Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Locked in Despair: Palestinian Hostages in Israeli Prisons

Last month, Israel arrested over 2,000 Palestinians, subjecting them to degrading treatment that amounts to torture. The failure of our governments to demand the release of these hostages exposes their rank hypocrisy.

Israel has imprisoned more than 2000 Palestinians in the last month. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

‘Our cells have turned into dungeons.’ Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and detention centres have slowly been able to relay harrowing stories of the Israeli Prison Service’s brutal crackdown on them since 7 October. They are sharing chilling testimonies in the few opportunities they have to make contact with the world outside their cell — lawyer visits and when a prisoner is freed.

Palestinian prisoners have engaged in decades-long struggle in Israeli jails. Many have undertaken lengthy hunger strikes to improve their conditions. Through their struggle, they secured access to televisions, radios, books, stationery, family photos, and cooking slabs in their cells. They ran self-funded canteens and made crafts that could be given to their relatives during visits, and they were able to access the yard for the parts of the day where they could interact with other prisoners. But all this has now changed. Prisoners are describing the situation in prisons as akin to the grim situation back in 1967 at the start of Israel’s military occupation. 

Escalating Brutality

Since 7 October, the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) has withdrawn all prisoners’ hard-won rights and concessions. The IPS has significantly restricted access to water, with one prisoner reporting, ‘Detainees have had to resort to drinking foul, polluted water from taps in their cells.’ While prisoners could cook for themselves before 7 October, the IPS shut the canteens and confiscated cooking slabs. The IPS is underfeeding prisoners and providing unhygienic meals: one prisoner reported being served chicken that was so inadequately cleaned that it still had feathers. Personal and communal objects have been confiscated, leaving each prisoner with only one change of clothes and a pair of flip-flops; the IPS has confiscated shoes.

The IPS has imposed this crackdown over several stages, conducting frequent searches and raids over the past four weeks, during which prisoners were usually handcuffed, beaten and harassed. One prisoner reported the following: 

‘On 12 October, the measures escalated… In the morning, a suppression unit stormed our neighbouring ward, harassing prisoners in their cells. Screams, sounds, and beatings grew louder. On one of the worst days, 23 October, at 9:00 AM exactly, the suppression units entered our cell. The search went on well into the night, until 11:00 PM. We were cuffed without electricity or water.’

At the same time, the IPS has limited prisoners’ ability to access medical care, whether inside prison clinics or outside. All family visits have been halted. Many do not even know the whereabouts of their children in prison, let alone the conditions of their incarceration. The International Committee of the Red Cross is unable to inspect and report on conditions. Families and friends of prisoners have staged several sit-ins at the Red Cross offices, at one point sealing their doors shut, in protest at the Red Cross failing in its mandate regarding Palestinian prisoners and failing to exert sufficient pressure on Israel to restore prisoners’ rights.

Lawyer visits have been significantly curtailed, with the IPS allowing prison guards easy ways to turn lawyers away. One lawyer reported arriving to visit a prisoner with a court order for a visit, only for a guard to push the emergency alarm button to prevent this. The IPS confiscated televisions and radios from the cells and stopped prisoners from mixing between cells within the same wards, cutting the remaining contact prisoners had with the outside world. In their testimonies, prisoners reported appreciating the magnitude of the events going on outside since 7 October through the facial expressions of the prison guards and their increasing brutality.

The number of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails has increased significantly. In October, Israel arrested 2,070 Palestinians, with raids taking place every night across Palestinian towns and villages in which dozens were arrested. In the same month, Israel issued 1,034 administrative detention orders, in which it holds detainees without charge or trial. This increased the number of prisoners from 5,200 at the end of September to an estimated 7,000 by the end of October. Palestinian prisoner organisations have reported their current inability to estimate the number of child detainees. The IPS is deliberately overcrowding prisons, in some cases doubling cell capacity from six to twelve prisoners. Some of those imprisoned do not even have mattresses or covers.

Thousands of Palestinians are under the thumb of the IPS, which is acting with brutality and total impunity. And families and friends of prisoners are worried. There is little information about what is happening inside the prisons. Two detainees recently died. 56-year-old administrative detainee Omar Daraghmeh died on 23 October in Megiddo prison. He was reported not to have any medical conditions prior to his arrest but reported feeling unwell two weeks after his incarceration. 25-year-old detainee Arafat Hamdan died on 24 October in Israel’s Ofer prison. Two days before his death, he had been beaten, denied his diabetes medications, and left in the sun with a bag over his head for several hours.

Western Hypocrisy

Palestinian prisoners, their families, and organisations advocating for prisoners’ rights are demanding the restoration of the concessions prisoners won through their struggles. Although these represent basic rights, enshrined in conventions related to prisoners’ rights, they took mass protests and sacrifices to achieve. Palestinian prisoners have undertaken at least 25 mass hunger strikes. The first was in 1969 to protest inadequate food, a ban on stationery, and degrading treatment in which prisoners had to address Israeli guards as ‘sir’. At least six prisoners have died during mass hunger strikes, four of whom died due to force-feeding. The World Medical Association has deemed this to be a form of torture, but Israeli doctors participated willingly in it.

Families and friends of prisoners are also expressing resentment at the hypocrisy behind the treatment of their relatives. They see Palestinian prisoners held by Israel as hostages. There have been many instances of family members being arrested during failed Israeli army raids to pressure someone into handing themselves over. In other instances, prisoners are released as bait to capture others. However, while international media has been quick to adopt the Israeli narrative of ‘Israeli hostages’, there has been very little attention paid to the brutal crackdown Palestinian prisoners are under or their decades-long plight. 

It would be a disservice to Palestinians to stop at demanding a return to prison conditions on 7 October, however. The entire Israeli carceral system is an Israeli method of oppressing and subjugating Palestinians. Palestinian organisations have long described the oppressiveness of the Israeli military judicial system. Military courts, which handle all cases involving Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, even including traffic offences, have a conviction rate of 99.74 percent, treat 16- and 17-year-old children as adults, and consider twelve the minimum age of criminal responsibility. Palestinians can be charged for as little as stone-throwing and participating in activities by student political blocs.

In addition to this, Israel uses administrative detention to remove Palestinians from society at will — a legacy of British colonialism, having been used before 1948 by the British mandate to suppress Palestinian anti-colonial organising. Israel has used it as a pathway to indefinite legal detention in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the 1967 occupation. It was most recently reinforced through Israel’s Military Order 1651 in 2010, which stipulates that a military judge can issue unlimited successive six-month administrative detention orders based on secret evidence around undefined ‘security’ concerns; this was amended in October this year to allow soldiers six days to decide to place an administrative detention order instead of three among other amendments that extend detention without a lawyer. Israel also recently authorised the use of the ‘Unlawful Combatants Law’ against detainees from the Gaza Strip; Israeli officials have openly stated this is used to hold detainees as bargaining chips. Finally, Israel has made amendments to its Anti-Terrorism Law, expanding it to include monitoring news related to a ‘terrorist organisation’. This means, for example, that following news of the genocide coming out of the Gaza Ministry of Health is an arrestable offence and is being used against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Israel has arrested an estimated 805,000 Palestinians since 1967. Behind the cold bars of incarceration, these Palestinians cling to the dreams of a liberated homeland where their voices are not silenced, where their dignity is restored and where they can live in peace. The prisoners’ struggle is one of many injustices that Palestinians continue to endure, and their plea for freedom transcends the prison walls. Until there is an end to colonialism, Palestinians will never be truly free.