Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Palestinians take part in a protest marking 'Palestinian Prisoners Day' in the West Bank city of Ramallah, April 17.

Palestinian Prisoners' Day: Breaking down the controversy

This year's commemoration is particularly noteworthy because of two recent high-profile deaths in prison that drew tremendous outcry from Palestinians. The Monitor explains.

Today is Palestinian Prisoners' Day, when Palestinians remember the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. The issue of prisoner treatment has been hotly debated in recent months, prompted by the death of two Palestinian men while in Israeli custody, both of which have been blamed on Israel. Here, the Monitor explains the complicated issue. 

How many Palestinian prisoners are there?

There are currently 4,998 Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails, 13 of them women. That is roughly half the number of Palestinian security prisoners held six years ago, according to an Israel Prison Service (IPS) briefing for journalists held on April 14. 

Sixty-four percent of Palestinian security prisoners have been convicted, 33 percent are detainees who have not yet been sentenced, and 3 percent are being held in administrative detention, one of the most criticized aspects of Israel’s treatment of prisoners. 

In addition, there are about 2,000 Palestinians being held on criminal charges, including illegal entry into Israel. Ten of them are women.

As of the end of February, 235 of Palestinian prisoners were minors, ranging in age from 14 to 18, and 552 of the prisoners were serving life terms.

In the past year, as many as 27 members of the suspended Palestinian parliament have been held by Israel.

What are prison conditions like?

Some 700 Palestinian prisoners are held at Ofer Prison, the sole facility in the West Bank, while the rest are spread between 9 facilities in Israel. IPS runs 33 facilities in total.

At Ofer, where foreign journalists were recently afforded a rare tour, prisoners are kept in wings according to their age and political classification.

Each wing has a courtyard hemmed in by opaque walls and a latticework of metal bars overhead. In a Hamas wing, men were kneeling and pressing their foreheads to the red cement floor in prayer, while others washed their clothes in a small room that doubled as laundromat and library, featuring tattered Muslim Brotherhood books. In a wing with 120 Fatah and Islamic Jihad members, young men with bulging biceps and sport pants were using the pull-up bars, while others smoked, milled around, or sat dejectedly in a corner.

There are three roll calls a day, with the first at 6 a.m. Two medics make daily rounds and a doctor is on site five days a week, says the head of the prison, Yaakov Shalom. Those needing further attention are transferred either to an IPS facility in Ramle or a regular hospital, though Shalom acknowledges there are often delays – but says civilians also have to wait as well.

The Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association in Ramallah, known as Addameer, accuses Israel of a “systematic policy of medical negligence.” In addition to long delays, Addameer cites substandard care, language barriers, and the “dual loyalty” of medical staff whose primary obligation is to the IPS, not the patient. The Palestinian Maan News Agency wrote last week that “207 Palestinians have died in Israeli jails since 1967, including 54 who died from medical negligence, the Palestinian Authority says.”

The IPS says that when a prisoner dies, investigations are carried out by the police, court officials, and internal staff. The IPS has its own internal monitoring system, as well as visitors from outside organizations, such as the Red Cross. The Israeli Ministry of Justice also has a team of monitors, which visit each facility twice a year.

Yifat Raveh, a monitor who has been with the justice ministry for 17 years, says that conditions have improved over her tenure but more can be done. “I always feel that we have to improve,” she says.

What privileges do prisoners have?

Security prisoners receive the exact same privileges as other prisoners, says Naftali Shmulevitz of IPS. That includes unlimited mail, TV, and library access; up to 1,700 NIS ($470) per month in spending money for food and toiletries sent by the Palestinian Authority and family members or friends; and a say in electing representatives from among their fellow inmates. No cell phones are allowed.

Security prisoners are also eligible for unlimited visits from religious leaders and lawyers, biweekly visits from close relatives, and meetings with diplomats and members of Israeli parliament. However, for those prisoners being held inside Israel, their relatives often cannot get permission to travel in the country to visit them. In addition, IPS can restrict family visits at its discretion.

Mohammed Ghazal, a civil engineering professor held in administrative detainee at Ofer, told visiting journalists he has only seen his wife twice during his 17-month detention, which had just been extended by another five months. He said the only reason for his arrest that he was aware of was that he was a member of Hamas.

What is administrative detention?

Administrative detention is intended to be a preventive security measure for those who are suspected of posing a future threat when no other means are available. While it is permissible under international law in such circumstances, human rights activists criticize Israel for using it too widely and depriving prisoners of the right to due process.

Administrative detainees do not have a court hearing or trial, but they are brought before a judge. The detainee and his lawyer(s) are generally given very limited information about the reason for his arrest, such as membership in an extremist group. Israel says the evidence must be kept secret for security reasons, including the need to protect informants who provided the evidence. Most administrative detainees in Israel are imprisoned for less than a year, but in rare cases they are held for up to five years.

The number of administrative detainees has generally declined since the height of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in 2002. Then, 1,119 of 5,272 prisoners were kept in administrative detention, or about 22 percent. Today the number has fallen to 160 of 4,998 prisoners, or about 3 percent. 

Why has the prisoner issue heated up?

Two prisoners have died in Israeli prisons this year, sparking riots across the West Bank and even talk of a third intifada, or uprising.

The first was Arafat Jaradat, a 30-year-old from Hebron who died less than a week after being arrested for throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. Israel said he died of a heart attack. Palestinians, citing preliminary results of the autopsy, alleged he had been tortured. The final autopsy results have not yet been released.

The second prisoner to die was Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh, who passed on in a hospital shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. Palestinians allege that the medical diagnosis and treatment came months after his initial complaints of symptoms.

In addition to the two deaths, four high-profile hunger strikers have heightened attention on the prisoner issue. Most prominent is Samer Issawi, who was convicted of firing on civilian vehicles and providing a pipe bomb for a planned attack on Hebrew University security personnel in Jerusalem during the second intifada.

He was released in October 2011 as one of 1,027 prisoners exchanged for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. But like at least 14 others of those released, he was rearrested, allegedly for leaving Jerusalem, where he was supposed to remain as a condition of his release. He is being held in administrative detention, and has carried on an intermittent hunger strike of more than 200 days.

In a March 2013 commentary for the Guardian newspaper, he wrote, “… I will continue my hunger strike until victory or martyrdom. This is my last remaining stone to throw at the tyrants and jailers in the face of the racist occupation that humiliates our people.”

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has called on the international community to help resolve the situation, warning that Palestinian anger and unrest could spin out of control if one of the hunger strikers dies. He also told US Secretary of State John Kerry during a recent visit that releasing prisoners was a “top priority” for resuming peace talks with Israel.

In particular, the PA is seeking the release of 123 prisoners that have been held since before the 1993 Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

How has Israel responded?

Israel has contested claims of negligence or abuse, and the IPS says there are ongoing investigations into the deaths of both Mr. Jaradat and Mr. Hamdiyeh in accord with standard policy.

Amid an uptick in negative press coverage over recent months, Israel’s Government Press Office organized a rare tour of Ofer Prison on April 14 for foreign journalists. “As you saw, we have nothing to hide here,” said Shalom, the prison head, at the end of the visit.

As for releasing prisoners, Israel reportedly offered to release 125 prisoners – including 25 who had killed Israelis – last year, but Mr. Abbas declined. Earlier this month, the Israeli press reported that Israeli intelligence had advised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that pre-Oslo prisoners did not pose a security risk and could be released.

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