Tensions simmer among Palestinian prisoners as Israel cracks down

Zena al-Tahhan

Al-Jazeera  /  February 3, 2023

Prisoner group says deal has been reached after tough measures were imposed amid escalation of violence.

Ramallah, occupied West Bank – After Hamas’s armed wing in the besieged Gaza Strip launched rockets towards Israel on Wednesday night, it explained its reasons; chief among them was the treatment of what it termed a “red line”: female Palestinian prisoners.

The announcement touched on an issue that has gone under the radar in the past week, with the focus instead on the escalating violence in the occupied West Bank.

But Israeli prison authorities have also taken increasingly tough measures against Palestinian inmates in the past week, according to Palestinian prisoners’ legal and rights groups.

These include solitary confinement, increased searches of cells and bans on visits.

The tensions inside the prisons have threatened to stir up the already-fragile situation on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territories.

“The situation is going from bad to worse inside the prisons,” Qadri Abu Baker, head of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Commission of Detainees Affairs, told Al Jazeera. “They [Israeli authorities] do what they want because there is no one to deter them or to hold them accountable.”

On Friday, Asra Media, affiliated with Hamas, the group that controls the Gaza Strip, reported that a resolution had been reached with Israel, and that “life will return to normal for the female prisoners by the coming Sunday”.

Prisoners’ rights groups have also confirmed that some of the measures imposed by prison authorities in the past week have been lifted.

However, Amany Sarahneh, spokesperson for the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society (PPS), said that the problems had not been fully resolved.

“The situation at any moment can lead to a confrontation since there are issues that have not been looked into in a final manner,” Sarahneh said.

‘Provocative actions’

The developments over the past week have been mainly centred in the Naqab (Negev), Ofer, and Megiddo men’s prisons, as well as the Damon women’s prison, where Israeli authorities imposed collective punishment measures after some inmates were heard celebrating the attack in occupied East Jerusalem on the night of January 27 in which seven Israelis were killed.

The shooting in Jerusalem came one day after an Israeli military attack on the Jenin refugee camp, in which 10 people were killed.

In several sections of the Naqab and Damon prisons, special prison forces carried out raids and thorough searches of rooms, confiscated all electrical devices, banned canteen access and family visits, and imposed collective and solitary isolation on more than 100 prisoners – measures that went on for a week.

In Ofer and Megiddo, prisoners groups said that authorities raided rooms and beat prisoners, and that in Damon, female prisoners had been taken out by force from their rooms, including some who were dragged from their headscarves.

“The situation is not OK – it is tense. The prison administration is still carrying out provocative actions against the prisoners, there are tens of prisoners in solitary and collective isolation. There are men still in pain from being beaten during raids,” Sarahneh told Al-Jazeera.

For their part, the Israeli prison service on Thursday said that “a state of heightened alter with reinforced staffing levels” had been imposed, adding that intelligence had been received that prisoners “were planning to harm prison staff”, according to The Jerusalem Post.

The spokesperson added that two women had been put in solitary confinement after prisoners had been heard cheering the East Jerusalem attack.

During the past week, prisoners in several sections decided to go on a days-long hunger strike and employed a strategy of non-cooperation with authorities as a form of protest. Several female prisoners in Damon also attempted to burn their rooms following the raids.

“Daily life inside the prisons was halted entirely as a form of protest against the procedures taken by the administration against the prisoners,” said Sarahneh. “The issue that pushed it over the edge in the past week was a raid that happened inside the Damon female prison on Tuesday.”

While the issue of Palestinian prisoners has been in the spotlight since September 2021, when six inmates broke out of an Israeli prison, the matter has taken a more serious turn under the far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is in charge of police and prisoners in his role in Israel’s new extreme-right government.

Many Palestinians view detainees in Israeli prisons as political prisoners who are being held because of the Israeli occupation or their resistance to it.

There are at least 4,700 Palestinians in Israeli prisons including 150 minors, 34 women and 835 people held without trial or charge, according to the Ramallah-based Addameer prisoner rights group.

Ben-Gvir increases restrictions

Several days after Ben-Gvir took office at the end of last year, authorities moved 80 Palestinian prisoners between different prisons, including longtime political leader Marwan Barghouti, as part of a larger plan that preceded Ben-Gvir’s rule but which he is quickly implementing. Several other transfer operations of dozens of Palestinian prisoners have taken place since then.

“Their forcible transfer was reported to be extremely harsh and degrading, with a complete strip search of each person and not allowing persons to take any of their belongings with them. Those prisoners who refused to transfer were punished by solitary confinement for a few days before being forcibly transferred,” Addameer said in a report.

The group noted that “such collective and retaliatory penalties violate the absolute prohibition in customary international law against the collective punishment of protected people in occupied territory, as enshrined in Article 33(1) of the Fourth Geneva Convention”.

After a breakout of six prisoners from Gilboa prison in September 2021, a special Israeli follow-up committee was formed. The committee recommended that prisoners, particularly those sentenced to life, should not stay in the same room for more than six months, in the same section of the prison for more than a year, and in the same prison for more than three years.

By doing this, said Sarahneh, Israeli prison authorities “try to hit any type of stability in life that is formed inside the prison – or for the prisoner himself”.

On January 11, Ben-Gvir pushed through draft legislation intended to revoke Israeli citizenship or residency from Palestinian prisoners with Israeli passports or Jerusalem residency IDs who have carried out armed attacks against Israelis. The proposed legislation passed through a preliminary reading by the Israeli government but has yet to become law.

Ben-Gvir has said that he is “obligated to prevent benefits and indulgences for terrorists imprisoned in Israel”. He added that the “death penalty should be enacted for terrorists, but until then, they should be treated” as such.

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