More than 700,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel since 1967, representing over 20 percent of the whole population living under Israeli occupation. This was one of many shocking statistics and testimonies presented at the First International Conference on the Rights of Palestinian Prisoners and Detainees held in Geneva on 11-12 March.
An array of speakers, including parliamentarians from Switzerland, Greece and Britain, highlighted the human rights abuses perpetrated by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as inside Israel itself. One of the conference organisers, Muhammad Hamdan, said it was fitting that the plight of Palestinian women prisoners in Israeli jails was being discussed on the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. Many Palestinian women, added Dima Karam, are forced to give birth in jail while shackled to the bed; they are returned to their cell with their newborn baby almost immediately.
A moving testimony which reduced participants to tears came from 14 year old Sarah, whose father was imprisoned by Israel just weeks before she was born. "How long must children like me live like orphans?" she asked. "How long must we all live behind the bars of the occupation?"
British MP Jeremy Corbyn told the audience that the treatment of Palestinian prisoners is "symptomatic of the Israeli occupation and its treatment of all Palestinians". He called upon everyone present to take up the case of individual prisoners, all 7,000 of them held currently by Israel, to draw attention to the human rights abuses committed against them. A number of speakers pointed out that the whole world knows about Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured while he was on active duty against the people of Gaza, but very few people can name even one Palestinian prisoner, even those who are being held without charge.
When discussing action that can be taken, Carlo Summaruga of the Swiss Socialist Party called on the EU to put aside the preferential trade ageement with Israel until the Zionist state complies with international laws and conventions. Israel has been described as a member of the European Union in all but name, despite its appalling human rights record.
Women prisoners are not spared any of the brutal conditions and torture meted out to their male counterparts. One prisoner, for example, was hanged by her hands from the ceiling of her "small, cold cell" even though she suffers from Reynard's Syndrome, asthma, stomach ulcers and high blood pressure. Another woman prisoner was thrown into solitary confinement for daring to speak to her husband, who she hadn't seen for 7 years, when both appeared in the dock of a military court.
The first session of the conference was held in the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. The organising bodies and participants voiced their determination that positive steps will result from the robust discussions.