The Palestinian Sisyphus and the Story of Administrative Detention

Abdel Razeq Farraj is a father of two and administrative and financial director of the Union of Agricultural Work Committee, an NGO in Ramallah where he has worked for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years of his life in administrative detention


Writing about your experiences of administrative detention means jogging your memory so that you bring back long decades of suffering. It doesn’t just affect you, but those in your family, social and professional circles, too.  What’s more, this sort of detention follows you around like a shadow.

No sooner have you made it to the end of one term of arbitrary detention – without any charges or  trial – then the spectre of detention begins to torment you and your family once again.  Simply because you supposedly pose a danger to, “the security of the region and to the public”, and they have some secret information  on you.

Writing about administrative detention took me back 33 years, specifically to 1985, when I was 22.  After a gruelling investigation in the Moscobiya Interrogation Centre in Jerusalem that lasted for about two months, throughout which I denied all the charges levelled against me, one of the investigating officers said (if my memory serves me correctly), “Denying the charges against you won’t actually change anything.  We’re going to recommend the military court that you should be given a harsh punishment under the ‘’Tamir Law’’, which allows for a conviction based on third-party confessions, not to mention administrative detention as well!”

The judges adhered to the recommendation of the internal security apparatus, Shin Bet, and sentenced me to 11 years’ imprisonment, including six years’ effective detention and the rest with a suspended term of three years.  I spent three years in relative freedom, during which time I married a girl I loved called Lamees.  Since the very beginning of our relationship, in 1985, she has suffered and continues to suffer with me.  Our love produced two children: Basil and Wadie. They, too, suffered terribly, and they had a troubled childhood because their father wasn’t often around.  Yet my wife helped them to become accustomed to the absences by being a mother, a father and a friend to them.

It wasn’t just my wife and children who went through the mill; hardship has been and still is the constant companion of my mother.  With doggedness and determination, she has laboured for 13 years to raise and feed five children who lost their father early in life.

I was cursed with administrative detention for the first time in early May 1994.  What made it worse for me at that time was the burden borne by Lamees in raising, educating and looking after our two children.  For they barely knew their come and go father, who had returned home after being away for 22 months.  My youngest son, Wadie, who was two and a half at the time, called me ‘Uncle Daddy’!

What made it worse for me at that time was the burden borne by Lamees in raising, educating and looking after our two children

Abdel Razeq Farraj

From 1996 to 2002, my family tried to learn to go about their life normally, like everyone else.  They lived in hope of a better future, without occupation and night raids, but there was little respite from the administrative detention.  From that time on, I went from being a father to a near-permanent lodger in the occupation prisons.

From early April 2002, I entered the longest period of detention, lasting 52 months.  Six months followed six more, and so on, until late July 2006.  My two children grew up, suffering with me all the while. They began to understand the meaning of administrative detention and how it kept being renewed.  Yet they never stopped raising big questions, asking again and again, “How long will it go on for?”  As the end of each renewal to the detention approached, hopes of family reunification would be raised.  But all it took to dash this hope and postpone happiness, time after time, was for the Israeli Military Commander of the Central Region to approve the Shin Bet’s recommendations of keeping me in detention.

Although Basil and Wadie have done well in life, with the first embarking on a PhD in Sociology & Anthropology in Switzerland and the second an electrical engineer nearing the end of his Master’s, the same question kept coming up.  It was brought up again this time by my brother Khalid’s daughter Farah.  She was born whilst I was in administrative detention in 2003, and I had the honour to name her, searching as I was for some happiness in my life.   What happened was that Farah kept asking the same questions.  One time I was released, she asked innocently whether I was a thief and if that was why I kept being detained.  Another time, her father asked her where her uncle had been released from, and she answered, “From the fridge”.  This was because her family had a poster of me on their fridge at home, which shows the inhumanity of administrative detention.

A poster of me on their fridge at home.
A poster of me on their fridge at home.

Going back, the torment of carrying Sisyphus’ rock repeated itself a further four times after that, coming to ten and a half years in total, or 3,833 days.  During that time, I went on two hunger strikes against this kind of arbitrary detention: the first was in 2012 and the second in 2014, lasting around 77 days.

