Frequently Asked Questions: Palestinian Political Prisoners
“It would be better to drown these prisoners in the Dead Sea if possible, since that’s the lowest point in the world.” – Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli Transport Minister
1. How many Palestinian prisoners are there?
As of July 8, 2003, there are 5,892 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons or detention camps. Of these prisoners, 351 are children under the age of 18, 75 are women and 42 are over the age of 50. Of the total number of prisoners, 433 Palestinians, who were imprisoned prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords, remain in prison despite the Accords’ call for their release. Of these 5,892 prisoners, only 1,461 have actually been put on trial. The prisoners include members of the elected Palestinian Legislative Council as well as individuals who helped reach the recent agreement with Palestinian factions to halt all violence against all Israelis.
Israel currently has 786 Palestinians detained in prison camps who have not been charged with any crime under what is called “administrative detention.” Administrative detention is illegal under international law. Administrative detention orders may last for up to six months, with Palestinians held without charge or trial during this period. Israel routinely renews the detention orders and may renew the orders without limitation, thereby holding Palestinians without charge or trial indefinitely. During this period, detainees may be denied legal counsel. While detainees may appeal against the detention, neither they nor their attorneys are allowed access to the State’s evidence, or know the purpose of the detention – thereby rendering the appeals procedure useless.
2. Don’t most Palestinian prisoners have “blood on their hands”?
No. The vast majority of Palestinian prisoners are political prisoners who have been arbitrarily imprisoned or detained for no legitimate security reason, but for political expression or simply because they are Palestinian. According to B’Tselem:
“Security is interpreted in an extremely broad manner such that non-violent speech and political activity are considered dangerous…. [This] is a blatant contradiction of the right to freedom of speech and freedom of opinion guaranteed under international law. If these same standards were applied inside Israel, half of the Likud party would be in administrative detention.”
Furthermore, of those Palestinians currently being held, the overwhelming majority have not been put on trial.
Many Palestinians are arrested arbitrarily. For example, from February to March 2002, approximately 8,500 Palestinians were arrested arbitrarily. In many cities, all Palestinian males from the ages of 15 to 45 were rounded up and detained or imprisoned. Palestinians were blindfolded, handcuffed tightly with plastic handcuffs and forced to squat, sit or kneel for prolonged periods of time. This type of mass arrest and detention has been condemned by Amnesty International as a breach of human rights.
The issue of child detainees and prisoners is the most stark example of Israel’s policy of blanket imprisonment: approximately 2,000 Palestinian children have been arrested and detained from September 2000 to the end of June 2003. Children as young as 13 are held in Israeli prisons with children aged 13 and 14 constituting approximately ten percent of all child detainees. Almost all child detainees have reported some form of torture or mistreatment, whether physical (beatings or placed in painful positions) or psychological (abuse, threats or intimidation). Children are routinely held in detention centers under appalling conditions: in some centers up to eleven children have been packed into cells as small as five square meters.
3. But didn’t Israel make “concessions” by releasing long-time Palestinian prisoners when the Road Map was announced and by announcing the release of additional prisoners?
Releasing political prisoners who never should have been arrested is not a “concession” – it is a legal obligation. Respect for human rights should never be considered a “concession” and should never be used as a tool to extract political gains.
Nevertheless, of the approximately 121 prisoners released by Israel on 3 June 2003, 100 of them were administrative detainees, most of whom had detention orders that expired that same day or had less than 19 days remaining on their detention orders. Twenty of the released Palestinians were held in custody with no detention orders or charges against them. Israel only released one political prisoner who had been tried.
Israel’s announcement that it will release 350 Palestinian political prisoners (approximately six percent of all Palestinian prisoners) also rings hollow: 215 of the prisoners are administrative detainees illegally held without charge or trial. Israel has not indicated that it is willing to release the remaining political prisoners and continues to arbitrarily arrest Palestinians.
4. Why is the release of Palestinian prisoners so important?
No issue highlights Israel’s 36-year denial of freedom to the Palestinians better than that of political prisoners. The Palestinians have been subjected to the highest rate of incarceration in the world - approximately 20 percent of the Palestinian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has, at one point, been arbitrarily detained or imprisoned by Israel.
Israel’s imprisonment and detention of Palestinians is a manifestation of its failure to abide by international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention: administrative detentions and imprisonment inside Israel are both illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Furthermore Palestinian prisoners are routinely tortured by Israel and held in detention centers and prisons that do not meet the minimum international standards and are routinely denied visitation rights. The vast majority of Palestinian prisoners are held without trial and, according to Amnesty International, trials often fall short of international fair trial standards. Israel’s failure to release Palestinian political prisoners and its continued arbitrary arrest of Palestinian civilians only serves to highlight that Israel continues to view itself above the law and the Palestinians beneath it.