Update 1 on prisoners and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the halls of the State Department: Last week, the United States considered releasing Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of espionage on behalf of Israel, in exchange for Israel doing, as political analyst Yousef Munayyer put it, “several things it already should have done long ago,” including releasing both short- and long-term Palestinian prisoners. The media attention to the Pollard case is just another distraction from the wider issue of Palestinian political prisoners, whose incarceration affects thousands of families every day.
Update 2 on prisoners and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the occupied Palestinian territories: Last week, Israel reneged on its commitment to release the remaining 26 Palestinian political prisoners who have been in Israeli jails since before the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993.
Update 3 on prisoners and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem, the occupied Palestinian territories, as reported from Aida: On the afternoon of March 23, the Israeli army detained seven members of the Abu ‘Akr family for periods between a few hours and a day and a half in order to interrogate them about the moderate injury of an Israeli soldier during the course of protests against the separation wall that surrounds the camp. On the night of March 24, Israeli special forces — called musta‘arabin — chased, beat and arrested Mu‘tasim al-Sarifi, 21. Moments after his arrest, soldiers told al-Sarifi’s mother that he might have stolen concrete being used to repair damage done by protesters to the separation wall. On March 26, Israeli soldiers arrested Muhammad al-Azraq, 27, a local elected leader of the Fatah party, from his home at five o’clock in the morning and sent him to the notorious al-Jalama interrogation center for an initial period of 15 days. On March 29, the Abu Surour family had its hopes dashed again that Nasir and Mahmoud Abu Surour would be released after over two decades in Israeli prisons. (The men are two of the 26 who were supposed to be let go as part of Israel’s commitment prior to the rumored Pollard deal.) On the afternoon of April 1, Israeli soldiers arrested ‘Abdallah Hammad, 14, as he was looking on at demonstrations in protest of the separation wall. That night, soldiers also detained his father until two o’clock in the morning at the military base adjacent to the refugee camp.
As of January 31, the human rights organization B’Tselem counted a total of 4,881 Palestinians in Israeli prison facilities, of whom 63 percent (3,095) are serving sentences. One hundred seventy-five of the 4,881 are detained without charge as administrative detainees under a holdover provision from a British colonial law, and most of the remaining prisoners are in custody awaiting trial. Twenty of the prisoners are between the ages of 14 and 16, and another 163 are between the ages of 16 and 18. Each year, about 700 children under the age of 18 are prosecuted through Israeli courts after being arrested, interrogated and detained. According to the prisoners’ rights organization Addameer, youth are often arrested first in mass arrest campaigns because their arrest can pressure leaders to back away from social mobilization and because children and youth can be more easily recruited as informers for the Israeli military.
Israel’s system of political imprisonment criminalizes Palestinian political action on several scales. In 2009, one third of all Palestinian legislators were held in Israeli detention. As of December 1, 2013, 14 were still in prison, including ten being held without charge as administrative detainees. A wide range of civic activities is criminalized by Israeli military Order 101, including any assembly, procession or publication about “a political matter or one liable to be interpreted as political.” In 2011, Addameer documented cases of at least 295 human rights defenders in Israeli custody for protesting against the wall and land annexations. In Aida refugee camp, over 60 activists have been arrested since the beginning of 2013, almost all in relation to protests against the wall.
Israel’s system of political imprisonment criminalizes everyday life, as well. A total of 1,415 (29 percent) of Palestinians in Israeli prisons today lost their (already limited) freedom because they violated Israel’s permit restrictions by being in Israel illegally. Almost all of these people were attempting only to escape high unemployment in the Palestinian Authority-controlled areas by working in Israel. The arrest or detention of 11 people from Aida refugee camp over a ten-day period meant that approximately one out of every 250 boys and men in the camp experienced arrest in this short period of time. This ratio does not account for the dozens already in prison.
Conditions of Israeli arrest and imprisonment violate international law. Torture and ill treatment are widespread. Israel uses long-term sleep deprivation, binding in stress positions, beatings, exposure to extreme heat and cold, detention in infested and dirty cells, and solitary confinement (during interrogation, as punishment and as a method of long-term separation). According to Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should be absolutely prohibited because it causes lasting mental damage. Due process is severely compromised for Palestinian prisoners. Interrogation, the site of much but not all of the torture and ill treatment, can go on for up to 90 days, and prisoners can be denied visits from lawyers for up to 60 days. Of the Palestinians charged under Israeli military law, more than 99 percent are convicted.
In Aida, as in dozens of other Palestinian communities, the suffering from political imprisonment continues. Fourteen-year-old ‘Abdallah Hammad turned 15 in prison and then he was released after three days, having paid a 1,000 shekel ($287) fine. He has a court date in July. He can only hope that none of his friends are forced into making confessions against him in the meantime, whether or not these confessions are true. Mu‘tasim al-Sarifi was released after six days with a 500 shekel fine and his own July court date, but he was unable to return to his work in a bakery because he is still tending to injuries to his head, eye, spine and legs. Muhammad al-Azraq is still in interrogation, and his loved ones cannot expect word either on his wellbeing or on the charges against him before April 14, by which point he will have been in detention for over two weeks — and they may need to wait much longer. The Abu Surour family still hopes for the relief of their two sons’ release, after over two decades.
Palestinian political prisoners and their families pay the price of Israel’s arbitrary and violent military rule, and Israel instrumentalizes their suffering to derail Palestinian political progress. In Aida refugee camp, Marwan Fararja, 27, and Muhammad Abu ‘Akr, 20, were arrested from their homes in the early hours of April 7. The struggle against the wall, the occupation and dispossession continues, but every resident, young and old, goes to sleep wondering who might be arrested before the sun rises.