25 November 2022

How Palestinian Political Prisoners confront Israel’s carceral regime

Basil Farraj focussed his PhD thesis on the emergence of Israel’s modern-day prison regime, tracing the changes in the modes and ramifications of imprisonment that followed the signing of the Oslo Accords (1993) between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli settler-colonial state. He shows how, through various confrontation practices, prisoners assert the political nature of their imprisonment and counter the carceral regime’s work geared towards de-politicising their imprisonment experience. 

Why did you decide to study Israel’s prison regime in the post-Oslo period?

I have constantly been interested in questions related to carcerality, violence and torture. Prior to commencing my PhD studies, I wrote my master thesis on violence and the politics of memory in post-dictatorship Chile. My fieldwork traced the effects of the violence and torture under Pinochet’s dictatorship on former prisoners and the families of the disappeared. Previously, I had also worked on issues related to political imprisonment in Northern Ireland, Colombia, and Palestine. My PhD work presented a seamless continuation of my academic and research interests, and it presents a vantage point for further understanding global practices of carcerality and violence. Indeed, as I argue in my work, researching Israeli carceral practices provides insights into broader questions of violence and torture, particularly given Israel’s ever-expanding status as an exporter of violent technologies and know-hows.

Can you describe your thesis questions and methodology?

My research engages with two questions: 

  1. How have Israeli carceral violence and policies changed following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, and for what purposes?
  2. What confrontation practices have Palestinian prisoners devised to address Israeli carceral violence and policy changes, particularly in relation to a context characterised by ever-increasing social and political fragmentation? 

Unlike other works centring on a “prison ethnography” approach where researchers gain access to prisons, observe prison life, and interview prisoners, conducting this research necessitated alternative approaches due to Israel’s restrictions on access to prisons and my position as a Palestinian researcher already subject to Israel’s unceasing surveillance. During my fieldwork, I conducted semi-structured interviews with former prisoners who had been imprisoned over various periods. I also interviewed several Palestinian officials working at the Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs, as well as lawyers and staff from human rights organisations. My research relied on a survey of relevant Israeli military laws and High Court of Justice rulings to trace changes in policies and violent tactics. These documents were important sources for understanding the ways in which the settler-colonial state prescribes punishment, interrogation, and detention, and for analysing the intricate ways in which Israel’s legal system sanctions the abuse and torture of Palestinian prisoners. I also relied on human rights organisations’ reports about Palestinian prisoners. 

Finally, my research heavily engaged with multiple works written and smuggled by prisoners during their captivity. These works provide first-hand accounts of imprisonment and violence that otherwise cannot be accessed. My research also engaged with other publications belonging to the vast body of Palestinian prison literature, which includes the numerous essays, novels and poems written by prisoners from, and about, captivity. 

What are your major findings?

The Israeli settler-colonial state has long resorted to imprisonment as a central tactic for confining those it designates as “terrorists” and deems as posing a threat to its “public order” and “security”. Since its violent inception in 1948, Israel has detained hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, subjected them to multitude forms of violence and torture, and placed them in prisons and detention centres across the territory of historic Palestine. Israel’s military laws and military orders, along with rulings by the Israel High Court of Justice, provided the necessary legal sanctioning of violent practices and sought to present Israel as a state adhering to international law while fighting an arduous battle against “barbarian” enemies seeking its destruction.  Over the years, however, carceral policies were modified and came to mirror the broader configurations and tactics of control that Israel solidified to “better” contain and discipline the entire Palestinian population. This broader reality of captivity led numerous scholars to describe Israeli violent structures as constituting part of an all-encompassing carceral regime that reaches into every aspect of Palestinian civic and political conduct.

I argue that the Israeli government, through its military courts and military orders, has long sought to criminalise all forms of Palestinian civic and political engagement. I demonstrate this by following the multiple stages of detention and imprisonment that Palestinians undergo from arrest through the completion of their sentences. These processes re-produce the racialised Palestinian subject as one constantly worthy of punishment and prosecution. I argue that military courts, military orders and, more broadly, the juridical-legal apparatus upon which rests the prison regime are not mere bureaucratic and legal instruments in the hands of Israel. Rather, I conceptualise these sites, and the policies and laws through which they function, as central locations for the production, display and punishment of racialised Palestinians stripped of their subjectivity, political consciousness, and history. 

Turning to interrogation rooms, I explore changes in torture and interrogation practices, particularly following the 1987 Landau Commission’s report and the 1999 High Court of Justice Ruling that purported to ban torture while permitting its use under specific circumstances. Analysing interviews with former prisoners interrogated by the General Security Service, and engaging with scholars working on torture and power, I show that Israel continues to systematically resort to torture and other modes of violence not to obtain information as commonly presumed, but to produce the racialised other and to make confrontation a feared endeavour. I argue that torture intends not solely to inflict bodily pain but also to reconfigure the political subjectivities of prisoners – and by extension that of the entire Palestinian population.

Through tracing changes in prison policies and engaging with ethnographic materials from visitation rooms, I show that Israel has fortified Palestinian prisoners’ isolation from their social and political communities through their transfer to distant prisons and the numerous restrictions placed on visitation rights. I argue that Israel intentionally sought to isolate Palestinian prisoners from their communities not only to inflict pain, but also to de-politicise the imprisonment experience and serve as a warning to those not-yet imprisoned that separation and isolation will be their fate should they dare to resist the occupation. A similar logic shapes the structures of economic exploitation that prisoners face. Palestinian prisoners and their families are expected to pay for the costs of imprisonment, and the same exploitive structures have come to serve a disciplinary and regulatory function. Prisoners not only contribute to the costs of their basic needs but financially contribute to the carceral regime through paying fines to military courts and to the Israel Prison Service. I argue that the isolation and economic exploitation of prisoners intend to dissuade Palestinians from resisting the occupation, and to transform political imprisonment from a collective struggle for rights into an individual and fragmented movement that loses the centrality it once had to the Palestinian liberation movement. 

Finally, I examine what prisoners’ confrontation practices reveal about conditions of captivity and attempts at countering the reshaping of Palestinian subjectivities. I particularly explore prisoners’ writings, the smuggling of sperm, and the recourse to hunger strikes as modes of confrontation attempting to bring forth alternative political imaginaries. I stress that Palestinian prisoners’ confrontation and resistance practices allude to a rejection of Israeli attempts geared towards de-politicising and individualising the prisoners’ movement. These confrontation practices might be read as attempts towards regranting the prisoners’ movement its strength and centrality, particularly during a moment of increasing political and social fragmentation aided by violent Israeli practices and illusions of Palestinian statehood. 

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Basif Farraj defended his PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology of Development in June 2022. Retired Senior Lecturer Rafael Sanchez presided the committee, which included Professor Riccardo Bocco, Thesis Director, and Assistant Professor Lena Meari, Department of Social and Behavioral Science, Birzeit University, Palestine, and Professor Lisa Hajjar, Department of Sociology, the University of California – Santa Barbara.  

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Farraj, Basil Abdelrazeq Yaseen. “Torture, Violence and Confrontation: Palestinian Political Prisoners in the Post-Oslo Era.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2022.
For access, please contact Dr Farraj at

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an illustration by Millenius/