Dispelling Israeli myths about Palestinian prisoners

The Israeli media often claims Palestinian political prisoners are treated to ‘five-star’ treatment. In reality, they face some of the worst conditions in the West.

The escape of six Palestinian political prisoners from Gilboa Prison this past week has both enraged and enraptured the Israeli public and media. For many, the fact that the prisoners, who had been involved in or responsible for attacks that killed Israeli civilians, could flee a maximum security prison and evade capture has been enough to inspire awe.

The flight quickly became a social media sensation replete with memes and even Rosh Hashanah greetings with the face of Zakaria Zubeidi, the former commander of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade in Jenin and the most famous of the six fugitives. By Saturday morning, four of the prisoners, including Zubedi, had been re-captured inside Israel.

Surprisingly, a large number of Israelis have been expressing sympathy toward the prisoners even while deeming them “terrorists”; this appears to largely stem from being enamored by Hollywood-esque aspects of the escape, from the tunnel dug with a spoon inside the prison cell to the massive failures of the Israel Prison Service (IPS). But among the Palestinian public, the sympathy is real and widespread, with celebrations and calls to aid the prisoners with food, water, and shelter, and an overwhelming refusal to cooperate with Israel’s efforts to capture them.

The Israeli authorities responded by arresting the fugitives’ family members — none of whom were suspected of having any part in the escape — as part of a pressure campaign to push the fugitives to turn themselves in. The Red Cross also informed the families of all Palestinian prisoners that the authorities would cancel prison visits until the end of September as punishment.

If there is one issue that unites Palestinians in the occupied territories, it is that of political prisoners. According to the Palestinian Authority, one in five Palestinians has sat in an Israeli prison since the occupation began in 1967. In a reality in which any child can end up spending months in a military prison simply for demonstrating in their own village, prisoners are given a special status in Palestinian society. As such, the escape has allowed many Palestinians, if only for a moment, to imagine a “self-liberation” of all prisoners locked up by Israel.

The event should also serve as a moment for Israelis to reflect on the Palestinian struggle. For Palestinians, the escaped prisoners — along with the other 4,650 Palestinians currently imprisoned by Israel — are not “terrorists” but rather political prisoners and prisoners of war. And for many, like in other anti-colonial struggles, even those who take part in or help plan attacks against Israeli civilians are part of the legitimate fight against a systematically violent occupation.

Coverage of Palestinian prisoners in the Israeli media has become more prominent in recent years, particularly during hunger strikes, when popular protests go beyond the prison walls and reach the streets and checkpoints of the occupied territories and even inside Israel. Often, Israelis will hear on the news about hunger striking detainees on the brink of death because the Israeli leaders and analysts would cultivate a fear of a “violent response” or “escalation” by Palestinians, rather than concern for the health or survival of the prisoner.

Contrast that with Palestinian media and social networks, which regularly report on house arrests, Israel’s military courts, the struggle to release hunger striking prisoners, women in prison, and the lives of former prisoners. Posters of prisoners can be found in nearly every single village and town across the occupied territories. Many human rights groups like Addameer and DCI-Palestine provide detailed reports on arrests and conditions of inmates.

The escape has also put the Palestinian Authority in an awkward position. In the last month alone, the Israeli army has killed five Palestinians in two night raids on Jenin and Balata refugee camps; both operations were likely coordinated with the PA. Although the Israeli army does not require such prior coordination with the PA, the freedom it has enjoyed in recent years has been an important component of its security coordination.

However, with calls to aid the fugitives reverberating across Palestinian society, and with public marches by gunmen mainly in the Jenin area in support of the escape, it will be difficult for the PA to helpIsraeli forces enter these city centers as it did before.  With the possibility that the two remaining escapees have returned to the West Bank, the Israeli army is wary that any attempt to invade the camps to capture them could end in armed confrontations.

‘Five-star prisons’

Since the escape, several Israeli journalists have been promoting and recycling two main theories about the conditions of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. The first theory posits that so-called Palestinian “security prisoners” live in “five-star prisons” where life is a “celebration” or “summer camp” that includes television, academic studies (which were actually abolished in 2011), free food, and a host of other benefits.

