The detention of Palestinians in the context of actual or alleged ideologically motivated acts has been a central feature of the Palestinian struggle since the British Mandate extended its grip on Palestine. In turn, the arrest and incarceration of Palestinians, children and adults, young and old, have had a significant impact on Palestinian society and on the confrontation between the Palestinians and their adversaries. This is so because of their personal involvement in the struggle, the harshness of their experience, their militancy inside the jail itself, and the identification of their families with their fate, especially since most families have or have had a member or close relative who has been incarcerated. Since 1967, most of the detainees have been Palestinian residents of the West Bank (including Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip and those within Israel’s 1948 borders; a smaller number are Syrians from the Golan Heights and Lebanese, Jordanian, and Egyptian nationals.
Drawing from their experience in the colonies, especially in India, the British authorities implemented a policy of brutal repression in Palestine. Noteworthy, in particular, was their bloody suppression of the al-Buraq/ Western Wall Disturbances in August 1929, followed by the arrest of participants in the disturbances and the execution by hanging of three militants in Acre prison in June 1930. In the years 1933–39, hundreds of activists and political leaders were detained. The Zionist-Israeli forces captured between 7,000 and 12,000 Palestinians and other Arabs when they took control of various Palestinian cities and towns during the 1948 war. Some were soldiers from the regular armies of Arab countries or paramilitaries from Arab and Palestinian volunteer forces, but the majority were Palestinian noncombatants, children and men between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five, detained because of their age or their political affiliations or as a prelude to expelling them to the other side of the cease-fire lines.
This pattern was repeated during Israel’s four-month occupation of the Gaza Strip after it launched the 1956 War (the Tripartite Aggression). Israeli troops detained hundreds of young Palestinians, in addition to Egyptian and Palestinian fighters. Since the occupation of the Palestinian territories in 1967, Israel has carried out successive waves of detentions, including mass detention operations during its invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and its occupation of South Lebanon, which lasted until 2000.
Israel refers to these captives not as “political prisoners” but rather as “security prisoners” and defines them as those who have been convicted and sentenced for a criminal offence or who have been detained on suspicion of committing an offence, when the offence, either because of its nature or its circumstances, is defined as an obvious security offence or when the motives for committing it are nationalistic.
Israel relies on two legislative instruments when detaining Palestinians in the West Bank (and in the Gaza Strip until the eve of Israel's disengagement from the Strip in 2005) and when trying them (or holding them without trial): the 1945 Emergency Regulations of the Mandate authorities and the military orders that the military commander in the West Bank has issued since 1967 (and the military commander in the Gaza Strip from 1967 until 2005). In the case of Gaza Palestinians detained since 2005, mostly during the wars of 2008–9 and 2014, Israel has used the Incarceration of Unlawful Combatants Law, which the Israeli Knesset passed in March 2002 in order to enable the military authorities to detain any person who might harm state security. This law helps Israel avoid the legal obligations specified in international law if the detainee is considered to be a prisoner of war.
Since 1967 the vast majority of political prisoners and detainees (94 percent) have been residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, most of them detained under decisions taken by military courts. Most of the other prisoners are Palestinian Israeli citizens who have been detained under rulings by regular courts. After Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the system of military rule and courts was abolished, and residents of the Gaza Strip have been tried in regular courts inside Israel.
Although prisoners who are inhabitants of the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 hold the status of “protected persons” under Article 4 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, most imprisoned West Bankers are held in prisons inside the occupying state (i.e., outside the occupied territories). This procedure is a prohibited form of forcible transfer under international law, but the Israeli Supreme Court has legalized such transfers on the grounds of security.
Palestinian prisoners are held in the following prisons and detention centers inside Israel: Shikma – Ashkelon, Ohalei Kedar, Eshel, Nafha, Ramon, Ktzi'ot – Negev, Nitzan – Ramla, Ayalon – Ramla, HaSharon, Hadarim, Damon, Megiddo, Gilbo'a –HaShita, Petah Tikva, and al-Jalama. In addition, many Palestinians detained for questioning are held in detention centers inside the occupied territories, such as Kfar Etzion, Hawwara, and Beit El; in Jerusalem at al-Maskubiya.
Data from the Council for Prisoner and Former Prisoner Affairs and from the Palestinian Prisoners' Club show that one third of the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip spent time in prison between 1967 and 2016. According to these data, about one million Palestinians have been detained since 1967 and 90,000 since the start of al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, including 11,000 children, 1,300 women, 65 members of the Palestinian legislative assembly (parliament), and one former minister. Israeli courts have issued about 15,000 administrative detention orders, including renewals of previous orders. During the first Palestinian intifada, which started in 1987, and the second intifada, which started in 2000, Palestinians were subjected to random arrests. These arrests were not confined to armed resistance fighters but included several sectors of Palestinian society: children; young men and women; old men; mothers; workers; academics; and leaders in politics, trade unions, and the professions.
