Palestinians in Israeli prisons face dwindling rights, escalating violence, say human rights groups

While the ceasefire and exchange of prisoners and hostages between Hamas and Israel in recent days has provided a rare period of optimism in the seven-week-long war, it has also shone a light on the conditions of Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons.

As of Tuesday, 60 Israeli hostages held by Hamas and 180 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons had been reunited with their families during a temporary ceasefire. On Wednesday, Hamas freed 16 more hostages, and Israel released 30 Palestinian prisoners — 16 minors and 14 women.

Among the Palestinian prisoners who were released as of Monday, four women and 12 children had been held under administrative detention, according to Tala Nasir, staff lawyer and spokesperson for the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, which advocates for the rights of Palestinian prisoners.

“Administrative detention is where Palestinians are being held in Israeli prisons without a charge, without a trial, indefinitely,” Nasir said. “It’s an arbitrary detention.”

Israel has said the measure is necessary to contain dangerous militants and avoid divulging incriminating material for security reasons.

There are now 7,200 Palestinians in Israeli prison, said Qadura Fares, the director of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, an advocacy group.

More than 2,000 of those have been arrested since Oct. 7, when Hamas and other Palestinian militants attacked several communities in southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking another 240, including young children and the elderly, back into Gaza, where some have now spent more than 50 days in captivity.

Restrictions on visits, lawyer access, medical care, advocate says

Nasir said that since Oct. 7, Addameer has documented “extensive violations inside Israeli prisons, including violent raids by Israeli special forces firing tear gas and beating prisoners.”

There are also “indefinite blanket bans on family visits, restrictions on lawyers’ visits, prohibiting access to medical care, cutting off electricity in several prisons and transferring a number of prisoners to isolation,” Nasir said.

A crowded white bus, with Palestine and Hamas flags on top, is surrounded by a large crowd of jubilant people.
Newly released Palestinian prisoners in grey jump suits watch from inside an International Red Cross Bus surrounded by crowds outside the Israeli Ofer military prison on Nov. 26. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

Advocacy groups have long documented human rights violations against Palestinians in Israeli prisons. They say things have gotten worse since Oct. 7.

This past month, Amnesty International, Save the Children and Israeli human rights group HaMoked have issued statements to this effect. They report there has been a spike in administrative detentions in the West Bank — HaMoked counted 751 such arrests in October — and a rise in teenagers being arrested.

Israel’s Justice Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said it could not comment before deadline.

WATCH | Palestinians released from Ofer prison arrive in Red Cross bus: 

Celebrations and smiles as Palestinians released from Israeli prison

Featured VideoThirty Palestinians aboard an International Red Cross bus were visibly overjoyed after their release from Ofer prison as part of the truce between Israel’s military and Hamas.

In a statement to Reuters earlier this month, the Israel Prison Service said that “as part of the war effort,” it was imposing tougher conditions for Palestinian political prisoners. 

The Israeli military has said it operates in the West Bank against suspects involved in militant activity.

Many children face military court

According to the Israeli Department of Justice website, nearly half of the 350 Palestinians cleared for potential release by Israel in the current exchange are listed as having an affiliation with Hamas or other Palestinian militant groups, such as Islamic Jihad.

Of those, 219 people are set to be tried in military court as opposed to civil court — a process often applied to Palestinians arrested in the West Bank. The list of 350 includes around 270 teenagers, ages 14 to 18, nearly 70 per cent of whom have faced military court. 

Alexandra Saieh, head of humanitarian policy and advocacy at Save the Children International, said these Palestinian teens have had a range of experiences.

“Some of these children have been sentenced, some of these children were not sentenced. Some of these children have been in the detention system for several years, and some only a few months,” Saieh said. 

Based on interviews with 288 former child detainees from the West Bank, a Save the Children report released this past summer found most of those interviewed had experienced physical and emotional abuse, strip searches and a denial of basic services in Israeli prisons.

Two people hug while a happy crowd around them looks on.
Families reunite in Ramallah, West Bank, on Nov. 28 after 30 more imprisoned Palestinians were released. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

On Sunday, Save the Children put out a statement that included calls for “all remaining [Israeli] hostages to be released unconditionally, for more to be done to protect children in Israeli-run prisons, and for a ceasefire to protect children in Gaza.”

