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Incarcerated in Israel

Palestinians tortured and isolated

Detention without trial, the presumption of guilt, denial of family visits, solitary confinement, torture, violent interrogation and denial of access to appropriate health care; such is the Israeli judicial system and prison confinement experienced by Palestinian men, women and, indeed, children.


Currently there are, according to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, “4,484 Palestinians – security detainees, confined in Israeli prisons”. Family contact is virtually impossible for prisoners, most of whom are held inside Israel. This contravenes international law in the form of the universally trumpeted Fourth Geneva Convention (Articles 49 & 76), violated and disregarded consistently by Israel.

International laws – legally binding upon Israel, which is not above the rule of law   must be respected and enforced. Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, has called “on the international community to ensure that Israel complies with international human rights laws and norms in its treatment of Palestinian prisoners.” The UN makes its feelings clear in its report Question of Palestine Administrative Detention (UNQAP) when it says, Israel “has historically ratified international agreements regarding human rights protection, whilst at the same time refusing to apply the agreements within the Occupied Palestinian Territory, attempting to create legal justifications for its illegal actions.” A comprehensive list of international legally binding agreements dutifully signed, ratified and consequently disregarded by various Israeli governments are cited by the UN, which sits hands tied, apparently impotent in the face of Israel’s illegal and violent occupation (a fact that cannot be stated often or loudly enough), and submissive to the imperialist Godfather: America.

Since the Six-Day War in 1967, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians have been incarcerated in Israeli prisons, including 23,000 women and 25,000 children. This constitutes, Richard Falk states, “approximately 20 per cent of the total Palestinian population in the occupied territory or 40 per cent of the Palestinian male population there.” These are staggering figures of those imprisoned personally, whilst a whole nation is held captive and intimidated by an illegal occupying power in their homeland.

Hungry for justice

On the 14th May 2012 a major hunger strike by Palestinians held captive within Israeli prisons ended, just in time to save the lives of two prisoners close to death, having not eaten for 77 days. They were protesting at their treatment in custody, the Israeli Prison Service’s (IPS) use of solitary confinement, torture during interrogation and inside prison, and administrative detention, which allows for incarceration without charge. The peaceful action initiated by two men held under a draconian administrative detention order in late February, grew into a mass action on 17th April with, Amnesty estimates, 2,000 prisoners on hunger strike.

Through the IPS, Israel responded to the strike with its customary brutality, assaulting hunger strikers and imposing, claimed Amnesty,  “systematic measures to punish hunger-striking prisoners and detainees and pressure them to end their strikes, putting their lives at risk”. These measures, said the Amnesty report, “included solitary confinement; preventing the detainees from contact with family members and lawyers; refusing to transfer hunger strikers whose health was in danger to hospitals suitable for their condition.” In fact, many of the very issues the strikers were protesting about.

An agreement was reached between the Palestinians prisoners and the IPS, in which the United Nations Information System on the Question of Palestine (UNISPAL) 4thJune 2012 reports, “Israel committed to meeting some of the prisoners’ demands in exchange for security guarantees”. The UN goes on to say: “As part of the deal, Israel committed to ease conditions as long as prisoners refrained from ‘security activity’ inside Israeli prisons, such as ‘recruiting people for terrorist missions’.”

By “easing conditions” Israel committed to move prisoners from solitary confinement into the main block   in every probability, they ought not have been held in isolation to begin with   and agreed to allow family visits from Gaza, denied since June 2007 when Hamas, to the fury of Israel, was elected democratically and took over governance of the Gaza Strip. However “limitations” are to be placed upon family visits, the details of which Israel has yet to clarify in an example of official ambiguity as a weapon of control and manipulation by the occupying power. In addition, Israel conceded to “ease restrictions on visits from the West Bank, and improve the conditions under which ‘security prisoners’ are being held.” All is sufficiently vague as to be impossible to enforce or monitor.

The Israelis also agreed not to extend the detention of those being held under the contentious and, illegal as employed by Israel, administrative detention providing there is no “new information that requires their detention”. Such “new information” would no doubt be filed conveniently within top-secret folders denying open scrutiny and remain undisclosed on “security” grounds, a term employed increasingly and universally to justify the unjust in a world built on fear and the perpetuation of injustice.

