Palestinian Prisoners' Day was observed on April 17th with a series of events and functions across the West Bank and Gaza. Its commemoration this year stressed how important the issue of the prisoners held by Israel is for Palestinians, even though this matter is almost completely ignored by the rest of the world. There are currently more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails. Israel would like the world to believe that their imprisonment is justified; that they have been convicted of crimes under due process and are a threat to Israel's security. When speaking of them Israel often refers to them as "having Israeli blood on their hands".
However, this is far from the case. When a Palestinian prisoner is arrested, he is kept in custody and interrogated by the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security organisation. Shin Bet officers abuse Palestinian prisoners as a matter of course in order to extract confessions. Detainees are kept in isolation, deprived of sleep, threatened, deceived and denied contact with their families. They are usually also denied access to a lawyer until they agree to sign confessions. These confessions are later used to condemn them to lengthy jail terms. Many Palestinians in Israel's jails have not been convicted of any crime at all; they are held under "administrative detention". This is prolonged detention of a prisoner without charge or trial or judicial review. While it is sanctioned under international law, it is only meant to be used under the most extreme circumstances; strict conditions have to be met before it is used. Israel has abused this provision consistently, using it to lock up thousands of Palestinian prisoners without charge over the 44 years it has occupied the West Bank and Gaza. At the beginning of 2011 there were 207 prisoners held under administrative detention. They included Kifah Qutaish, a 38 year old female prisoner suffering from a rare condition known as Reynaud's Syndrome, which is similar to gangrene. She was arrested in August 2010, kept in solitary confinement, and subjected to physical and psychological torture. Her condition has worsened because of this and because her medical needs were neglected. No reason has been given for her imprisonment. She was expecting to be released on 5th April and was looking forward to seeing her young son and daughter when she received news that her "administrative detention" had been extended for the third time. Again, no reason has been given and no due legal process has taken place.
Kifah is only one of thousands of Palestinians who have been subjected to mistreatment in Israeli jails. Palestinian prisoners are tortured routinely, their most basic rights are denied, and they often have to endure solitary confinement; there are reports that some prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for over five years. According to the Public Committee against Torture in Israel and the Israeli Human Rights Organisation B'Tselem, the methods of torture include "slapping, kicking, threats, verbal abuse and humiliation, bending the body in extremely painful positions, intentional tightening of the handcuffs, stepping on manacles, application of pressure to different parts of the body, choking and other forms of violence and humiliation (pulling out hair, spitting etc.), exposure to extreme heat and cold, and continuous exposure to artificial light." Thousands of parents, children, and spouses have been separated from their loved ones after being incarcerated by Israel without a fair trial.
The Zionist state of Israel has been in occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. Over this period it has at one time or another arrested over 650,000 Palestinians – more than 20% of the total population of the West Bank or Gaza. The entire occupation is illegal under international law, as is Israel's policy of transferring detainees from the occupied territories to prisons in its own territory and of course, its torture and maltreatment of detainees. However, the pressure it has faced from the international community over this issue has been insignificant at best and non-existent at worst. In the meantime, the international community has been preoccupied with the only Israeli prisoner in Palestinian custody, Gilad Shalit, the soldier captured by Hamas in 2006. The European Union has participated directly in efforts to secure his release and his case is well known and publicised throughout the world. He has been made an honorary citizen of Paris, New Orleans and Miami, and his continued detention by Hamas is even given as a justification for the siege of Gaza. President Nicholas Sarkozy of France has become personally involved in Shalit's case, meeting with his family and condemning Shalit's imprisonment in the strongest possible terms. French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie was mobbed by an angry crowd in Gaza when she met with Shalit's family and ignored the issue of Palestinian prisoners. It is a little known fact that it is Israeli intransigence which has kept Shalit in captivity for so long. Hamas has declared its willingness to release him if Israel releases 1,000 of the Palestinian prisoners it is holding, including all the women and all of the children. But Israel refuses to release some of the prisoners that Hamas has asked for in exchange for Shalit, including Marwan Barghouthi, a key leader of the Palestinian intifada which broke out in 2000.
Israel would like the world to believe that Marwan Barghouthi is a murderer but his real crime is leading an effective campaign against Israel's military occupation between 2000 and 2002. Most of the Palestinians Israel is holding are either totally innocent and do not know why they are being held, or they are only there because they have taken part in resistance activities against the Israeli occupation. Armed resistance to occupation is a right enshrined in international law; Palestinian resistance is, however, often entirely non-violent civil protest and completely peaceful. Israel's definition of security, its eternal justification for holding Palestinian prisoners, is so broad that it doesn't even give the Palestinians the most basic rights of free speech and free association. As one Israeli observer noted, were such measures to be applied to the Israeli public, half of the governing Likud party would be in jail.
It is time for the international community to stand up to Israel's illegal and unjustified detention of thousands of Palestinians. The world quite rightly took note of and protested about the detention of Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa, and the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. The Palestinians in Israeli jails are there for the same reason that these leaders were imprisoned in their respective countries; they too refuse to live under tyranny and oppression. Why, then, should Palestinians be less deserving of the world's support for their freedom?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.