Credits: The Commission of Detainees Affairs

Prisoners between the threat of COVID-19 and Israel’s arbitrary policies

By PLO NAD/ Ramallah/

Since the onset of this more than half-a-century long Israeli occupation, the detention and abuse of Palestinian prisoners have not been limited to factors of a specific nature. Under all circumstances, irrespective of the situation and time, the occupation authorities have permitted the continued, systematic, and widespread arrest of Palestinians. Such conduct is based on a distorted system of military laws and racist legislation that imposes itself as a force above the rule of international law. The occupying power, Israel, have also adopted policies of repression, deprivation, and persecution against the Palestinian prisoners in violation of all international and humanitarian laws. Accordingly, the Palestinian prisoners have been paying a high price in defense of their own and their people’s dignity.

As we mark the Palestinian Prisoners’ Day on 17 April, this media brief highlights significant Israeli violations against Palestine’s prisoners, whom their health and lives are currently in danger in light of being deprived of basic needs and materials amidst the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). It constitutes a renewed call to the international community to take immediate action before it is too late to ensure the safety of Palestinian prisoners and to hold the occupying power accountable for its violations of the prisoners’ rights at all times.

srael’s Arbitrary Policies Continue Despite the Spread of COVID-19

To curb the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, the State of Palestine declared a state of emergency to protect its citizens. Nonetheless, Israel sought to reinforce its repressive policies against the Palestinian people, specifically through its arrest policy and the harassment of Palestinian prisoners inside prisons. Throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, Israel has so far carried out the following:

  • A campaign of systematic detentions and arrests of Palestinian citizens throughout the cities, villages, and refugee camps of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Since March, the Israeli occupying forces have so far arrested 357 Palestinians, including 48 children and 4 Women. And since the beginning of 2020, nearly 1324 Palestinians were arrested, including 210 children and 31 women.1
  • On 26 March 2020, the Israeli occupying forces detained 8 Palestinian volunteers while they were sterilizing facilities and streets in various neighborhoods of occupied Jerusalem. For the same reason, on 23 March, they arrested 4 other volunteers at Lion’s Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City and confiscated their sterilization equipment. On 24 March, other volunteers in the Old City of Hebron were prevented from carrying out the same activity, and from raising awareness about virus prevention, and the Israeli forces ordered them to leave by the force of arms.
  • The Israeli occupying forces have also targeted and raided the headquarters of the Palestinian emergency committees. On 30 March, they assaulted committee members as well as the field teams in Hizma village. And on 31 March, they did the same in Jerusalem’s village of Sur Baher, where they arrested 3 Palestinians after confiscating 300 food parcels that were supposed to be distributed to families in need.
  • To tighten its screws on the city, Israel has continued to detain Palestinian leaders in occupied Jerusalem. On 3 April, the Israeli police and intelligence services, using police dogs, arrested the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, Fadi Al-Hidmi, after destroying the external and internal doors of his home. They as well assaulted Al-Hidmi during the investigation and forced him to wear a used face mask with bloodstains. They also re-arrested Jerusalem Governor Adnan Ghaith on 5 April. The same happened in other parts in occupied Palestine, including in Nablus, where they arrested a member of the Palestinian Civil Police, Ibrahim Abu Ghosh, during the Israeli forces’ raid on the city on 2 April.
  • Among several of its racist decisions, the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) has recently removed 140 essential items, including food, cleaning products, and sterilization tools. It has only kept the expensive products in the prisons’ canteens. This is a continuation of other punitive measures that include: the withdrawal of the tiles used for cooking, reducing the number of allowed TV stations from ten to seven, and decreasing the number of bread loaves for each prisoner. Despite the challenging global conditions caused by the spread of COVID-19, the IPS has also stopped the money paid by the Palestinian National Authority for the prisoners, prevented the entry of their basic needs, and barred them from communicating with their families over the phone after the halting of family visits.
  • Israel still refuses to release the most vulnerable prisoners, including the sick, elderly, children, women, those under administrative detention, and others whose sentences are nearing completion. Israel also disregards taking the necessary precautionary and preventive measures inside its jails to protect Palestinian prisoners from COVID-19. It has as all suspended the system regarding ‘deductions from the terms of sentence’ used to reduce overcrowding in prisons.

Israel as a Distinctive Colonial Regime of Control and Repression

In light of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have issued interim guidance that focuses on persons deprived of their liberty. The United Nations has also launched urgent appeals for the release of prisoners and called upon countries to take the necessary measures to protect them during the pandemic. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has emphasized the need for governments to release “every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners, and those detained for critical, dissenting views.” Several other statements were issued, including by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT), and the UN Secretary-General’s Envoys to the Middle East who called “for special attention to the plight of the detained, the abducted and the missing, and for humanitarian releases, access for humanitarian organizations, and urgent steps to ensure adequate medical care and protective measures in all places of detention.”

