Inside Israel's mass imprisonment of Palestinians
More than six weeks into the war on Gaza, 150 Palestinians have been released in return for 69 Israelis over five hostage-prisoner exchanges during the pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas that started on Friday.
It is the first such halt in the fighting since the beginning of Israel’s brutal war on the Gaza Strip that has killed nearly 15,000 Palestinians, among them at least 6,000 children, since Hamas’ 7 October attack.
The deal also involves allowing the entry of as many as 300 trucks of humanitarian aid into the war-ravaged Palestinian enclave after weeks of a paralysing full blockade of fuel, water, food, medicine, and other essentials.
The four-day pause in fighting was formally extended on Monday for two more days. Israel previously offered to agree to an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed by Hamas.
The freed Palestinian detainees included 33 women, some of whom had been sentenced to years-long prison terms for attempting or committing attacks on Israeli security forces and settlers, and 117 teenage boys, mainly between the ages of 16-18, from the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
"One million Palestinians have passed through Israeli prisons since the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip in 1967"
Many on the list of prisoners due for release were detained on minor charges like throwing stones or Molotov cocktails, which can carry a 20-year sentence in prison for Palestinian children, or illegally entering Israel without a permit.
Others were charged with “supporting terrorism”, a broadly defined allegation that speaks to Israel’s long-running crackdown on Palestinians. More than two-thirds of those released have never been convicted of a crime, with most “administrative detainees” imprisoned without trial or charge.
The truce agreement is supposed to see 150 Palestinian women and children freed as part of a list of 300 Israel said it was considering releasing. The vast majority are children aged 18 or under, with almost all of them arrested in the last two years.
While Israel released 150 Palestinians during the four days of a humanitarian pause, more than 168 Palestinians were arrested during the same period in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to Palestinian prisoner associations.
A number of the newly freed Palestinians have spoken with the media about their abusive treatment under detention, saying that prison standards for Palestinians held in Israeli jails, known to be inhumane, have worsened since 7 October.
Based on various testimonies of those released, detainees faced police units raiding their cells and firing tear gas and were subjected to assault, torture, and other ill-treatment. The prison administration reportedly cut off water and electricity, limited meals to two a day with minimal amounts of food provided, and barred access to canteens where inmates would buy basic supplies.
Cells, which used to accommodate six people, now house 10 to 20. Palestinian prisoners’ rights organisation Addameer documented wide-ranging violations from the denial of medical care, bans on family visits, restrictions on lawyers’ visits, and isolation in several instances, to deprivation of food, blankets, and clothes.
Mustafa Mazen Shehadeh, 17, who was freed last weekend, said he suffered “physical and psychological violence” in Israeli detention. Israa Jaabis, 38, was released on Friday after eight years. Israeli prison authorities had refused her medical treatment and surgery despite her suffering extensive facial burns resulting from a car explosion.
At the time of her arrest in 2015, the former prisoner was accused of attempting to blow up a checkpoint after her car caught on fire due to a technical malfunction. “My pain is visible, no need to speak about it,” she said. “I also have pain on an emotional level and I am missing my relatives. But this is the tax a prisoner pays.”
Muhammad Nazzal, 18, who was liberated on Tuesday, told an Al Jazeera reporter that Israeli guards broke his fingers and arm in prison, and beat him up more than once. Meanwhile, Maysoon Jabali, 28, the longest-serving Palestinian woman prisoner in Israeli jails who secured freedom on Sunday, recounted: “Israeli prison guards tortured the women inmates by beating them, spraying them with gas, and sending them for solitary confinement”.
To make the situation even more critical, the deaths of six Palestinians in Israeli custody have been recorded since 7 October. The latest to die was Thaer Samih Abu Assab, 38, from Qalqilya, who had been imprisoned since 2005 and was serving a 25-year sentence. A freed teenage detainee who witnessed Assab’s passing said that prison guards beat him to death.