The Red Cross has made similar appeals as accounts from released hostages and freed detainees begin to emerge detailing the deteriorating conditions they faced as the bombardment and siege of Gaza worsened and hostages’ time in captivity stretched on.

“The hostages held in Gaza, and the Palestinians held in Israeli detention, are vulnerable,” Hisham Mhanna, a spokesperson for the Red Cross, told CBC News Wednesday.

“Some of them, if not all of them, may need medical health care, and we urge all parties to fulfil their legal obligations.”

The statement came the same day that Hamas said a 10-month-old hostage, his brother and mother had been killed in Israeli airstrikes while being held captive in Gaza. Israel said it was looking into the claim.

WATCH | A freed detainee and mother of detainee react to prisoner release: 

Celebration as Palestinian detainees freed in truce agreement with Israel

Featured VideoNear Ofer Prison in the West Bank, a freed Palestinian detainee and the mother of a freed child detainee reacted to their release as part of a temporary truce agreement between Israel and Hamas. ‘The female prisoners await relief. The female prisoners are in agony,’ said Hanan Al-Barghouti, who was part of the first group of 39 Palestinians detainees to be released.

‘Vague language’ on many charges

According to Michael Lynk, professor emeritus of law at Western University in London, Ont., and former UN Special Rapporteur for the human rights situation in the Palestinian Territories occupied since 1967, international law decrees that the arrest of children, including administrative detentions, should only happen “as a very last resort.”

He noted that charges against Palestinians on Israel’s lists are “generally couched in broad and sometimes vague language in order to be able to give extraordinary discretion to Israeli police, Israeli military, Israeli Shin Bet and the other security forces.”

Common accusations against Palestinian women and children cleared for release during the current ceasefire include support for terrorism; assembling, gathering or association; contact with a hostile organization; arson, throwing bombs or incendiaries; and damage to the security of an area.

There are 87 accusations of stone-throwing, mostly against teenagers, and 28 accusations of attempted murder or “causing death on purpose,” mostly against women.

WATCH | Moment of lightness as fight for more hostage release continues: 

Israelis rejoice as hostages, including children and seniors, are freed

Featured VideoTwo Israeli toddlers, their mother and several elderly women were among the 13 Israeli hostages released by Hamas on the first day of a temporary truce. They are now in Israel after passing from Gaza into Egypt as part of the ceasefire deal. Another 11 foreign nationals were also freed.

Being seen too close to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank could be enough for a Palestinian to be accused of being a security risk, Lynk said, adding that children are often arrested for throwing stones or burning tires at protests.

“Having any kind of sharp instrument on you, and that being discovered, would be sufficient to be able to say that person is threatening Israeli security in the West Bank,” he said.

Old emergency laws

Lynk says Palestinians accused of a security offence in the West Bank are typically subjected to military court trials in Hebrew, a language most don’t understand. Also, their lawyers often do not have access to the state’s evidence against their client.

“In most cases, therefore, lawyers for the Palestinians charged in Israeli military courts really are engaged in plea bargaining, even if they think that the charges are over the top or wouldn’t ordinarily convict their client,” Lynk said. “They know that the conviction rate is 99 per cent.”

Imprisoning people using administrative detentions, he said, is a remnant of British emergency laws from when the country had mandated oversight of the region in the first part of the 20th century. Under international law, administrative detention is “only supposed to be used as a last resort and in a minimally interfering way,” Lynk said.

WATCH | Israeli children, seniors released in hostage-prisoner exchange: 

‘Relief and heaviness’ after Hamas releases 2 young hostages

Featured VideoAbbey Onn, a relative of two young Hamas hostages who were recently freed, says knowing the children were being reunited with their mother brought a moment of lightness, even as the fight continues to secure the release of all hostages — including the kids’ father.

Nasir called for all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails to be released.

He said his group, Addameer, is “not actually giving attention to these charges or these sentences, because they are taken under torture and ill treatment. There is no right to a public trial. There is no right to assistance from an interpreter.”

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