Striking for freedom: why Palestinian detainees are boycotting Israeli courts

Yuval Abraham

+972 Magazine  /  February 17, 2022

Following hunger strike victories last year, Palestinians hope collective action will force Israel to abolish its practice of indefinite detention without trial.

For the past six weeks, hundreds of Palestinian administrative detainees have been boycotting Israeli military courts over their indefinite imprisonment with no trial or indictment. Since Jan. 1, the prisoners have announced that they will not arrive for hearings at courts, and that they are refusing to allow attorneys to represent them in absentia until Israel ceases its use of administrative detention.

Israel uses administrative detention to indefinitely detain Palestinians (and very occasionally Jewish Israelis) without charge or trial. Administrative detention orders are reviewed every six months, but the detainees are not informed of the crimes of which they are accused, nor shown the evidence against them. As a result, it is virtually impossible to defend oneself against an administrative detention order.

Under international law, administrative detention should only be used in the most extreme cases. As of February 2022, however, Israel is holding approximately 500 Palestinians in administrative detention, out of a total of 4,500 political prisoners. During 2021, 1,595 Palestinians were imprisoned by Israel without trial — an increase of 43 percent compared to 2020, in which 1,114 were imprisoned according to Addameer, a Palestinian organization that provides legal assistance to Palestinian political prisoners.

“2021 saw many individual hunger strikes by administrative detainees,” said Addameer Executive Director Sahar Francis, “but the Shin Bet in recent years has prevented the release of hunger strikers from administrative detention for very long periods of time. That is why people understood that collective protest was needed.”

Last year, administrative detainee Hisham Abu Hawash went on a 141-day hunger strike, until the Shin Bet agreed to release him. In addition, Kayed Fasous was on hunger strike for 131 days, Miqdad al-Qawasmeh for 113 days, and Alaa al-Araj for 103 days — succeeding in each case to force Israel to grant them their freedom.

Compared to the past, these time periods have doubled. In 2012, for example, Khader Adnan was released after he refused to eat for 66 days in protest of his administrative detention. This was the first individual strike, and it caused a great deal of international uproar. Since then, however, the media’s interest in these strikes has significantly decreased.

Qadura Fares, a senior Fatah official and head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, which offers support to Palestinians in Israeli jails, told +972 that this protest will continue until Israel abolishes the arbitrary practice of administrative detention. “The detainees have together decided not to grant legitimacy to the courts, which are a rubber stamp for the Shin Bet’s decisions,” he said.

Israeli courts, whether military or civilian, very rarely rescind an administrative order, although in some cases they do shorten them. “In this sense, the striking prisoners pay a price for their boycott,” said Francis. “They are willing to sacrifice the possibility of returning home earlier, of being released, for a collective protest.”

According to Israeli law, Israeli authorities must hold a legal oversight hearing at a military court within eight days of the issuance of an administrative order. At the hearing, a military judge examines secret evidence; the detainee has no right to access that evidence nor defend themselves against the charges. Following the judge’s decision, the detainee is given the opportunity to petition their sentence to the Supreme Court, which in most cases does not interfere in the military court’s decision. Both the legal oversight and the opportunity to petition are being boycotted by the administrative detainees en masse.

Amal Nakhleh, 18, who has been in administrative detention for over a year, boycotted a hearing at an Israeli military court in January. During the hearing, the judge permitted the Shin Bet to renew Nakhleh’s administrative order for four months. Nakhleh was arrested at 16, and suffers from a severe chronic autoimmune disorder that affects his muscles and his ability to breathe. During his arrest, he was accused of throwing stones at soldiers. But when a military judge ordered he be released, the Shin Bet decided to put him in administrative detention.

“In the past, [Israel] would use administrative detentions against political activists or people who can influence public opinion,” said Muammar Nakhleh, Amal’s father, “but how can you continue to imprison a minor without indicting him or putting him on trial for over a year? I am very worried about his health, his rare condition, which deteriorates when he is in a bad psychological state.”

Administrative detainees have boycotted Israeli military courts in the past — including in 2018. According to Addameer’s Francis, during earlier boycotts, Israel tried to pressure the detainees to appear in court by easing conditions for those who came to the hearings. “In previous protests, the judges shortened or revoked the administrative order for those who came to court, to try to get them to forgo the protest. Collective action is a challenge — it is impossible to force all 500 prisoners to join the boycott. Some are not willing to give up on their court hearing.”

And yet, Fares says that currently all administrative detainees are committed to the protest. “We need to make sure that everyone continues like this, despite the pressure,” he said. According to him, Israel is not yet addressing their demands, and no negotiations are underway over the call to abolish the practice of administrative detention and imprisonment without trial.”

“Every single Palestinian faction is participating in the protest,” Fares said. “I think the prisoners should set an example for their leadership on the outside that it is possible to work together.” In light of Israel’s disregard for the demands, Fares expects that the prisoners will take further steps in the future. “My personal opinion is that all court hearings of the occupation should be boycotted — not just the administrative ones,” he said. “At the end of the day, these courts carry out the policies of the Israeli government.”

Yuval Abraham is a journalist and activist based in Jerusalem