Israel released a Palestinian from prison on Tuesday and the following day he tested positive for the new coronavirus.
Rights groups say the incident underscores the urgency for Israel to release vulnerable prisoners and stop abuses that expose incarcerated Palestinians to the virus.
Nour al-Deen Sarsour was arrested on 18 March and placed in section 14 of the Ofer military prison, near the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.
Sarsour is from the village of Beitunia, where Ofer is located.
He was held among 36 other people in the section for 12 days, making it likely that many were exposed to infection.
Israeli occupation forces imprison Palestinian children in nearby section 13. There are currently 180 Palestinian children in Israel’s prisons.
The scale of the problem remains unknown as Israel has not tested any of the 5,000 Palestinians in its jails.
In order for a detained Palestinian to qualify for testing, they must have been both exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus and be symptomatic.
Three Palestinian detainees were transferred and isolated last month after they came into contact with an Israeli guard who had the coronavirus, but none was tested while detained.
Now, human rights groups are calling on Israel to release more than 1,000 particularly vulnerable Palestinians.
They include women, children, seniors, persons with illnesses and those held in administrative detention – without charge or trial.
The groups – the Palestinian Prisoners Club, Addameer, Al-Haq, Al Mezan and Defense for Children International Palestine, among others – are also calling on Israel to end its night raids and arbitrary arrests in the occupied West Bank.
These ongoing assaults put detainees and their families at risk of contagion.
Israel must also end interrogations, prison transfers and detention without charge, the groups say.
They are appealing to the International Committee of the Red Cross to increase its staff in the occupied West Bank to help combat the spread of the virus.
Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, is urging the Red Cross not to rely on assurances from Israeli prison authorities, as Israel is trying to control information the same way it controls the fate of the prisoners.
From home to detention to isolation
One example is the case of Mahmoud Attah.
Israeli occupation forces arrested Attah on 22 March from his home in the West Bank.
He was immediately placed in isolation at Megiddo prison in northern Israel over suspicions that he was in direct contact before his arrest with someone who tested positive for the virus, according to rights group Addameer.
Israeli prison authorities then extended his detention twice and postponed a hearing for his appeal that had been set for Tuesday.
“His detention conditions were inadequate, as he was never given any clothes to change [and] there was no bathroom in his cell,” Addameer said.
Only after multiple requests was he moved to a cell that had a TV and an electric water heater.
Palestinians in Ofer, some of whom have already started refusing food in protest of Israeli measures, are now demanding all prisoners be tested for the new virus.
Palestinians held in section 14 are now refusing to let any new detainees into their wing after Israeli prison authorities attempted to bring some in.
Palestinians in the Naqab prison in southern Israel are following suit and some in Rimon prison have also launched a hunger strike.
Prisoners are also demanding that the Israel Prison Service begin conducting counts using cameras and searches from outside cells through windows. Israeli guards reportedly raid prison cells without face masks and protective gear, potentially exposing detainees to the virus.
As the number of confirmed cases in Israel has skyrocketed to more than 6,200, with hundreds diagnosed daily, Israeli prison workers who move freely in and out of prisons are likely the main channel of transmission of the virus into the prisons.
“Those officers are of great danger to the lives of Palestinian prisoners,” Addameer warned.
Last month, Israeli prison authorities withdrew some 140 items from prison commissaries, including food and hygiene products.
The Palestinian Prisoners Club said nine more detainees in Ofer have been isolated after being exposed to Sarsour, adding that Israeli prison authorities pledged to test them next Sunday.
“We do not trust statements by the occupation prison authorities regarding the condition of our prisoners,” the group stated.
The prisoners club called for an impartial international body to be involved in the testing.
Measures by Israeli prison authorities to contain the virus have been mostly repressive. They include banning visits by family members and lawyers and halting court procedures.
But there have been no other preventive measures inside the prisons.
Adalah, a legal advocacy group for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, has petitioned Israel’s high court to allow prisoners visits by their family members and lawyers or to at least permit them to speak by phone without being monitored.
The petition cites the example of a telephone call between Adalah’s attorney and a Palestinian detained in Ofer which was broadcast on loudspeakers in front of prison guards and other inmates.
The group said those measures violate attorney-client privilege, the right to counsel, due process, dignity and equality.
“The challenges that this state of emergency pose to Israeli authorities cannot allow them to run rampant over fundamental human rights,” Adalah attorney Aiah Haj Odeh said.