Prisoners of the Occupation
An excerpt from a play written with former Palestinian political prisoners and attacked and suppressed by Israel’s Ministry of Culture.
As the Israeli right has steadily acquired more power and entrenched itself in government over the last decade, so too has there been a substantial increase in the censorship of Israeli artistic works. The problem has become especially acute under Culture Minister Miri Regev, of the Likud Party, who took office in 2015.
Such efforts to stifle speech include the repeated arrests of leftist artist Natali Cohen Vaxberg and the Ministry of Culture’s withdrawn funding from a dance show by choreographer Arkadi Zaides that used footage taken by the human rights group B’Tselem. Though Regev—who was formerly the chief censor of the Israeli military, and who has tried to push through legislation requiring “loyalty” to Israel from artists receiving government funding—is the face of Israel’s turn to censorship, it is an attitude that has pervaded Israeli society. In 2016, a novel depicting a love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian was removed from the national education curriculum, and artists describe the torrents of hate mail that have become routine for any works perceived as “anti-Israel.”
Einat Weizman is among these artists. Weizman’s play, Prisoners of the Occupation, was written together with former Palestinian political prisoners who cannot be credited without jeopardizing the conditions of their release (notably, one scene was written from within prison walls and smuggled out). The work was originally set to be staged at the Acre Fringe Theater Festival last June, but the Acre municipality and the festival steering committee intervened and spiked the play from the schedule, prompting the resignation of the festival’s artistic director and multiple withdrawals in solidarity by other participating artists. Regev attacked Weizman directly, throwing her support behind the ban and accusing the playwright of “glorifying terrorists.” As a result of this campaign, the creators are still struggling to raise funds to stage the play independently.
But Prisoners of Occupation is not a play about the glorification of terror. As the reader will find in the excerpt that follows, it is a story about the brutality of the Israeli occupation, and the violent cost of total control over Palestinian lives. The effect of prolonged interrogation and imprisonment, as Weizman shows in her work, is to eliminate the humanity of Palestinians, to break them completely. And while the highest price of such methods is paid by Palestinians, their single-minded cruelty seeps into Israeli society as well.
“Theater is the only way I can imagine in which you can document this reality . . . there’s no other documentation,” says the narrator of Weizman’s play in the first act. “The most important value in what you will see is loyalty to the truth . . . We have not censored anything here.” It is no wonder that those most intent on keeping things the way they are choosing to target those who describe the way things are, as they are.
This excerpt was translated by Ofer Neiman.
IBRAHIM: The first rule of withstanding an interrogation is not to do—don’t accept coffee from them, don’t accept tea, don’t accept a cigarette, don’t accept anything.
INTERROGATOR 1: You think you’re smart? Lots of bigger and stronger men than you were here and they sang. They all fell here. No one gets out of here without telling everything he knows. (Arabic proverb) “The hand cannot face a dagger.”
INTERROGATOR 2: Where did you meet Hassan Saafi? (Slap)
INTERROGATOR 1: Listen, if you don’t talk, we’ll bring Laila. I’m sure it will be nicer for us to interrogate her.
I saw her. I’m willing to try her. If you wish, I’ll bring you in to see how I enjoy her. What do you say? Should I bend her over here on the table? (Slap) Seems to me she’ll finally get it properly, and not from some faggot terrorist. (Slap) What do you say? Should I bring your whore here? We’re hungry. (Laughs)
IBRAHIM: Second rule: When the interrogator gets mad and starts to beat you, it’s a good sign. It means he’s losing control. He’s helpless in his ability to get something.
INTERROGATOR 2: Listen to me, you will not see the light of day. I will personally make sure you get a life sentence.
WISSAM: Can I go to the toilet?
INTERROGATOR 2: They’ve already snitched on you, your friends sang, so we’re wasting our time. We already know everything. And if you don’t confirm it, your mother will come here and confirm, or your girlfriend—she can also confirm. You sucker, your leaders sit in hotels, on piles of cash, enjoying life, and you little ones end your lives in prison. You pay the price. For what, huh? For whom? (Slap) (Arabic proverb) “Let 100 eyes weep rather than your mother’s eyes.”
INTERROGATOR 1: Hassan Saafi worked with you in February—yes or no?
WISSAM: Can I go to the toilet?
INTERROGATOR 1: You can shit yourself, you stink anyway.
You piece of garbage, now sit in your filth.
The interrogator throws Wissam into the puddle of urine and pushes his head into it with his leg.
Hassan Saafi worked with you in February?
WISSAM: Don’t know any Hassan.
IBRAHIM: Third rule: Always stick to one account. Confessing to even a small thing will snowball into confessing the whole story, and dragging others down with you. They will try to extract one small “yes” from you, but it’s a slippery slope.
The interrogators move Wissam to the courtyard and into a “shabach” position. There are several detainees there, each one tied up differently, all of them with sacks on their heads. One officer remains. Every time Wissam falls asleep the officer wakes him up by hitting him in the head.
I had a friend whom they put in a shabach position. He was a porter, used to carry refrigerators, washing machines, very heavy stuff, and he was very strong physically, fat and big, he had a black belt in karate. Instead of answering the interrogators’ questions, he demanded food. They asked him a question and he responded with a question, and always about the food. They put him in a shabach position and they would bring a tray of food and place it at a distance from him, and he would shout. What came of it? It brought him to a place where he didn’t speak a word to the interrogators. Instead of getting pressed by the interrogation, he was only pressed about the food—when would they let him eat, what’s there to eat. It gave him strength. He wasn’t even all that hungry, but he behaved as if this was what he cared about the most. He came in prepared. He broke the fear barrier in front of the interrogator. He demanded more than the interrogator demanded. Mentally this makes you stronger.
