"You are destroying my life and I want to know why. As a human being I have my own mind and I am educated, and I want to know what I am detained for. The military prosecution talks of its professionalism, and meanwhile I have no rights?"
Ahmad Qatamesh, prisoner of conscience held in administrative detention by the Israeli authorities, speaking at Ofer military court on October 31, 2011
For decades, the Israeli authorities have held Palestinians without charge or trial under renewable detention orders, denying them any semblance of justice. In the first half of 2012, detainees such as Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi engaged in prolonged hunger strikes to protest their incarceration without charges as well as ill-treatment during interrogation, denial of adequate medical care, and denial of family visits. Other detainees began their own hunger strikes to highlight the plight of the hundreds of administrative detainees and the routine violations endured by Palestinian prisoners. The protest grew, and a mass hunger strike began on 17 April 2012, with an estimated 2,000 prisoners and detainees demanding improved detention conditions, an end to solitary confinement, family visits for all detainees, and an end to administrative detention.
Palestinians held by Israel have used hunger strikes over the years to protest detention conditions and demand respect for their human rights, but in the wake of the wider protests which have taken place since early 2011 across the Middle East and North Africa, this recent wave of hunger strikes have had a greater resonance. Their non-violent protests – which brought several detainees close to death – drew global attention to the fact that Palestinian prisoners held by Israel continue to be starved of justice. Whether the protests have secured greater respect for Palestinian prisoners’ rights from the Israeli authorities remains to be seen, but the signs were not encouraging at the time of writing of this report in late May 2012.
Administrative detention is a form of detention without charge or trial. Its use may result in arbitrary detention and if prolonged or repeated can amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. Other violations to which administrative detainees – as well as other Palestinian prisoners held by Israel – are routinely subjected include the use of torture and other ill-treatment during arrest and interrogation; poor prison conditions, including inadequate medical care; detention in prisons inside Israel rather than in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT); and prohibitions on family visits. Since 1967, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the OPT have been arrested – some of them repeatedly – by the Israeli security forces. At the time of writing, well over 4,000 – considered by the Israeli authorities to be “security prisoners” and thus held under harsher conditions than “criminal prisoners” – are detained or serving sentences in Israeli prisons. Over 300 of these “security prisoners” are held under administrative detention orders, with no intention to try them for any criminal offence, a violation of their right to a fair trial.
As the hunger strikes escalated, the Israel Prison Service (IPS) took systematic measures to punish hunger-striking prisoners and detainees and pressure them to end their strikes, putting their lives at risk. These measures included solitary confinement; preventing the detainees from contact with family members and lawyers; refusing to transfer hunger strikers whose health was in danger to hospitals suitable for their condition; and preventing detainees from seeing independent physicians so that they could receive accurate medical information from doctors they trusted. Some hunger striking detainees even reported physical assaults by IPS staff.
Some of the administrative detainees on prolonged hunger strikes were, according to their lawyers, offered release on condition that they agree to be deported outside the OPT or transferred within them, but all refused. Hana Shalabi, an administrative detainee from the village of Burqin in the West Bank, was transferred to Gaza for at least three years on 1 April 2012, three days after a deal was reached that ended her 43-day hunger strike in what appears likely to have been a forcible transfer. She was isolated from her independent lawyers and family, and is reported to have subsequently claimed she had not been given full information about the conditions of the deal. Other administrative detainees have been forcibly deported from the OPT in the past – a grave breach of international humanitarian law. All should be allowed to return to their homes without delay.
On 14 May 2012, a deal was struck between prisoner representatives and the Israeli authorities, including the IPS and the Israel Security Agency (ISA), brokered by intensive Egyptian mediation, leading to the suspension of the mass hunger strike. Under the deal, Israel reportedly agreed to end solitary confinement for 19 prisoners held in isolation for up to 10 years; lift a five-year ban on family visits for prisoners from the Gaza Strip; and discuss prisoners’ demands regarding improvements to prison conditions. There were conflicting reports on whether the deal included a commitment by the Israeli authorities to restrict their use of administrative detention. While most prisoners held in isolation had been returned to general prison wings, no family visits had been allowed from the Gaza Strip at the time of writing in late May. Additionally, reports that the Israeli military had by the time of writing renewed at least 30 administrative detention orders and issued at least three new ones since the deal was signed suggest that the Israeli authorities may have simply returned to “business as usual” as far as administrative detention is concerned.
Israel’s record following previous agreements over releases of Palestinian prisoners and detainees or the improvement of prison conditions does not provide grounds for optimism that the deal will lead to a reduction in the use of administrative detention. For example, Hana Shalabi was released on 18 October 2011 after spending 25 months in detention without trial, in a deal between Israel and Hamas that saw the staged release of 1,027 Palestinians prisoners and detainees in exchange for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held captive for over five years by Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip. At the time, Hamas officials claimed that Egypt, which helped broker the deal, had guaranteed that Israel would not re-arrest prisoners who were released. Hana Shalabi was arrested again four months later and once again placed in administrative detention.
Nor did the deal result in all individual detainees ending their hunger strikes, and at least two men – Akram Rikhawi and Mahmoud al-Sarsak – remained on hunger strike at the time of writing. The latter had been on hunger strike for more than 70 days in protest at his continuing prolonged detention without charge or trial, and both were in critical condition.