Palestinian prisoners launch boycott of Israeli military courts

Zena al-Tahtan

Al-Jazeera  /  January 4, 2022

Hundreds of Palestinian administrative detainees announce boycott as hunger-striking prisoner faces ‘imminent’ death.

Ramallah, occupied West Bank Palestinian prisoners held without trial or charge have launched a boycott of Israel’s military courts in the occupied West Bank, as prisoner groups warn that one detainee on hunger strike faces “imminent danger of death”.

In an escalatory step agreed by Palestinian political parties, the 500 so-called administrative detainees began new year by refusing to show up for their court sessions. The boycott includes the initial hearings to uphold the administrative detention order, as well as appeal hearings and later sessions at the Supreme Court.

Under the banner, “Our decision is freedom … no to administrative detention,” administrative detainees said in a statement their move comes as a continuation of longstanding Palestinian efforts “to put an end to the unjust administrative detention practiced against our people by the occupation forces”.

They also noted that Israel’s use of the policy has expanded in recent years to include women, children and elderly people.

“Israeli military courts are an important aspect for the occupation in its system of oppression,” the detainees said, describing the courts as a “barbaric, racist tool that has consumed hundreds of years from the lives of our people under the banner of administrative detention, through nominal and fictitious courts – the results of which are predetermined by the military commander of the region”.

141 days on hunger strike

The boycott comes as the health of Hisham Abu Hawwash – on his 141th day on hunger strike on Tuesday in protest against his administrative detention since October 2020 – continues to severely deteriorate.

The 40-year-old is the latest in a string of prisoners who in recent months have refused food and water to demand their freedom. Many of them reached a critical stage and were hospitalized for long periods until Israeli authorities agreed to release them on a fixed date.

“What led the prisoners to take this step [boycott] are the developments in terms of individual hunger strikes – particularly Abu Hawwash and the stubbornness of the [Israeli] intelligence,” Sahar Francis, the head of the Ramallah-based Addameer prisoners’ rights group, told Al-Jazeera.

“The man is going to die and all they did was freeze the administrative detention order without any guarantee of when it will end,” she continued.

Abu Hawwash, a father of five children from the village of Dura near Hebron, faces “imminent danger of death due to potassium deficiency and arrhythmia,” Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI) said on Sunday. “The use of administrative detention and hospitals as detention centers must be stopped,” the group added.

Officials from the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Prisoners Affairs Commission said on Monday Abu Hawwash is in a state similar to “clinical death”, as he falls in and out of consciousness. The Commission said doctors in the Israeli hospital where he is being held have discussed the possibility of sudden death, or strokes, the consequences of which could be severe.

Administrative detention is an Israeli policy that allows the indefinite detention of prisoners without trial or charge based on “secret evidence” that neither the detainee nor his lawyer is allowed to see. At least four Palestinian children are detained under such orders.

Human rights groups describe Israel’s use of the practice as “systematic and arbitrary”, and as a form of collective punishment, noting that its extensive use constitutes a violation of international law “particularly relating to internationally recognized principles of a fair trial.”

“Administrative detention is regularly employed as a coercive and retaliatory measure targeting Palestinian activists, civil society members, students, former prisoners, and their family members,” Addameer says.

Increase in administrative detention

In November, administrative detainee Kayed Fasfous ended his 131-day hunger strike after a deal with Israeli authorities to release him two weeks later. Several other prisoners, including Miqdad al-Qawasmi and Alaa al-Araj, agreed to end their hunger strikes after they secured a date for their release.

Francis said that while the individual hunger strikes have brought about individual solutions, they “are not getting results on a collective level – they are not impacting the policy as a policy” – pushing prisoners to take the collective boycott decision.

Rights groups noted a dramatic increase in Israel’s use of administrative detention in 2021.

Israeli authorities issued more than 1,500 administrative detention orders last year, according to a joint annual report by Palestinian prisoners’ rights groups released on Sunday, compared with a little over 1,100 orders in 2020.

Some 200 orders were issued in May alone, during widespread Palestinian protests against efforts to forcibly displace residents of the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem and Israel’s 11-day bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip.

“The military courts are a farce. The decisions of the military courts – particularly with administrative detention – are merely a rendition of the intelligence’s decisions,” Amany Sarahneh, a spokeswoman for the Palestinian Prisoners Society (PPS) monitoring group, told Al-Jazeera.

“In the vast majority of the cases that receive administrative detention orders, the order is upheld and renewed,” she continued.

Referring to the boycott, Sarahneh said the refusal to attend hearings is an “integral part of confronting the occupation” and “will be humiliating” for Israeli courts.

“As organizations, we think this step is extremely important in bringing down the idea of recognizing and legitimizing these moot courts,” she added, noting that a similar boycott of military courts in 1997 led to fewer numbers of administrative detainees.

Francis said “there needs to be collective compliance with the decision,” for such a step to succeed. “The prisoners must be very patient – the impact will not be felt in a week or two.”

She said she expects Israeli military courts to “entice prisoners to attend their hearings by offering lower detention periods – to show that they are intervening and taking positive decisions”.

“We hope that there will be an impact on the use of the policy in general. Nobody expects that Israel will end its use of this policy – but there needs to at least be clear standards for its use,” continued Francis.

She said that the role of local and international organizations will be key in generating pressure on Israel to restrict its use of the practice.

The issue of Palestinian prisoners has come under renewed attention since six prisoners broke out of Israel’s Gilboa prison in September before being rearrested.

The jailbreak was widely celebrated as a victory by Palestinians, most of whom view detainees in Israeli prisons – numbering 4,550 Palestinians, including 170 children – as political prisoners who are in detention because of the Israeli military occupation or their resistance to it.

Since then, Israeli prisons have witnessed heightened tensions and collective punishment policies imposed against Palestinian prisoners, in particular members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) party, to which five of the six prisoners who escaped belong, and against Hamas-affiliated prisoners more recently.

Last month, Israeli prison authorities raided the cells of Palestinian female detainees in Damon prison, beating many, after several refused to step out into the cold weather during a cell search, according to Addameer, which decried the “inhumane treatment and collective punishment” meted out to the prisoners.

Shortly after, a Hamas-affiliated detainee in Nafha prison stabbed an Israeli prison officer in the face with an improvised weapon, lightly wounding him. Hamas said in a statement the incident was “a natural response to the escalation” faced by the female prisoners.

Some 80 detainees in the Hamas section of Nafha prison were then handcuffed, forced to remain outside in the cold for hours, and were severely beaten. The prisoner who carried out the attack was hospitalized, along with three other detainees, before being returned to their cells, the groups said.

Many have been placed in solitary confinement, while others had their belongings confiscated, faced financial fines and have been banned from canteen access and family visits.

Zena Al Tahhan is Al-Jazeera English’s digital correspondent in Jerusalem