While archaeologists might be overjoyed finding the world's oldest church in Jordan, artist and teacher Michael Dickinson suggests that everyone spare a thought to the time when a third-century chapel was found on the grounds of Mediggo Prison, a discovery made by convicts building a new wing at a maximum security jail for Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

 


Michael
Dickinson.

 
The announcement last week that archaeologists have excavated what is believed to be the oldest Christian church in the world in a cave under the already ancient Church of St. Georgeous in Rihab, Jordan, reminded me the last time the announcement of the discovery of the world’s oldest church was made in 2005. Only then the discovery was not made by careful archaeologists on previously hallowed ground, but by convicts working on the construction of new wings at a maximum security incarceration facility for Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

Very early Christian religious structures are a rare archeological find in Israel, and the discovery of the third-century chapel on the grounds of Mediggo Prison, with its impressive mosaic floor showing two fish - the symbol used by the early Christians, and an inscription written in Greek dedicating the building to the "Lord Jesus Christ", caused considerable excitement. Postage stamps of the floor mural commemorated the find, and the Israeli President presented the Pope with a picture.  

Construction of the ninth cell wing by the Prison Sevice came to a halt to allow continuing archaeological excavation of the site by the Israeli Antiquity Agency, whose personell now work there every day.

It has been suggested that the prison should be entirely relocated, and the building, which dates back to the British Mandate, be turned into a tourist center focusing on ancient Christianity. Two other choices are either to remove the mosaic floor from the prison and exhibit it elsewhere, or to create a barrier between the excavation and the prison by a high wall or fence of some kind.  As yet no definite decision has been made, and life at the prison goes on, despite the frequent delegations of scholars, reporters and representatives of religious orders it receives from all over the world. 

Wouldn’t it be nice, if, instead of looking down and admiring the beautiful tilework at their feet, these scholars, reporters and representatives of religious orders lifted their gaze to the military prison compound they are visiting, and paused for thought. After all, the excavated floor they are standing on was part of a chapel built to commemorate and honor a Jewish prophet who preached love and brotherhood. Megiddo Prison represents the complete opposite. 

Of the nearly 11,000 Palestinians held by the Israeli Prison Authority, Megiddo contains a population of 1,600 Palestinian males. In spite of the fact that most of them have engaged in no criminal activity, but are freedom fighters, leaders, and activists, or simply members of resistance movements against the racist occupation of their country, the inmates are described as “dangerous terrorists”.

In May 2008, elected deputy mayor of the Palestinian town of Qalqilia, Dr. Mohammad Hashem Al Masri, was released from Megiddo prison after more than two years in captivity. He was just one of many local and national Palestinian officials rounded up and arrested by Israeli forces in 2006 after winning municipal elections for the Change and Reform party, associated with Hamas, not recognized as a legitimate party by the State of Israel.

Dr. Al Masri described Israeli prison as a place that “takes away ones dignity”. He said prisoners were being abused psychologically and physically to the point that “after release the impact of the cruelty remains.”

Palestinian children are often arrested at Israeli military checkpoints where they can be held for hours with their hands cuffed before being transferred to detention and interrogation centers. They have no right to a lawyer and are not permitted to know what the charges are against them... In many cases their families are not informed of their arrest.

Although the Geneva Conventions require that prisoners be afforded food, drink and medical care, reports on the meals provided by the Israeli Prison Administration have included complaints that there are bugs in the food, sand, urine in the water, and a general inedibility.

Al Masri talked about disease and illness in the prisons going untreated or given inadequate attention, and described several inmates as  “on their death beds because of a lack of proper treatment.”  

“This is unacceptable morally and legally,” said Al Masri. “It confirms that the Palestinian people are the victims of racist procedures imposed by the occupation soldiers.”

Among the detainees in Mediggo jail there are approximately 80 child prisoners. The word ‘child’ is defined as ‘every human being under the age of 18 years’ in the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, (to which Israel is a signatory), and reiterated under the UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty. Palestinian children from the age of 16 years, however, are considered adults under Israeli military regulations governing the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Children are often arrested at Israeli military checkpoints where they can be held for hours with their hands cuffed before being transferred to detention and interrogation centers. They have no right to a lawyer and are not permitted to know what the charges are against them. More often than not they are subject to beatings, curses and threats during the transfer. In many cases their families are not informed of their arrest and they’re transferred from one prison to another without the family being informed where they are being held.

There are widespread accusations of physical abuse, but psychological torture like sleep deprivation, withholding of food or water, solitary confinement, or threats of the demolition of his home or the arrest of other members of his family are the main tools of intimidation and interrogation.

Dr Al Masri complained about the international silence to the situation, except that from the US, which loudly applauds Israel in everything it does. But he said that despite the horrific circumstances under which they live, Palestinian political prisoners remain committed to the liberation of their people.

“The cause is kept alive in the hearts of everyone,” he said.

Another name for Megiddo is ‘Armageddon’. According to The Book of Revelation in the New Testament, this is the place where the final battle between good and evil will be fought. Whose side are you on?

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Note: Michael Dickinson is an English teacher working in Istanbul, Turkey. Dickinson did the cover art for two of CounterPunch's books, Dime's Worth of Difference and Serpents in the Garden, as well as Jeffrey St. Clair's Grand Theft Pentagon. He can be contacted via his website http://yabanji.tripod.com/ or at michaelyabanji@gmail.com. Also visit Saatchi Gallery.

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June 20, 2008