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Prohibition of visitation rights for Palestinians violates international laws and conventions

January 25, 2014 at 3:19 pm

By Fuad Khuffash

As part of a series of reports I am preparing to document Israel’s violations against Palestinian prisoners and detainees in its jails, this article looks at the Zionist state’s prohibition of visitation rights. This is, of course, against international law, conventions and norms.

In dealing with the humanitarian aspects of prisoners’ rights, I have always advocated keeping the legal position uppermost. Although the international legal process continues to ignore Palestinians, the law is on our side, so we must utilise it to prove our case. There is a general rule in international and humanitarian law which says that rights do not disappear over time; thus, one, day, the state of Israel will be held accountable for its crimes.

A set of principles advocated by divine and international laws includes the principle of humanity which is intended to protect human dignity in all circumstances, even during wars and conflicts. Wars are man-made and laws and conventions were developed in order to reduce their effects on the inviolability of human rights and dignity, and the need to respect human honour and blood, even in the most severe conditions.

The principle of humanity is fundamental in international humanitarian law and it has a major role in respecting and protecting human rights and freedom during armed conflict or war. It is compulsory and must be taken into consideration in all cases not covered by international conventions. Moreover, if the principle of humanity must be applied in war, it is important for it to be applied in peacetime, especially in this instance in the treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

In looking at the terminology involved, it is my understanding that a detainee is someone who is under arrest and the term is used during the investigation phase; a prisoner, on the other hand, is someone who has been through the detainee phase and a trial and has been sentenced.

The so-called Israel “Defence” Forces carry out arrest campaigns against Palestinians nightly; sometimes at random, at other times as part of an organised programme. During such raids, the sanctity of the home is violated. Nobody is spared the barbaric means used; the elderly, children, women and men are all victims.

My study reveals Israeli violations of humanitarian law by depriving Palestinian prisoners of their right to see their families and relatives.

The media has shown how Palestinians are arrested, with beatings, handcuffing and generally rough treatment being the norm as they are dragged off to an unknown destination. The sight of prisoners being taken from Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity (2003) was clear to everyone, as was the image of naked prisoners leaving Jericho prison. Arrests during raids are usually carried out without proper warrants and accompanied by the use of profanities and contempt for the detainee and his rights.

Israel has denied many prisoners of the opportunity to have visits from their families; in 2006 alone, more than 800 detainees and prisoners from Gaza were deprived of visitation rights. Palestinian prisoners are not unique in this respect; even prisoners from other Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia have been so deprived. Israeli policy is, clearly, to isolate prisoners and prevent them from having any contact with the outside world.

Visitation rights are enjoined to make sure that prisoners may stay in touch with their family affairs; awareness of events such as births, marriages and funerals are important aspects of this. The Israeli Prison Service is well aware of this fact, of course, which is why it seeks to deprive the prisoners in this way; in that sense it is a very effective punishment and way to humiliate Palestinians. However, the Israelis claim that it is for “security” reasons, a ridiculous excuse given the high-security aspects of Israeli jails.

Visits are banned as specific punishment for a number of petty “offences”, including being late for the morning head count, raising the television volume or singing loudly. An entire cell group or wing, or the whole prison, can be punished in this way.

When visits are allowed, the circumstances in which they take place are difficult; the family members will be humiliated by personal body searches in front of cameras monitoring everything. Visitors and prisoners communicate through a strengthened glass or plastic barrier; this is often blurred and the audio device is subject to deliberate cuts by those monitoring the conversation.

The denial of visitation rights is backed by Israeli law; the Zionist state is the only state in the world which has legitimised such actions contrary to international law. This policy started in 1996, when a decree was issued limiting visits to first-degree relatives only and limiting the number of visitors. If prisoners are not married and their parents live far away, they have no visitors.

After this, Israel proceeded to place more obstacles in the way; if a prisoner and his wife, for example, have different surnames (as is often the case; a Muslim woman retains her maiden name on marriage), she cannot visit him until the authorities are satisfied that the evidence of the marriage is acceptable, which has been known to take up to eighteen months. Mothers of prisoners face the same problem.

Israel’s national security is also cited as a reason for preventing visits, especially with “dangerous” prisoners. How this stands up in the face of prison security is anyone’s guess.

Visit deprivation is a punitive policy which has negative psychological effects on prisoners and their families. It can destroy prisoner morale, which is the intention. Practically-speaking, it also means that families are unable to pass on mundane but essential items such as fresh clothing and suchlike.

In response to the continued incarceration of Israeli soldier Sergeant Gilad Shalit in Gaza, some members of the Knesset (parliament) are demanding that Palestinian prisoners are kept isolated as they assume he is.

It is not unknown for prisoners’ families to travel long distances to the prison for a visit only to be told that he has been moved to another institution. That could also be the time that they are told that he is not allowed to have visitors because of something he is alleged to have done.

All of this violates international law and is contrary to the values and principles of Israeli society itself. It is designed to humiliate the prisoner and destroy his morale as part of the overall plan to humiliate Palestinians. Today, the international community and human rights organizations are asked to stand by their legal and moral responsibilities to bring these abuses by Israel to an end. Failure to do so makes them complicit with Israel in the ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners and abuses of internationally-accepted laws and conventions.

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