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Israeli prisons are in conflict with international law

In protest against imprisonment without law and judgment, inhumane conditions and physical and mental abuse, Palestinian political prisoners go on hunger strike.


Of: Aurora Lorenzi 

During the war against Gaza last summer, many Western journalists took the opportunity to condemn the "Palestinian terrorists" – a category that apparently reflects the entire Palestinian population. It is a common misconception that Palestinians are not able to express resistance through non-violent methods, but instead consistently resort to violence and terror against the Israeli civilian population. This article is based on a report written for the Palestinian human rights organization Hurryyat, on a topic that rarely comes up when the Palestinian resistance movement is discussed in the Western media. This is a text about a peaceful and non-violent form of protest. About the reasons and consequences of so many Palestinian political prisoners going on hunger strike.

Contested practice. Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli prisons have used hunger strikes since the beginning of the occupation as a means of protesting against the Israeli prison system (IPS). Since mid-2011, not a single day has passed without at least one Palestinian prisoner of hunger strike. In June 2014, a total of 100 Palestinian detainees were involved in a hunger strike that started in April and lasted 66 days. They objected to IPS's widespread use of administrative detention – a practice of imprisonment without trial and judgment. This procedure, in contrast to ordinary litigation, aims to prevent a person in committing a criminal act that may endanger the public, rather than punish the person for a crime he or she has actually committed. According to Article 78 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, administrative detention should only be implemented under very special circumstances and only when alternative means are not available. As administrative custody is considered one of the most drastic measures an occupying power can use to safeguard security, the Convention emphasizes that the measure should only be used in emergencies. It should never be used as a collective punishment method. … Overcrowded cells, poor ventilation, lack of sunlight, short breaks, lack of hygiene and cleaning products, lack of adequate medical follow-up…

Therefore, Israel's widespread use of administrative detention in the Palestinian territories violates international law.

This has been the main message in several statements and messages from the UN Secretary-General and spokesmen for the EU. Since prisoners in administrative custody do not know what they are accused of, it is impossible for them to prove their innocence. They also have no way of knowing how long they will remain in prison. It can take anywhere from six months to several years, as the imprisonment order can be renewed every six months, and without an upper time limit.


Adults and children. According to a report by Addameer, which safeguards the rights of Palestinian prisoners, a total of 6500 Palestinians were imprisoned in Israeli prisons in October 2014, of which 500 were in administrative detention. Most are arrested in their homes, often in the middle of the night, where Israeli forces often throw stones and grenades. In many cases, the family of the apprehended person experiences being assaulted and having their house ransacked. In other cases, the arrest occurs at military checkpoints or during political demonstrations. The detainee is usually put in irons and blindfolded, and then transported to an interrogation center that is often within Israel's borders. During such transports, a number of cases have been reported where the apprehended person has been subjected to both physical and psychological violence in the form of beatings and verbal insults. Often the person is forced to lie on the car floor. About 500-700 Palestinian minors are arrested, interrogated and detained in Israeli prisons each year. The report, which was presented at the UN's international meeting on the "Palestinian question" in 2012, states that Palestinian children are being treated as criminals despite not breaking the law. They are arrested under the pretext of being part of a youth uprising against the occupation. The report also shows that the arrest, interrogation and imprisonment are carried out under the same procedure as for adults. Such experiences are, of course, very harmful to a child. The report states that torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian children is a widespread phenomenon in Israeli prisons. Most are arrested in their homes, often in the middle of the night, where Israeli forces often throw stones and sound grenades. In many cases, the family of the apprehended person experiences being assaulted and having their house ransacked.

Torture. The UN Convention against Torture states that torture involves any act of inflicting serious pain or suffering on a person, whether physical or mental, with the intention of obtaining information or confession, either from him or a third party. The methods used by the Israeli Prison System (IPS) can thus be characterized as torture if we use the UN definition. Palestinian men, women and children in Israeli prisons have been subjected to physical and psychological violence. This occurs in the form of being beaten or subjected to other forms of brutal physical violence, arrests in the middle of the night, verbal abuse in the form of humiliation and threats, deprivation of sleep, being held in stressful situations and positions for a long time, isolation, malnutrition, denial of access to the toilet, poor sanitation and hygiene, threats to family members and sexual abuse. The interrogations are often carried out without either a lawyer being present or the prisoner being informed of his rights. In cases involving children, an adult is often not present. Former prisoners in Israeli prisons have reported frequent and humiliating body searches, attempts to recruit them to the Israeli security services as collaborators, and the detention of children with adults.

