While the most brutal of measures are being taken against the Palestinian population, the world is being deceived into believing that political reforms can happen in the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. As the Bush Administration continues to call for regime change in the Palestinian Authority, Israel is silently pursuing a violent strategy of establishing internment camps that imprison Palestinians from all walks of life. With over 12,000 acts of detainment and over 5,000 Palestinian detainees now languishing in Israeli jails, the façade of reform unfolds in a political vacuum.
Even sadder is the fact that the Palestinian leadership itself has become consumed with reform and has forgotten that the finest of Palestinian political and community leaders are absent from the political reform process and will most likely, upon their release from Israeli detainment, disrupt any illegitimate political agreements that are implemented. Reforms offered by a one-party, one-leader, one-decision-maker system are doomed to failure. The U.S., of all nations, should be demanding comprehensive political reform and thus that Israel release all Palestinian political prisoners so they can participate in this historic turning point in the Palestinian struggle for independence.
With every Palestinian arrested by Israel, entire families are being broken up, children are building up hatred and detainees are becoming more embittered. Why is the world community silent while Israel illegally detains Palestinians as political prisoners and uses them as political bargaining chips? Where is the Jewish tradition of support for human and civil rights when Palestinians are being tortured in Israeli jails? Is the world blind to the fact that the Middle East will never realize peace if Palestinians continue to be denied their basic inalienable rights? Does President Bush or any average Israeli citizen believe that the sons and daughters of those thousands of Palestinians that are detained will one day forget the turmoil caused when their loved ones are thrown behind bars for months or even years on end?
That Palestinians are illegally detained by Israel, a foreign occupying force, is not new. In addition to the approximately 5,000 Palestinians who have been detained over the past two years and are still being held by Israel today, let us not forget that other Palestinians have been rotting away in Israeli jails since 1967. One example is Palestinian prisoner Ahmed Ibrahim Djbara, Abu Sukker, who is 65 years old and the father of six grown children. He has been in Israeli prisons for the past 26 years and is the longest serving prisoner! His crime was that of struggling to end the occupation. The two most recent detainees are my friends. Haytham Hammouri was taken from his work desk at the YMCA in East Jerusalem last Thursday and Khaled Bakr was taken from his in-laws’ home last Saturday in Ramallah. A few months ago another close friend and neighbor, Wassam Rafeedie, was given six months of so-called “administrative detention”, which is in actuality imprisonment without charge, with limited legal recourse and representation, and for an arbitrary time period. Wassam’s term has now been renewed for another six months. The wives and children of these men, like the thousands before them, now live in constant fear and agony.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment both prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, without exception. These international norms do not faze Israel. Furthermore, Israel’s treatment of Palestinian detainees does not meet the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, and the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners. These instruments are binding on Israel to the extent that the norms set out in them explicate the broader standards contained in human rights treaties. Instead of applying laws of the community of nations, Israel does not hide its historic and systematic policy of torturing Palestinian prisoners. Recently the issue of torture has even become an agenda item that is openly discussed in the Israeli Knesset.
In November 2001, the UN Committee Against Torture reminded Israel that there can be no justification for torture under any circumstances. Torture is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention (articles 31- 32, 146- 147). Moreover, the Fourth Geneva Convention clearly prohibits the transfer of Palestinian detainees from the Occupied Palestinian Territories to Israel. Article 76 states that ‘Protected persons accused of offences shall be detained in the occupied country, and if convicted they shall serve their sentences therein.’ It is a known fact that Palestinians are taken to prisons throughout Israel proper, far from their families and in violation of international law.
Palestinian Legislative Council member Marwan Barghouti, who was detained by Israel in April, is currently being tried in an Israeli criminal court- a court that has no jurisdiction over Palestinians from the Occupied territories. Mr. Barghouti and thousands of other Palestinian political prisoners are prohibited from seeing their children and on many occasions from seeking legal counsel.
Those Palestinian detainees who have suffered torture must be entitled to full and timely reparation, including compensation and rehabilitation. The thousands that are currently behind bars only because they stand for the end to occupation must be immediately released and be allowed to rejoin their families and be reintegrated into the social and political life of the emerging State of Palestine.
Anyone who believes that “reform”, and, more importantly, political reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, has any future if it does not include all sectors of society, regardless of political color or affiliation, are merely fooling only themselves and are missing a historic opportunity to allow genuine political reform take place in Palestinian political life. It is bad enough that many Palestinian political leaders have been extra-judicially assassinated by Israel over the past two years. Now is the time to open the prison doors, end the occupation and allow Palestine to rebuild itself from the ruins of occupation, again!
* Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman living in the besieged Palestinian City of Al-Bireh in the West Bank and can be reached at email@example.com. He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994). To be added to his mailing list, send an email with the word ‘subscribe’ in the subject.
Note: Several legal references from this article are from UPDATE: Palestinian detainees, torture and ill-treatment Israel’s Supreme Court dismisses LAW’s (Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights & the Environment) appeal to visit detainees, 15 May 2002, http://www.lawsociety.org.