According to one Greek legend, Sisyphus angered the Gods and so was punished with eternal torment by being made to carry a rock from the base of a mountain up to the summit.  Every time he reached the summit of the mountain, the rock would fall, rolling back down the mountainside, which meant that he would have to carry it and attempt to reach the summit once again.  However, his strength failed him, and his torment went on forever…

This legend became a reality during the Israeli occupation.  Now Sisyphus is embodied in the hundreds of Palestinian men and women who have suffered and continue to suffer all the time as a result of frequent and long periods of administrative detention.  For the late Ali ‘Awad al-Jamal, who died on 16 April last year, his detention lasted for seven years, specifically from 1975 to 1982, in a most heinous display of unjustified punishment.

As soon as the administrative detainee approaches the end of the burden and suffering of the first arbitrary detention order, then that person must bear the shackles and suffering of a second order, and a third and a fourth

Abdel Razeq Farraj

As soon as the administrative detainee approaches the end of the burden and suffering of the first arbitrary detention order, then that person must bear the shackles and suffering of a second order, and a third and a fourth… It’s a form of continuous torture, as was the case with Sisyphus in the Greek legend.  Simply because the military commander alleges that the detainee poses a, “danger to the security of the region and to the public”, without a shred of public evidence that might be refuted, or against which one might defend oneself.

But that’s not all.  No sooner have thousands of Palestinians cast off the burden of a first period of administrative detention, and extensions to it, then a further stretch or more of continuous suffering awaits them and their families.  For dozens of Palestinians, it has added up to over fourteen years of arbitrary detention, with one period being separated from another by only a few months of temporary freedom.  For some, the gap may be no greater than two or three months!

Detainees know the date of their detention, but not when they will be released, which is in the hands of whoever ordered the detention.  The existence of so-called fair and impartial judicial oversight of this sort of detention is no more than a despicable lie put out there by the occupation.

Palestinian statistics confirm that, since 1967, the occupation has put approximately 50k Palestinians in administrative detention.  This has been done on the basis of Article 111 of the Emergency Law issued by the British Mandate in 1945 and numerous other military orders, the most recent of which was Article 285 of Military Order 1651 of 2009.  The occupation uses other military orders, too, to implement its policy against residents of Jerusalem and Palestinians inside the Green Line.

Since mid-February last year, in search of hope for them and their families, administrative detainees have begun to boycott all special administrative detention courts.  They no longer appear before what is so called confirmation hearings of administrative detention orders or judicial oversight courts in respect of detention and renewal orders. Moreover, since that date, they have refrained from appealing against detention and repeat renewal orders, and likewise from petitioning the Supreme Court of Israel.

The boycotting of bogus courts is a step that administrative detainees have resorted to many times over the past decades.  This time, they are aiming for it to become a permanent and lasting one.  It’s a move that runs in parallel with the individual and collective hunger strikes undertaken in recent years, the aim being to bring an end this arbitrary policy or, in the very least, not to go against, but to enforce, the provisions of international law with regard to arbitrary detention.

The reasons that motivated them to go on boycotts and hunger strikes can be found in all of the above.  The military regime, and the emergency and exceptional conditions that go with it, have been in effect for 51 years!  Judges at all levels who adjudicate on administrative detention orders in fact represent the other side, i.e. Shin Bet.  They carry out its will in letter and in spirit.  Administrative detainees are no longer fooled by the myth of the confidential file and the danger posed to the security of the region and the public.

What administrative detainees would like to say can be summarised as follows: Enough!  We don’t want to lend legitimacy to such arbitrary detention by appearing before its bogus courts.  Our children have grown up and are now going through the same endless torment and suffering that we are.  They are forever waiting for us to be free, as is the case now for the two-year-old son of the detainee Salah Hammouri.  The same is true for the family of detained Legislative Council deputy Khalida Jarrar.  Both have been in detention now for over a year.

Lastly, isn’t it time that the Palestinian ‘Sisyphus’ enjoys his freedom?