Six prisoners made a dramatic escape from an Israeli prison earlier this month, shining a spotlight on Israel’s mass imprisonment of Palestinians. This is one of many bitter consequences of the conflict.
A military justice system that was designed to protect the Palestinians from Israel’s temporary occupation has seen hundreds of thousands of Palestinians pass through it. But, critics claim it is well into its sixth decade and is solidly cemented.
Nearly all Palestinians have a family member who was imprisoned in this system at one time or another. This is widely considered to be one of the most difficult aspects of living under Israeli rule.
The story of six prisoners, who were ultimately captured, highlighted the incongruous views that Israelis and Palestinians have about the prisoners, and more generally, what constitutes legitimate resistance.
Israel considers almost every act of resistance to its military rule a crime, but many Palestinians view those acts as resistance, and those involved in them as heroes, even though they may kill or wound Israelis.
The Palestinian Authority has been granted limited autonomy by Israel. It is responsible for law enforcement and administers the cities and towns of the occupied West Bank. The military is authorized to conduct regular arrest raids in PA-run areas, but Israel retains the overall authority. In 1967, Israel took the West Bank and east Jerusalem from the Palestinians. The Palestinians want an independent state in each of these three areas.
SYMBOLS FOR STRUGGLE
Israel holds Palestinian prisoners ranging from militants convicted for suicide bombings or shootings that killed Israeli civilians to activists held for protesting settlements and teens arrested for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.
Israel claims it guarantees due process and imprisons most people who pose a threat to its security. However, a few are held for minor crimes. Palestinians and human rights organizations claim that the system is intended to crush opposition and keep millions of Palestinians under constant control, while depriving them of basic rights.
“Mass imprisonment of Palestinians is an effective means to control the population and to stifle politics activity to keep a lid to turmoil and activism,” stated Dani Shenhar (legal director of HaMoked), an Israeli group that advocates to protect the rights of detainees.
Four of the four escapees were militants who had been convicted for launching deadly attacks on Israelis. More than 500 of the 4,600 Palestinians being held by Israel for their involvement in the conflict are currently serving life sentences. Similar numbers are held in administrative detention without being charged, possibly the most controversial aspect Israel’s military justice system.
Qadoura Fares, the head of Prisoners Club which represents current and ex-Palestinian prisoners, stated that they all are “freedom fighters.”
He said, “We see them symbolically of the struggle of the Palestinian people.”
Alaa al-Rimawi is a Palestinian journalist working for Al-Jazeera television. He claimed that he spent 11 years in prison over allegations related to political activism. However, he was never convicted. The Israeli military refused to comment.
He was working in the West Bank as director of Al-Quds TV. This TV is affiliated with Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. Al-Rimawi claims he isn’t a member Hamas or any other organization.
He claimed he was being accused of inciting violence against the occupation by publishing stories about Israeli forces’ demolitions of homes and the deaths of Palestinians. After 30 days, he was released but he was barred from being a journalist for two more months. He was briefly held by both Israel (and the Palestinian Authority) earlier in the year. Both jurisdictions suppress dissent.
Al-Rimawi stated that being in prison is similar to being in the grave. “And then, you come out of the prison and it feels like you have returned to life after death.”
‘THE SYSTEM ISN’T RIGGED’
Many are being held for violating the broad Israeli military orders which govern the 2.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank. These include participating in demonstrations which are generally illegal. Every year, hundreds of minors are detained. Most are charged with stone-throwing.
Palestinians in the West Bank who are held on security-related charges will be prosecuted by military courts. Jewish settlers in the territory, however, would be subject to civilian court.
Palestinians are seldom released on bail and many believe it is futile to challenge charges in military trials, which can drag on for months and even years. Rather, the majority of cases are settled through plea bargains, which contributes to a conviction rate higher than 95%.
Maurice Hirsch was the top military prosecutor between 2013 and 2016. He attributes the high conviction rates to resource-strapped prosecutors who only bring indictments when the cases are strong. He points out a recent case where a Palestinian officer was acquitted of the shooting death in an Israeli.
He stated that defendants “choose the plea bargains because it is clear that they will be convicted based on the evidence.”
He claims the trials are fair and that they follow the same procedure as Israeli civil courts. He said that all evidence must be shared with defense attorneys and that the military judges who issue verdicts are not part of the normal chain or command.
Shenhar stated that lawyers for Palestinians know it is futile to attempt to defend their client in court.
He explained that he would not be acquitted at the end and that he will stay longer in prison. “So, the system is rigged.”
LIFE IN PRISON
Escape is rare, the last major prison escape was many decades ago. But Israel has released hundreds upon hundreds of prisoners as part of diplomatic negotiations and in exchange for captured Israelis.
Many Israelis are frustrated that Palestinian prisoners have managed to organize themselves within prisons and win concessions through collective action and hunger strikes over the years.
Kalman Liebskind, an Israeli journalist, wrote that “we become hysterical like overprotective mother’s, reacting to any terrorist who threatens fasting,” in a column published in Maariv.
Palestinians believe that life in prison can be hard enough.
Security prisoners are generally forbidden from calling the outside world, but some can smuggle their cellphones in. Their only connection to the outside world is through visits from lawyers and their family. Shenhar said that relatives who are from the West Bank need military permits. This means that some prisoners, including minors can be kept away for months without seeing their loved ones.
Al-Rimawi recollects a time in prison in mid-2000s when his wife, who was pregnant after his arrest, couldn’t visit him for more that a year.
“My wife eventually came to visit me and brought with her a boy. I asked her, “Who is this?” She replied, “It’s your child.”