Friday, August 04, 2006

Mass Imprisonment and Low Intensity Civil War

One of the predicates to the Hamas and Hezbollah raids that kicked off this summer's (other) mid-east war is the nearly 10,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons, see, Craig S. Smith, "Freeing Prisoners Key Goal in Fight Agains Israel, "The New York Times, Friday August 4, 2006, A1. Sometime during the first Palestinian Intifada in the 1980s, Israel began to adopt extended incarceration as its primary strategy for containing the young Palestinian men in the occupied territories from engaging in a wide range of militant resistance activity against Israel (from stone throwing to murder). This never disappeared during the period of the Oslo peace process, as Israel used its imprisonment capacity to deal with militancy that its official partner in the PLO would or could not. Since the second Intifada began in 2000, this carceral strategy has hardened. As the tactics on the streets became more violent, so to has the number of Palestinians serving life sentences. (If anyone knows where there are good numbers on the proportion of life sentenced prisoners among Palestinians in Israeli detention, please post it or email me). The seizure of Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hezbollah commandos last month, may signal the rise of the prisoner issue as a primary motivator of militancy (along with the older issues of land and blood) and bring Israel's carceral strategy for containing what has been, in effect, a low intensity civil war, into more global scrutiny.

From the perspective of Americans, the Israeli use of imprisonment as a central feature of its long term security management resonates with at least two features of our own national security landscape. Since 9/11, the Bush administration has adopted long term custody of Islamic militants suspected of jihadi terrorism as a primary strategy of its "global war on terror". Prisons like Abu Ghraib, Camp X-Ray, and un named secret prisons in Eastern Europe and Asia, have become some of the most controversial features of American strategy. Perhaps this reflects some direct borrowing from Israel of incarceration as a straetgy to suppress violent militancy. If so, one wonders why the US would embrace a strategy that at best is designed to maintain a permanent state of war, albeit within what its planners hope will be more acceptable risks of continuing violence.

The second analog is surely to the form of mass imprisonment that America has adopted in the war on crime and which has produced unprecedented levels of incarceration and the routinization of punishment for specific segments of the American population, like young African American men in the central cities. Criminologists, including your Jurisprude, have spoken of this as "mass imprisonment" in several senses that might be compared "mass communications", or "mass media", or even, to quote James Jacob's classic book, "mass society." It is mass imprisonment, because the priso is no no longer concerned primarily with the individual offender (Foucault suggested it was intended to be a veritable factory of individualism), but is instead self consciously applied to a population of "high risk" subjects. It is mass because it is carried out with little hope that it can become smaller again. The goal is not transforming young offenders into "normal" subjects, or even deterring law abiding subjects, but instead to permanently manage a segment of the most crime prone population. It is mass in the sense that it is routine, non-exceptional, and has become an established pathway through society. None of these mean that it is evenly distributed, it is highly targetted on young minority male subjects, but in their belonging to such a population. All of these features conspire to make mass imprisonment, and the criminal justice system that supplies it highly corrupting to a democratic society. Specificially, the resulting security systems are highly insulated and non-responsive to community needs, unaccountable to traditional notions of due process, and unconstrained by the aspiration to achieve a positive transformation of the subject.

I do not know whether there was any borrowing of mass imprisonment by Israel from the United States. We can see some clear similarities. The occupied territories produce many of the same kind of social control problems that America's zones of hardened urban poverty do. Both Israeli security and the US criminal justice system have the goal of making secure one population by aggressively policing another, creating massive problems of legitimacy and cooperation. In both contexts, mass imprisonment seems to be a measure of desperation as liberal governments struggle to achieve security demanded by a racially polarized electorate, under conditions of racialized social conflict, without departing too far from global norms of human rights. Along with the security wall Israel is building through the West Bank, mass imprisonment may represent a long term "solution" acceptable to Israel's political class. If so we can expect this summer's bloodbath to be part of a long term pattern.

Here, however, the parallels stop. Israel may ultimately develop a political solution to its conflict with the Palestinians. On that day, or more likely, on the way to it, thousands of Palestinian prisoners will return from detention to their settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. There they will be greeted as heros, by families whose sustenance has been a long term concern of Palestinian administrations. They will return having maintained a sense of pride in their identity as resistance fighters. That sense of honor, and the draw of fulfilling the promise of awaiting families, is surely the best hope for long term peace.

What of America's tens of thousands of prisoners? There seems little likelihood of a political settlement that would bring them home, nor has there been any effort to preserve or create a home for them. We might start with trying to imagine a way out of this carceral maze. A form of peace with honor from the war on crime.

I'm not aware of any scholarly work on Israeli detention centers for Palestinian prisons. On the court system that regulates this detention see, Lisa Hajjar, Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza (University of California Press, 2005)


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