Prisoners’ Section, Nablus Public Library

Hand-bound books, Nablus Public Library, Prisoner's SectionThe Prisoners’ Section of Nablus Public Library is an archive of materials made and used by Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails between 1975 and 1995. The collection contains 8000 volumes of published books and 870 notebooks.

Political prisoner Khalil Ashour – who spent 1970 to 1982 in Israeli prisons – has written that Nablus prison (where many of these books were originally used) had a distinct cultural life. Many other Israeli prisons forbade inmates from reading and writing. But when the Israelis gained control of the Nablus prison in 1967,  “there was a small library of tens of books” there– novels, poetry and a few Jordanian history schoolbooks. Books about “philosophy or politics” were originally prohibited from that library, but when the Red Cross visited at the end of 1972, the delegation gave detainees a long list of the books that were approved by the prison administration, telling them to “choose whatever they wanted.” Hand-bound book, Prisoners' Section, Nablus Public LibraryThe list “included books about Marxism, Leninism, Communist theory, and Socialist thought. It was a golden opportunity for the Popular Front and Democratic Front organizations’ members.” The new influx of books gave rise to a self-education movement, which led to “fruitful and rich” political debates among the activists held in Nablus prison, and “improved the intellectual and cultural level of the detainees.”


Khalil Ashour in the Prisoners’ Section (Photo: Rana Way; Mondoweiss)

According to Ashour, the arrival of new books from a variety of genres and subjects opened up “new horizons…for the detainees”:

“Even those who were illiterate mastered reading and writing. Detained students completed their education, became Tawjihi degree holders, and joined universities after they were released. Those who were interested in language learned Hebrew, English and French. Those with little knowledge read books about geography, history, economy, politics, philosophy, astronomy, religion, and literature.

Books on a bookshelf in the Prisoners' Section, Nablus Public Library

A shelf of English-language books.

This is how Palestinian detainees turned prisons, through reading and writing, into active and living workshops, as a room in any prison used to be calm at time allocated for reading and noisy when holding sessions and conducting debates, regardless of the number of inmates. In order to test erudition and level of knowledge, they used to conduct a weekly ‘question & answer’ tournament, and award the winning team. As a result of this tournament, the spirit of competition spread among detainees, they started reading more, and copying books to send to other prisons that lacked them.” (Ben Lorber and Khalil Ashour, “A Needle in the Binding: The Legacy of Palestinian Prisoner Self-Education in Israeli Prisons,” November 2011, Mondoweiss)

Librarians and archivists, Prisoners' Section, Nablus Public Library

Librarians and archivists describe the Prisoners’ Section collection. Photograph by Andrea Miller-Nesbitt, taken during the Librarians and Archivists to Palestine delegation’s visit in June 2013.

When Israel was forced to close these Nablus-area prisons in the aftermath of the Oslo accords, the books found their way to the Nablus Municipal Library. Librarians there gave the collection its own room on the third floor and researchers began using the collection to reconstruct a history of the Palestinian struggle in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The books in the collection bear visible signs of having been lovingly cared for and passedInside of library book with date stamps, Nablus Public Library Prisoner's Section from hand to hand – many of them have been hand-bound with materials ranging from old jeans patches to reused newspapers. The margins of the books often contain annotations made by the prisoners who read them.

Watch a video from our visit to the collection in 2013.