As crackdown intensifies, Palestinian prisoners gear up for Ramadan protest

Sharona Weiss 

+972 Magazine  /  March 16, 2023

Prisoners hope the Palestinian public will join collective actions against Israel’s punitive measures, which have harshened under the far-right government.

On March 5, Palestinian prisoners announced plans to step up their protest against the harsh treatment they have received since Itamar Ben Gvir was appointed Israel’s national security minister. Ben Gvir, whose portfolio includes overseeing prisons within the Green Line, has promised a brutal crackdown on Palestinian prisoners’ conditions, bringing an end to what he calls “the summer-camp conditions of murderous terrorists.” Prisoners have launched a series of actions in defiance of these threats, which will culminate in a collective hunger strike beginning on the first day of the fasting month of Ramadan.

According to Palestinian sources who spoke to +972, as well as reports in Palestinian media, the prisoners’ coordinated efforts could compel Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza to join in resisting other forms of Israeli oppression.

Since his appointment in January, Ben Gvir has advanced several unprecedented measures against Palestinian prisoners — both those holding Israeli citizenship considered “political prisoners,” and those hailing from the occupied territories including East Jerusalem. These measures include limiting showers to four minutes per person; limiting each prison wing to one hour of running water each day, which in some prisons amounts to less than a minute of water use per person; shutting down bakeries for prisoners; limiting time for morning exercise; limiting family visits; conducting violent raids on prison wings; and increasing the number of inmates in solitary confinement

In addition, Israel has begun targeting the assets of former and current prisoners who received a stipend from the Palestinian Authority, while those with Israeli citizenship or residency are now seeing their status threatened to be revoked on the same basis.

With an estimated 40 percent of Palestinian men having been incarcerated at some point in their lives since 1967, and around 70 percent of Palestinian families having had one or more family members spend time in a cell, nearly all Palestinians have been touched by the Israeli prison system. Indeed, by crushing resistance and maintaining control over Palestinians, the prison system has been an integral part of Israel’s apartheid rule.

That system can easily evade oversight, further enabling unjust treatment. For example, Israeli authorities frequently employ administrative detention, a practice that amounts to imprisoning Palestinians (and, in extremely rare cases, also Jews) for lengthy periods of time with no charges, no evidence, and no trial. Currently, 915 Palestinians are held as administrative detainees. And contrary to the “summer camp” conditions that Ben Gvir claims they receive, in reality Palestinian prisoners are held in conditions that fall far short of Western standards, with less than 3 square meters of cell space, compared to between 6 and 12 square meters in most Western countries.

Despite its general absence from Israeli media, the issue of prisoners touches at the heart of Palestinian society and is commonly considered a potential spark for broader resistance. As hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis take to the streets to protest in the name of democracy, a huge segment of citizenry is being denied even basic humane treatment, with very little recourse. And as Israel’s unjust treatment of Palestinians worsens under the ruling far-right government, prisoners are preparing to push back.

New risks

One central concern of the prisoners who are organizing an escalation in protest tactics is the rise in punitive measures faced by Palestinian women currently held in Israeli custody. According to Milena Ansari of the prisoners’ rights NGO Addameer, “The conditions of the women [prisoners] have deteriorated significantly. They are suffering from increasingly degrading and violent treatment in recent weeks.”

On Jan. 29, Israeli special forces violently raided the women’s cells at Damoun Prison, confiscating electronic equipment. They shut down the entire wing for days and banned family visits and public phone use for a month. Following the raid, four women were placed in solitary confinement for seven days, while the women prisoners’ representative — a fellow prisoner elected by women prisoners to represent their interests — was transferred to Neve Tirza prison. She was held there until Feb. 7 in humiliating conditions, with a video camera surveilling her 24/7, which, psychologically stressful for anyone, is considered particularly degrading for women.

Another major element in the Israeli authorities’ crackdown is their obsession with stipends granted by the Palestinian Authority to prisoners and their families. While Palestinians view the stipend as a form of welfare intended to support families whose primary earner has been imprisoned, Israel regards it as the PA’s encouragement for criminal activity. 

