Apartheid imprisonment: Jewish versus Palestinian “security” prisoners

One need not look further than the rampant number of Jewish Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians that are neither investigated nor, needless to say, prosecuted, to observe the two-tiered justice system that rules over Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the green line.

However, in the rare instances that the State of Israel does prosecute Jewish-Israelis as “security” threats, those individuals are exposed to a entirely different set of conditions and sentencing standards than their Palestinian “counterparts.”  

In a freshly-released paper, attorney Fatmeh El-‘Ajou with Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, discusses the disparity in mercy granted to Jewish “security” prisoners versus Palestinian “security” prisoners, as measured by the frequent commutation of Jewish Israelis’ sentences. In addition, El-‘Ajou argues that Palestinian security prisoners who are citizens of Israel are frequently excluded from the provisions of negotiated agreements that have become — since the Oslo Accords — the principal means by which Palestinian political prisoners are released from confinement.

Classification and imposed restrictions

According to the Israeli Prison Service (IPS), a “security” prisoner is “A prisoner who was convicted and sentenced for committing a crime, or who is imprisoned on suspicion of committing a crime, which due to its nature or circumstances was defined as a security offense or whose motive was nationalistic.” 

This classification imposes a set of stringent restrictions on those classified as such, including prohibitions on furloughs, family visits, telephone calls and conjugal visits. The restrictions placed on these prisoners are intended to limit their connection to and communication with the outside world. As of April 2013, Israel was holding 4,804 Palestinian “security” prisoners, 170 of whom are citizens of the State of Israel.

Israel calls all Palestinian political prisoners “security” prisoners. Crimes that merit a Palestinian to be labeled a “security” prisoner include entering the 1948 territories (present-day Israel) without proper permission, throwing Molotov cocktails (including ones that do not explode), entering the al-Aqsa compound with a knife, belonging to a group that Israel considers a “hostile organization,” membership in a political cell that is responsible for the death of an Israeli soldier, and so on. Thus, the category applies to a wide range of offenses and the restrictions are applied uniformly to all perpetrators.

Writing in 2009 for Adalah’s On Criminalization publication, Abeer Baker termed this single categorization of all Palestinian “security” prisoners as a form of “collectivization”; allowing for the transformation of thousands of different crimes and perpetrators into a single category. Baker is the head of the Legal Clinic on Prisoner’s Rights and a member of the Law Faculty at Haifa University.

“The definition of Palestinian prisoners as “security” prisoners has become a tool used by the state authorities to promote an ideological outlook that regards a Palestinian, as such, as an existential threat lacking any humanity or political existence, and whose only place is behind walls and fences,” writes Baker.


Deciding who is a “security” prisoner is left up to the Israeli Prison Service and the GSS (General Security Service, also known as the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic spy agency). While a handful of Jewish Israelis have been classified under the “security” provision, the conditions under which they are held are determined on an individual basis, and Jewish Israelis have a well-established history of being given shorter sentences — and even these are invariably commuted.

In contrast, whether a Palestinian has thrown an unexploded Molotov cocktail or assisted in a suicide bomb attack, as a Palestinian “security” prisoner he or she is subjected to identical treatment.

It is in this context that Walid Daka, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, argues that Palestinians should be called “political prisoners” not merely to highlight the political motives of the prisoners, but those of the prison system and state. (In 1984, Daka was sentenced to life in prison for belonging to a political cell that was responsible for the murder of an Israeli soldier; he has been denied all requests for clemency and commutation.)

Baker provides a systematic explanation for this disparity in treatment. In order for a “security” prisoner to be spared the heavy set of restrictions, he must not belong to one of the “hostile organizations” listed by the GSS. Notably — and conveniently for Jewish Israelis — no Jewish terror organization, such as the right-wing groups, the Jewish Underground or the Kach Movement, is included on the list.

It is not surprising — but powerfully revelatory nevertheless — to compare the crimes of Jewish and Palestinian “security” prisoners, their sentences and their treatment. El-‘Ajou provides ten examples of Jewish acts of terror given exceptional leniency.

Israeli terrorists released, commuted, and pardoned

Yigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, was granted a slew of conciliatory provisions, including no glass partition between him and his family during visits, conjugal visits with his wife, and ultimately being allowed to father a child through in-vitro fertilization.

The Jewish Underground, an offshoot of the right-wing pro-settlement movement Gush Emunim, was responsible for a series of lethal attacks on Palestinians in the 1980s including planting bombs in the cars of Palestinian officials; murdering three students and injuring many others at the University of Hebron; placing bombs on five Palestinian buses in Jerusalem; and conspiring to bomb the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

In 1984, fifteen members of the group were convicted of these crimes. According to El-‘Ajou, three were sentenced to life in prison and the others seven years or less. However, within a few years many had been released, and by 1990 — a mere six years after their sentencing — all had been released.

In 1993, Jewish Israeli Yoram Skolnik murdered a Palestinian “in cold blood” while the victim was handcuffed and detained. Although Skolnik was sentenced to life in prison, the president commuted his sentence so that he only served seven years.

Both Baker and El-‘Ajou relate the crimes of the “Kahane Chai” movement. Right-wing militants Zeev Wolf and Gershon Hershkowitz were sentenced in 1993 to ten years each for tossing a grenade into an East Jerusalem butcher’s market, killing an older man and injuring at least eight others. Four years later, then-president Ezer Weizman pardoned them both.

In contrast, in a handful of cases of Palestinians convicted of participating in the killing of an Israeli soldier, their life sentences were commuted to no less than 30 years, and in most cases 40 or 45 years.

Resoundingly hollow explanation

El-‘Ajou writes that the explanation proffered for the overt inequities in sentencing of Palestinian and Jewish prisoners has been that the state must release Jewish prisoners to “counterbalance … the release of Palestinian prisoners in the framework of political agreements between Israel and the PA [Palestinian Authority].”

Invoking this logic, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai advocated the release of twelve Jewish security prisoners in the wake of the prisoner exchange of Palestinian prisoners and a captured Israeli soldier in October 2011.

So in light of reality, Israel’s explanation (or justification) for its disparate sentencing standards is not only facile, but resoundingly hollow.

Of course the discrimination that El-‘Ajou chronicles for Adalah is only one of many expressions of apartheid practices by the State of Israel. El-‘Ajou concludes, “Beyond the injustice of the above-described discrimination in Israel’s policy of granting commutation of sentences and early release, it sends out the clear message that the security of the state only refers to the security of its Jewish citizens.”


Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver's picture

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist and regular writer for The Electronic Intifada. She is based in Oakland, California and has reported from Palestine since 2010. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.