Since the Oslo accords came into effect in May 1994, Israel’s treatment of Palestinian political prisoners has been a litmus test for a viable, just end to the Israeli occupation. Today the prisoners’ crisis continues to reflect an agreement that entrenches Israel’s remote control over Palestinians and commissions Yasser Arafat to deliver local compliance with the new order.

Of the nearly 6,000 Palestinians now imprisoned by Israel, more than half were arrested after the signing of the 1993 Declaration of Principles. Sweeping “security arrangements” in Oslo II distinctly preserve Israeli prerogatives to arrest, try and imprison Palestinians in Areas B and C of the West Bank. Loopholes in the text also allow Israel to continue to administratively detain Palestinians, even those from areas now under the control, of the Palestinian Authority (PA). [1] Conditions of detention and interrogation have deteriorated since Oslo II, with setbacks in standards for hygiene and food and severe limitations on family visits — rights which were won through a series of hunger strikes in the 1980s and early 1990s. Moreover, the current Israeli Knesset is set to debate a bill that would make Israel the only country in the world to legislate torture. Ostensibly criminalizing torture, the bill, in purely Orwellian terms, defines the policy as “pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, except for pain or suffering inherent in the interrogation procedures or punishments according to the law.” [2]

This summer’s events have made painfully clear that Israel is no longer the only authority in Palestine to systematically abuse prisoners. Indeed, as Palestinian legislative and executive powers are incrementally swallowed up by Arafat’s one-man rule, human rights violations have become routine. In their two-year tenure, PA forces have tortured seven detainees to death and an estimated 70 percent of prisoners are now systematically subjected to torture. [3] By June, the number of people arrested by the PA was already more than double the figure for all of 1995. [4] Today the PA holds 1,200 prisoners suspected of membership in opposition groups, two thirds of whom have been imprisoned for more than six months without charges, trial or legal counsel.

The chaotic functioning of the PA’s nine armed security forces is one source of abuse. Employing over 40,000 people (one of the highest police — population ratios in the world), the security forces are characterized by wide-scale corruption and a lack of regulation. In the Gaza Strip alone, there are 24 separate detention centers, the locations of which were kept secret until this April. Often prisoners in one detention center are held under the authority of a security service not responsible for that facility. Family members are usually not informed of arrests. Prison officials routinely refuse information to families searching for imprisoned relatives. People have even been jailed under a false name. Often people are detained by more than one security body; in such cases they may be released by one force only to be transferred to the custody of another. Lawyers are routinely and arbitrarily denied access to imprisoned clients. Search and arrest warrants are the exception rather than the norm. Mistreatment is endemic, with whipping, electrocution, stretching and controlled strangulation used to elicit confessions and mete out punishment. [5]

The PA’s suppression of any opposition or criticism stems in part from Israeli demands encoded in the “peace process.” Oslo II, for example, charges the PA with quelling any threat to Israeli security, from armed attacks to “anticipated incitement” (Art. II; 2). Pressure to meet such demands has led to an unofficial quota system for arrests. As one PA prison guard commented, “We have to maintain a certain number of detainees for the Israeli press.” Also operative, however, is the PA’s own agenda, which like other young “post-revolutionary” governments is consolidating its still tenuous rule with an iron hand. In this climate, the lack of even a pretense of due process sends a clear warning to all would-be dissenters: inside jails, there are no rules of conduct, no recourse and no one to be held accountable.

The recent spotlight on PA arrests has eclipsed the crisis of Israeli-held Palestinian prisoners. Three years into the Oslo process, these prisoners have been cast as remnants of an obsolete struggle. “While I sat in jail for carrying out Arafat’s orders he traveled the world shaking bloodstained hands and grinning for cameras,” said a Bethlehem man who recently completed an eight-year sentence in Israel: “Now I’m waiting to be arrested by Ararat, for I still believe in what he once taught.”


[1] Allegra Pacheco, “Jailing Opinion,” News from Within (August 1996).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Graham Usher, “The PA and the New Israeli Government,” News from Within (July 1996).
[4] Amnesty International 1995 Report, June 18, 1996.
[5] For a full report on such practices, see Ibrahim Shehadeh, Abuses of the Palestinian Security Forces (March 1996-June 1996), Gaza Center for Rights and Law, July 1996.

How to cite this article:

Yifat Susskind "Palestinian Political Prisoners," Middle East Report 201 (Winter 1996).

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