Those who promote this theory have clearly never spent a day in an Israeli prison, and do not understand the mental, physical, and health consequences of perpetual incarceration. The conditions of inmates in Israel — including for non-political ones — is among the worst in the Western world. Inmates are exposed to extreme heat or cold depending on the seasons, and live in fewer than three square meters per prisoner, including the bed, toilet, and shower, compared to 8.8 square meters per prisoner in other Western countries. After the Association for Civil Rights in Israel filed a petition on the matter, Israel’s High Court ruled in June 2017 that the state had 18 months to significantly expand the living space for Israeli prisoners. This decision has not been fully implemented to date.

The situation of Palestinians defined as “security prisoners” is worse than that of criminal prisoners, and even those defined as Jewish “security prisoners.” They have no access to public telephones (except for a limited pilot that began in 2019). Visits by relatives coordinated through the Red Cross take place once a month and are limited to relatives of the first degree, who must obtain both a permit to enter Israel as well as a permit to enter the prison, both of which can be rejected by the Shin Bet without any explanation.

In addition, political prisoners do not have the option of requesting vacations or receiving conjugal visits, and it is extremely rare to have their sentences reduced. They are all imprisoned in maximum-security wings, where the ability to move between cells or in the yard is extremely limited. Even those who need social or rehabilitative treatment (which non-security prisoners receive) cannot get it.

With the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the restrictions imposed on Palestinian political prisoners were further tightened. Visits by relatives and lawyers have been completely canceled, and because they do not have access to public telephones, the prisoners have been effectively cut off from the world. Even after the restrictions on criminal prisoners were lifted, they continued to apply to political prisoners for a long time.

Palestinian political prisoners who have completed their sentence may also face administrative detention, a tool used loosely by the Israeli authorities in the occupied territories. Under this form of detention, prisoners can, upon release, be re-jailed immediately and indefinitely. Administrative detention orders are reviewed every six months, but the detainees are never told what crimes they are accused of, nor shown the evidence against them. As a result, it is virtually impossible to defend themselves against it.

All this in addition to the underreported fact that, according to international law, an occupying state is prohibited from transferring and holding prisoners outside of the occupied territory, as Israel does in a number of prisons within its official borders.

‘This is a struggle for basic conditions’

A second theory promoted in the Israeli media is that Palestinian political prisoners, not the IPS, actually run the prisons, and that the Israeli authorities are afraid to confront them in order to maintain “quiet.” These journalists have clearly never spoken to a Palestinian prisoner about their life behind bars, and do not have the slightest clue about how the IPS controls when the prisoners sleep and eat, or what kind of punishments are meted out.

That said, compared to criminal prisoners, political prisoners do have some influence over the system: they organize themselves according to political affiliation or faction, and every wing has a spokesperson who is democratically elected and who represents the wing’s needs before the prison authorities. The power of the prisoners stems in part from the fact that any action taken by them or against them could affect the political situation outside the prison, as we saw last week when inmates set nine cells in two different prisons on fire following the IPS’ decision to re-transfer about 400 Islamic Jihad-affiliated inmates across jails throughout Israel.

This self-organization by Palestinian prisoners, which originated with prison strikes in the 1970s and ‘80s, led to several achievements, including the election of representatives and allowing the inmates to cook for themselves in addition to receiving the food provided by the IPS.

A source familiar with the situation of Palestinian prisoners who asked to speak off the record points out that the IPS is still not accustomed to dealing with political prisoners, who — unlike criminal prisoners — are generally jailed for ideological reasons, rarely attack each other, and are more socially cohesive.

For these reasons, says the source, it is difficult for the Israeli prison authorities to penetrate their inner circle, granting the Palestinians power particularly when it comes to improving their conditions. According to the source, “there are no pampering conditions. This is a struggle for basic conditions. They have been imprisoned for many years, hence the struggle to get more books, more television channels — things that will allow them to pass their days in prison.”