Court denies Palestinian prisoners right to COVID-19 protection

Girl holding banners

Protests have been held in Gaza to support Kamal Abu Wara, a prisoner diagnosed with both cancer and COVID-19, in Gaza City on 20 July.

Ashraf Amra APA images

Israel’s highest court has ruled that Palestinian prisoners have no right to physical distancing protection against COVID-19.

Thursday’s ruling came amid a coronavirus outbreak in the overcrowded Gilboa prison in northern Israel.

At least 30 Israeli prison guards and seven Palestinian prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 so far.

Some 500 guards and 60 prisoners have entered quarantine.

An Israeli guard at Ofer military prison near Ramallah, where Israeli occupation forces imprison Palestinian children, has also tested positive.

The Palestinian legal advocacy group Adalah has petitioned Israel’s high court to provide all basic health services to Palestinian political prisoners – whom Israel calls “security” prisoners.

“Absurd arguments”

The court ruled that Palestinians under detention are like family members or flatmates living in the same house. On that basis, the court decided that the prison authorities were not obligated to provide means by which prisoners can practice physical distancing.

Myssana Morany, an Adalah attorney, criticized the “absurd arguments equating prisons with family living rooms.”

The arguments were a “fiction” circulated by Israel’s authorities and now rubber-stamped by the court.

Adalah complained that the ruling has freed the Israel Prison Service from the obligation to “maintain or even strive for safe social distancing in the cells of Palestinian ‘security prisoners.’”

Israel has consistently failed to provide prisoners with basic precautionary services since the beginning of the pandemic, and even withdrew some food and hygiene products from prison commissaries.

The ruling neglects the fact that Israeli prison guards move in and out of detention centers on a daily basis and could introduce the virus in prisons.

Palestinians have “no option to protect themselves,” Morany stated.

Gilboa contains 450 prisoners, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian.

Kamal Abu Waar, 46, a prisoner diagnosed with cancer, was transferred from Gilboa to a hospital after contracting the virus earlier this month.

There are approximately 4,700 Palestinians in Israeli jails at the moment, 365 of whom are in so-called administrative detention – without charge or trial, according to statistics compiled by the human rights group Addameer.

Child prisoners “increasingly vulnerable”

By the end of June, there were a total of 151 Palestinian children in Israeli jails – 29 of them at Ofer.

Child prisoners “live in close proximity to each other, often in compromised sanitary conditions, with limited access to resources to maintain minimum hygiene routines,” according to Defense for Children International Palestine.

COVID-19 exacerbated those conditions, making Palestinan children “increasingly vulnerable.”

“There is no way that Israeli authorities can guarantee the health and well-being of Palestinian children amid a resurgent coronavirus outbreak,” Ayed Abu Eqtaish, a program director with the rights group, stated.

Making the situation even worse, Israel has banned almost all visits to detained persons.

This means that children cannot see their families, contributing to their psychological suffering.

Palestinian children are also prohibited from making regular phone calls.

It was after a petition was lodged with Israel’s high court that child detainees were permitted to make 10-minute phone calls every two weeks.

The petition was filed by HaMoked, an organization that campaigns against Israel’s abuses of Palestinians living under occupation.

“Despite the order and in the weeks since, children in Megiddo prison have only been able to call their families once – on 8 April. And children in Ofer prison were never allowed to use the telephone,” Defense for Children International Palestine stated.

The human rights group renewed its call to release all Palestinian children from Israeli jails.

Meanwhile, Israel recently increased its arbitrary arrests and detention of Palestinian educators and cultural figures.

Addameer said the arrests were part of the ongoing targeting of Palestinian civil society.

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.