Under the new government, Palestinian prisoners with Israeli citizenship or residency are now at risk of having assets seized or losing their citizenship simply on the basis of having received a stipend from the PA — including former prisoners who received money from the PA before the new measures were imposed.

According to the Committee of Families of Prisoners from Jerusalem, Israel has already seized the funds of more than 160 Palestinians this year in Jerusalem alone, half of whom are family members of prisoners and not themselves incarcerated. Israel also ordered the seizure of NIS 500,000 ($148,000) and a vehicle from two recently released prisoners who hold Israeli citizenship, Maher and Karim Younis, for allegedly receiving financial support from the PA.

These seem to be the first raids of many: the NGO Addameer obtained a list, created by Israeli security bodies and seen by +972, with 243 names of former and current Palestinian prisoners whose assets the authorities are planning to seize.

“People are protesting in the streets for democracy, and yet here we see people being exposed to the law without recourse, and such measures are even being enacted on citizens,” Abeer Baker, a Palestinian human rights lawyer, told +972, referring in particular to the new law allowing status revocation and expulsion. “This is unprecedented, and yet no one says anything because they are Palestinian.”

Expelling Palestinian prisoners is not a new practice. Akevot, an Israeli archival research group, recently exposed documents on a similar government operation that took place between 1970 and ’72: groups of Palestinian prisoners were rounded up, given water, a hat, and one Jordanian dinar before being sent across the border to Jordan. Over 800 Palestinian prisoners were expelled in this way over that three-year period. The practice was ended shortly after it began, possibly influenced by significant pressure and correspondence with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other international groups.

While Israel claims to be implementing these new measures because of the money prisoners and their families receive from the PA, former Arab Knesset member and prisoner Basel Ghattas told +972 that this justification is deeply misleading. “The major issue that is being used is the money … as if the money being paid by the PA is being used to support ‘terror,’” Ghattas explained. “This is not only false but hypocritical, because Israel gets the most significant portion of the money given to the prisoners by the PA.” 

Every month, the PA pays NIS 400 ($110) per prisoner to a private Israeli company contracted by the Israel Prison Service to operate a “cantina” in the prisons. Palestinian inmates then buy cigarettes and food to supplement their often insufficient meals, as well as other items using their modest PA stipend — typically half of the approximately NIS 2,000 ($550) they receive, further benefiting the Israeli company. The PA stipend, then, isn’t funding terror: it is primarily funding a private Israeli company.

A wider escalation

In response to these developments, Palestinian prisoners have launched a series of collective actions. The prisoners sent a letter addressed to the Palestinian people explaining their coordinated resistance and calling on Palestinians to be ready to take to the streets. 

For several weeks, prisoners have been exclusively wearing the brown prison uniform that is typically worn only during transportation as a small symbol of defiance. In some prisons, they have also refused to show up to be counted. On March 5, they announced they would close all prison wings for three hours, continue organizing actions in the prison yards, and refuse daily security checks.

These actions are intended to culminate in a mass hunger strike at the start of Ramadan, which begins on March 22. The use of hunger strikes to protest Israel’s mistreatment of prisoners, in particular at pivotal moments of Palestinian resistance, has a long history and has previously sparked broad protest across Palestinian society. On the eve of the Second Intifada in 2000, 1,000 Palestinian prisoners launched a one-month hunger strike in protest of prison conditions, which was followed by mass demonstrations in solidarity with the prisoners.

Some anticipate that the effect of this year’s hunger strike could be felt beyond the prison walls. In their letter to Ben-Gvir, prisoners warned that his inhumane measures will “set the region on fire” and lead to a “war of liberation.” After the massacre in Jenin and the pogrom in Huwara, imams transmitted a message from Palestinian prisoners imploring people to rise up in solidarity. 

Ghattas, the former MK and prisoner, reiterated the possibility of a wider escalation, and warned of the Israeli response to a collective uprising. “The situation of the political prisoners is a very, very sensitive issue, not something [that can be] hidden and put in a drawer,” he explained. “It can really escalate into an intifada, and the Shin Bet knows that and does not want this to happen.”

Sharona Weiss is an activist and photographer living in Haifa