Based on these directives to contain the spread of the virus, some European countries have taken specific measures to ensure the safety of prisoners in anticipation of the pandemic’s consequences on the living conditions inside the prisons. In Belgium, “the Belgian Prison Administration has taken several measures to protect prisoners and prison staff,” it has as well been manufacturing and distributing several thousand of medical face masks in many of Belgium’s prisons. In France, “the Ministry of Justice announced that in the next few days around 5,000 people that are towards the end of their prison sentence and have followed their correctional path will be released.” Also, it was announced that each prisoner would “be able to benefit from a credit of €40 per month on his telephone account.” The Netherlands “has amended the rules on arrest and detention regarding ‘minor’ crimes to reduce the number of new inmates.”  In Germany, several federal states proclaimed that ” juvenile sentences are suspended, and juveniles are released.”  And in Luxembourg, one of the two main prison establishments for adults decided to increase the visitation rooms devoted to Skype calls.

In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, a temporary release was granted to pregnant women prisoners and mothers who are detained with their young children. The UK’s Ministry of Justice also announced that it would release more than 4,000 prisoners across the Kingdom. And in Canada, judges released a group of prisoners based on an understanding that COVID-19 poses a threat to them behind bars.

In Israel, and according to the Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Addameer, the prisons’ authority issued a decision to release 500 Israeli criminal prisoners, whose sentence is nearing completion, to be transferred to home confinement and released after the end of their sentence. Also, the authority has increased the cantina for Israeli prisoners by hundreds of shekels and allowed them an additional payment of 200 NIS during the Jewish Passover holiday.

Israel has chosen to merely apply the international directives related to COVID-19 for the benefit of its criminal prisoners. Albeit the fact that Palestine’s prisoners are political prisoners, and instead of taking immediate measures to release the most vulnerable among them, or at least to take decisive actions to curb the spread of the virus, the occupying power has only suspended all family visits to Palestinian prisoners and any direct contact with their lawyers and without providing an alternative.

Israel has been tightening its control over approximately 5,000 Palestinian prisoners, including 180 children, 41 female prisoners, 430 administrative detainees, and 700 sick prisoners comprising more than 200 with chronic diseases that need comprehensive care. Among the most ailing prisoners, 16 suffer immunity deficiency, cancer, and other heart and kidney diseases.  It should be noted that since the beginning of Israel’s occupation in 1967, at least 222 Palestinian prisoners were killed in Israeli jails, 67 of them died due to the policy of deliberate medical negligence and torture. In 2019 alone, 5 Palestinian prisoners lost their lives for the same reasons.2

These measures constitute a clear expression of how distinctive the mindset of this autocratic colonial regime. Israel’s systematic police repression of the people of Palestine ultimately aims to destroy and dismantle the Palestinian social and structural fabric by strengthening the isolation of our people from their external environment and their families in particular.

The Trump Plan and Palestine’s Prisoners

Israel’s schemes are in line with the Trump Plan that devotes a specific section on Palestinian prisoners, in which it puts forward impossible and deliberate terms that thoroughly comply with the Israeli conditions. The plan gives Israel absolute authority to control the release of prisoners, including timing. It also stipulates, in a fundamental violation of the principles of human rights, that each released prisoner should sign an ideologically ambiguous pledge about enhancing opportunities for coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians; that they should behave in a way that sets a model of coexistence. If the prisoners refused to sign this pledge, they would remain in prison.

The Trump Plan also provides for the release of Palestinian prisoners and administrative detainees held in Israeli prisons except for, per the plan’s description, those convicted of (1) murder and attempted murder, or (2) conspiracy to commit murder, and (3) Israeli citizens. Noting that the basic principle in all conflicts is the liberation of prisoners upon the end of the conflict and the signing of an agreement, the Trump Plan applies this principle only to Israeli detainees apprehended by Palestinians.

It is important to note that the condemnations mentioned above were designated by Israeli military courts that do not meet the minimum standards of internationally accepted fair trials. Israeli military courts also violate international law for being conducted in the State of Israel, rather than in occupied Palestine. As for the rest of the Palestinian prisoners, their release will not be possible before the return of Israeli soldiers or their remains to Israel. Not only that, the release of Palestinian prisoners will not immediately happen, as it’s the case with the signing of a peace agreement, but will be carried out in stages.

On many occasions, the Palestinian leadership has reiterated that it does not recognize this plan. It expressed its absolute rejection of all its dictations and conditions that the people of Palestine will never accept. The release of all Palestinian prisoners is a central pillar to every fair and comprehensive solution leading to the embodiment of the sovereignty of the State of Palestine on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.

