Since there are far few­er female pris­on­ers than males, it is eas­i­er for Israeli prison author­i­ties to iso­late them com­plete­ly from the rest of the world. More­over, there are only a few women pris­on­ers with uni­ver­si­ty degrees; the lev­el of edu­ca­tion among these women is alarm­ing­ly low.

I was already aware of these facts when I was detained by Israel in 2015, spend­ing most of my deten­tion in HaSharon Prison. There­fore, I decid­ed to make it my mis­sion to focus on the issue of edu­ca­tion for women who were denied the oppor­tu­ni­ty to fin­ish school, whether as chil­dren or those who were denied such a right due to dif­fi­cult social con­di­tions. The idea quick­ly occu­pied my mind: if I could only help a few women achieve their high school diplo­mas, I would have made good use of my time in deten­tion. These diplo­mas would allow them to pur­sue uni­ver­si­ty degrees as soon as they were able to and, even­tu­al­ly, achieve a lev­el of eco­nom­ic inde­pen­dence. More impor­tant­ly, armed with a strong edu­ca­tion, these women could con­tribute even more to the empow­er­ment of Pales­tin­ian communities. 

How­ev­er, there are plen­ty of obsta­cles fac­ing all pris­on­ers, espe­cial­ly women. Israeli prison author­i­ties place numer­ous restric­tions on pris­on­ers who want to pur­sue for­mal edu­ca­tion. Even when the Israel Prison Ser­vice (IPS) agrees, in prin­ci­ple, to grant such a right, they ensure all prac­ti­cal con­di­tions required to facil­i­tate the work are miss­ing, includ­ing the avail­abil­i­ty of class­rooms, black­boards, school sup­plies and qual­i­fied teachers. 

The lat­ter obsta­cle, how­ev­er, was over­come by the fact that I have a Master’s degree, which qual­i­fies me from the view­point of the Pales­tin­ian Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion to serve as a teacher and to super­vise final high school exams, known as Tawji­hi. Just see­ing the excite­ment on the faces of the girls when I float­ed the idea by them inspired me to take on the daunt­ing task, the first such ini­tia­tive in the his­to­ry of Pales­tin­ian women pris­on­ers in Israeli jails. 

I began by con­tact­ing the Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion in order to ful­ly under­stand their rules and expec­ta­tions, and how they would apply to female pris­on­ers who want to study for their final exams. My first cohort of stu­dents con­sist­ed of five women, who so gid­di­ly took on the challenge. 

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At that ear­ly stage, the prison admin­is­tra­tion was not ful­ly aware of the nature of our “oper­a­tion,” so their restric­tions were mere­ly tech­ni­cal and admin­is­tra­tive. The expe­ri­ence was, in fact, new to all of us, espe­cial­ly to me. I must admit that I may have exag­ger­at­ed my expec­ta­tions in my attempt to ensure a high degree of aca­d­e­m­ic pro­fes­sion­al­ism in con­duct­ing my class­es and the final exam. I just want­ed to make sure that I did not, in any way, vio­late my prin­ci­ples, because I tru­ly want­ed the girls to earn their cer­tifi­cates and expect more of themselves. 

We had few school sup­plies. In fact, each class had to share a sin­gle text­book that was left by Pales­tin­ian child pris­on­ers before they were trans­ferred by IPS to anoth­er facil­i­ty. We copied the few text­books by hand; this way, sev­er­al stu­dents were able to fol­low the lessons at the same time. My stu­dents stud­ied hard. A sin­gle class would, at times, extend to sev­er­al hours, which meant that they would will­ing­ly lose their only break for the day when they were allowed to leave their cells. We had so much to cov­er and so lit­tle time. In the end, five stu­dents took the exam, results of which were sent to the Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion to be con­firmed. Weeks lat­er, the results came back. Two of the stu­dents passed. 

It was an extra­or­di­nary moment. The news that two stu­dents had earned their cer­tifi­cates while in prison spread quick­ly among all the pris­on­ers, their fam­i­lies and orga­ni­za­tions that cham­pi­on detainee rights. The girls cel­e­brat­ed the news, and all of their com­rades felt tru­ly hap­py for them. In no time, we mobi­lized again, get­ting ready to pro­duce yet anoth­er cohort of grad­u­ates. How­ev­er, the more media atten­tion our achieve­ment gar­nered, the more wor­ried the Israeli prison author­i­ties became. I was not at all sur­prised that the IPS decid­ed to make it dif­fi­cult for the sec­ond group, also con­sist­ing of five stu­dents, to go through the same experience. 

It was a real bat­tle, but we had every inten­tion of fight­ing it to the end, no mat­ter the pres­sure. The prison admin­is­tra­tion informed me offi­cial­ly that I was no longer allowed to teach the pris­on­ers. They harassed me repeat­ed­ly, threat­en­ing to send me to soli­tary con­fine­ment. But I know inter­na­tion­al law well, and I repeat­ed­ly con­front­ed the Israelis with the fact that I under­stood the rights of the pris­on­ers and had no plans to back down. Despite all of this, I man­aged to teach the sec­ond group of girls, prepar­ing the exams myself, in coor­di­na­tion with the Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion. This time, all five stu­dents who took the exam passed. It was a great triumph. 

After what we achieved, I real­ized that there is a need to insti­tu­tion­al­ize the edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence for female pris­on­ers, and not to tie it to me or to any sin­gle per­son. For this to suc­ceed in the long term, it need­ed to be a col­lec­tive effort, a mis­sion to be cham­pi­oned by every group of women in prison, for years to come. I placed much of my focus on train­ing qual­i­fied female pris­on­ers, by get­ting them involved in teach­ing and by famil­iar­iz­ing them with admin­is­tra­tive work required by the Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion. I set up the appa­ra­tus to ensure a smooth tran­si­tion for the third group of grad­u­ates, as I was antic­i­pat­ing my immi­nent release. 

