A hunger strike by about 1,550 Palestinians in Israeli prisons ended with an agreement on 14 May, in which Israel committed to meeting some of the prisoners’ demands in exchange for security guarantees.
“If this agreement is implemented, it means a great victory for us and for human rights,” Aber Issa Zakarni, the wife of Abadallah Zakarni, an imprisoned member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Jenin, northern West Bank, told IRIN. “But I am also scared. In the end everything might just stay the same.”
As of May, about 4,500 Palestinian prisoners were being held in Israeli prisons, with 308 under so-called “administrative detention”, without being charged or put on trial. Another 453 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip are detained. one of them without charge or trial, similar to “administrative” detainees, but based on another law. Such detentions without charge lay at the heart of the hunger strike, which also demanded an end to solitary confinement and better conditions for family visits.
The agreement effectively ended weeks of mass hunger strike at a time when two of the prisoners had already been refusing food for 77 days and were facing imminent death. As part of the deal, Israel committed to ease conditions as long as prisoners refrained from “security activity” inside Israeli prisons, such as “recruiting people for terrorist mission”, said the Israeli Prison Service (IPS).
On its part, Israel would return prisoners held in solitary confinement to the general wings, allow family visits from the Gaza Strip for the first time since 2007, ease restrictions on visits from the West Bank, and improve the conditions under which “security prisoners” are being held. Israel reportedly also agreed not to extend the detention periods of Palestinians currently in “administrative detention”, “if there is no new information that requires their detention”.
However, Palestinian prisoners reportedly have already threatened to restart the hunger strike, demanding a quicker and more transparent implementation of the agreement.
About 4,500 Palestinian prisoners from the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) are currently held in some 17 of the 32 Israeli prisons. In addition, a small number of detainees are held in four military detention centres and four interrogation centres. Some of the 17 prisons used for Palestinians have a mixed population, but others are explicitly used for Palestinians, such as the Megiddo, Ofer, Ramon, Nafha and Kitziot prisons, the IPS said.
Only one prison, Ofer, is located inside oPt. NGOs have repeatedly noted in this regard that the transfer of civilians out of the occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power is viewed as violating international humanitarian law, or Article 49 and 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
“The Israeli prisons were established many years ago. Such places of detention, in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention, must be placed within oPt,” Noora Kero, media delegate at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Jerusalem, told IRIN. However, Israeli government officials pointed out that the building of new prisons inside oPt would equally spark international and Palestinian criticism.
Political Prisoners versus Security Ddetainees
“In Israel, the legal term for Palestinian prisoners is security prisoner. Political prisoners don’t exist. But we say that all those who fought against the Israeli occupation and were arrested because of their role in resistance are political prisoners,” Amany Dayif, intervention coordinator at the Prisoners and Detainees Project of NGO Physicians for Human Rights-Israel Section, told IRIN.
Israeli prison authorities often isolate prisoners with a political leadership role, NGOs said. “So-called prisoner chiefs and political leaders are often put into difficult detention conditions like physical isolation and solitary confinement,” Dani Shenhar, a lawyer at the Israeli human rights NGO Hamoked, said.
Ending solitary confinement was one of the hunger strikers’ demands Israel met in the agreement. Most prisoners previously held in isolation had already been released from solitary confinement and moved into the general prison population. “We assess the release of prisoners from solitary confinement on an individual basis,” said Sivan Weizman, spokesperson of the IPS, adding that these releases do not necessarily imply any changes for future practice.
According to analysts, only those prisoners whose solitary confinement was ordered directly by Israel’s intelligence agency were moved into the general prison population , while others remained in isolation. One of them, Dirar Abu Sisi, a Palestinian engineer accused of Hamas membership and kidnapped from Ukraine in February 2011 who is still in solitary confinement, began an individual hunger strike on 30 May to protest his isolation.
“The IPS used solitary confinement to punish prisoners. Sometimes they are denied money for the canteen. Some are denied books and higher education. Isolation is always a tool of pressure,” Amany Dayif said.
