Palestinians detained in Israeli prisons are hostages, too
On 7 December 2023, images circulated of dozens of Palestinians, blindfolded, stripped of their clothes, and forced to kneel, as they were being detained and transported to an undisclosed location by Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in the Gaza Strip.
The arrested men were abducted from schools affiliated with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) inside which they were seeking shelter from Israel’s continuous bombardment.
Among the detained Palestinians is Diaa Al-Kahlout, a correspondent for The New Arab’s Arabic-language service, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. The location and condition of the detained Palestinians is unknown.
These images, however, are not novel. They point to a long and brutal history of ethnically cleansing the Palestinian population and holding the ones that remained hostage to a settler-colonial project violently working towards their displacement and erasure.
The images come two months after Israel launched its most recent genocidal war across Palestine that has thus far killed over 18,600 Palestinians and injured more than 46,000 in the Gaza Strip, leaving traces of its carnage everywhere.
"Across the board, the carceral reality under which Palestinian prisoners – and those lingering in the broader prison that is the occupation – are forced to live has only gotten harsher and more violent"
Israel’s violence does not end in Gaza. In the West Bank, 266 Palestinians have been killed and more than 3,300 injured since 7 October. Israel has also launched a full-blown war against Palestinians inside its prisons and detention centres.
Before 7 October 2023, the Israeli regime was holding 5,200 Palestinian prisoners in situations long described by Palestinian human rights organizations as brutal and violent and in which torture has long been systematically practiced.
The number of Palestinian detainees, however, had doubled since October 7. Over the past two months, the IOF has invaded Palestinian cities and towns, arresting tens of Palestinians on a daily basis.
"There's hardly a Palestinian house without a family member in jail or a former prisoner. It affects every Palestinian."— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) December 4, 2023
Inside Israel's mass imprisonment of Palestinians 👇 https://t.co/Dvv2NJzDEb
In addition, thousands of Palestinian workers from the Gaza Strip were arrested in the 1948-occupied areas, some of whom were later transferred to the Gaza Strip, and an unknown number of Palestinians were arrested from the Gaza Strip itself, including the director of Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital.
In the 1948-occupied areas, dozens more Palestinians have been arrested and charged with incitement and support for ‘terrorism’ for speaking against Israel’s genocide in Gaza.
Across the board, the carceral reality under which Palestinian prisoners – and those lingering in the broader prison that is the occupation – are forced to live has only gotten harsher and more violent.
On 7 October 2023, Palestinian resistance groups took an estimated 240 Israelis and other nationalities into the Gaza Strip with the intention of exchanging them for Palestinian prisoners.
In response, the Israel Prison Service (IPS), aided by the Israeli government and IOF, immediately enacted violent measures inside its prisons and detention centres. The current conditions inside Israeli prisons have been described by prisoners as akin to the early years of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Prisoners’ testimonies and reports by human rights organisations describe the brutal measures enacted by the Israeli authorities through which the bare minimum of their rights - obtained following decades of struggles - were entirely revoked.
The IPS imposed a total state of isolation of Palestinian prisoners inside their cells; banned family visitations; severely restricted lawyer visits following a previous ban on them; limited access to water and electricity inside prison cells; and confiscated all the prisoners’ belongings including radios, books, pens, and photos.
In addition to this, the IPS withdrew food items from the prisons and closed the canteen, the place from which prisoners used to purchase their needs, and engaged in a deliberate starvation campaign against Palestinian prisoners.
The IPS has also intensified its medical negligence policy through depriving prisoners of their right to treatment by closing the prison clinics and preventing prisoners from going to external clinics and hospitals.
Palestinian detainees and prisoners have also been subjected to brutal beatings and torture campaigns inside prisons and interrogation centers. At least six Palestinian detainees and prisoners have been killed since 7 October, and the bodies continue to be held hostage.
"Since its violence creation, Israel has resorted to imprisonment as a central tactic not only to control and subjugate the occupied population, but also to break its resistance against colonial practices"
When Israel finally agreed to a hostage exchange, 240 of these Palestinian detainees and prisoners, which included 71 female prisoners and 169 child-prisoners, were released during a short-lived truce agreement that saw the release of 110 Israelis, in addition to other nationalities, held in the Gaza Strip.
The released Palestinian prisoners included Marah Bakeer who was 16 years old when arrested and shot by Israeli forces in Jerusalem, and later sentenced to eight years and six months in prison.
But even during the truce, the IOF did not stop their daily arrest and raid campaigns, as was already the case prior to and after 7 October, nor will they stop.
In fact, Israel arrested more than 260 Palestinians in the West Bank during the week-long truce, exceeding the number of Palestinians that it was forced to release.
Still, the release of Palestinians long held in brutal conditions and sentenced in military courts that treat them as ‘security’ threats has reignited hope that the liberation of all Palestinian prisoners is not a distant dream.
Indeed, the recent release of prisoners amidst the pain and suffering across Palestine has affirmed that Palestinians have long been held hostage by a settler-colonial regime and its legal system.
It is a system that inherently discriminates against them, treating them as ‘security prisoners,’ holding captive their dead bodies, denying urgent medical care, arresting children, and handing down long and harsh sentences –reaching, for instance, 36 life sentences and 200 years in the case of Abbas al-Sayed.
The recent release of prisoners, part of a longer history of prisoners’ exchanges that first took place in 1949, has also shed light on the broader reality of captivity under which Palestinians have long had to live, both inside and outside the physical space of the prison.
Since its violence creation, Israel has resorted to imprisonment as a central tactic not only to control and subjugate the occupied population, but also to break its resistance against colonial practices.
The images of the detained Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were distributed to serve a similar purpose: to tell Palestinians that it is futile to resist, dream and work for a truly liberated geography. The recent releases of prisoners tell a different story, however.
As Israel continues to unleash the violence that is central to its existence, the recent release of prisoners and the dream of whitening prisons continue to animate, and point towards, a different reality.
A reality in which Palestinians finally break free from the chains long imposed on them by a settler-colonial regime, and its allies, that never saw them other than a ‘security threat’ to be dealt with.
It is a reality in which Palestinians redefine what words mean, and to say: we were hostages once, but we dreamt differently and resisted, as we have always done.
Basil Farraj is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies, Birzeit University, Palestine. He has written extensively on the settler-colonial regime's carceral practices and policies.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.