Seeing Israel’s prisons through Palestinian eyes
Aug 27, 2009
The Gaza Strip, populated by 1.5 million Palestinians, is virtually an open-air prison—a place of punishment and exile for Palestinians. No one can officially get in or out of Gaza unless given permission at border checkpoints that are opened at the whim of Israel and Egypt. If your name is not on a pre-existing list, you can’t get into Gaza or leave it.
Mothers in Gaza show pictures of their
photo: Judy Greenspan
At the end of the recent Viva Palestina U.S. convoy, a Palestinian man with a U.S. passport tried to bring his family out of Gaza so they could travel back to the U.S. Although his spouse and children have U.S. passports, Egyptian border guards refused to allow the bus through the checkpoint with them aboard.
Convoy delegates tried to carry the children across the border, but security guards refused to allow this and held the bus up for over an hour. Only those who had been on the bus when it entered Gaza were allowed to return. The Palestinian delegate had to leave his family behind when he returned to Egypt.
Prisons in Israel
In addition to the open-air prison of the Gaza Strip, more than 11,000 Palestinian women, men and children are incarcerated in Israeli maximum security facilities like Nufha, Haderim, Jalamy, and Ashkalon, among others.
In Gaza City, a group of Palestinian women with family members languishing in Israeli prisons described for convoy visitors the horrific conditions in these concentration camps.
Muhammad Hassamand, the spouse of one of the women, has spent 23 years in prison. His sons, one 12 and another 15, cannot see their father. His spouse said, “We didn’t go to them. The Israelis came to our land. We are the indigenous people. There are more than 11,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails [compared to] one Israeli soldier.”
Another elderly woman told of losing her eyesight since her son went to prison 10 years ago. “I lost my eyes from crying all day and night for my son. My son has been sentenced for the rest of his life. He has spent more than 20 years in prison. For more than 10 years, I didn’t see him in my eyes, and now I can’t. I want to see my son. We want our efforts and your efforts to help release him.”
Another woman said, “My husband has been held in an Israeli prison for 22 years, and I have never been allowed to visit.” She thinks her son is also incarcerated in Israel, but she doesn’t know if he is alive or dead.
Since 1967, over 700,000 Palestinians—20 percent of the total population in the occupied territories–have been arrested. The vast majority are men—approximately 40 percent of the total male Palestinian population.
Since the second Intifada began in 2000, more than 70,000 Palestinians, including at least 850 women, have been arrested by Israel, according to Abdullah al-Zeghari, director of the Bethlehem branch of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society.
Many believe that imprisonment and torture are a core element of the Israeli occupation’s strategy of collective containment and punishment of the Palestinian people.
Anyone who the Israelis think will resist the occupation is in danger of being imprisoned. This includes nonmilitary political activists, community organizers, paramedics, doctors, journalists, teachers and students as well as resistance fighters.
Torture and death in Israeli jails
According to the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B’Tselem, more than 85 percent of Palestinians detained since 1967 have been subjected to torture, and at least 197 have died in prison. Medical negligence was the cause of 50 deaths. The rest were from torture or executions.
Until 1999 nearly all Palestinian prisoners were tortured for information based on the Landau Ministerial Committee (1987) policy that allowed “moderate physical and psychological pressure.” This was after an Israeli High Court of Justice ruling prohibited the use of several forms of torture.
The police and army, however, continue to use prohibited methods, similar to the treatment prisoners have been subjected to at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay prison.
Forms of torture used include beatings, kicking, strip searches, sleep deprivation, verbal abuse and psychological threats, including those against family members. Prisoners have been bound to chairs in painful positions or forced to crouch in a frog-like position.
Prisoners have been kept in solitary confinement or held in tents in the desert in extreme temperatures. Prisoners’ food has been placed next to the holes used as toilets. Inmates have been denied access to hot water or change of clothing.
All these conditions are against United Nations’ basic human rights standards.
More than 1,600 prisoners suffer from chronic diseases but are denied care. The prison administration refuses to give permission for surgery for such life-threatening conditions as cancers and kidney transplants. It also refuses to allow medicine from families, physicians or the Red Cross.
Administrative detention, where a person can be held for extended periods of time with no trial or formal charges, is a violation of international and human rights law, particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Administrative detention in Israel was originally based on the British Mandate Defense (Emergency) Regulation of 1945. It allowed police to hold a prisoner based on confidential information that the detainee and her/his lawyer are not allowed to see. While a detainee is allowed an appeal, the confidential nature of the “evidence” makes a fair trial impossible.
This practice is still in effect in Israel. According to Israel Prisons Service, as of May 31 there were at least 449 Palestinian administrative detainees. This number was as high as 849 in November 2007. Palestinian detainees have been held under administrative detention orders from six months to eight years.
Women and children
Presently 63 women political prisoners are held in Hasharon and Damoon prisons. Some are as young as 14. They are subjected to humiliating treatment, including strip searches, sometimes in the presence of men.
Pregnant women are forced to deliver their babies in prison cells where these infants continue to live with their mothers for years. Since 1967 the Israeli army has captured more than 10,000 Palestinian women. Eight hundred were kidnapped during the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000.
The Israeli Defense Forces have kidnapped a total of 7,600 children, male and female, since 2000. Some were as young as 12 years old. According to IPS February 2009 reports, there were 374 Palestinian children in jail; 50 were under 16 years old.
The Israeli army considers children age 16 to be adults. This is in violation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is a signer.
These children are also subjected to torture and forced confession. Many are held in jails with adult prisoners and subjected to sexual and physical violence. They may be denied family visits, deprived of medical care, and suffer from theft of personal belongings. They are also deprived of education, recreation facilities and culture, and are tortured during attempts to coerce them to collaborate with Israel.
Like Black and Latino/a prisoners in the U.S., most incarcerated Palestinians are held in jails far from their homes. Since Hamas was elected in 2006, Israel has outlawed family visits to prisoners.
Also like the U.S., Israel has enacted a new status called “unlawful combatant.” This legalizes the detention of Lebanese and Arab prisoners even when there is no evidence for trial. This law is now applied to the people of Gaza.
Palestinians in Gaza hold one Israeli soldier prisoner. They have offered to exchange him for those held by Israel. While using this prisoner as an excuse for its wars on the people of Gaza, Israel has refused to negotiate any prisoner exchange.
Palestinian prisoners have a long history of resistance in Israeli jails. They have organized hunger strikes to protest violent attacks on prisoners and denial of visits and medical care. In some cases thousands of prisoners have participated. The Israeli police and security forces have responded with great brutality.
The prisoners demonstrated their solidarity with the rest of Gaza during the July 2006 war on Lebanon and during the Israeli war and massacre in Gaza that began in December 2008.
The Palestinian people are requesting that the international community call protests and launch long-term campaigns to end the incarceration of Palestinians in Israeli prisons as part of full liberation for the people of Palestine.
Eolis is an anti-Zionist Jewish woman who was a delegate on the Viva Palestina U.S. convoy to Gaza this July. Many statistics come from the blog of the International Campaign of Solidarity with the Palestinian Prisoners.