Nazmeh Mustafa, the wife of an imprisoned Hamas leader from Jenin, is familiar with such isolation. “My husband was denied media and books. A dictionary I brought him was once not allowed in because it had a hard cover. When I took the cover off, they still denied it, without explaining why,” she said.
“Much of what is done in Israel’s prisons runs under the pretext of security. IPS views good conditions of detention more as a favour to prisoners than as a human rights obligation,” said Dani Shenhar, a lawyer for prisoners at Hamoked.
Israeli law allows for three kinds of solitary confinement: during interrogation up to 30 days; complete isolation as a disciplinary measure; and long-term and prolonged solitary confinement, referred to as “separation”.
Prisoners in “separation” are held alone in a cell or together with another prisoner, either when the security services believe that a prisoner poses a threat to the safety of others, to “state security”, or when he or she is threatened by others; or when a prisoner suffers from mental health problems and is thus believed to pose a threat to the remaining prisoner population.
Health Impact of Prolonged Solitary Confinement
Past research provides much evidence of the negative health impacts of solitary confinement, particularly for those with pre-existing mental health disorders.
“Prisoners put in solitary confinement because of mental health issues see their condition worsening. Those put in isolation when still healthy become mentally ill,” Amany Dayif said. Possible effects of solitary confinement are sleep disorders, depressions, psychotic disorders, such as visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoia, disorientation, confusion and cognitive disorders.
According to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, IPS has also kept prisoners with “adjustment problems” in separation, who have difficulties integrating into the social environment of the prison. After prolonged isolation, they often develop serious mental health problems.
“Administrative detention” is a form of detention without charge or trial that is authorized by administrative order instead of judicial decree. According to the Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem, international law allows “administrative detention” as a last resort to prevent danger, but Israeli practice violates these restrictions.
“If there was a clear charge, if I would only know why. Why don’t they send my husband to court? But this never happens. Instead, his detention is based on a secret file and no one knows what that file is,” Nazmeh Mustafa said. Her husband, Wasfe Kabaha, was meant to become minister of prisoner affairs after Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. But he was soon arrested during a wider Israeli crackdown on Hamas. Released after three years in 2009, he was put under “administrative detention” several times since then.
Over the years, Israel has put thousands of Palestinians under “administrative detention”, based on secret intelligence information and without charge or trial, thereby denying detainees proper legal defence, B’Tselem said. The legal basis for “administrative detention” lies in Israeli military legislation applied on all Palestinians in the West Bank. The so-called Administrative Detention Order allows military commanders to order the detention of a Palestinian if he has “reasonable cause to believe that reasons of security… require that a particular person be detained”. The maximum period of six months can be extended if the “cause” persists.
The Israeli army has justified the use of “administrative detention” under the pretext of security in the past.
“The army must have evidence that people in administrative detention pose some kind of security threat,” Yoram Schweitzer, an expert at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told IRIN.
The information underlying administrative detention is usually collected by Israel’s intelligence network. Presenting such information during a fair trial could also reveal much about the network itself, said an Israeli army official who preferred anonymity.
However, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) concluded that Israel’s policy of “administrative detention” is not justifiable as a security imperative, and expressed concern over “the existence of two sets of laws”, for Palestinians and Jewish settlers, who reside in the same territory, but are not subject to the same justice system.
“Administrative detention” has also provoked international criticism. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Israel to either release or charge the administrative detainees and put them on trial. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton expressed similar criticism.
A major concern about “administrative detention” has been its use for detaining Palestinian minors, often because they threw stones at Israeli soldiers. Ill-treatment during their detention has been documented and often results in traumatic repercussions after their release.
Prisoners from Gaza: “Unlawful combatants”
Similar to the conditions under “administrative detention”, some Palestinians from the Gaza Strip can be detained without being charged or put on trial for an unlimited period of time under the so-called Unlawful Combatants Law.
