The meaning of Israel’s ultra-nationalist government for Palestinian prisoners

Milena Ansari & Kanav Kathuria

Mondoweiss  /  March 27, 2023

Since entering office, Israel’s new government has dramatically increased the repression of Palestinian prisoners, moves which reflect its hostile agenda toward Palestinians as a whole.

In the short time that Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition has taken power, the Israeli apartheid and settler colonial regime has already undertaken a series of actions that demonstrate its hardline stance towards the Palestinian Prisoners’ Movement. Crucially, these actions foreshadow the new government’s hostile agenda toward the Palestinian people as a whole. This agenda not only paves the pathway for further violating Palestinian prisoners’ and detainees’ rights but also makes clear the new government’s plans for the overall subjugation of Palestinian self-determination.

In February, Palestinian political prisoners launched a mass disobedience campaign against the current Israeli government’s tightening grip on Palestinian detainees’ prison conditions.  Punitive measures undertaken by the Israeli prison authorities include shutting down bakeries that supply bread to prisoners—described by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir as an “indulgence”—and drastically limiting prisoners’ water use. On March 23, Palestinian prisoners suspended a hunger strike on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan after the Israeli prison administration reportedly conceded to their demands. Such demands were themselves as modest as being allowed to take showers, not being raided by search dogs and attacked with stun grenades, and allegedly resuming the supply of bread.

How the crackdown on Palestinian prisoners started

These actions come amid the recent Israeli escalation of punitive measures against Palestinian political prisoners—measures that predate the election of the current Israeli government in November 2022. In 2022, the Israeli Occupation Forces arrested over 7,000 Palestinians across occupied territories. Significantly, 2022 also witnessed an unprecedented reliance on the use of administrative detention — a practice where Palestinians are held indefinitely in Israeli occupation prisons without charges or access to a fair trial based on what the military deems as “secret information.” 

Israel’s use of administrative detention is widely condemned as a form of psychological torture and a violation of international law. In the past year alone, Israeli authorities issued over 2,400 administrative detention orders, increasing the total number of Palestinians held indefinitely to 917 — a figure that includes five children, one woman, and two members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. 

Itamar Ben-Gvir has emerged as one of the strongest voices calling for the worsened treatment of Palestinian political prisoners. On January 5, 2023, Ben-Gvir visited Nafha prison in the occupied Palestinian territory. In a tweet following the visit, Ben-Gvir wrote:

“I visited Nafha prison yesterday following the construction of new cells, to make sure that those who murdered Jews would not receive better prison conditions than the existing ones. I will continue to deal with the conditions of incarceration for prisoners while aiming to… pass the death penalty law for terrorists.”

 Ben-Gvir’s measures against Palestinian prisoners have only escalated since then. Israeli forces transferred 80 Palestinian prisoners to Nafha prison from Hadarim following Ben-Gvir’s statement. The transfer of prisoners between carceral institutions constitutes a time-worn strategy intended to weaken and destabilize Palestinian resistance efforts against mass arbitrary arrests and inhumane detention conditions. 

If imprisonment was not punishment enough, the transfer of prisoners is in and of itself a harsh, violent, and dehumanizing experience. Every individual transferred from Hadarim was strip-searched and forbidden to take any of their belongings with them. Those who refused to move were punished by solitary confinement before being forcibly transferred later in the week. The journey from one prison to another takes place via “bosta” — a bus that has been described as a “moving grave” engineered for punishment and humiliation. 

A few weeks later, on January 28, 2023, Israeli Special Units raided Ofer, Naqab, and Megiddo prisons to transfer prisoners between rooms and sections within each institution and punish others with isolation. As with transfers, prison raids are deeply violent in nature and give way to a host of abuses and human rights violations—serving as one method of collective punishment, torture, and ill-treatment of the 4,700 Palestinian prisoners and detainees behind bars. In response to the transfer of prisoners and Ben-Gvir’s visit, Hassan Abed Rabbo — a representative of the Palestinian Commission of Detainees’ and Ex-Detainees’ Affairs — detailed how “the situation in [Naqab] over the last couple of weeks has been terrible. The transfer of these prisoners is an attack on their lives.” 

On January 5, 2023, the Israeli occupation authorities released Kareem Younis, the longest-serving continuous political prisoner, after 40 years of incarceration. Two weeks later, Palestinian political prisoner Maher Younis — Kareem’s cousin — was also released from prison. Both Maher and Kareem Younis were born in Wadi A’ra in the occupied 1948 territories and hold Israeli citizenship. After their release, the Israeli Knesset proposed legislation to revoke Israeli citizenship or residency from any Palestinian prisoner from the 1948 occupied territories and Jerusalem convicted of acts of “terrorism.” This legislation comes following the Israeli occupation authorities’ unlawful and forcible deportation of French-Palestinian human rights lawyer and former political prisoner Salah Hammouri. Such instances of residency and citizenship revocation stand as a horrifying escalation of Israel’s systematic practice of demographic engineering and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.

The Palestinian Prisoners’ Movement affirms that any actions affecting the daily lives of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli occupation prisons will only be met with organized and collective protests if the Israeli occupation and apartheid regime continues its hostile behavior towards incarcerated individuals. 

Following Kareem Younis’s release, Itamar Ben-Gvir instructed law enforcement to prevent gatherings in support of Younis’s return — stating that “until the government passes a law imposing the death penalty for terrorists, I will do everything in my power to ensure that they will leave prison in shame.” These words from one of Israel’s highest-ranking government officials demonstrate that the stakes could not be higher.

Now more than ever, the international community must abide by its responsibilities under international law and uphold its legal and moral commitment to reclaim and foster the protection of Palestinian human rights within the larger framework of the right to self-determination.

Milena Ansari is the international advocacy officer at Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, a Palestinian human rights organization advocating for Palestinian political prisoners’ rights nationally and internationally through monitoring, legal aid, and solidarity campaigns

Kanav Kathuria’s work lies in the intersection of prison abolition, public health, and food sovereignty