Inadequate follow-up. What is perhaps the most serious thing about Israeli prisons is the very unhygienic and inhumane conditions. This means overcrowded cells, poor ventilation, lack of sunlight, short breaks, lack of hygiene and cleaning items, lack of adequate medical follow-up, exposed risk of radioactivity and malnutrition. Such conditions can definitely contribute to the aggravation of an already weakened mental or physical condition, at the same time as the chance of becoming infected with diseases increases considerably. The practice of poor medical follow-up and denial of access to medical treatment caused four deaths in 2013. In recent years, several hundred prisoners have died or been disabled shortly after release. This has happened as a result of illnesses they have contracted in prison and a lack of medical follow-up. The treatment of sick prisoners in Israeli prisons therefore violates Article 91 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which establishes the right to medical treatment in the same way as the general population. The clinics and hospitals in Israeli prisons lack medical equipment and do not have sufficient medical personnel. It often takes a very long time to get access to medical help. This procedure does not take into account that a person may be very ill, and rather contributes to increased pain and discomfort, which can be perceived as very unworthy. The person is usually not informed about the real condition and therefore does not receive adequate treatment. Due to the physical and mental strain that political prisoners have to go through in order to receive medical treatment, many people therefore avoid seeking help. Miriam "Miri" Regev [stated] that forced feeding is necessary in response to what she describes as "terrorism in prison".

Insulation. A total of 16 out of 17 prisoners are in prisons within the Israeli borders from 1948. This is contrary to Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the forcible transfer of persons from occupied territories to unoccupied territory. The fact that most prisoners are being held in prisons within Israel makes it very difficult for family members to visit, as they need permission to enter Israel. It can take up to three months to obtain such a permit, and the permit is only reserved for the immediate family such as children, spouse, parents, siblings and grandparents. In addition, Israel has special rules for men aged 16 to 35, who are usually not allowed to visit prisons. The visiting time is only 45 minutes, despite the fact that the family members usually spend a whole day getting to the prison due to the many checkpoints on the road. Lack of visits does have a strong impact on the family and the social life of the person in custody – especially for political prisoners who are also mothers.

Hunger Strike. In protest against inhumane conditions related to arrest and detention, many hundreds of political prisoners have responded with hunger strikes. This has put pressure on the Israeli prison service to implement changes. A very extensive hunger strike that began in March 2014 succeeded in engaging even Israeli civil society, which became more aware of the practice in Israeli prisons. On the other hand, any person who chooses to go on a hunger strike can expect strong reactions from the Israeli prison service. This includes increased isolation, frequent transfers between prisons, fewer visits, and other forms of mental and physical abuse. As an attempt to weaken support for the hunger strikes, the Israeli government came up with a bill that would give doctors in the prison service approval to force-feed people with life-threatening health. The proposal, which was debated for a long time in the Israeli National Assembly and implemented in June 2014, has received strong criticism from the World Medical Organization (WMA) and the Israeli medical organization The Israeli Medical Association. They point to forced feeding as an inhuman and painful practice. In response, Israeli politician Miriam "Miri" Regev stated that forced feeding was necessary in response to what she described as "terrorism in prison." In other words, the political prisoners are accused of using hunger strikes as a means of raising awareness of an issue along the lines of terrorism, by urging the Palestinian people to resist the occupying forces. But if Israel really wants the Palestinian people to stay away from "terrorism", they will have to follow international law. Or as the head of the Euro-mid, Observer for Human Rights, Ihsan Adel, stated: "If we want young Palestinians to abstain from violence in the future, they must have faith that international law is respected and enforced." ›


Written by Aurora Lorenzi on behalf of Hurryyat: Center for Liberation and Human Rights

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