I was freed in June 2016. Although I returned to my reg­u­lar life and pro­fes­sion­al work, I nev­er ceased think­ing about my com­rades in prison, their dai­ly strug­gles and chal­lenges, espe­cial­ly those who were keen on get­ting the edu­ca­tion that they need and deserve. I was thrilled when I learned that two female pris­on­ers took on the final exams after I left, and suc­cess­ful­ly grad­u­at­ed. I felt as hap­py as I did when I was freed and reunit­ed with my fam­i­ly. I was also relieved to learn that the sys­tem I put in place before my release was work­ing. This gave me much hope for the future. 

In July 2017, the Israeli mil­i­tary arrest­ed me again, this time for 20 months. I returned to the same HaSharon Prison. There were many more female pris­on­ers than before. Imme­di­ate­ly, with the help of oth­er qual­i­fied pris­on­ers, we began prepar­ing for the fourth group to grad­u­ate. This time, nine female pris­on­ers were study­ing for the exam. There were more vol­un­teer teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors. The prison had sud­den­ly bloomed, turn­ing into a place of learn­ing and empowerment.

The prison admin­is­tra­tion went crazy! They accused me of incite­ment and began a series of retal­ia­to­ry mea­sures to shut down the whole school­ing process. We accept­ed the chal­lenge. When they closed our class­room, we went on strike. When they con­fis­cat­ed our pens and pen­cils, we used crayons instead. When they hauled away our black­board, we unhooked a win­dow and wrote on it. We smug­gled it from one room to anoth­er, dur­ing the times that we had des­ig­nat­ed for learn­ing. The prison guards tried every trick in the book to pre­vent us from our right to edu­ca­tion. To show our deter­mi­na­tion to defeat the prison author­i­ties, we named the fourth group “The Cohort of Defi­ance”.  In the end, our will proved might­i­er than their injus­tice. We com­plet­ed the entire process. All the girls who took the final exam passed with fly­ing colors. 

I can­not describe to you in mere words how we felt dur­ing those days. It was a huge vic­to­ry. We dec­o­rat­ed the prison walls and cel­e­brat­ed. We were all hap­py, smil­ing and jubi­lant because of what we man­aged to achieve togeth­er, when we stood unit­ed against the unfair rules of Israel and its prison admin­is­tra­tion. The news spread beyond the prison walls and cel­e­bra­tions were held by the fam­i­lies of the grad­u­ates through­out Pales­tine. The fifth group was the crown­ing of that col­lec­tive achieve­ment. It was the sweet reward fol­low­ing months of strug­gle and hard­ship that we had endured, while insist­ing on our right to edu­ca­tion. Sev­en more stu­dents are now study­ing for the final exam, in the hope of join­ing the oth­er 18 female grad­u­ates who obtained their cer­tifi­cates since the first expe­ri­ence com­menced in 2015.

The aspi­ra­tions of female pris­on­ers evolved, as they felt tru­ly capa­ble and empow­ered by the edu­ca­tion they had received, espe­cial­ly as they had endured so much to obtain what should be a basic human right for all. Those who have obtained their Tawji­hi cer­tifi­cates are ready to progress to a high­er lev­el of edu­ca­tion. How­ev­er, since the Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion is not yet pre­pared for this step, the pris­on­ers are cre­at­ing tem­po­rary alternatives. 

Since I have a Master’s degree in Democ­ra­cy and Human Rights, and also have lengthy expe­ri­ence in this field through my work with Addameer and the PLC, among oth­er insti­tu­tions, I offered my stu­dents a train­ing course in Inter­na­tion­al and Human­i­tar­i­an Law. To teach the course, I man­aged to bring into prison some of the most impor­tant and rel­e­vant texts per­tain­ing to inter­na­tion­al treaties on human rights, includ­ing the Ara­bic trans­la­tion of all four Gene­va Con­ven­tions. Some of these doc­u­ments were brought in by the Red Cross, oth­ers by fam­i­ly mem­bers who came to vis­it me in prison. 

Forty-nine female pris­on­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed in the course, which was divid­ed into sev­er­al peri­ods, each con­sist­ing of two months. At the end of the course, the par­tic­i­pants received cer­tifi­cates for hav­ing com­plet­ed 36 hours of train­ing in Inter­na­tion­al and Human­i­tar­i­an Law, the results of which were con­firmed by sev­er­al Pales­tin­ian min­istries. While we cel­e­brat­ed in prison, a large cer­e­mo­ny spon­sored by the Min­istry of Pris­on­ers’ Affairs was held out­side, where the fam­i­lies and some of the freed pris­on­ers attend­ed, amid a huge celebration. 

In the end, we did more than fash­ion hope out of despair. We also evolved in our nar­ra­tive, in the way we per­ceive our­selves, the prison and the prison guards. We defeat­ed any lin­ger­ing sense of infe­ri­or­i­ty and turned the walls of prison into an oppor­tu­ni­ty. When I saw the beau­ti­ful smiles on the faces of my stu­dents who com­plet­ed their high school edu­ca­tion in prison, I felt that my mis­sion has been accomplished. 

Hope in prison is like a flower that grows out of a stone. For us Pales­tini­ans, edu­ca­tion is our great­est weapon. With it, we will always be victorious.


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