Palestinian prisoners in four different Israeli prisons started an open-ended hunger strike on Sunday to press for better living conditions of the nearly 8,000 Palestinian prisoners. Israeli authorities reacted to the strike with disciplinary measures and suspended several of the prisoners’ privileges such as confiscating television sets and radios, suspending newspaper deliveries and stopping visits.
Since 1967 to date, Israel has arbitrarily detained over 630,000 Palestinians. In 1989 alone, Israel detained 50,000 Palestinians, representing 16% of the entire male population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip between the ages of 14 and 55. By way of comparison, that same year, out of a total African population of 24 million in South Africa, no more than 5,000 or 0.2% were detained for security offenses against the apartheid regime. Over 200 Palestinian prisoners have died while in Israeli custody, due to torture, ill-treatment, deprivation of medical treatment, and neglect.
Israel has systematically tortured and ill-treated approximately 80% of all Palestinian detainees. Methods of torture used by the State of Israel include both psychological and physical torture, including beatings of sensitive organs, choking, pulling of hair off the body, prolonged solitary confinement, subjecting Palestinian detainees to noise, screams, and threats against their families.
Other forms of torture and ill-treatment applied by Israel against Palestinian detainees include forcing a person to stand, hooded and handcuffed, for long periods of time, while depriving him of food or sleep, starvation, the use of electric shocks, burnings, beatings with hands, fists, truncheons, and boots, deprivation of food, sleep, and basic hygiene, resulting in lice and general discomfort, and forcing detainees to stand for protracted periods of time. In the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel has established military courts that do not comply with fair trial standards.
In the past few years, Israel’s occupation army has rounded up thousands of Palestinian men and boys. This figure includes today 370 Palestinian children (under the age of 18) and 103 Palestinian women and girls. Their conditions of detention are extremely poor, and in some cases, life-threatening. Between September 2000 to the end of June 2003 approximately 2,000 Palestinian children have been arrested and detained. Children as young as 13 are held in Israeli prisons with children aged 13 and 14 constituting approximately ten percent of all child detainees. Almost all child detainees have reported some form of torture or mistreatment. 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.
They have been taken to detention centres both inside and outside the occupied Palestinian territories. These detention centres do not even meet the minimum standards of treatment, presenting a real threat to the lives of detainees. Thousands of prisoners have been exposed to ill-treatment and torture.
The dominant interrogation method is a coordinated, rigid and increasingly painful regime of physical constraints and psychological pressure applied over several days, and often for weeks at a time, on detainees who are held without charge and usually without access to a lawyer. The chief methods included prolonged sleep deprivation, the use of blindfolds or tight-fitting hoods, shackling or otherwise forcing detainees in body positions that grow increasingly painful, prolonged toilet and hygiene deprivation, and verbal threats and insults. Many detainees are also beaten during rounds of questioning.
Only one month ago, Newsweek reported on Israel’s secret torture facility 1391, which was used for prisoners rounded up during the Israeli military assault on Jenin in April 2002. Facility 1391 has been airbrushed from Israeli aerial photographs and purged from modern maps.
An article written by Boston Globe reporter Dan Ephron, somehow exposed the existence of facility 1391. However, the existence of this facility was already noted by human rights organizations and appeared on the pages of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and the Guardian. For uncertain reasons news was not taken up by other major media. On September 1, 2003, an article in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, “Inside Israel’s Secret Prison” provided gruesome details about Israel’s “Abu Ghraib”. This secret detention and interrogation center is reportedly located in the north of Israel, close to the main road between Hadera and Afula.
One former inmate has filed a lawsuit saying that he was raped twice - once by a man and once with a stick - during questioning. Most of those who emerge complain about the psychological torture of solitary confinement in filthy, blackened cells so poorly lit that inmates can barely see their own hands, and with no idea where they are or, in many cases, why they are there.
Inside other Israeli prisons, Palestinian prisoners frequently report attacks by prison guards including the firing of tear gas inside prisoner’s cells, beatings, denial of food and medical treatment and long periods of solitary confinement. Women prisoners report that they have been stripped naked by prison guards and shackled spread-eagled to prison beds in solitary confinement. They also reported severe abuse during interrogation. Israeli prison guards regularly burst into the prisoners’ rooms, cut the electricity, shoot tear gas, shut the windows and attack the prisoners. Papers, books and other belongings are confiscated.
A large number of Palestinian prisoners are in urgent need of medical treatment and yet receive little more than basic pain relievers. Prisoners report that provision of medical treatment is often used as another form of coercion against them by the prison authorities. Israel continues to arrest and torture Palestinian children at an unprecedented rate.
Family visits to Palestinian prisoners have been almost impossible since the beginning of the Intifada. When these visits have occurred, family members are forced to undergo a series of humiliating and invasive checks prior to their admittance to the prison where their relative is being held. Prisoners are prevented from communicating with their families by phone. Letters are permitted but cannot be sealed and can be read by the administration at any time.
About half of the nearly 8,000 Palestinian prisoners are being detained without charge. The vast majority of Palestinian prisoners are political prisoners who have been arbitrarily imprisoned or detained for no legitimate security reason, but for political expression or simply because they are Palestinian.
Last month, Israel’s Public Defender’s Office criticised prison conditions in Israeli detention centers. It found these centers overcrowded, violent and unsanitary, with many prisoners having to eat and sleep on bare floors.
To protest these abhorrent conditions Palestinian prisoners commenced their hungerstrike last Sunday. Yet, Israeli Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi said that the prisoners would not win the battle of wills and told a news conference that the prisoners could even starve to death, as far as he was concerned. Such comments must be taken seriously and prisoners must be protected against policies that such comments might entail.
No issue symbolizes Israel’s denial of freedom to Palestinians better than that of political prisoners. Palestinians have been subjected to the highest rate of incarceration in the world - approximately 20 percent of the Palestinian population in the occupied Palestinian territories has, at one point, been arbitrarily detained or imprisoned by Israel.
Israel’s treatment of Palestinian prisoners is a manifestation of its failure to respect human rights. Administrative detention and imprisonment inside Israel are illegal under international humanitarian law. Israel’s failure to release Palestinian political prisoners and its continued arbitrary arrest of Palestinian civilians only serves to highlight that Israel continues to view itself above the law and the Palestinians beneath it.
Arjan El Fassed is one of the founders of the Electronic Intifada.