On 27 September 2011, Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli prisons launched a campaign of disobedience, including a hunger strike, to protest a series of punitive and collective measures taken against them by the Israel Prison Service in the preceding three months. This briefing provides an overview of the history of prisoner releases within the Oslo peace process, Palestinian prisoners‘ general detention conditions and background on the campaign of disobedience.
For the full briefing in PDF format, including statistics on prisoners and Addameer‘s press releases on the campaign of disobedience, please click here.
Since the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in 1967, more than 700,000 Palestinians have been arrested by the Israeli authorities, representing approximately 20 percent of the total Palestinian population in the oPt and as much as 40 percent of the total male Palestinian population. This number includes approximately 10,000 women jailed since 1967, as well as 7,000 Palestinian children arrested since 2000 alone. As of 1 September 2011, there were 5,573 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons, including 272 administrative detainees, held without charge or trial; 176 children (31 of which are under the age of 16); 33 women; 21 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council; and 627 prisoners from the Gaza Strip.
Arrests of Palestinians are regulated by a system of military regulations in place since the beginning of the occupation. According to international humanitarian law, any new legislation enacted by the Occupying Power should be limited to regulations protecting the rights of protected persons or the security of the Occupying Power. The military orders issued by Israel, however, extend much beyond these limits and criminalize any form of opposition to the occupation as “security” offences, legally cementing the oppression of the Palestinian people. For example, the political parties that comprise the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are still considered “illegal organizations” even though Israel has been engaged in peace negotiations with the PLO since 1993. Carrying a Palestinian flag or participating in a demonstration without a permit is also a crime under Israeli military regulations. Israel refuses to acknowledge Palestinian political motivations for their actions or the possibility of labeling some of these prisoners as prisoners of war, instead classifying them as “security” prisoners. Moreover, Israeli legislation and court decisions have long enabled the State to hold detainees as “bargaining chips,” held for their potential value in hostage or political negotiations, disregarding their status as political actors and denying them fundamental human rights protections.
Palestinians from the West Bank who are arrested by the Israeli military and charged with security violations (as defined by Israel) and other crimes are prosecuted by two Israeli military courts located in Ofer and Salem in the oPt. These military courts do not conform to international fair trial and due process standards, notably with regard to the right to prompt notice of criminal charges, the right to prepare an effective defense, the right to trial without undue delay, the right to interpretation and translation, and the right to presumption of innocence.
Prisoners and the Oslo Peace Process
The call to release Palestinian political prisoners was a key demand of the PLO during the years of the Oslo “Peace Process” (1993-2000), a demand that increased in resonance with the Israeli withdrawal from Area A in the West Bank beginning in late 1995. However, the agreements comprising the Oslo Process failed to call for the immediate release of all Palestinian prisoners. In fact, one of the most damaging terms of the provisions in the Oslo Accords can be found in the Oslo II Agreement, with prisoners divided into categories according to the offense they had (in many cases, allegedly) committed. Annex VII(2)(c) of Oslo II provided that only “detainees and/or prisoners charged with or imprisoned for security offenses not involving fatality or serious injury” would be among the categories of detainees and prisoners included in the Agreement’s staggered releases. This clause, which later developed into the “Jewish blood on their hands” condition, is still used by Israel to justify its refusal to release hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners. As a result, as the Israeli authorities evacuated from Area A, they failed to release or “hand over” the Palestinian prisoners from the “liberated territory” in its custody to the area’s authorities, in clear violation of Article 77 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949). Instead, all Palestinian prisoners and detainees imprisoned by Israel were transferred to detention facilities inside 1948 territory, further violating Articles 49 and 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibit forcible transfers of protected persons out of occupied territory and require any imprisonment of protected persons to take place inside occupied territory. Furthermore, the issue of East Jerusalem was deemed too controversial to be addressed in the Oslo Accords and subsequent agreements, and was left to be decided at a later stage. The hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners from East Jerusalem, along with Palestinians from 1948 territories who held Israeli citizenship, were therefore excluded from prisoner releases occurring throughout the Oslo process.
Today, more than eighteen years after the beginning of the Oslo Process, Israel still holds approximately 300 Palestinian political prisoners who were arrested before 13 September 1993, the cutoff date for arrests that determined which prisoners would be eligible for inclusion in subsequent releases. Of these, 115 have been imprisoned for more than 20 years, 39 are from East Jerusalem and 20 from the 1948 Territories.
General Detention Conditions
Palestinian political prisoners are spread around approximately 17 prisons, four interrogation centers and four detention centers. All but one of the prisons are located inside Israel, in direct contravention of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that an Occupying Power must detain residents of occupied territory in prisons inside the occupied territory. In most of these prisons, there is overcrowding, a lack of very basic amenities, poor hygiene, humidity and a significant lack of fresh air. In recent years, the average living space per prisoner has dropped from 3.4 to 2.9 square meters. Windows in prison cells are often covered by iron sheets, thus reducing the availability of natural sunlight. Prisoners held in Megiddo, Ofer and Ketziot prisons live in unheated, threadbare tents that do not provide adequate shelter against extreme weather in the winter or summer.
Palestinians arrested under Israeli military legislation are categorized as “security” prisoners. This classification carries with it fewer legal guarantees and rights, with privileges such as receiving family and lawyer visits without a glass divider; daily access to a phone; regular unsupervised spousal visits; the right to work in prison; additional daily recreation time and occasional visits outside the prison available only to criminal prisoners.
In addition, two Israeli Prison Service (IPS) policies with regard to Palestinian political prisoners deserve particular attention: the use of isolation for punitive purposes and medical negligence.Every year, dozens of Palestinian prisoners and detainees are held in isolation, for alleged reasons of state or prison “security.” The length of time in isolation that prison officials may order can extend from 12 hours to up to longer periods of six to 12 months, with court approval. Prisoners held in isolation are held in a cell alone or with one other prisoner for 23 hours a day and are only allowed to leave their cell for a daily one-hour solitary walk. Isolation cells in the various Israeli prisons are similar in size—typically from 1.5 by 2 meters to 3 by 3.5 meters. Each cell usually has one window measuring about 50 cm by 100 cm, which in most cases does not allow in sufficient light or air from the outside.
Israeli authorities also systematically neglect their duties to provide medical support for Palestinian prisoners in their care, as required by the Geneva Conventions. Medical problems are widespread, and range in severity from chest infections and diarrhea to heart problems and kidney failure. Although all prisons include a medical clinic, physicians are on duty irregularly and specialized medical healthcare is generally unavailable. Prisoners are not treated outside the assigned clinic hours and typically must wait for long periods of time before being examined. Once they are examined, however, most prisoners are simply prescribed painkillers without any thorough medical follow-up. Transfers to hospitals for needed treatment may take place only after weeks or months.
Deterioration of Detention Conditions and the Prisoners’ Campaign of Disobedience
Although Palestinian prisoners’ detention conditions have gradually deteriorated for many years, with many of the prisoners’ movement’s achievements overturned by prison administrations, the recent deterioration in detention conditions comes on the heels of a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 23 June 2011, during which he announced a change in policy aimed at collectively punishing Palestinian prisoners for the continued incarceration of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Since then, the IPS has notably cancelled all prisoners’ access to university education, newspapers, and book from outside prison, in addition to limiting the number of TV channels available to prisoners to three Arabic-language channels. The IPS has also started shackling all prisoners’ hands and legs to and from all visits, and in some prisons, the duration of family visits has been shortened from 45 to 30 minutes, with children under the age of 8 unable to have physical contact with incarcerated parents as they were before. In that context, it should also be noted that since June 2007 Israel has implemented a complete ban on family visits to prisoners from the Gaza Strip. Perhaps most importantly, in recent months the IPS has increased the frequency of its punitive use of isolation for so-called “security” reasons, a policy that has long been decried by prisoners. While 12 prisoners were held in isolation for “security” reasons in May 2011, 7 additional prisoners were placed in this form of isolation in June alone after Netanyahu’s speech. As of 1 September 2011, there were 20 prisoners in isolation for “security” reasons, some of whom have spent several years in isolation. The IPS has also intensified the frequency of night raids and cell searches, including individual strip searches, another long-time grievance of the prisoners.
As a result of this worsening situation, Palestinian prisoners held in various Israeli prisons announced the launch of a campaign of disobedience starting on 27 September 2011 to protest the measures taken against them by the IPS. The campaign comprises a hunger strike and refusal to cooperate with a number of IPS rules, such as wearing prison uniforms and participating in multiple daily roll calls. The prisoners’ primary demands focus on ending the IPS’s abusive and punitive use of isolation for “security” reasons and its widespread use of collective punishment. In that context, prisoners have called for the full reinstatement of their access to education, books and clothes from outside prison, newspapers and all TV channels; an end to the practice of shackling their hands and legs to and from visits; the removal of time limits placed on family visits; and an end to the IPS’s excessive imposition of fines on entire cells, sections or political parties and its frequent night raids and searches.
Although the campaign was launched by prisoners affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP, numbering approximately 400 in total), prisoners from other factions have gradually been joining the call. As of 11 October 2011, prisoners from all other factions in Gilboa (336), Eshel (262), Nafha (511), Rimon (716) and Shikma (142) were also reportedly participating in the open-ended hunger strike, as well as four women held in Damon Prison, bringing the total number of participating prisoners to approximately 2,000.
The IPS has already started punishing participating prisoners in an effort to undermine the campaign. More than 70 prisoners participating in the open hunger strike have already been transferred from Ketziot and Megiddo prisons to Ohal Keidar and Shatta prisons. Several other prisoners, including 12 prisoners in Ofer Prison alone, have been placed in isolation. In addition, the IPS has confiscated fluids like milk and juice, and salt from all striking prisoners, leaving some of them in dire health conditions. Lawyers attempting to visit striking prisoners have also been prevented from doing so, with prison administrations declaring “situations of emergency” right before or during scheduled and pre-approved visits. On 11 October, the administration of Ohal Keidar and Megiddo prisons explicitly informed lawyers that visits to striking prisoners have been banned although they have refused to provide such policy in writing.