“As Israel doesn’t legally consider Gaza as being occupied, they cannot detain people under administrative detention, so they use another law originally created for Lebanese,” said Amany Dayif of Physicians for Human Rights, adding that such detention can be renewed for an unlimited period of time.
Currently, only one of the 453 prisoners and detainees from Gaza is detained as an “unlawful combatant”: Mahmud Sarsak, a Palestinian soccer player from the Gaza Strip who is still on hunger strike and has been detained since July 2008 without charge. On 1 June, he entered his 74th day and reportedly faced immediate danger to his life.
NGOs have called on Israel to allow independent doctors to examine him, as the physical impact of a prolonged hunger strike is severe and needs proper monitoring.
Managing Hunger during the Strike
The physical impacts of a long-term hunger strike are intense, while particular danger lies in possible heart failure. According to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, hunger strikers pass the life-endangering threshold after about 42 days without food, when malfunctioning of internal organs can occur. Most Palestinian hunger strikers took vitamins, minerals and salt, in addition to water. The long-term strikers Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh lost the ability to drink properly after 55 days and had difficulties swallowing. As a means to escalate their strike, they sometimes refused taking the supplements.
The long-term health repercussions after the hunger strike need to be monitored too. “After 77 days of starvation, going back to eat is also life endangering. You need specialists, neurologists, internal medicine,” Amany Dayif said, adding that IPS medical care was insufficient.
The IPS denied the accusation. “We have doctors in the prisons checking hunger strikers’ health every day. Since the strike is over, we are taking care that prisoners are eating slowly and that nothing hurts them,” Sivan Weizman, IPS spokesperson, told IRIN.
The Right to Visit
When Palestinian prisoners went on hunger strike, their relatives pitched solidarity tents in their home towns and were also fighting their own battle for improved conditions of family visits.
For Nazmeh Mustafa from Jenin, visiting her husband in an Israeli prison has become a routine ordeal. She regularly takes a 12-hour-journey, crossing from oPt via military checkpoints into Israel, for a short meeting of 45 minutes.
“Once I left Jenin at 7am and came back at 11pm. The checkpoint was full of people,” Nazmeh Mustafa said ahead of a recent visit to the prison. “Only my two youngest daughters and I can visit. My 21-year-old son saw his father once in six years,” she added.
Only immediate family members of Palestinians, such as spouses, parents, siblings, and children, are allowed to visit relatives in Israeli prisons. Any over 15 need to apply for a visiting permit through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which forwards the applications to the issuing authority, the Israeli Civil Administration.
There are two kinds of visiting permits: A one-year permit that allows visits about every two weeks, and a so-called security permit, which allows only for a single visit within 45 days, sometimes a few times a year. But for young men aged 16-35, security permits are rare, usually issued only once a year, Dima Mahajneh, field officer at the Jenin office of the ICRC, told IRIN. “No matter if they pose a real security threat, or not.”
The ICRC mediates between the relatives and the Israeli authorities in issuing permits and organizes the transportation, but the process is nevertheless difficult for prisoners’ relatives.
“The whole mechanism of applying for permits is highly bureaucratic. It takes months and months to get a permit. And most don’t get any permit in the end,” Hamoked’s Dani Shenhar said.
The Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 116) regulates the right to visit, saying that "every internee shall be allowed to receive visitors, especially near relatives, at regular intervals and as frequently as possible".
“I really hope that Israel will improve the conditions for family visits after this agreement,” said Aber Issa Zakarni. Since her husband was arrested in December 2011, she has not seen him. Her 22-year-old daughter Zeina was denied a permit, too, “because of security reasons”, she said. Only Zeina’s seven-year-old sister Yaffa has seen her father regularly.
“Once she cried so much that an officer let her through the door to hug her father,” Aber said, adding: “I believe that the hunger strike was the only weapon left to the prisoners. Israel can detain us in a cell, but under occupation it feels like in prison anyway.”