The Palestine Walid saw, from the little prison to the big prison

In 2013, a close friend sent me a small book that he said was the best analysis we had of our contemporary Palestinian condition in the era of political capitulation and defeat. He insisted that it was required reading for anyone wishing to understand the obstacles to the revival of Palestinian resistance. 

The book was unconventional. It presented an extrapolated reading of conditions inside Israeli prisons to Palestinian society writ large, arguing that the feelings of powerlessness that Palestinians experienced in prison were not limited to the confines of the prison’s walls, but were rather felt by all Palestinians everywhere as a “general Palestinian condition” — because the conditions they suffered from were identical to those of political prisoners in Israeli custody.

The study argued that these similarities weren’t just in the fact that both groups were subjected to the same tools of repression, or that they were both internally segregated (into cell blocks and bantustans), but that their captors had the same intention: to “remake people” in the image of Israel’s vision of a docile Palestinian. It would achieve that goal by “dissolving their consciousness, especially the consciousness of the resistance elite within the prisons.”

The work also included a theoretical element, employing Foucault’s reading of the Panopticon to describe how prison surveillance and self-discipline translated into broader social dynamics in Palestinian society. When I first read the Foucauldian jargon, I turned my nose up at the otherwise compelling piece, a product of my aversion to postmodern intellectual fads that I believed had polluted intellectual circles in Palestine. But the basic thesis of the work was convincing enough, and as I read more details about how the internal dynamics between prisoners in the “little prison” mimicked the dynamics of Palestinian society in the “big prison,” I decided that I probably agreed — this study was the closest thing we had to a sober appraisal of why Palestinian resistance had died out after the Second Intifada and why the Palestinian populace had been seemingly pacified.

At the time, I was not acquainted with who the author was or anything about his background. Not many were by that point. Yet the analysis in Walid Daqqah’s Dissolving Consciousness, or: Redefining Torture made its way into Palestinian cultural life and among student and youth activists. Phrases like “sahr al-wa’i” — “dissolving consciousness” —  entered common usage in those circles, even when not everyone using the phrase was aware of its provenance.

What was most striking about Daqqah’s analysis was that his entire reading of the world outside the prison was written while he was confined within its walls, where he remained for close to four decades as one of Palestine’s longest-serving political prisoners. More importantly, he understood what was happening outside the prison walls so well because he was experiencing the same thing firsthand from within them.

Daqqah’s works did not begin or end with Dissolving Consciousness. Earlier in 2006, he wrote Parallel Time, which also covered the themes of imprisonment and warned that Palestinians inside the “little prison” and the “big prison” would share in the same fate. It was adapted into a play and performed at a theater in Haifa, after which the theater was forcibly shut down. Over nearly two decades behind bars, he continued to write prolifically about politics and culture, producing works of literature that can be considered one of the few legitimate inheritors of Ghassan Kanafani’s legacy

One of the arguably most emblematic examples was his 2018 children’s novel, The Tale of the Oil’s Secret, about a young boy conceived through his imprisoned father’s smuggled sperm who sets out on an adventure to break into Israeli prison and finally meet his father. Years later, Walid would conceive a child of his own through the same method, smuggling his sperm out of prison to his wife Sana’ Salameh. Their daughter, Milad (whose name means “birth”), was born on February 3, 2020.

Daqqah’s existence as a political prisoner was to constantly contemplate how to go beyond its walls. While he physically defied its confines by bringing Milad into being, his project was to understand what made the prison a prison and what kept us from toppling it. 

Daqqah’s existence as a political prisoner was to constantly contemplate how to go beyond its walls. While he physically defied its confines by bringing Milad into being, his project was to understand what made the prison a prison and what kept us from toppling it. 

This led Daqqah to explain why Israel had been so successful in eroding the Palestinian will to resist. It didn’t just achieve that aim by wiping out the “material infrastructure of the resistance,” as he called it — that wasn’t enough to “infiltrate popular Palestinian consciousness.” Instead, Israel set its sights on eroding the “moral infrastructure” of the resistance. 

By that, Daqqah meant the “collective values that embody the idea of a single people,” a sort of internal social cohesion and solidarity. Those values began to come under threat by 2004 and into the denouement of the Second Intifada, when Israel had successfully established a system that relied on modern means of control and human engineering. In Daqqah’s estimation, it was the subtlety with which Israel carried out this soft counterinsurgency that was so successful. It broke apart Palestinian civil society but did not completely destroy it. It fragmented Palestinians in a way that made collective association exceedingly difficult, but not so much that they would descend into chaos. 

It brought all this together through its utilization of modern technologies of Panoptic surveillance and methods of “modern torture” that “shocked” people (drawing on Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine”) into docility. All this caused a degradation in the very idea of a “single people” and the slow decline of “collective national values” for Palestinians.

Just like Donald Cameron’s infamous “Montreal experiments” were designed to “remake” his patients through torture and subliminal messaging, Daqqah argued that Israel sought to “shock” Palestinian prisoners and Palestinian society into a set of “pre-nationalist” values. It did this by cracking down on Palestinians’ ability to engage in collective action.

In the little prison, Israel repressed hunger strikers by compelling different prison sections to halt their strikes in piecemeal fashion, hence undermining their ability to engage in collective decision-making and turning the hunger striker into an individual protester. Daqqah described this as the “individualization and privatization of prisoners and their collective struggle, exactly the same way in which Israel privatized the Palestinian national project through its policies in the occupied territories.” The struggles of the people of Nablus, for instance, became an issue for Nabulsis, and the struggle of Palestinian prisoners became an individual struggle against each discrete case of unjust detention.