Palestinians usually divide prisoners into (overlapping) categories in order to emphasize their special features and the sufferings that each category has endured, besides the suffering that has been common to all. The most prominent category is that of the “old prisoners,” those who have been detained since before the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993 or all those who have been in prison for more than twenty years. In 2016 thirty prisoners were in this category, most of whom were residents of Israel and whom the authorities refused to release in prisoner exchanges on the grounds that they fall under the jurisdiction of the state of Israel alone. Other categories that generate social concern are children between 12 and 18 years of age, women, and the sick and the disabled. The administrative detainee category consists of those who have been detained without charge for three-month periods that can be renewed indefinitely by the military prosecutors and the Israeli high court, based on secret dossiers whose content is never shown to the detainee or the defense attorney. Administrative detention affects all sectors of Palestinian society—women, men, and even minors.
As “security prisoners,” Palestinian political prisoners are subjected to more severe restrictions than other prisoners; they are interrogated, detained, tried, and housed differently than other prisoners. Detainees may be denied meetings with their lawyers for as long as three months in the case of military detentions in the West Bank and for up to twenty-one days in the case of security detentions inside Israel. When someone is classified as a security detainee, the interrogation is not required to be filmed or taped, which makes it possible to isolate detainees and to use physical and psychological torture. The security detention centers are not subject to any external monitoring, unlike other Israeli prisons, where representatives of the bar association and of the public prosecution can make unannounced visits to obtain information on living conditions.
Because security detainees are considered to be a danger to the security of Israel, their basic rights in prison are restricted, such as the right to have telephone conversations with their families and to have open meetings with their lawyers and their family members during visits. They are not allowed to have conjugal visits from their spouses, and only immediate relatives are allowed to visit. Unlike other prisoners in Israel, they cannot leave prison for monthly breaks and they are not released before they complete their sentences. Political prisoners have frequently complained of poor medical care and a shortage of educational and cultural activities in prison.
In the first years after the 1967 occupation, relationships among detainees were based on localities, kinship groups, personal ties, or affiliation to a particular group or cell before detention. Later, relations between detainees were governed by the rules determined by each political faction inside the prison and by collective interfactional decisions. The internal regulations of each faction specify the powers and duties of, and the division of labor between, the faction's various committees—executive and central committees in charge of administrative, cultural, external, financial, legal and security matters, and also of the consultative councils. The paradox is that the political interaction between the various organizations has proved to be more effective within prison walls than it has been outside. A clear example of this is the national conciliation document that the prisoner movement released in May 2006, which was adopted by political leaders in Gaza and Ramallah the next month.
This organizational work, which distinguishes political prisoners from other prisoners in Israeli jails, has created a background that has given their common struggles a powerful impetus when they come up against Israeli officials, whether in the case of a single prison or all prisons. In many cases these struggles have led to victories, and in some cases they have ended in failure. The forms of struggle to which the prisoner movement has resorted in order to obtain basic individual and communal rights include, most prominently, hunger strikes, or what are known as “empty stomach battles.” In these strikes the prisoners refuse to eat or drink anything other than water and a little salt: the objective might be to protest, to express solidarity, to press specific demands, or to make a political statement.
Since 1969 prisoners have carried out several hunger strikes, some of which have achieved considerable success. In the 1969 strike in Ramla and Kfar Yona prisons, for example, prisoners demanded better living conditions such as more food and refused to address warders as “sir.” Some of the most prominent subsequent strikes were in Nafha Prison in 1980, the general strike of 1992, the general strike of 2004 (which ended in failure), and the general strike of 2012, which was a big success. Since 2012 hunger strikes have tended to be individual actions. Khader Adnan went on strike for sixty-six days to protest his administrative detention; several prisoners, including Samer Issawi, Thaer Halahla, Bilal Diyab, Hana Shalabi, Mohammed Allan, and Mohammed al-Qeeq, followed in his footsteps. The individual strikes pushed the Israeli Knesset to pass in 2015 the force-feeding law, or “the law to prevent the ill effects of hunger strikes,” which allows doctors to feed prisoners on hunger strike against their will.
Although they are classified as “security prisoners” and portrayed as “terrorists” who deserve to be in prison for life, the Israeli government has had to recognize their specific status when it makes agreements to release some of them as part of prisoner-exchange deals with particular factions or with the Palestinian Authority, most notably the July 1968 agreement with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the November 1983 agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, the May 1985 agreement with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, the January 2004 agreement with the Lebanese organization Hizballah, and the October 2011 agreement with Hamas. An endless series of releases of Palestinian detainees has coincided with rounds of negotiation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, though these have gone hand in hand with blackmail, delays, broken promises, and rearrests. As a result, the fate of prisoners will remain thorny and perennial as long as the occupation continues.
Abu Sitta, Salman and Terry Rempel. “The ICRC and Israel’s 1948 POW/ Labor Camps.” Journal of Palestine Studies 43, no.4 (Summer 2014): 11–38.
Baker, Abeer and Anat Matar, ed. Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israeli Prisons. London: Pluto Press, 2011.
Hajjar, Lisa. Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.