An Imminent Danger Facing Palestine’s Prisoners Inside the Occupation’s Jails 

Palestinian prisoners have expressed their deep concern and fear over the spread of COVID-19 inside prisons as a result of its rapid spread in Israel, particularly after some Israeli jailers and investigators contracted the virus. Palestinian prisoners demanded the free world not to let them die on their beds while the infection is spreading without anyone to stop it. They urged the international community to intervene to save their lives, urgently, so that prisons do not turn into mass graves.

In light of the Israeli Prison Service’s refusal to examine prisoners and take other necessary measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, the Palestinian prisoners sent numerous messages and appeals to the Palestinian human rights organizations and the international community to save their lives –  especially after the release of Palestinian prisoner Nour Eddin Sarsour on 1 April from Ofer Prison, who was found to be infected with the virus.

The conditions faced by Palestinian prisoners in ordinary situations are severe, most of which amount to crimes under international humanitarian law. Palestinian prisoners usually suffer from the policies of deliberate medical negligence, torture, and abuse, isolation in solitary confinement, inhuman and degrading treatment, beatings, and the imposition of penalties. They are deprived of freedom and human contact.

In light of the Israeli prisons’ lack of general hygiene and ventilation, a high rise in humidity, an acute shortage of general cleaning materials and pesticides, the question remains: what will happen inside Israeli jails if Palestinian prisoners contracted the virus?

In Focus: Live Testimonies from Prisons Inside Israel3

(1) Mahmoud, 25 years old, from Nablus and Jailed in ‘Nafha’4 Prison, says:

“In this notoriously old section where I stay, there are 54 prisoners, including more than 7 sick and elderly prisoners, whose lives, every moment, are highly endangered. We manage our daily life with great care after the prisons’ authority stopped supplying over 140 items of basic foodstuffs and cleaning supplies that we desperately need. They first withdrew the chlorine, but they returned it when we protested. We lack cash, and we spend from our money, unlike all the other prisoners in the world. We pay for food, cigarettes, clothes, etc., but because of halting lawyers and family visits, we are facing financial difficulty. Unfortunately, the world is not paying attention to the occupation’s practices against us in light of the outbreak of coronavirus.”

Referring to the expensive products in the prison’s cantina, Mahmoud added: “The prices of the cantina are double the market prices, and we know that the prisons’ authority and Dadash company are stealing our money by raising the prices and profiting from our presence in prison. I am personally ready to file a case against them in the court.”

On the measures taken by the Israel Prison Service to limit the spread of COVID-19, he added: “We are very concerned about the negligence of the prisons’ authority in seriously dealing with this issue. They take safety precautions to protect themselves by using sterilizers and wearing face masks and gloves without providing any of that to us. We are aware that we might sooner or later contract the virus, especially after we heard that the deputy director of Ofer prison had been infected with the virus. Therefore, we depend on ourselves and have taken protective measures by using hot water, soap, and chlorine, to sterilize the rooms, sections, and even the food that we get from the cantina.” He continues: “Israel keeps us as hostages. God forbids, but we know that if a Palestinian political prisoner contacts the virus, Israel will not remove a respirator from an Israeli mouth and put it in our mouth, it will not remove an Israeli out of a bed to provide it to us. It will not provide the required medical care as it does not provide it under normal circumstances, and we know that they will not deal with us as a second or third class but as the last-class (citizens). The procedures of the prisons’ administration create tension and instability among the prisoners.”

Mahmoud explains the state of anxiety and tension that Palestinian prisoners generally endure as they are always worried about their families, especially in light of the spread of COVID-19 and the interruption of communication with them:  “For the first time since our arrest, we feel that we are the ones who want to check on our family and friends, and not the other way around as it’s usually the case. Under such conditions, it is the most basic human right to check on how they’re doing given the limitations in movement and the infection of many citizens. It is also their right to make sure we are fine as danger persists. We would be facing a catastrophic situation if the world did not move now before the occurrence of a deaths-massacre inside the prisons.”

(2) Hussein, 42 years old, from Jerusalem and Jailed in al-Naqab5 Prison, says:

“We are a small and pluralistic society. We live under harsh conditions in these tents that were set up for oppression and persecution only. We have many elderly people and those who suffer from chronic diseases. Some prisoners need support due to immunodeficiency. We lack the most basic rights to access healthcare, medicine, and medical teams such as those we hear about in all prisons around the world. There is only one clinic that we call the slaughterhouse; this is if you know that the prisons’ environment is completely unhealthy and inadequate for human detention.”