"There's hardly a Palestinian house without a family member in jail or a former prisoner. It affects every Palestinian"
“The situation of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons is very dangerous nowadays. This is the worst time prisoners have seen since Israel occupied the Palestinian territories in 1967,” Muhammad Abdul Samad, a spokesperson of the Palestinian Commission for Detainees and Ex-Prisoners’ Affairs, told The New Arab, highlighting how the war on Gaza has dramatically impacted the lives of Palestinian detainees.
He mentioned various forms of negligence practiced by Israeli prison authorities such as “confiscating” personal belongings and leaving each prisoner with just one change of clothes, “underfeeding” prisoners forcing some to fast and stockpile food, and “not allowing” most of them to leave their cells.
The jailed Palestinians who were liberated in the past few days reported being taken to Israeli intelligence interrogators prior to their release and threatened with re-arrest if they participated in celebrations or media interviews discussing their detention conditions and abuse.
The recent release of of Palestinian prisoners also serves to draw attention to the harsh conditions experienced by Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails, and more widely points to Israel’s systematic pattern of mass imprisonment of Palestinians in military detention facilities.
Palestinians are typically tried under Israel’s military judicial system which oversees the arrest and incarceration of tens of thousands every year with a conviction rate of at least 99%, human rights groups claim. They are detained by the Israeli army with no arrest warrant, interrogated without lawyers present, and exposed to widespread abuses.
“Under this unfair military court system, we’re seeing Palestinians charged and sentenced for long periods or chunks of their lives,” Addameer lawyer Tala Naser told The New Arab.
Around 500-700 Palestinian children between the ages of 12-17 are detained and prosecuted every year in Israeli military courts, according to Defence for Children International-Palestine. Numerous children imprisoned for years as minors are later tried as adults and sentenced to years in jail, all of whom are excluded from the current deal.
Sworn written statements from almost 800 child prisoners reveal that 86% were not informed of the reason for their arrest, 97% were interrogated without a family member present, 80% were strip-searched, 42% were denied adequate food and water, 75% were subjected to physical violence, and 58% faced verbal abuse, humiliation, or intimidation during or after their arrest.
There are currently 7,200 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli custody, among them 88 women and 250 children under 18, according to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club.
The latest crackdown against Palestinian prisoners by the Israeli Prison Service coincides with Israel’s vast arrest operation. Following the Hamas attack of 7 October, Israeli forces have conducted a mass detention campaign in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, arresting over 3,260 Palestinians, including 120 women and more than 200 children.
Samad said that Israel has long pursued a “policy” of detention campaigns targeting Palestinian civilians, and is “abusing” this practice in the West Bank in light of its military aggression in Gaza. “Israeli authorities often use false claims of intent to lock up Palestinians,” said the detainees affairs group’s spokesman. “They’re now using the events of October 7 to arrest as many as they can in order to collectively punish Palestinians”.
"Israeli forces have arrested over 3,260 Palestinians, including 200 children, since 7 October"
Addameer’s Naser said there are currently 2,500 Palestinian prisoners being held under “administrative detention”, a controversial policy adopted by Israel through which Palestinians can be incarcerated indefinitely without charge or trial.
“Because there’s no due process nor fair trial guarantees, it’s much easier to jail as many Palestinians and keep them behind bars,” the attorney maintained, remarking that the amount of administrative prisoners in Israeli detention has expanded since October’s military escalation, with about 80% of those slated by Israel for potential release not having been formally charged.
Some detainees are locked up for months or years without ever being charged with a crime, with some having spent more than 30 years in Israeli jails, before the Oslo Accords were signed.
Naser said that Palestinians are being targeted en masse at a “crucial time” with the intent to clamp down on free speech amid Israel’s Gaza war. “Israel is using massive arrests as a tool of oppression against Palestinians within the genocide in Gaza,” she affirmed.
A staggering number of Palestinians have been imprisoned by Israel at one point in their lives. The UN reports that approximately one million Palestinians have passed through Israeli prisons since the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip in 1967.
That also explains why, well before this war, the release of detainees had been a key Palestinian demand in negotiations with Israel.
“There’s hardly a Palestinian house without a family member in jail or a former prisoner. It affects every Palestinian”, Samad stressed. “Prisoners are giving up their freedom to set us Palestinians free.”
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec