Since Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory in 1967, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians have been detained under Israeli military orders in the occupied State of Palestine. This constitutes approximately 20 percent of the total population and 40 percent of the male Palestinian population in the oSP. Israel arrested more than 13,000 Palestinians between 1993 and 2001 (i.e., the Oslo peace process years). Israel has arrested more than 50,000 Palestinians between the start of the Second Intifada in September 2000 and today. Israeli mass confinement policies remain the norm with Palestinian as young as 5 years old being detained in a military justice system that convicts 99.9% of all those that go through it.
As of December 2015, Israel holds roughly 6000 Palestinian and Arab political prisoners in its prisons.
Israel has used its power to arrest and detain as a means to control the Palestinian population and punish any political activity aimed at challenging Israel’s occupation, thus violating basic human rights values and norms. Even Palestinians peacefully protesting the confiscation of their lands are subject to arrest and detention. The majority of Palestinian political prisoners are charged with offenses under Israeli military orders. These orders employ a broad definition of “security”, such that they ban, among other things, political expression. For instance, Military Order 101 states that it is “forbidden to conduct a protest march or meeting (grouping of ten or more where the subject concerns or is related to politics) without permission from the Military Commander.” The order also prohibits the distribution of political articles and pictures with “political connotations.”4 Similarly, Military Order 938 even considers “supporting a hostile organization by holding a flag or listening to a nationalist song” a “hostile action.” Military Orders 101 and 938 are only two amongst numerous orders that restrict Palestinian political life in the occupied Palestinian territory.
Because of the breadth of Israel’s definition of “security,” Palestinians can be arrested and imprisoned for practically any form of public activity, regardless of whether or not they present any so-called “security threat”. The practical implication of these broadly-defined offenses is the criminalization of many aspects of Palestinian civic life. For example, the political parties that comprise the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are still considered “illegal organizations” even though Israel has been engaged in negotiations with the PLO since 1993 and coordinates security aspects with the Palestinian National Authority. Carrying a Palestinian flag is also a crime under Israeli military regulations. Participation in a demonstration is deemed a disruption of public order. Pouring coffee for a member of a declared “illegal” association can be seen as support for a terrorist organization.
The living conditions of Palestinian and Arab political prisoners detained by Israel fall far below accepted standards, including those under international humanitarian law, human rights law and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Examples include abuse, denial and limitation of family visitation rights, prohibitions on physical contact during family visits, reduction of hours allowed for outdoor access and walks, prohibition of visits between prisoners, an increase in the use of solitary confinement and extreme limitations on access of communications and goods from outside.
Few issues command the consensus and support of Palestinian society like the issue of political prisoners. Any genuine and meaningful peace process must see the immediate and coordinated release of political prisoners who have been detained or arrested by Israel as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Upon the signing of a permanent status agreement, all remaining Palestinian and Arab political prisoners must be released. Until such time, there must be a substantial and meaningful improvement of political prisoners’ living conditions in Israeli prisons and detention centers.
Missing Persons and the Remains of Fallen Persons
Since the beginning of the conflict, Israel has kept the remains of fallen Palestinians in its custody, refusing to return their remains to families for a dignified burial. Many of these fallen Palestinians are held by Israel in sites known as “cemeteries of numbers.” While the precise number of fallen Palestinian remains held by Israel in these cemeteries is not publicly available, Palestinian organizations estimate the number to be in the hundreds and thus far have documented 302 cases based on first-hand information gained directly from families in the oPt.
There is no justification for Israel’s refusal to address this humanitarian issue which prevents families from obtaining closure and a dignified burial for their loved ones. Any genuine peace agreement must see the return of the remains of all fallen Palestinians and their personal effects that are located in Israel. In addition, families should be provided with any available information concerning the remains of fallen or missing Palestinians abroad.
Military “Justice” System
International, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations have thoroughly documented the Israeli military court system’s failures in providing Palestinians with minimum guarantees of due process. Some of the failures of the system include the following:
- Palestinian political prisoners are put on trial in Israeli military tribunals. These military tribunals are made up of judges, prosecutors, and translators who are all appointed by the Israeli military commander – the same individual who is empowered to make changes to Israeli military orders. Also, some of the judges appointed by the military commander do not have legal training. As a result, these tribunals fail to meet the standard required by Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights which calls for a “fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.”
- Lawyers are denied the means necessary to build a proper defense. According to Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association, it takes an average of 30 to 45 days before a lawyer is able to meet his or her client due to a series of bureaucratic obstacles placed by the Israeli authorities. Additionally, lawyers are often searched at the prison before they are able to meet with their client, and client visits are often monitored by guards such that the attorney-client privilege is compromised.
- Palestinian detainees are often tortured, or subjected to cruel and degrading treatment during their interrogation or detention. The use of torture, combined with the absence of prompt access to an attorney compromise the veracity of confessions obtained through interrogation.
- Palestinians can be held in Israeli jails for 90 days without charge. This period can be extended by another 90 days by Israeli authorities.
- Sentences handed down by the military courts cannot be appealed to courts outside the military court system. Given that all actors within the military court system fall under a single command, and share common institutional allegiances and sets of interests, the military courts review process provides limited recourse, at best. As a result, Palestinians convicted of “security offenses” do not have access to an effective appeals process, and hence are denied the right guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to have a “conviction and sentence … reviewed by a higher tribunal according to law.”
Administrative Detention” refers to the detention of individuals for preventative purposes. Administrative detention is a procedure that allows the Israeli military to hold detainees indefinitely on “secret information” without charging them or allowing them to stand trial. In the occupied Palestinian West Bank, the Israeli army is authorized to issue administrative detention orders against Palestinian civilians on the basis of Military Order 1651 (Art. 285). This order empowers military commanders to detain an individual for up to six-month renewable periods if they have “reasonable grounds to presume that the security of the area or public security require the detention.” The practice of administrative detention as exercised by Israel is illegal.
- Israel uses administrative detention as “a quick and efficient alternative to criminal trial”, circumventing international procedural protections for the accused. Under Israeli law, administrative detention orders may last for up to six months, with Palestinians held without charge or trial during this period. Israel routinely renews the detention orders and may do so any number of times, thereby holding Palestinians without charge or trial indefinitely.
- The Israeli military detains Palestinians on a broad definition of “security threat” – a definition so broad as to include “political subversion.”
- Detainees are not informed of the reason for their detention.
- While detainees may appeal their detention, neither they nor their attorneys are allowed to access the State’s evidence, making it very difficult for them to refute the allegations against them.
The Arrest of Children
Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Israel is obligated to refrain from imprisoning children except as a measure of last resort and only for the shortest appropriate period of time. Yet, over 8,000 Palestinian children were arrested and detained between September 2000 and December, 2014.1 Today, 425 children remain in Israeli jails, some as young as 12 and 13. Almost all child detainees have reported some form of torture or mistreatment, whether physical (beatings or being placed in painful positions) or psychological (abuse, threats or intimidation). Children are routinely held in detention centers under appalling conditions: In some centers, up to eleven children have been packed into cells as small as five square meters. Children are also kept in centers with adults, all in contravention of the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child.
A United Nations committee reported:
A few witnesses also drew the attention of the Special Committee to the appalling conditions of imprisoned minors, mixed up with adults, sometimes with women adults. They were allegedly arrested in the same way as adults, at night, taken to military camps and beaten up. They were interrogated without the presence of relatives and could not meet their lawyers for 60 days. They were subjected to various threats such as destruction of their homes, life imprisonment, beheading or rape. One youth had reportedly been confined in an isolated cell for 60 days. They were often kept three to a cell, sleeping on the floor, struggling with cockroaches and suffering poor hygienic conditions owing to lack of water. They were often exposed to ill-treatment when transferred to the court or to another prison. Unlike Israeli detainees, they had no rehabilitation or recreational programmes.
Why release of Prisoners is essential?
No issue highlights Israel’s 48-year denial of Palestinian freedom under military occupation better than that of political prisoners. Palestinians have been subjected to one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. Since 1967, Israel has detained and imprisoned over 800,000 Palestinians as part of a policy to quash resistance to Israel’s occupation and to intimidate the civilian population. Of the 3.9 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there are few who have not been personally affected by Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinians – either through their own imprisonment or that of a family member, friend, or colleague. This number constitutes approximately 20 percent of the total Palestinian population in the Occupied State of Palestine and as much as 40 percent of the total male Palestinian population. It also includes approximately 10,000 women jailed since 1967, as well as 8,000 Palestinian children arrested since 2000.
The widespread imprisonment of Palestinians, along with the inhumane treatment they receive while imprisoned, has placed the release of all Palestinian prisoners high on the national agenda.