All measures written into the agreement are long overdue; they constitute the minimum conditions that should be adhered to within any law-abiding society and, if implemented, would be a positive move. It should not, however, take a large group of starving men to force Israel to observe the prisoners’ human rights, including due process of law.

Israel’s concessions however are indifferent to the rule of law, carefully designed to be easily manipulated and over time forgotten. As Aber Issa Zakarni, the wife of Abadallah Zakarni, an imprisoned member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and one of those on hunger strike, told IRIN: “If this agreement is implemented, it means a great victory for us and for human rights. But I am also scared. In the end everything might just stay the same.” Her fears are well placed; a month after the deal was agreed Amnesty found that “the Israeli authorities had agreed as part of the deal to release administrative detainees at the end of their current orders ‘unless significant new information was received’, our information is that it is business as usual when it comes to detention without charge or trial.” In fact, “Israel has renewed at least 30 administrative detention orders and issued at least three new ones since this deal was struck, and family visits for Gazan prisoners have still not started.”

This failure by Israel to honour the agreement, its word and signature, will surprise nobody but disappoint many. The Israeli authorities cannot be trusted; close monitoring of any agreements the Israeli Prison Service and Israel Defence Forces (IDF) sign up to is required and clear methods of implementation and indeed enforcement are necessary, although historically neither happen, and nor are they likely to happen. For standing behind Israel, supporting it ideologically and diplomatically, arming and financing every area of illegal action of the occupation of Palestine, is its partner in crime: America.

Imperialist measures

A key issue in the hunger strikers protest was administrative detention, a brutal relic from an imperial past. The darkest page within a catalogue of abuse and judicial arrogance, it is one of a series of suppressive measures written into the Defence (Emergency) Regulations, that formed part of the British authorities rule-book in mandatory Palestine to control the “Great Arab Revolt” against British colonial rule and the influx of Jews in 1937. The draconian regulations were quietly pasted and copied into Israeli domestic legislation in 1948, where they remain, legitimising actions such as house demolitions, extensive stop and search measures, the imposition of curfews and indefinite administrative detention.

Administrative detention gives the occupying Israeli authorities the power to detain Palestinians (or indeed Israelis) without charge, withhold any evidence and to hold them “presumed guilty”; As B’Tselem states, “Since detainees do not know the evidence against them, they are unable to refute it.” As there is no notification of the “crime” for which they are being held, such detention negates all legal due process and assumes detainees’ guilt until proven innocent. UNQAP describes it as “a procedure whereby a person is detained without charge or trial.”

The observation of due process of law is a fundamental human right. The European Convention on Human Rights, Report on Due Process, states, “the rights to an effective remedy, to access to court/fair trial, to fair trial in criminal matters, to reputation, to freedom of movement and to property are all contained in the UDHR (Articles 8, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 17 respectively).” Administrative detention is only allowed under international law in extreme circumstances; it should, UNQAP makes clear, “be used as a last resort and on an individual, case by case basis”. Far from being exceptional, however, over the past year the number of administrative detentions has almost doubled; as of March 2012, from a total of 4,610 Palestinians being held captive, B’Tselem states that “Israel was holding 320 in administrative detention”.

Administrative detention, the UN goes on to say “should not be used as a substitute for criminal prosecution when there is insufficient evidence”, as it clearly is being used by Israel. Their use of administrative detention, like pretty much everything the Israelis are doing within the Occupied Palestinian Territories, “does not meet international standards set by international law” (UNQAP). In fact the UN report found that Israel contravenes the laws that apply to the use of administrative detention. The list of violations warrants inclusion in full; Israel:

  • “Widely practices the use of torture and corporal punishment;
  • Deports and incarcerates administrative detainees outside the Occupied Palestinian Territory;
  • Uses administrative detention as a form of collective punishment;
  • Engages in humiliating and degrading treatment of administrative detainees;
  • Administrative detainees are usually not informed precisely of the reasons for their detention; and
  • Is obliged to release administrative detainees as soon as the reason for the detention ceases to exist.
  • Detainees are not given the right to communicate with their families; and
  • Israel fails to separate administrative detainees from the regular prison population.
  • The conditions of detention regularly fall below an adequate standard required by international law; and, in the case of child detainees, Israel regularly fails to take into account the best interests of the child as required under international law.”

