By Shawqi Issa
The thorny issue of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails has numerous angles. First, it is a humanitarian cause. Many of the prisoners have spent decades, some more than 30 years in jail, with all the resulting social and economic ramifications for Palestinian society as a whole. Additionally, Palestinian leaders bear the moral responsibility for the fact that these activists have remained behind bars for periods far longer than logically acceptable. A full 121 of them have languished in prison since before the 1993 signing of the Oslo agreements with Israel.
But it is the legal aspect that ultimately decides the fate of the prisoners. Israel continues to reject the application of international law, particularly the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions that relate to prisoners, and considers Palestinian detainees subject to the regulations of the Israeli military, which is implemented by officers and settlers that are themselves criminals of war under international law. Israel’s military does not respect human rights or abide by international standards for a fair trial but rather exists only to secure Israel’s occupation of the occupied territories in order to achieve the goals of the Zionist movement.
According to Israeli official statistics from Jan. 31, 2012, there are 4,357 detainees (162 of which are children). Of these detainees, 309 are in arbitrary detention (called “administrative detention” by the Israeli authorities), that are held without any judicial proceedings. The number of prisoners that have been charged and sentenced is 3,215, among them 1,987 serving out sentences longer than 20 years.
The numbers in Israeli prisons continue to rise. According to Palestinian researcher and expert on prisoner issues Abdul-Nasser Ferwana, by Feb. 26 the number of Palestinian prisoners was 4,600. The highest number of prisoners held at any single given month since the start of Israel’s occupation in 1967, he found, was during the first intifada, when approximately 12,500 Palestinians were held in Israeli jails. Monthly averages during the second intifada came close to this figure as well, at their peak.
This picture is bleak and the absence of a strategy concerning the prisoners is leading a search for new horizons. This has resulted in an initiative over the last two years pursued by civil society organizations, the Ministry of Detainee and ex-Detainee Affairs and the Palestinian leadership to internationalize the issue of the prisoners. This initiative is continuing through specialized committees made up of legal professionals, and includes a plan to go to the International Court of Justice in order to seek a decision on Palestinian prisoners’ legal status and the laws applicable to them. We believe that some of the prisoners fit the definition of “prisoners of war” and must be treated according to the Third Geneva Convention, while the rest fall under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Israel, which is bound under all domestic and international laws to meet prisoners’ daily needs, stopped fulfilling many of its responsibilities after the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority, which began to bear most of these costs. For example, according to the ministry, the PNA pays an average of NIS 16 million (about $4.3 million) annually on food and sustenance, depending on the number of prisoners, and about NIS 3.5 million (nearly $1 million) for clothing allowances, as well as any costs incurred for treatment, etc. Of course, these amounts multiplied when the number of detainees rose in previous years. The International Committee of the Red Cross used to provide the detainees with Arabic newspapers and magazines until the beginning of this year when it stopped because it no longer had funds. In recent years, occupation authorities even devised new strategies for the PNA to pay the costs of jailers, military judges, and the staff of the military prosecutor. The Israeli authorities have begun to impose heavy fines on prisoners who break prison rules, using the fines to pay for the prison apparatus. These fines have reached figures as high as NIS 17 million ($4.6 million) per year and are paid by the PNA, falling more recently with the number of detainees to about NIS 10 million ($2.7 million) a year. Of course, international law prohibits Israel from using this money for these purposes.
I think we should stop and think about this situation that allows Israel to shirk its responsibilities and even to profit from holding prisoners. When Israel was responsible for all of the prisoners’ expenses, from 1967 until the first intifada, the number of Palestinian prisoners did not exceed 3,000. Now the occupation has become heavily subsidized for Israel with the establishment of the PNA and the provision of funds through European and other donors.
Our prisoners also are without basic protections. Ferwana quotes from Israeli sources within the Israeli Ministry of Health, stating that there has been a 15 percent increase in the number of permits given by the Israeli Ministry of Health to conduct clinical trials of drugs on Palestinian prisoners. Member of Knesset Dalia Itzik disclosed that in 1997, more than 1,000 permits were granted by Israel’s Ministry of Health to test drugs on Palestinian prisoners. The Israeli authorities continue to “detain” the corpses of prisoners who die in captivity until their sentence is fulfilled. Prisoners have gone on hunger strike to protest their arbitrary detention, highlighted by Khader Adnan, who went on hunger strike for 66 days, and Hana Shalabi, who has been on hunger strike since mid-February to protest her re-detention after she was released last year in an exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Finally, in a move that has received broad public support, Palestinian administrative detainees have decided to boycott the kangaroo court that approves their imprisonment without charge.
All of these issues should be weighed in producing a comprehensive and unified strategy, especially in light of changes in the Arab states and the possibility for more popular movement now that it seems clear that the Arab peoples are driven to achieve results.
Shawqi Issa is director of Ensan Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Bethlehem and a former prisoner. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.