More than 2,000 Palestinian prisoners are now on hunger strike in a protest against human rights abuses in Israeli jails, including the widespread use of administrative detention, solitary confinement, strip-searching, shackling and refusal of family visits.
The protest has snowballed since Khader Adnan and Hana Shelabi began their hunger strikes against being held for more than two years without charge or trial and without even being told what the evidence was against them.
Khader Adnan was released after 66 days without food and Hana Shalabi was released after 44 days to Gaza– where she sent a message from her hospital bed to thank her British supporters “for their solidarity and for standing beside Palestinian prisoners”.
More solidarity will be needed to help the 4,386 Palestinian prisoners still in Israeli jails for conflict-related reasons even after the release of more than a thousand in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange last year.
Currently 320 are held without charge, but the focus of the protest has spread to wider issues of injustice and ill-treatment.
The hunger strike has several key demands, including:
- An end to solitary confinement ;
- An end to administrative detention;
- To allow the families of prisoners from the Gaza Strip to visit prisoners;
- An improvement in the living conditions of prisoners and an end to the ban on newspapers, learning materials and many TV channels; and
- An end to the policies of humiliation such as strip searches, nightly raids, and collective punishment.
The Israel Prison Service has imposed retaliatory measures on hunger strikers, including beatings, transferring from one prison to another, confiscation of salt (an act that could have severe health consequences for hunger strikers), denial of family and lawyers’ visits, and solitary confinement.
Nearly all the prisoners are from the West Bank or Gaza but are held in prisons in Israel, which is an offence under international law and means that their families can visit them only if they are able to get visas to enter Israel.
None of the families of the Gazan prisoners are able to visit, causing terrible grief and heartache. On a recent visit to Gaza I met the 10-year-old daughter of a Gazan prisoner who had never met her father, but every day when she came back from school she spoke to his image on a photo-album on top of the television to ‘tell’ him what she had done at school.
West Bank prisoners are more fortunate in that they are allowed two visits a month from immediate family, though their family members may be refused visas on ‘security grounds’ if they have ever been arrested or in prison themselves.
Visits can involve round trips of up to 12 hours on Red Cross buses to prisons far off in the Negev desert for a 45-minute interview with contact only through a telephone and a glass panel.
Prisoners are constantly transferred from prison to prison, with a less comfortable journey of up to 12 hours involving no food, drink or toilet sitting on the floor of a prison van.
Israel’s treatment of child prisoners has already led to questions and debates in the UK Parliament and ministers have “raised concerns” with the Israelis about the practice of bringing children to court in shackles, ‘cuffing’ them and interrogating them without lawyers or parents present.
A parliamentary motion tabled by Falkirk’s Mike Connarty was signed by 49 MPs condemning the “inhumane treatment, denial of basic healthcare and education, refusal of family visits, excessive fines, repeated night searches and long-term isolation”.
But so far the cause of adult prisoners has failed to strike the same chord with the British public, allowing the Israeli prison service a free hand to treat them in the most brutal and inhumane way.
The regime for “security prisoners” is far harsher than for normal prisoners with endless night-time cell searches, withdrawal of privileges, including family visits, strip-searches, interrogations and threatened punishments to the prisoners’ families.
Prisoners are given no remission or parole. In Britain a 25-year life sentence can mean 15 years, but for Palestinians it means 25 years to the day and for them a life sentence is 99 years.
Already about 30 prisoners have spent longer than Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in jail and about 20 of them are still in prison. Some prisoners have been sentenced to multiple life sentences amounting to thousands of years.
Isolation cells are used both as a punishment and as a way of isolating potential prisoners’ leaders. They are put in a cell measuring two metres by two metres containing a bed, shower and toilet and can be kept there 23 hours a day for years at a time.
According to ex-prisoners Ahmad Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, has spent several years in this ‘hell in a cell’ while Abdullah Barghouthi has spent 10 years and Hassan Salameh 13. Solitary confinement is at the discretion of the prison governor with no judge, jury or appeal.
Long periods in solitary can break any prisoner and the lack of adequate healthcare has been high on the list of prisoners’ complaints. Hundreds of prisoners have died in prison and many of the hunger strikers are at risk.
The oldest of the recent hunger strikers is Ahmed Al-Haj, aged 71, who was elected to the Palestinian parliament in 2006 and is one of a group of 27 MPs held in prison, most of them in administrative detention.
He was arrested in 2008, released and then re-arrested last year on six months of administrative detention without charge and renewed in December for another six months, even though he’s suffering from a severe medical condition.
Most of his colleagues are Hamas MPs who were imprisoned in retaliation for Gilad Shalit’s capture in 2006 and have since been released and rearrested, but were not included in the 1,027 released in exchange for Gilad Shalit last year.
Others are Fatah MPs who are serving long sentences on charges of taking part in the second intifada, the best-known of whom is Marwan Barghouthi, head of Fatah’s military wing, who just marked his 10th anniversary in jail on April 15th.
Even many Israeli politicians have said he should be released on the grounds that he is the Palestinian leader best able to unite the country and would probably be elected president if able to stand. He could then take his place alongside Jawaharlal Nehru, Jomo Kenyatta and Nelson Mandela as politicians who have make the journey from prison cell to prime minister’s or president’s residence within four years.