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The Palestinian Prisoners’ Plight

Bianca Zammit and Fadi Skaik

29 November 2009

There are currently approximately 11,000 Palestinian prisoners being held captive in Israeli jails across Israel. Whilst their imprisonment is of itself in direct contravention of international law, the whole arrest, judiciary and imprisonment process compromises their basic human rights. In Gaza, the families of prisoners in Israeli jails meet every Monday at the premises of the International Committee of the Red Cross to hold a weekly vigil asking for the release of Palestinian prisoners. The demonstration also takes place at the ICRC building in order to send out a message to the international community, asking it to uphold international law and put pressure on Israel for the release of all prisoners.

Palestinians taken captive are held in one of the 24 prisons across Israel. The Fourth Geneva Convention through Article 76 prohibits an occupying power, in this case Israel, from imprisoning prisoners outside the territory it occupies and Article 47 of the same Convention clearly outlines that convicted prisoners should serve their sentence within the occupied territory.

Since September 2000 Palestinian citizens living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip require special permits to travel within the 1967 borders of Israel, yet these permits are very hard to come by. For these last three years all permits have stopped being issued and Palestinians from West Bank and Gaza are prohibited from entering 1948 land1.

The use of telephone is controlled and only in rare exceptions are Palestinian prisoners allowed to call their families. Without family visits and telephone calls the only ways of communicating is through letters and greetings families send through radio stations. Letters are received sparingly by both sides, months after they were written and sent2.

Hazem Shubair was imprisoned in an Israeli jail in 1993. His brother Tayseer has been denied the permit to visit his brother for the past 15 years. Hazem’ parents were allowed to visit him until 2002 and for the last 7 years they were forbidden access. All forms of communication between Hazem and his family have been severed. Hazem was sentenced to life imprisonment and the prospects of him being released in the near future are bleak. “I just want to see him, to have the opportunity of talking with him once more and to know how he is doing. These 17 years have been horrible” Tayseer states. Hazem has another 6 siblings anxiously awaiting his news and to be able of seeing him.

In terms of the judiciary system, Palestinians are tried within Israeli military courts located within Israeli military centers. These military tribunals are conducted by a panel of three judges appointed by the military, two of whom often do not have any legal training or background. This juxtaposes the impartiality and reliability of the legal apparatus since the judges are also soldiers who work on orders they receive from their supervisors and are dependent on the latter for promotion.3 These tribunals rarely fall within the required international standards of a fair trial.

Many Palestinian prisoners are either wounded or ill. Many prisoners were taken captive after having been shot at with live ammunition. According to Addameer Centre for Human Rights based in Gaza, “prison clinics tend to offer aspirin as a remedy for all health treatments and physicians within the clinics are all soldiers. Health examinations are conducted through a fence, and any necessary surgery or transfer to hospital for additional medical treatment is usually postponed for long periods of time”.

In 1999 the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that it does not forbid the use of torture but rather allows interrogation methods deemed as torture to be used in situations of national defense. The victim of torture can only submit a complaint in that case that torture can be clearly proven. Israel interrogators are able to use methods of torture without impunity. Legalized torture includes sleep deprivation, denial of food and water, denial of access to toilets and shackling4. A Palestinian detainee can be interrogated for up to 180 days, during which access to a lawyer may be denied for 60 days.

Many prisoners receive administrative detention where charges are based on secret evidence. In this case both the lawyer and the detainee are not aware of the reason for arrest and cannot practice their right of defense. The detainee and lawyer are also not informed about the date of release. In administrative detention the army hands over the detainee to the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) who interrogates the prisoner. After interrogation, ISA can either file for indictment or release detainee. If none of these two paths are chosen the military commander can choose administrative detention. Administrative detention can be extended indefinitely. This usage of administrative detention as a tool to imprison civilians violates International Law and Human Rights Charters but is legal according to Israeli legislation5.