Fourth rule: The more disobedient you are, the better it will be for you. You gain something from being disobedient. Being active always makes you stronger. It delivers a message. It makes them despair of you. They will look more towards the others around you.
(Prisoner 1 coughs.)
PRISONER 2: Who’s here?
PRISONER 1: Ali
PRISONER 2: From where?
PRISONER 1: Al-Bireh. You?
PRISONER 2: Jerusalem
PRISONER 1: How long have you been here?
PRISONER 2: Ten days maybe
PRISONER 1: Be strong. Are there others here?
OFFICER: Quiet! One more word and I bust you.
IBRAHIM: As the days go by, it becomes more and more difficult. There are all kinds of things that can empower the soul, songs for example. I used to sing songs in my head. I used to think of my mother’s eyes the last time I’d seen her. I thought of not wanting her to be disappointed in me.
But at some point the mind starts to go wrong. They may deprive you of sleep for a week. After already spending 48 hours in an interrogation room, suddenly every two hours the interrogator changes, and he speaks to you all night long and all day long. Not always interrogating, sometimes just stuff, football, himself, his family, his problems, to stop you from falling asleep. And then, interrogation again. You have to last the first 15 days and then it’s easier. Then they must bring you before a judge and lawyer.
Until then, you feel like you’re imprisoned in an eternal present, an ongoing hell, isolated from the world. Your only contact is with the interrogators, who are trying to take control of your thoughts and your soul. But the days pass, they pass and it’s comforting.
They move Wisam to a small chair, his hands and feet are still tied. A violent scene of beatings between the legs, and dipping his covered head in a bucket of water. Every time they take his head out of the water they make threats.
INTERROGATOR 1: You will die here.
Well then? You wanna talk?
You still think you’re smart?
This will not end.
You decided to talk?
I won’t leave you alone.
(Voice-over) WISSAM: My beloved mother, How are you? I’m in prison and settled in. All is well with me. I feel good and healthy. Don’t worry about me at all. I have seven others with me in my cell, good people, and we are already friends. One of them is Shadi Shehade, remember? He went to elementary school with me, he was the shyest kid in class. For six years, I never heard him speak. He used to draw during breaks. Later he became the school artist, and the whole school was full of his drawings. I was surprised to meet him here. The attached drawing of Handala he made for you. He also promised to teach me to draw. All is good with me. I’m strong. My friends here are good people. Write to me. I am only allowed to write two letters a month, but I can receive letters without limitations. Give my address to whomever wants it. Miss you and love you, Wissam.
The interrogators leave Wissam, tied up, beaten, and wet on the floor. Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” starts playing, beginning softly and then getting louder, growing harsh and dissonant, grating the listener’s nerves.
The interrogators release Wissam and transfer him to a cell full of Asafir (literally “birds,” Palestinian prisoners who are Shabak informants, trying to get other detainees to talk). The stage changes into a prison cell.
IBRAHIM: Shabak’s ways are clever and devious. If you are not prepared, you won’t recognize all the methods. After the hard interrogations, they may make you feel that at last you’re done, that they’ve given up on you and they’re finally transferring you to prison. At first all seems normal, you’re treated like a normal prisoner. You go through the entire absorption process, get your personal things, pass through the prison clinic, talk to the intelligence office and the prison’s deputy director, and they put you in a cell. You’re euphoric: the interrogations are behind me, and I’ve handled everything! But the prison is not a prison and the prisoners there are not prisoners. Everything looks the same and feels the same, but it’s an Asafir trap.
Wissam enters the cell. Hugs, handshakes, help: he’s welcomed as a hero, they take his possessions (clothes, bed sheet, towel), they make him feel he’s among his own people. He sits in the middle of the room, and those around him bring him coffee and food, and organize his things. Handshakes:
HAMAS: Ehab, Hamas
WISSAM: Ahlan, Wissam
FATEH: Adnan, Fateh
POPULAR FRONT: Ali, Popular Front
HAMAS: Welcome, listen, in order to belong here you need to tell us your affiliation, so we know which cell you should sit in.
WISSAM: I don’t belong, I don’t belong to any faction. I act alone.
HAMAS: (Laughs) OK. Who do you support?
WISSAM: I don’t support anyone, I’m alone. Not connected.
FATEH: So who would you rather be with?
WISSAM: I don’t care. I’m not religious, so Fateh or Popular Front is the same to me.
POPULAR FRONT: What is closer to you? We can’t choose for you.
WISSAM: OK, OK. I don’t belong anywhere but I’ll go with you.
POPULAR FRONT: (Takes Wissam aside) How are you? Feeling good?
You will slowly understand the rules here. Listen, we need to do damage control. First you have to write a report that we can send outside, to understand how you fell, who snitched on you, what happened. Everyone who comes in fills in this report. I need you to write, point by point, what you went through in the interrogation, what they told you, what you said, what you thought, everything. You have to write every detail, because this way you will keep people on the outside from falling.
Wissam starts writing.
IBRAHIM: A high percentage of detainees fall at this stage. They say it’s psychological, that after these tough interrogations you feel so good among your people, and even if you know—and many do know that these are Asafir, you see they’re trying to get stuff out of you—you know you’re gonna fall, and you give and give and give. How can you handle it? It’s a simple principle: “The tongue is your horse, if you guard it, it will guard you, and if you betray it—it will betray you.” Swallow your tongue. It only sounds simple.
Einat Weizman is an Israeli actor, director and playwright.
Ofer Neiman is an Israeli citizen and a freelance translator. He supports the BDS Movement.