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Internationalising the issue of Palestinian prisoners

The plight of Palestinian detainees being held by Israel has an important place in the general framework of the Palestinian national cause because it has affected a huge number of people. Almost 750,000 Palestinians have been arrested by Israel since the start of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967; that’s around 17% of the total population. The issue will be there as long the Israeli occupation of Palestine is.

The importance of this matter makes it imperative to get it placed firmly on the international agenda. Palestine’s new status at the UN may help to do just that.


Arrests are one tactic used by the Israelis to deter young Palestinians from protesting against the Israeli occupation. Palestinians’ legitimate resistance is thus being curbed, despite international law. The prisoners are now citizens of a state recognised internationally and thus have recourse to international law and its various mechanisms.

UN recognition, even as a non-member state, transfers the legal position of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation from a national body to a state, and that state is under occupation. Palestinian detainees, therefore, now have a legitimate claim to be classed as prisoners of war, not criminals or “terrorists”. As such, they are regarded in law as being held hostage by Israel and should be released without delay.

Some law professionals point to the presence of international legal rights and commitments that the state of Palestine now enjoys like any other state in the international community. They empower it to demand the legitimate rights of Palestinians through joining various UN institutions, where it can sign-up to treaties and conventions, such as the Fourth Geneva Convention, as well as join the International Criminal Court. It is through these that Palestine can pursue Israeli leaders suspected of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, removing the legal cover that Israel has used and abused in the way that it treats prisoners. In short, Israel now faces being brought to account for its actions before the international community.

Human rights advocates say that if Palestine signs up to the four Geneva Conventions adopted since 1949 and the Protocols attached thereto, it will open the way for the internationalisation of the prisoners’ issue of prisoners. Pressure can be applied to hold an international conference for the states which are Parties to the Geneva Conventions to discuss the issue of prisoners and their rights, and to highlight Israel’s legal obligations towards the prisoners of an occupied country it is holding in its jails. The international community will also have to face up to its own obligations with regards to bringing Israel to justice, paving the way for legal battles on the issue of prisoners and detainees. Such cases can be dealt with in the international arena as well as in domestic courts for those parties to the Geneva Conventions with universal jurisdiction laws.

Some Israeli policies towards detainees lend themselves naturally to such legal action. The foremost of these is the transfer of Palestinians arrested in the occupied Palestinian territories to prisons inside Israel. That simple act alone is illegal and breaches the most basic norm of international law, which makes it clear that such detainees have to be held within the occupied territory.

Israel intensified its campaign of arrests during the first Intifada (1987-1994); 27,000 Palestinians were arrested, most of whom were economically active youth. The second (Al-Aqsa) Intifada in 2000 saw a further 35,000 arrests.

Despite agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, almost 7,000 Palestinian detainees were still being held in Israeli prisons at the end of 2012, according to the majority of sources and specialised studies. The detainees are distributed around twenty-two Israeli prisons, camps and detention centres. Of the 6,700 still behind bars, 40 are non-Palestinian Arabs and 60 are “Arab Israelis” who were arrested inside Israel for demonstrating in support of the Aqsa Intifada. Thirteen Palestinians with Israeli citizenship have died in prison.

The Israeli system which detains Palestinians includes five interrogation centres, six arrest centres, three military detention centres and twenty central prisons run by the Israeli Prison Administration. Palestinian and Arab detainees face various and systematic kinds of psychological and physical torture which have two main aims: to destroy prisoners’ morale and render them physically and mentally unable to work when they are released.
Dozens of detainees have been subject to torture since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began on June 5th, 1967, men, women and children alike. Indeed, women have played an important role alongside men in the national struggle against the Israeli occupation, and they have paid the price.

Although accurate statistics are not available, it is estimated that around 10,000 Palestinian women have been arrested by Israel since 1967. They include young girls and the elderly; some, such as Majda Alsalayma, Zahra Qaroush, Rabiha Diab and Sameeha Hamdan, were the mothers of male long-term prisoners.

Female detainees have also been subjected to abuse and torture. Individual testimonies accuse the Israelis of subjecting them to beatings, psychological pressure and threats of rape. The years 1968 and 1969 in particular were very harsh for women prisoners, and their struggle behind bars includes what have become legendary stands against the prison authorities. In 1996, for example, female detainees refused to accept that some of them would be released under the Taba Agreement; they called for the release of all female prisoners, or none. They won, and all women prisoners were released at the start of 1997. Following the Oslo Accord, female prisoners stood together under the slogan “No peace without the release of all male and female detainees”, and they participated in the struggle alongside all of the other detainees in all prisons for their freedom.

The many and varied struggles of the Palestinian prisoners movement shows the importance of giving the issue of detainees in Israeli prisons a humanitarian and legal dimension. The issue requires the international community and the United Nations to denounce Israel as an outlaw state for not abiding by the UN Charter and numerous UN Resolutions, and for ignoring the provisions of international law when dealing with Palestinian detainees.

The legal route has to be taken seriously, especially with Palestine’s new UN status. However, it also requires national reconciliation and the political will to pursue justice through the international courts. Of all the challenges facing Palestinians, the issue of detainees in Israeli prisons has to be one of the most important.

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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