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Occupied Arab World

Little hope of relief for Palestinian political prisoners in Israel

Hajira Qureshi

Palestine has seldom been out of the news in recent years. In the last few years the separation wall has been built, the second intifada has taken place, Israel has withdrawn from Ghazzah, and also perpetrated further incursions into and land-appropriation in the West Bank. With all this going on, international humanitarian and human-rights laws have been largely thrown out of the window, and the Israelis continue with impunity to disregard laws and treaties to which they are signatories. In Palestine, the issue of political prisoners is an ongoing one.

In a report (January 2007) of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, John Dugard writes:

“There are some 9,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails charged with or convicted of security offences, which range from violent acts against the Israeli Defence Forces to anti-Israeli political activities. This figure includes some 400 children and over 100 women. In addition there are over 700 administrative detainees i.e. persons held without charge or trial, simply on the ground that the occupying Power regards them as security risks.”

“There are serious complaints about the treatment, trial and imprisonment of prisoners. Pre-trial detention is accompanied by prolonged isolation and lengthy interrogation in painful positions. Threats, deception and sleep deprivation are essential features of this process. Due process of law is undermined by trial before military courts and the obstructions placed in the way of defence counsel. Prison conditions are poor and family visits are rare. Israel holds political prisoners in jails in Israel rather than in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in violation of article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and then refuses the families of many of the prisoners the right to visit them. [...] Since 1967 over 650,000 Palestinians have been held in Israeli prisons. Hardly a family in Palestine has therefore been untouched by the Israeli prison system…”

Most homes are raided at night and families are awakened by armed Israeli soldiers breaking in, abusing and abducting one or more members of the family – usually the head of the family or the eldest son. Arrests are invariably traumatic for the family and humiliating for the victim as women and girls watch their brother, son or father being blindfolded, handcuffed, placed in a compromising position, beaten and then taken away to an unknown destination. They are not told the reason for their detention, how long they will be there or even sometimes where they are. Many are in prisons in Israel, not in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) at all, in direct contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Administrative detainees have committed no crimes, even by Israeli law. No legal advice or lawyer is made available to the detainees. Sometimes there is no trial at all, sometimes it is delayed indefinitely, and when there is a trial it is in a military court of law. Many detainees are held indefinitely with their terms or interrogation periods being continually renewed. Under international humanitarian law, prisoners should be given medical help should they require it; it is mostly denied them. Genital mistreatment is an unofficial policy.

It is a breach of international humanitarian law to imprison children (persons under the age of 18), yet there are hundreds in prison from all over Palestine. The children, under international human-rights law, should be provided with basic education during their time in prison. Instead the Israelis attempt to turn them into collaborators. Often the children are tied up and left in a room with a dog and only allowed out once they have signed a confession or other documents – a tactic employed with adult prisoners too.

As far as prison visits are concerned, only immediate family is allowed to visit. However, even for them permits are required, and in the case of the prisoner being held in Israel permit-applications are often turned down. Visits consist of long journeys and short, unsatisfactory meetings. Unsatisfactory in that they cannot touch or hold meaningful conversations, and sometimes the family can barely even see or hear the prisoner. Even this much can only occur if the family knows where their son, father or brother is being held; the availability of this information cannot be taken for granted.

To mark Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, 17 April, the Camden-Adu Dis Friendship Association (CADFA) held a conference (on April 21), “Palestinian Prisoners: Raising the Issues”. Camden is one of the many British towns where local people have taken the initiative to twin with a town in Palestine. The object is to express solidarity with the people of Palestine, to learn from each other, to help build friendship and understanding of the situation in Palestine, and to support practical, medical and educational projects in Palestinian towns.

