Middle East Eye / January 24, 2023
Prisoners gear up to resist harsh conditions as Israel’s government imposes new collective punishment policies across prisons.
Over the past two weeks, approximately 140 Palestinian prisoners were transferred to Israel’s infamous Nafha prison, located in the southeast Naqab (Negev desert). The prison is notorious for its terrible living conditions that some prisoners describe as “inhumane”.
While the internal transfer of Palestinian political prisoners is not uncommon, the recent transfers to Nafha are indicative of a new policy by the Israeli government targeting Palestinian prisoners with collective punishment.
“We are worried that these measures will intensify and things will end badly,” a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail told Middle East Eye. He went on to say that the Israel Prison Service (IPS) has made it clear to prisoners that they will adopt far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s new policies to “use against them”.
“[IPS] has started threatening us with this, trying to get a reaction out of us,” said Khaled*, a political prisoner who has spent over two decades in an Israeli prison.
Palestinian political prisoners believe things will only get worse.
During coalition talks on the formation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, Ben-Gvir wasted no time delivering on his plans to create harsher conditions for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Within the first week of the new government’s formation, he announced his plans to implement several punitive measures against incarcerated Palestinians.
“The situation in prison over the last couple of weeks has been terrible. The transfer of these prisoners is an attack on their lives,” the commissioner of Palestinian prisoner affairs, Hassan Abid Rabbah, told MEE.
“Israeli media is talking about transferring 2,000 prisoners between jails. It is a strategy to weaken and destabilize Palestinian resistance within the prisons.”
As tension in prisons rises, Palestinian prisoners are readying themselves for organized civil disobedience, which they anticipate will escalate into a full-scale hunger strike.
“One of the new government’s targets is to punish the prisoners and take away their basic rights inside the prisons. Ben-Gvir says the rights we have now are already too many,” said Khaled.
“Everyone [in jail] is worried. We are all on standby, waiting to see what will happen. This is not a new process. They have always tried to weaken us and kill our spirits, but now they are trying to make it even worse,” added Khaled.
Disorienting political prisoners
On 6 January, one week after assuming the role of Israel’s security minister, Ben-Gvir visited Nafha prison, considered one of Israel’s most harsh and severe prisons for Palestinians. Since then, the IPS has begun moving prisoners and transferring them between the 20 prisons used exclusively for Palestinian political prisoners.
Following his trip, Ben-Gvir tweeted that “those who murdered Jews would not receive better conditions than the existing ones” before stating his aim to pass “the death penalty law for terrorists”.
Since the security minister’s visit, the IPS has transferred at least 70 prisoners from Hadarim prison to Nafha prison, including veteran Fatah leader Marwan al-Barghouti and other high-profile prisoners.
The IPS is also making a point of transferring internal political leaders, such as Barghouti, with the aim of dissolving Palestinian factions within the prison system. These factions are the foundation of the Palestinian prison society and reflect the political parties outside Israeli prison walls.
This form of organization gives the prisoners, who have all been imprisoned for “political resistance” against the Israeli state, the means to hold onto their political ideas and affiliations.
To stop this, Ben Gvir plans to restrict the “independence” of prisoners inside Israeli prisons through various punitive measures.
“They are trying to make the prisons where they keep Palestinian political prisoners like their civilian criminal prisons. They are trying to eliminate our political systems, groups, and rights to organize inside prison,” Khaled told MEE.
“They want to treat us like petty criminals. This is all to try and make us lose our Palestinian national identity.”
When prisoners are transferred, their environment and social circles change, and their families might have to wait months to find out where they have been moved to.
“They want to fight us as individuals rather than a unit,” Rabbah commented, “If they weaken us and turn us into terrorists, then we are not protected by the Geneva convention, which says we have the right to armed resistance against occupation.”
“It also affects the educational systems set up for high school and university in prisons – the whole process will be difficult for us,” he added.
“This will make it easier for the Israeli governments to control the new prisoners because they won’t know their rights because their leaders have been taken away to another prison.”
Other punitive measures being discussed include limiting family visits, halting the sales of certain foods and items in the canteen, and even restricting families from sending clothes to prisoners.
“For example, if you used to get five pairs of trousers sent to you in a year, now they will only allow one. All these things were attained by years of fighting and prisoners had gone on many hunger strikes to get these rights, and now they are planning to take them away,” Khaled said.
According to him, many of these measures have yet to be introduced. Still, they could be instituted at any time, leaving Palestinian prisoners waiting in a state of limbo.
“They want to disrupt life here as much as possible,” he said.
‘The hunger strike of freedom’
Human rights organizations have long condemned Israeli prisons holding security prisoners for their inhuman treatment of Palestinians.
Currently, Israeli prisons are home to 4,700 Palestinian political prisoners, including 150 children and five Palestinian Legislative Council members. All of whom will be affected by Israel’s implementation of punitive measures.
Palestinian political prisoners are not planning on accepting Israel’s punitive measures quietly.
Khaled, who is involved in political organizing within the prisons, told MEE that Palestinian prisoners are committed to their “fight for freedom” through planning and organizing direct actions in Israeli prisons to resist the new Israeli extreme right-wing government and the occupation.
In response to human rights violations, Palestinians have been resorting to hunger strikes since 1968 to fight issues such as solitary confinement, denial of family visits, inadequate medical treatment, and other degrading treatment.
Rabbah said they are “pushing the prisoners to be ready for anything. Everyone is on standby, ready for the next step: refusing to cooperate or communicate with the prison authorities.”
According to Khaled, there are plans for a mass hunger strike in Israeli prisons set to begin on 23 March, the first day of Ramadan.
If the Israeli government follows through with their threats of harsher measures against the prisoners before then, they plan to “go to battle” and start the strike earlier.
“It will be called the ‘hunger strike of freedom’. We named it this because one of our demands will be demanding our freedom. We will no longer ask for better conditions in prison; we will demand our freedom. We are freedom fighters, not terrorists as they claim,” said the prisoner.
Rabbah said he wants the world to know, “Palestinians are resistance fighters, not terrorists. Under international law, it is our legal right to resist Israel’s violent occupation”.
* The name has been changed to protect the prisoner’s identity.
Leila Warah is a Palestinian freelance journalist based in the Bethlehem