Icons of resistance: The plight of Palestinian prisoners
The issue of Palestinian prisoners has been in the spotlight ever since the escape of six detainees in early September from the maximum-security Gilboa Prison in northern Israel.
At the time, news of the prison break was celebrated with massive euphoria across the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
On social media, people posted pictures of spoons, in reference to the tools the prisoners reportedly used to dig a tunnel out of the high-security facility.
They soon became a feature at protests alongside traditional flags and banners as a symbol of Palestinian resistance against Israel’s occupation. Artists in Gaza City also painted a mural in honour of the six inmates.
While the rare jailbreak was an embarrassing security and intelligence failure for Israel, for many Palestinians it was a symbol of their determination to dig their way to national liberation.
"Around 40% of the Palestinian male population has been imprisoned by Israel at one point in time"
“It [the escape] didn’t just represent Palestinian prisoners but it represented Palestinians overall. They’ve been occupied and displaced for 73 years, but they’re still continuing to strive for freedom,” Charlotte Kates, international coordinator of Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, told The New Arab.
Soon after the breakout, the Israel Prison Service (IPS) imposed strict, abusive measures against prisoners, especially those held in Gilboa, and Israeli forces stormed various areas across the West Bank, in particular, the hometowns of the escapees in and around Jenin in a large-scale crackdown to collectively punish Palestinians. Several relatives of the prisoners were reportedly taken into custody.
Palestinian prisoners endured heavy penalties as part of the crackdown inside Israeli jails. Detainees in Gilboa and other prisons were placed in isolation and denied family visits and food. In addition, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) detainees were transferred to different prison facilities to keep them separate from one another. Five of the men who broke out are affiliated with the PIJ.
Israeli prison authorities commonly subject prisoners to transfers with the aim to divide them from one another, break comradeship, and disrupt coordination among those who organise themselves according to political affiliation.
When all the six escapees were eventually rearrested after a two-week manhunt, they faced harsh punitive measures including severe torture and physical and mental abuse by Israeli interrogators. They are now being held in solitary confinement in different prisons.
On Sunday, the six prisoners - Yaqoub Qadri, 48, Mahmud Abdullah Ardah, 45, Mohammad Ardah, 39, Ayham Kamamji, 35, Munadel Infeiat, 26, and Zakaria Zubeidi, 45 - were formally charged with escaping from jail.
Mohammad Ardah on Tuesday began an open-ended hunger strike to protest his prison conditions, his lawyer, Kareem Ajwa from the Palestinian Authority’s Commission of Detainees’ Affairs, told Al Jazeera. He said the detainees could potentially face years in solitary confinement.
Palestinian prisoners have continuously threatened to go on a collective hunger strike in support of the rearrested escapees and to protest their oppressive detention conditions, remaining resolute in their fight against the occupation.
Sahar Francis, director of Ramallah-based prisoners' rights group Addameer, said that tensions remain high inside Israeli prisons as authorities keep on moving inmates between jails amid tightening restrictions.
The 'Freedom Tunnel' operation put Israel’s mass incarceration of Palestinians under the spotlight. According to Addameer, there are an estimated 4,650 Palestinians detained by Israel. Considered political prisoners in Palestine and by the United Nations, Israel treats them as “security prisoners” deemed to be a threat.
They include anyone from militants convicted for taking part in or helping to plan attacks against Israeli civilians and security forces, to members of Palestinian political factions that are banned by Israel or politicans.
Detainees also include activists imprisoned for participating in demonstrations, and teenagers and children arrested for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.
More than 500 of the Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli custody are serving life sentences, and almost 500 are serving a sentence of more than 20 years. There are also 200 child prisoners and 40 female detainees.
Approximately 520 are being held without charge or trial under administrative detention, which is used routinely to target Palestinians, particularly community leaders, activists, and influential people in towns, villages, and refugee camps. These orders, which are issued for up to six months at a time, are indefinitely renewable on the basis of “secret information”.
Palestinians are prosecuted in Israeli military courts, unlike Israelis who are tried under the civilian court system. Charges in military trials can drag on for months and years.
Despite prisoners from the occupied Palestinian territories holding the status of “protected persons” according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, most jailed Palestinians from the West Bank are held in prisons inside the occupying power. This procedure is a prohibited form of forcible transfer under international law.
"Palestinians deeply value and honour the tremendous sacrifices that political prisoners have made for the liberation of their land. Each of their lives is precious to them"
Detention is widely viewed as one of the most difficult aspects of life under Israeli military rule. Addameer has reported that political prisoners are typically barred from making phone calls, and are usually limited to receiving visits only by close family members and lawyers. Family visits can be restricted or cancelled, often arbitrarily.
Medical treatment is generally inadequate and is delivered after long delays. In many cases, physical and psychological torture and ill-treatment are used during interrogation, including beatings, sleep deprivation, isolation, solitary confinement, and threats against the lives of their relatives.
More than 220 Palestinians are thought to have died in Israeli jails since 1967, according to the Commission of Detainees’ Affairs, including 73 from torture and 69 due to medical negligence.
Israel claims it detains Palestinians on “security-related” charges, but the reality is that the large-scale system of imprisonment is designed to suppress opposition to Israel’s military occupation and maintain permanent control over Palestinian lives. It is also a key tool to choke political activity.
Virtually every Palestinian family has at least one relative who has been jailed by Israel. Around 40% of the Palestinian male population has been imprisoned at one point in time, according to estimates.
“Every Palestinian is affected by imprisonment in one way or another. And whenever there’s more conflict with Israel, we expect more Palestinians to be incarcerated,” Francis told The New Arab, explaining how the issue of prisoners is closely connected to the political situation at any given time.
Samidoun’s coordinator pointed out how important the prisoners’ movement is to Palestinian society, given their profound contribution to the ongoing struggle for an independent state.
“Palestinians deeply value and honour the tremendous sacrifices that political prisoners have made for the liberation of their land. Each of their lives is precious to them,” the prisoner’s rights activist said.
She argued that Palestinian prisoners are leaders of the resistance “at the core of their communities” who have been taken away because Israel sees them as a threat to their system of settler colonialism and wants them to be “kept away from their society”.
"Every Palestinian is affected by imprisonment in one way or another"
Beyond the physical separation from their families and communities, their removal from Palestinian public life deprives Palestinian society of community and national leaders. They have largely been excluded from discussions about the future of Palestine, despite being key voices.
Before being imprisoned, many were leaders in demonstrations, organised community centres, or even engaged in armed struggle.
Within Israeli prisons, Palestinians have also long resisted Israeli authorities through collective action such as hunger strikes, educational classes, and political organising to obtain basic rights.
“These prisoners are putting their bodies on the frontlines of resistance daily by directly confronting Israeli jailers and the colonial prison system,” Kates noted. “There’s every indication that the prisoners’ movement will continue to fight back”.
Addameer’s director also says that collective action by Palestinian prisoners has been a fundamental aspect of life in jail ever since Israel’s military occupation in 1967.
“Whether by boycotting the daily inmate count, refusing some meals, clashing with prison authorities, or calling mass hunger strikes, prisoners have long fought for better conditions opposing day-to-day repressive measures against them,” she told TNA.
Reviving the discussion on detainees and locating it within the wider context of national liberation is key to the future of the Palestinian cause, Francis adds.
A political solution for the Palestinian question should include the issue of political prisoners, which means “releasing all of them”, she says, since they were all arrested under Israel’s illegal military occupation.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec