Prisoner X = 4157

Readers all over the world will no doubt be familiar with the story of so-called ‘Mr. X’: the story, that is, of Ben Zygier – an Australian-Israeli citizen who perished in a prison in Israel in 2010. For those who are not, Haaretz newspaper is now – finally – the place to read about the saga:  Amir Oren has the best analysis I’ve read so far. I say ‘finally’ because a gag order was imposed on all Israeli media which prohibited any reporting of the case. It was only after Australia’s ABC news broke the story that the Military Censor (who does what it its namesake implies) and the Court lifted the media ban – and even then it took additional lobbying from three key Knesset members.

Life of X
Life of X

I won’t repeat the details, but essentially Ben Zygier is thought to have worked for Mossad (apparently he told his friends as much and Israel has not denied this). Exactly why he was imprisoned is unclear, but it is alleged that he had become a double-agent, and that his treachery landed him in the infamous Ayalon prison (see image below) where he spent some months before he died. A secret investigation into the cause of his death by the State Prosecutors deemed that it was suicide, though ABC News have evidence to suggest that this could be doubtful.

Ayalon Prison, Israel
Ayalon Prison, Israel

What can one say about such a tragedy? Many things, I suspect, and I will be following things closely as the story unfolds, but the most important thing, I think, is to contextualise Zygiers death in relation to Israel’s vast incarceration infrastructure. Why? Because as terrible as his incarceration and death is, Zygier is not the first one and he will not be the last. But before I labour this point, here is what Amir Oren has to say about a prison system which has been failing since its inception:

The story is completely Israeli in its fundamentals: How the most sensitive agencies aren’t functioning and how right is the feeling that there is no one to rely on. Among the partners in the failure, if indeed foreign media reports are correct, are the Israel Prison Service, the Justice Ministry and the courts. In its 65th year, the State of Israel still doesn’t control the basics.

To speak of a failing system, or a faulty functioning is, of course, to invite the question: what is the purpose of the prison? There have been many wonderful analyses of the prison from Bentham to Foucault, but in terms of modern-day scholarly analyses it is surely Loic Wacant (Prisons of Poverty) and  the wonderful Ruth Gilmore (Golden Gulag) who provide some of the most compelling answers, at least in the U.S. context. Closer to Israel/Palestine the work of Lisa Hajjar (Courting Conflict) is essential, as is Saree Makdisi’s ‘Palestine Inside Out’. The basic thing to understand in the Israel-Palestine context is that Palestinians are subject Israeli military courts which operate  in ways that are – to understate – not very transparent. If you are short on time, or – like me – simply can’t read everything (!) then the best introduction – and arguably the best conclusion –  is to be found in Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s  brilliant film, The Law in These Parts (to be viewed alongside the film Gatekeepers which I previously reviewed). Here is an extended trailer:

Mr X. has been given a name. Many have not. B’Tselem is an Israeli human rights organisation, one of the best in-fact. It keeps a permanent and up-to-date record of Palestinian prisoners, and any day of the year anybody with internet access can view their statistics. I clicked just now: the following statement and graph excludes around 250 held in a separate category called ‘administrative detention’ (which means detention without trial):

“At the end of Dec.  2012, some 4,517 Palestinian security detainees and prisoners were held in Israeli prisons. A few dozen other Palestinians (we do not have precise figures) are held in IDF facilities for short periods of time.”

Palestinians in the custody of the Israeli security forces
Palestinians in the custody of the Israeli security forces

Even supposing the conditions were, as far as prisons go, relatively good, it is hard to imagine what kind of justification can be given for the incarceration of nearly 300 minors under the age of 16. But the crucial point, and here I want to directly address the key link to Zygier, is that conditions are not good and for evidence of this we need look no further than to a second and equally brave Israeli human rights organisation called Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI). To add a bit of history to those figures above it is worth remembering, as PCATI report:

Until the 1999 High Court of Justice ruling of 1999, the Israeli security forces tortured thousands of Palestinian detainees each year. According to PCATI’s estimates, almost all interrogees during this period of time were the victims of at least one form of torture during their interrogation.

For those who are asking ‘what happened to Ben Zygier?’, some insight might be gleaned from what happened to these Palestinians, and PCATI are thorough in determining each and every metod of torture used by the General Security Service (GSS). Unfortunately, however, the practice is not history: here is PCATI on the post 1999 situation:

Sworn affidavits of Palestinians who underwent interrogation since the above ruling reveal that the license given by the Court to GSS interrogators to employ their independent discretion in certain cases has allowed them to continue employing violent methods of interrogation.

The GSS and its high ranking officials have not succeeded in renouncing the concept that the most effective way to obtain confessions or information is through psychological and physical suffering, exhaustion and degradation. As a result, the protection the High Court of Justice wanted to grant Palestinian interrogees has been rendered ineffective.


Screen Shot 2013-02-14 at 7.52.04 PM
Family Matters – PCATI

No DefensePCATI
No Defense – PCATI
















And finally to bring this fully up to date: PCATI in 2008 released a report, ominously titled ‘Family Matters‘ (above). The subtitle says it all: ‘using family members to pressure detainees under GSS interrogation’. In June 2012, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) posed 59 questions to Israel regarding its compliance with the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Israel ratified this convention in 1991. Another report, ‘No Defence’ also published in 2008 details abuse of prisoners by soldiers. Then, of course, are those protesting their detention by going on hunger strike. In 2012 Israel’s High Court of Justice rejected appeals by Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahlah against their continued administrative detention, ruling that a hunger strike cannot determine the duration of administrative detention. Near death, they eventually won their struggle and were released.

Free Samer IssawiShahad Abusalama:
Free Samer Issawi
Shahad Abusalama:

There has been a lot of attention on the ‘torture memos’ and torture in the U.S. context. Brilliant new works take a fresh look at the geographies of torture: Open Society Justice Initiative has recently released a report on ‘Globalizing Torture‘, and the aforementioned and always insightful Lisa Hajjar has a new book, ‘Torture: a sociology of violence and human rights’ on the issue. My hope is that the fate of Ben Zygier will help bring into view some of the ‘completely’ thought not exclusively Israeli’ practices of torture and incarceration outlined here.

In a recent post on war & torture casualties, Derek Gregory drew attention to the importance of what he called the ‘raw data’, noting that as well as naming names, we must also look at the actual numbers involved. The individual, personalised and named subject and the collective, often anonymised population are poles that  we must constantly move between in order to achieve  recognition of the most radical kind. Recognition, that is, which registers the humanity of a subject and her  individual modes of desubjectification (for example the conditions of torture or incarceration), while also identifying that subject and her experience as categorically non-singular and, if not normal, then at least and absolutely not exceptional. Prisoners belong to a population of incarcerated; the tortured to a camp that Georgio Agamben once called the ‘paradigm of the modern’, and those in the crosshairs of a gunsight constitute a demography of the targeted.

The question never should have been ‘who is Mr. X?’, but who, why and how many were all of the rest? The last words then belong to J.M. Cotzee and his Life & Times of Michael K:

“How many people are there who are neither locked up nor standing guard at the gate?”

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