The frustration is evident within every exasperated UN sentence. Israel tramples on international laws, believing itself to be above and beyond their reach. Such laws, when dutifully lined up in opposition to Israeli criminality and abuse, and implemented consistently, would be giant steps towards righting the wrongs inflicted daily upon the Palestinian people and creating the conditions for peaceful co-existence.

Administrative abuse

Detainees under administrative detention are sentenced to periods in prison of six months, at the end of which the order may, and inevitably is, renewed without limit. Those held captive are not informed if they will be released or held for a further six months until the end of their current term. The IPS manipulates inmates, tormenting them with promises of liberty and threats of incarceration, cultivating hope in order only to crush it, maximising suffering and control. Human Rights Watch (HRW), in its report Israel: Stop Jailing People Without Charge, catalogues the case of one of the hunger strikers, Tha’er Halahleh, 33 years of age: “Israel has held him in administrative detention a number of times since 2000, for a total of more than four years in jail without charge or trial.” Four years made up of six-month terms. As well as being illegal under international law (as the UN report makes clear), this is psychological torture, not only for the prisoner but also his family who, as Amnesty makes clear, suffer great anxiety: “Administrative detainees and their families must live with the uncertainty of not knowing how long they will be deprived of their liberty and the injustice of not knowing exactly why they are being detained.”

Arrests and detention without charge based all too often on spurious “evidence” secured by the unaccountable and secretive Israeli intelligence agencies, whose claims cannot be verified, must stop. This is a legitimate demand that human rights groups have been making for decades. Amnesty for one has “urged Israel to end the practice of administrative detention and to release detainees or charge them with an internationally recognisable criminal offence and try them according to international standards”. Even Israel’s supreme spin doctor, prime minister’s spokesman Mark Regev, appears to agree: “We would prefer administrative detention was only used when there was no alternative.” Sadly, though, as Regev in his wisdom explains, “in some cases you can’t expose in a public forum your confidential sources and methods because it may put lives at risk”. By “sources”, one suspects he is alluding obliquely to Guantanamo Bay, where the use of torture is a useful method employed to elicit or coerce whatever information, so-called “evidence”, is required.

Adding torture and insult to injury

Whilst held by Israel, administrative detainees and “regular” Palestinian prisoners alike suffer verbal and physical abuse, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) 2011 Report claims: “Methods of torture included: insults; beating using batons, sharp tools, feet and hands; tying the feet and hands to a chair and beating with batons or wires; and other methods. Additionally, detainees were held in cells or small rooms, were placed in solitary confinement, and were forced to stand for long hours in cold weather or under the sun.” All of these practices are illegal under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The practice of isolating inmates completely from their families constitutes another form of torture; Palestinian prisoners are not allowed family visits and are denied access to health care, contributing to deteriorating health for those with serious and chronic illness. They also face forcible transfers, deportation and solitary confinement.

Words and action

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon has “urged that those detained must be charged and face trial with judicial guarantees or released without delay”. To all rational minded people, this is the correct and right course of action, echoed by Amnesty: “Israel has a duty to uphold due process and fair trial rights, and to take effective action to end torture and other ill treatment of detainees.” Fine words and absolutely right, but Israel does not heed such pronouncements.

It is long overdue for Israel to be treated as the criminal state it is, one that disregards the law, tramples on human rights and sees itself as unaccountable to the international community. Action is needed to support such calls for the observation of human rights and to enforce the repeated demands for justice. Let Israel, which has imprisoned a whole nation, be placed in solitary confinement, subjected to sanctions and forced to honour agreements and the rule of international and, indeed, domestic law. Perhaps then, after so many painful years, the suffering of the Palestinian people would come to an end and a gentle peace would be allowed to settle upon what was once the Holy Land.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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