RAMALLAH — Khalida Jarrar’s neat office and smart appearance offer little indication that this time last year she was serving out a 15-month sentence in an Israeli jail cell.
She’s an elected Palestinian parliamentarian, a lawyer, a wife and a mother. She is also, according to Israel, an agitator and a danger to its security. Her travel has been restricted for years by Israel and she has not left the occupied West Bank since 1998.
In April 2015, an Israeli military court convicted her of incitement and membership in an illegal terrorist organization, among other things — charges she still denies.
Released last summer, Jarrar has been busy this week speaking out on behalf of roughly 1,000 Palestinian inmates currently immersed in an open-ended hunger strike. Conditions inside Israeli jails, they say, have become unbearable.
Israeli officials have said conditions are in keeping with international standards and have refused to negotiate with them. As the strike progresses, however, Israel may have to keep the prisoners alive by force-feeding them.
Israel calls the Palestinian inmates “security prisoners.” Many have been sentenced for carrying out or orchestrating violent attacks against Israeli soldiers or civilians.
According to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, a support group for Palestinian detainees, there are some 6,500 Palestinian prisoners today. Of that number, 56 are women, of which 10 are younger than 18.
Even before her incarceration, Jarrar’s name was synonymous with the issue of Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli jails. She spent 12 years as the director of Addameer, a prisoners' support and human rights group in Ramallah. More recently, she headed the Palestinian Legislative Council’s committee for prisoners' rights.
Now, after her stint in prison, she has gained a unique insight into the experience of Palestinian prisoners, especially the female inmates. And her status as a former prisoner has most definitely boosted her popularity.
“The prisoners' issue is extremely important to the Palestinian people. They are looking for leaders who can really represent them and pay the price like anyone else,” Jarrar told The Washington Post.
Jarrar said that over the past two years, with tensions high between Israelis and Palestinians, the number of Palestinian women sentenced by Israel to serve jail time has soared.
We sat down with her recently in her Ramallah office to learn more about the issue.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity:
Q: You were behind bars for 15 months. Tell us what the conditions were like for women? Were they better or worse than for the men?
A: One of the greatest difficulties is seeing minors imprisoned. They miss their families so much, it is really hard for them, and their education stops.
Another difficult thing is the injured women. These women are brought to prison even though their hospital treatment has not been completed. The other prisoners must take care of them.
Q: One of the claims of the hunger strikers is that they do not get enough family visits while in jail or that their relatives are prevented from visiting them at all. Was this your experience?
A: You can’t imagine how important family visits are. We are supposed to receive two visits a month, but some of the women I was with did not receive family visits at all.
I had my first visit after four months. When my family first applied to see me, they were turned down. They were told there was no family connection, even my mother was told this. They had to get legal documents from the interior ministry proving their relationship to me.
Even then, only my daughters and sisters were allowed to come. My husband and brothers were turned down because of security reasons. The Israelis always use this excuse.
Q: Israelis call Palestinian prisoners ‘security prisoners,’ you call them ‘political prisoners.’ Are all Palestinian prisoners ‘political,’ even those who have killed or attacked Israelis?
A: For me all the prisoners are political prisoners. I spoke to many of the women I was with and some of them were arrested just because the Israelis wanted to arrest someone. In some cases, the Israelis put knives beside them to make it look like they tried to stab someone, when they did nothing.
We are people living under occupation and we have to resist. Even if a Palestinian resists with peaceful means, they are arrested. I was arrested for speaking out against the occupation.
The problem is not the actions of the people under occupation, the problem is the occupation itself. The people are just reacting to that. More details should be known about the Palestinian people who are suffering every day — suffering from travel, suffering at the checkpoints, suffering from settlements, suffering from no access to water, suffering with no access to their land. What can they expect from those people?
Q: Israel says many of the young Palestinians who carry out violent attacks today against Israelis are doing so because of personal or social problems. Do you believe that to be true?
A: As a community, we are not ashamed to admit we have social problems. There are problems in all societies. Our society discriminates against women. That is part of our struggle as Palestinians.
But this is not the main reason for these attacks. According to researchers, it is very easy for people who are violated to violate others. Palestinian society is violated all the time.
Also, if Israel says it is social problems, and in some cases it is, the main question for Israel’s military judges is why give these people such high sentences?
Q: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is going to Washington next week. It looks as though President Trump will push both Palestinians and Israelis to hold direct negotiations to reach a peace deal. Does this bring any hope to solving the conflict?
It is a policy, not a matter of the persons. The track of direct negotiations has failed, and it brought no hope for the Palestinian people. In fact, the opposite happened. The West Bank and East Jerusalem has more settlers than ever and that is one of the main obstacles to us establishing a state.
Abbas will agree to go to negotiations under Trump, but I am against this and, I believe, the majority of the Palestinian people are against this, too.
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.