In regards to depriving them of 140 varieties of food, he added: “Despite these difficult circumstances, the prisons’ authority is adopting a policy of blackmail and punishment by depriving us of the main supplies that we need the most.  Moreover, our inability to get our money has caused us a pressing crisis inside the prison.  Unlike other detainees around the world that enjoy the right to obtain all their needs at the expense of the state that arrests them, we pay for clothing, blankets, cigarettes, etc. at our own expense (…) our rights have become mere demands that we raise to the prisons’ authority to be met with rejection. They have recently responded that they are studying our requests and will answer us following the Jewish Passover.  From our long experience with them, we know that they will not respond to us because we do not get any rights under normal conditions, so what about in the state of a pandemic?”

Regarding the threat of COVID-19, he said:  “Horror has spread among us upon hearing about the refusal of the prisons’ authority to examine samples from Ofer Prison following the release of the infected prisoner, Nour Eddine Sarsour, and the transfer and isolation of those who were in contact with him in the section. These prisoners are not in quarantine, but in solitary cells which amounts to punishment.  The prisons’ authority did not provide us with face masks or sterilizers and did not follow WHO recommendations. There are superpowers that have been unable to deal with the coronavirus, so what will we do if, God forbids, the pandemic spreads in our circles? The place where we sleep or eat and the courtyards are not sterilized. We are in a very critical situation. Thus, we call upon all Palestinian, Arab, and international organizations, as well as members of the Knesset, to intervene immediately. What is happening here cannot be tolerated by any human being. We are also demanding to be treated according to conditions laid out under the Geneva Conventions and international agreements, and thus enjoy all the rights of prisoners, as well as to activate the prisoners file in the International Criminal Court.”

Both Mahmoud and Hussein demanded the immediate release, at least at this stage, of the sick, elderly, children, and women prisoners, and the necessity to focus on the medical file and the deliberate medical negligence by the Israeli Prison Service.

(3) Hazem Al-Shobaki, the son of Fouad Shobaki, 81 years old, from Gaza Strip and Jailed in al-Naqab Prison

For being the oldest prisoner, Shobaki is called the grandfather. His son Hazem Al-Shobaki says:

“My father suffers from a series of diseases.  His health condition is constantly deteriorating due to his age, the difficult prison conditions, and medical negligence. He has prostate cancer, diabetes, blood pressure, hemorrhoids, problems with urine, problems with his sight, as well as anemia. After the deterioration of his health condition, more than once, he was transferred to Ramla Hospital.  He has recently undergone an eye operation that was preceded by other operations, in which part of the kidneys were removed because of a tumor around them.” His son adds: “My father does not receive proper treatment. All that he gets, from time to time, are painkillers and examinations. His health has deteriorated to a point where he cannot walk, move, or go to the toilet without the help of his colleagues.”

Concerning the spread of COVID-19, Hazem added: “We do not know how my father and the rest of the prisoners are dealing with this crisis that is afflicting the whole world.  How they are handling anxiety over the spread of this infection in the prisons, especially with the administration’s failure to adopt preventive and protective measures. It would be reasonable for Israel to immediately release my father and all the sick and elderly prisoners. What kind of danger a sick prisoner would pose to Israel after he leaves? All that we want is to make sure that my father is fine; we do not know whether he is alive or approaching death. We only want him to spend the rest of his life among his children and grandchildren.”

International Accountability is Obligatory to Compel Israel to Fulfill its Commitments as an Arresting Authority and to Save the Prisoners’ Lives

Under the current exceptional circumstances, amidst great fears and concern over the fate of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, there has been a swift move by Palestinian and International political and human rights organizations on the legal, political, and diplomatic levels. To date, Israel continues to fail in responding to Palestinian and international demands, which requested the protection and release of Palestinian prisoners, especially the sick, elderly, children, women, those under administrative detention, and those whose sentences are nearing completion.

In light of Israel’s evasion of compliance with the provisions of international humanitarian law, the State of Palestine renews its demands to the United Nations bodies, the Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions, and the UN Special Rapporteurs, to immediately assume their responsibilities and to pressure Israel to fulfill its duties as an arresting authority. It also calls upon the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to communicate effectively with Palestinian prisoners to ensure providing them with means of communication with their families and lawyers. Palestine will continue to urge the international community to designate an investigation committee to probe the situation inside Israeli jails towards ensuring the protection of Palestinian prisoners especially amidst the spread of COVID-19. In this context, Palestine reiterates its demand to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to expedite the opening of the investigation into Israeli crimes.

To achieve the long-awaited justice is purely a human, legal, and political act to redress the rights of our victims. It’s a legitimate struggle for the Palestinian people to expose the illegal practices of the occupying power and its jailers in the international forums towards achieving accountability. It’s time to end this dark epoch in the history of the people of Palestine.