Abu Dis is a small town situated just east of East Jerusalem, next to the Mount of Olives. It is part of Palestine but was taken over by Israel in 1967. Today it is still under complete Israeli occupation. Much of the village’s lands have been appropriated to build illegal Israeli “settlements” – now massive townships – such as Maale Adumim. Because of its proximity to Jerusalem (one could walk into Jerusalem from the centre of Abu Dis if only it were allowed), people have been born there in the maternity hospital, gone to school there, gone there to work, to hospitals, to the cinemas and the theatre. But these links are now disrupted by the Israeli separation wall. Israel controls people through their papers in a way reminiscent of the pass laws of apartheid South Africa. Some people in Abu Dis have West Bank papers and others have Jerusalem papers. The Israeli military allows people with different passes in different places, dividing families and affecting the town’s relations with the area around it.

The speakers at the conference were Palestinians and British activists talking about the imprisonment of Palestinians, their experiences and the experiences of their families. The issue of the large number of child prisoners (under 18 years of age in international law) in Israeli jails was discussed at length, as were the continuous violations of international humanitarian and human-rights laws by Israel. The audience took part in workshops on ways to raise these issues in our communities, in the media and with our government. The day ended with a meeting attended by those interested in ‘adopting a prisoner’: one would write letters to one’s ‘adopted’ prisoner and his or her family, and provide as much support as possible, both personal and political.

At the moment there are 65 residents of Abu Dis in Israeli prisons. Many of these are children. In one class at the local school, of the 25 children who should be present 12 are in prison. One resident of Abu Dis has been in prison for 21 years, another has been in solitary confinement for a year, another has not seen his family for a year, another is a little girl, and yet another has been held in administrative detention for seven years. One prisoner has been in prison for 11 years, has had surgery in Israel, and his family knows nothing about it. Currently, there are at least three cases of residents of Abu Dis needing medical treatment and being denied it in Israeli jails, in direct breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Abdul Wahab Sabbah of Abu Dis has described his own detention: when he was 17 Israeli soldiers broke into his home at midnight and proceeded to handcuff, blindfold and beat him in front of his mother and sisters. For four days the soldiers interrogated him, after which he spent the next two weeks in a cell. Here he was made to sit in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time. After 18 days of detention, he and some other prisoners were put in buses without knowing where they were being taken. For the first two months they knew nothing of their legal rights, how long they were going to be held or why they were there. It was impossible to receive visitors. At about this time 1,200 prisoners from all over Palestine went on hunger strike; on April 18 there was yet another hunger strike in Israeli prisons, the result of which was that families were banned from visiting their imprisoned relatives. The Red Cross have tried to justify the Israeli position on banning visits. It is quite usual for families to spend all day travelling to the prisons, having to go through numerous checkpoints, only to see their children for 45 minutes through little holes in barriers made of metal. Meanwhile the Red Cross wait for 18 days before enquiring after prisoners; when they do, they do not enquire in order to challenge, only to get information for the prisoners’ families.

At least half of the conference was dedicated to how international humanitarian and human-rights law is ignored or badly applied in Israel with respect to the Palestinians. In the pastIsrael has tried to claim that the Geneva Conventions and international human-rights laws do not apply in the OPT. Upon being asked to rule on the legality of the wall in 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that the Fourth Geneva Convention does apply, as do the human-rights instruments to which Israel is a signatory, and that the separation wall is in breach of international laws. As well as confirming that the law does indeed apply to Israel and that the wall really is illegal, the ICJ has confirmed that all other signatories to human-rights instruments have an obligation not to recognise the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall, not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such a construction, and to ensure Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law as embodied in the Fourth Geneva Convention. This last makes it the duty of the British government (and all other participating governments), and by extension the British people, to do something about the breaches of international law committed by Israel.

The idea behind the ‘adoption’ of political prisoners is to give personal, emotional and other support to prisoners and their families. Many NGOs tackle this problem as a whole, but when it comes to the many hundreds of individual cases, the problem is a blind spot. It is a scheme devised by charities as a novel way of showing solidarity and providing support to Palestinian political prisoners. It deserves to be successful.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 3

Rabi' al-Thani 14, 14282007-05-01

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