Tearing down the prison inside of us

It might be natural to assume that Daqqah painted a depressing picture in which the Israeli utilization of soft power was absolute and had successfully atomized the Palestinian struggle. But it would be a mistake to conclude that Daqqah thought Israel’s dissolution of Palestinian collectivity was totalizing and irreversible. In the decade after writing Dissolving Consciousness, the West Bank and the rest of Palestine experienced a tortured revival of the fighting spirit of an angry generation. 

However, it expressed itself in atomized forms, much like the waging of individual hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners. As Khader Adnan engaged in successive hunger strikes behind bars before his eventual martyrdom, hundreds of Palestinians resisted in “lone wolf” attacks, starting with the 2015 “Knife Intifada.” 

Yet the fact that those forms of struggle occurred individually did not mean that they occurred in isolation from one another. They came together, paradoxically, as a collective form of individual refusal to accept life as it was under colonial rule. They came to be called popular upheavals (habbat sha’biyya), ebbing and flowing in waves of protest and waves of martyrs, from Nashat Milhem, to Baha Alian, to Bassel al-Araj, to Ahmad Jarrar, to Asem Barghouthi, and the hundreds of other young Palestinians who all rose up together and alone.

Sometimes, the individual revolts coalesced into full-fledged popular upheavals, as with the 2017 Bab al-Asbat uprising in Jerusalem, or the May 2021 “Unity Intifada” across all of Palestine, or the 2017 collective hunger strike in Israeli prisons. But all of that would pale in comparison to what would come next.

Starting in 2022, the West Bank witnessed the rebirth of organized armed resistance, expressing itself in the formation of armed groups concentrated in several of the West Bank’s refugee camps and Old Cities. The groups were more organized than the previous phenomenon of “lone wolves” — although those also persisted, as in the cases of Ra’ad Khazem and Udai Tamimi — but each group operated independently of the other, functioning more like informal groups of friends than seasoned guerilla movements with rigid command structures.

The apparent dissolution of Palestinian consciousness, it seemed, was not quite so successful as we had thought. Here the West Bank was engaging in a kind of uprising that we had not seen in years, but which also didn’t resemble anything that had come before it. We struggled to call it an Intifada, assuming that these movements had somehow failed to meet the threshold of past experiences of revolt. Perhaps that is because the fragmentation of the Palestinian collective — both in the “big prison” and the “little prison” — had disfigured how Palestinian collective action looked, making it hard for us to recognize ourselves in acts that urged us to reject the baseline complacency of our daily lives.

All the while, the Israeli utilization of society-wide torture and soft power attempted to balance between counterinsurgency and stability. The Israeli army would launch brutal incursions into Palestinian cities from which resistance fighters had emerged, but it would leave the rest of the West Bank untouched outside the routine night raids. It settled into an uneasy pattern over the course of two years, wielding its decades-long “carrot and stick” policy until that paradigm came crashing down after October 7. 

It was then that both the big prison and the little prison experienced one of the most brutal crackdowns in the history of the Palestinian struggle. The enemy had “removed all restraints,” as its Defense Minister Yoav Gallant proclaimed at the start of the genocidal war on Gaza, going crazy both in the big prison and the little prison. It did away with soft power and returned to brute force, launching daily raids on multiple Palestinian cities and bulldozing refugee camps and turning them into “little Gazas.” It did the same in the little prison, arresting massive numbers of people (effectively doubling the prison population at one point) and subjecting them to months of torture, abuse, and sexual violence.

It was another part of the “shock,” an attempt to instill fear and docility in the Palestinians of the West Bank. The results were mixed.

The West Bank as a geographic whole ruled by the Palestinian Authority continued to live in the pre-Palestinian world Daqqah described, or what others have called the “post-political and post-Palestinian nightmare” — a world where a section of Palestinians took secret solace in the PA’s collaborationism because it gave them the illusion of safety from the Zionist monster that was tearing through Gaza. But other parts of the West Bank did the opposite, spreading the model of small armed resistance groups from the city to the countryside.

In a sense, the world Walid saw had shifted. The dissolution of Palestinian consciousness hadn’t worked, and the attempt to “remake” Palestinians into docile subjects was an abject failure. The new objective was no longer to “remake,” but to exterminate. The process of erasure continued for six months, and Walid emerged as one of its martyrs, dying of systematic and deliberate medical negligence.

The reason that shift occurred is that it became apparent that decades of the attempted domestication of the Palestinian liberation project, while nominally successful on the structural level in the West Bank, had little to show for itself when it came to pacifying the young generation of prisoners in the big prison.

The same could be said of the little prison, too. Walid’s struggle throughout his decades of imprisonment is a testament to that. While he pointed out that the prison authorities had successfully imposed a voluntary silence on the Palestinian prisoners’ movement during Israel’s earlier wars on Gaza, which he saw as a testament to the extent of Israeli control over prisoners, he never accepted that reality as inevitable. His subsequent actions in the little prison and the actions of his counterparts in the big prison are the greatest evidence that the Iron Wall was not invincible.

He made this clear in his own words when explaining why he wrote Tale of the Oil’s Secret

“The prison does not confine us with its walls and barbed wire alone,” he said in a smuggled recording. “And my motivation in writing Tale of the Oil’s Secret was not to be creative, but to remain steadfast within my imprisonment.”

He believed that his steadfastness in prison would not have been possible had he not freed himself from its confines. He defied it in more ways than one, from giving life to Milad to speaking to his people who languished in the big prison on the other side — because, as he said, “as much as I desired to be freed from prison, I wanted to free myself from the prison inside me.”


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