27 August 2006
With approximately 20% of the Palestinian population having been in Israeli detention at one or more times, you would be hard pressed to find an unaffected Palestinian family. While Westerners decry the continuing detention of one Israeli soldier in Gaza, they conveniently overlook the fact that many thousands of Palestinians have been held captive by Israel for decades. Many are held without trial in what is known as "administrative detention" and are not even given access to the Israeli justice system, let alone held under conditions which would satisfy international law.
Over 8000 Prisoners
When even Israeli human rights organizations complain of difficulties in obtaining statistics from Israeli official sources as to the exact numbers of Palestinians held, it is hard for foreign journalists to track down updated statistics. According to Israeli NGO Btselem
, in January of 2006 over 8200 Palestinians were held in Israeli custody. This figure could be broken down further as follows: 3,111 held by the army (of whom 741 were in administrative detention), and 5,127 in Israeli prisons (53 in administrative detention). Others quote the figures as higher, and it should also include those Palestinian political prisoners who hold Israeli passports. Israeli citizenship does not provide freedom of political speech for many Palestinian citizens.
According to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society in March 2005 (cited by Samar Assad, Palestine Center, USA), 19 prisoners were serving sentences of 20 years, and 140 serving 15 years or more. A report from the PNA Ministry of Detainees and Ex-Prisoner’s Affairs notes that 400 of these prisoners were sentenced before the Oslo Accords; the agreement supposedly secured their release.
What exactly is administrative detention? Imprisonment without trial – or continued imprisonment after serving a sentence. Israeli Military Order No. 1229 (1988) empowers the military to detain Palestinians in the Occupied Territories for up to six months without trial, and this can be frequently renewed. Judges make decisions regarding detention orders based on material that is reviewed in secret and not shown to detainee or lawyer (a policy which is becoming disturbingly acceptable in a post 9/11 Western world).
Administrative detention is nothing new for Palestinians – it has been used by the Israelis since the establishment of the state, first within the territories occupied in 1948 for the few Palestinians able to remain as Israeli citizens, and then from 1967 to keep an iron rule over the West Bank and Gaza. As a British writer I am obliged to note that Emergency Regulations, which empower Israeli forces to make such arrests, originate in Mandate laws designed to keep both Arabs and Jews from overthrowing the British colonial occupation. Under the British regime, Jewish Zionists in Palestine complained bitterly about the violation of their basic rights by the occupiers. However, as soon as they seized power, they decided to make use of such "emergency" or "security" regulations, but only for Arabs.
Defence of Children International
(DCI) gives the most recent statistic: As of last month (June 2006) there were 388 Palestinian children in Israeli detention. Many hundreds more prisoners are now adults, but were originally detained as children. The PNA Ministry says that over 3000 children have been through Israeli jails since September 2000, the majority held only for allegedly throwing stones. According to Israeli law, children should be 16 before being charged and sentenced, but in practice those are young as 12 are put on trial.
Israel’s policy towards juveniles not only violates its own law, but international law which stipulates that a person does not become an adult until reaching 18. Israel does not only limit itself to teenagers. In the past weeks (May 2006) DCI has reported a West Bank child as young as five years old snatched from his father’s arms and held in detention for six and half hours – allegedly for throwing stones.
Systematic Torture and Abuse
Both Palestinian and international human rights organizations have documented Israel’s routine use of torture; a form of humiliation and wearing down the detainee. About 85% of Palestinians report systematic abuse including handcuffing in contorted positions, severe beating, solitary confinement and abhorrent practices such as placing of faeces covered sacks over the head of the prisoner.
Standards in Israeli prisons do not meet with the most basic human rights law, which calls for medical attention for prisoners. Take the case of Suleiman Darigeh, a 53 year old from Taybeh in the West Bank. Darigeh reported chest pains to the authorities in Hasharon Prison on April 25th and asked to see the prison doctor. Instead of a proper medical examination, the prison doctor merely gave him a pain killer and returned him to his cell. He died in the night, the thirteenth prisoner to die in custody since the start of the second Intifada.
While the vast majority of prisoners are men, over 100 women are detained by Israel, and since September 2000 there have been at least two births in Israeli custody. While men have also reported forms of sexual torture in jail, women prisoners are particularly vulnerable to this as a form of humiliation by their captors. Women are forced to strip naked in front of guards, many of whom are male, and subjected to brutal body searches. Many women prisoners have detailed sexual assault by Israeli military and prison staff. On some occasions women are detained as a way of threatening or putting pressure on a male member of the family.
Long-Term Effects on Palestinian Society
The long-term impact of such a massive scale of detentions cannot be underestimated. The fact that the PNA has a ministry especially for detainees and ex-prisoners demonstrates the cause for concern. Staff from the Gaza Community Mental Health Project
, for example, report overwhelming numbers of people who are suffering from long-term damage of torture and incarceration. How can NGOs and a government that are failing to cope with the immediate trauma of military attack, unemployment and poverty even begin to deal with the psychological effects on prisoners and their families during and after time in captivity?
Unlike members of the Israeli army, the vast majority of Palestinian prisoners held had not even resorted to engaging in violence to solve the conflict.
Isabelle Humphries is conducting Ph.D. research on Palestinian internal refugees at St. Mary’s College, University of Surrey, UK. She is based in Nazareth.