Nayef Abu Azra, a 23 year old from Beit Hannoun, was arrested in 2007. Since then he has never been brought before a court. To Nayef’ mother there is no consolation. Asia Abu Azra stated “A group of Israeli infantry soldiers invaded our home and took Nayef. We do not know why he was arrested or when he shall be released. Nobody is giving us any information. Nayef was hard working and well respected in the community. My only hope is to see him again”.

Nowhere can the discriminatory laws within Israeli judiciary be clearer than in terms of Palestinian imprisonment which is reminiscent of apartheid South Africa. A Palestinian can be held in custody for 18 days before being brought before a judge. An Israeli citizen, however, can be held in custody for only a maximum of 48 hours before being brought before a judge. A Palestinian can be held without charge, by order of a judge for a period from one to 6 months. An Israeli citizen can be held without indictment for 15 days and can only be extended to 15 days. Lawyer visits can be prohibited for up to 3 months for a Palestinian detainee. The meeting between an Israeli detainee and his attorney can be delayed for 15 days6. In addition, when Palestinian detainees are arrested, the army is not obliged to inform the detainee’s family of their arrest or the location of their detention.

38 year old Ashraf Al-Balouji from Al-Sahaba area in Gaza was detained in Ramallah on December 14, 1990. He was ordained in the Israel military court and sentenced to 320 years imprisonment. His father Hassan Al-Balouji states “there is a different policy for Palestinians and Israelis in Israel. If my son were Israeli then his sentence would be very different. We all know that. Three years ago my wife passed away and Ashraf was not allowed to visit her or attend her funeral. His 7 children are also prohibited from visiting him.”

These discriminatory laws also affect children. There are now 337 Palestinian children in Israeli jails.7 Like the majority of other Palestinian prisoners, Palestinian child prisoners routinely face violations of their human rights during arrest, interrogation and imprisonment. They are exposed to physical and psychological abuse, amounting to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and sometimes torture. They are denied prompt access to a lawyer and often denied contact with their families and the outside world. This is a clear breach of international law, which makes special provisions for the prisoners, specifically forbidding the use of physical and psychological torture8.

Nedal Mohammed Al-Soufi was just 17 years old when he was arrested. In 2007 during an army incursion, Israeli soldiers entered their home in Rafah and took him. Jana Al-Soufi, Nedal’ mother does not know the reason for his arrest. Nedal was sentenced to 9 years. The lack of communication sources between Nedal and his family concerns his mother. “I worry for his health and mental state. I have not received his news for many months”.

The imprisonment of Palestinians has been used routinely by Israeli authorities as one of the main tools to enforce the apartheid regime and ensure the ongoing success of the occupation. Israel has violated and is still violating a number of basic human rights in the way it kidnaps Palestinians, holds them captive without access to a lawyer and eventually tries them in a mock court which itself falls short of internationally agreed upon minimum standards. The injustices being perpetuated upon the 11,000 Palestinians prisoners must not be overlooked.

Bianca Zammit is a human rights activist and a member of the International Solidarity Movement “ISM” in Gaza.

Fadi N. Skaik is a BDS activist and an independent author based in Gaza

[1] Amnesty International (2009) Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories

[2] Addameer – http://www.addameer.org/index_eng.html

[3] UN Human Rights Committee (2007) Article 14: Right to equality before courts and tribunals and to a fair trial, UN Doc: CCPR/C/GC/32, 23 August 2007, page 6, paragraph 22.

[4] Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (2008) No Defense: Soldier Violence against Palestinian Detainees, page 3 – http://www.stoptorture.org.il/en/node/1136

[5] Hamoked and B’Tselem (2009) Without Trial -Administrative detention of Palestinians by Israel and the Internment of Unlawful Combatants Law, page 9.

[6] Addameer – http://www.addameer.org/index_eng.html

[7] Save the Children (2009) Fact Sheet – Palestinian Child Detainees at http://mena.savethechildren.se/Documents/Resources/Fact%20Sheet_oPt_detainees.pdf

[8]Defense for Children International (2009) Palestinian Child Prisoners- The systematic and institutionalized ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children by Israeli authorities, DCI Palestine: Jerusalem.