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Palestinian prisoners are from planet Earth too

May 4, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Given the contrasting reactions of Western leaders to the case of the former Ukrainian prime minister and that of the Palestinians in Israeli jails, one may think that the latter are from a different planet.

In Ukraine, a single politician, Yulia Tymoshenko, has gone on hunger strike in protest against her ill-treatment; leading politicians and the media across the West to scream in righteous indignation. In their worthy efforts to end her ordeal, a growing number of EU officials are considering a boycott of the Euro 2012 football championships due to begin in Kiev next month. This is all well and good. It may be that the outrage is based on damning evidence that Mrs Tymoshenko has been maltreated for political reasons.


In Palestine, meanwhile, more than 1,700 prisoners have entered their third week of hunger strike in protest against their degrading and inhuman treatment at the hands of their Israeli jailers. There hasn’t been a whimper of protest from Berlin, London or Paris. Is the silence due to ignorance? Definitely not.


Rightly or wrongly, Mrs Tymoshenko was tried and convicted of abusing her office. In Palestine, however, there are among the 6,000 prisoners being held by Israel some 28 elected members of the Palestinian parliament and three former ministers; all are being held in “administrative detention”, which means no charges, no trials and no convictions.

Who in the West can seriously claim ignorance of the Palestinian case? The prisoner issue has been festering since the signing of the Oslo accords almost two decades ago. It remains a critical factor in the search for a resolution of the conflict and has been kept alive by Israel’s intransigence on the one hand and the exceptional status afforded to the Zionist state on the other, effectively placing it above the law. Indeed, hundreds of Palestinians continue to languish in Israel’s prisons, even after their sentences have expired. The only time the issue of Palestinian prisoners appeared on the radar of Western leaders was during their efforts to secure the release of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Lest it be forgotten, under the Egyptian-brokered agreement for the release of Shalit, Israel undertook to end its practice of solitary confinement. The practice still continues, though, making its end one of the key demands of the prisoners on hunger strike today. Some of these individuals have been in solitary confinement for more than 12 consecutive years; even at the best of times, they are only allowed out of their cells for one hour a day.

The present hunger strike is unprecedented. Whereas in the past such strikes were isolated and individual acts, the current protest is widespread and well-coordinated. If this does not merit a comment or does not stir the consciences of Western leaders, nothing ever will. Their silence is shameful, as is the lack of coverage by, for example, a national broadcaster like the BBC.

The Palestinian prisoners’ demands are simple, namely that Israel fulfils its obligations towards the occupied people as an occupying power, and towards those whom it holds in detention. This entails, inter alia, granting family and legal visits, and medical care, as well as freedom from all forms of physical and psychological abuse, especially the practice of solitary confinement.

The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which Israel has ratified, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person”. Some may claim that Israel had resolved to reject torture completely, according to a 1999 ruling by the country’s Supreme Court. That is obviously not the case.

Although the Court ruled, “Neither the government nor the heads of security services possess the authority to establish directives and bestow authorisation regarding the use of liberty infringing physical means during the interrogation of suspects suspected of hostile terrorist activities”, it did leave a legal opening which allows interrogators to claim that they are acting out of “necessity” to save lives.

Even so, nothing justifies torture. Article 2 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment states explicitly, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

Palestinians point out that the argument of exceptional circumstances granted in 1999 has since become “the necessity interrogation procedure” to abuse prisoners.

In the end, there are two ways of explaining Western inconsistency in the cases of Tymoshenko and the Palestinian prisoners; racism or exceptionalism. Either way, it is damaging and will remain forever a dark stain on the consciences of the silent appeasers.

There are, however, measures that can be adopted to avoid this ignominy. For a start, Israel should be compelled to clarify its legal position on the status of the Palestinian prisoners. Are they prisoners of war held by an occupying power or common criminals? Where there is doubt, as there appears to be, the international Court of Justice should be called upon to issue a ruling.

The contrasting reactions to these two distant issues have breached all ethical standards. Whatever security benefits that may be proclaimed from the abuse of Palestinian prisoners, they will be outweighed by the damage done to the nations which are by their silence betraying their professed values of justice and the rule of law. Freedom from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment is a fundamental and absolute right of every person, and this right may not be violated under any circumstances, whether the victims are Palestinian or Ukrainian. Palestinian prisoners are from planet Earth too.