by Catherine Cook | MIFTAH | 28 August 2004
Overview: On August 15, 2004, Palestinian political prisoners launched an open-ended hunger strike in protest of harsh conditions in prisons administered by the Israel Prison Service (IPS). By August 25, over 3,500 political prisoners in all IPS facilities were participating in the strike, making it the largest Palestinian hunger strike in decades.
Of the over 7,500 Palestinians currently imprisoned, approximately 3,800 are detained in IPS prisons – all of which are located in Israel—in violation of international law. The IPS prison population includes over 100 female detainees and over 70 minors. The remaining prisoners are detained in facilities under the authority of the Israeli Ministry of Defence.
For decades, Palestinian prisoners have utilized various forms of collective action to pressure the prison administrations for decent detention conditions. Given the physical damage prolonged failure to eat can cause, hunger strikes are the most serious form of action prisoners can take. The mere occurrence of a hunger strike is indicative both of the harsh conditions of detention and the prison administrations’ failure to respond positively to prisoners’ attempts to improve them.
International Standards and Israel’s Practice
International human rights and humanitarian treaties, along with UN guidelines, set forth detailed standards concerning conditions of detention. Detainees are to be afforded key protections including access to legal counsel and the right to maintain communication with the outside world, particularly family members. In terms of treatment, detainees have the right to be free from torture, to be treated with humanity and respect, to be held in hygienic conditions of detention, to receive food sufficient to maintain good health and to medical care, among other rights.
Palestinian political prisoners routinely face gross and systematic violations of these rights. Prisoners are held in overcrowded, filthy facilities, where the prison administrations fail to provide detainees sufficient clothing, bedding and supplies. The food provided is insufficient in quantity and often unfit for consumption. Medical care is minimal and most prisoners, even those with serious ailments, are treated only with basic pain relievers.
For the past several years, family visits have been extremely difficult and, at times, impossible. They are made most difficult by the detention of prisoners outside the occupied territories, a practice violating article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Palestinian residents of the occupied territories must obtain a permit to enter Israel, but these permits are difficult to obtain, frequently denied and revoked immediately during political crisis.
Some prisoners have not seen family members for years. According to Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association, there are 110 prisoners from Nablus detained in Asqalon prison who have been deprived of family visits for over three years. For those visits that are allowed, regulations restrict visits only to immediate family members. When visits do occur, prisoners are separated from their family by a wire or glass barrier, impeding smooth communication and making impossible physical contact.
Lawyers’ visits to IPS prisons are also difficult. To visit a political prisoner, attorneys must submit a written request, along with a power of attorney to the prison administration. The one to two day processing time for the request denies lawyers’ immediate access to facilities. When entering prisons, lawyers are physically searched, often forced to wait for hours and subjected to harassment and humiliation by prison guards. As with family visits, the lawyer and prisoner are separated by a physical barrier. According to Addameer, in most cases, a prison guard, fluent in Arabic, is present during the meeting, though the Israeli High Court ruled this practice illegal.
Prisoners are frequently abused by prison guards, or by Israeli prisoners with whom some are detained. Mistreatment by prison guards ranges from verbal harassment and humiliating strip searches to physical attacks, including beatings with batons and dispersing tear gas inside cells. Punishment doled out to prisoners includes being fined, having personal belongings confiscated, or “privileges,” such as family visits, revoked. More extreme forms of punishment include being placed for prolonged periods in isolation or being tied to one’s bed.
The pattern of abuse reported by prisoners has been well documented by local and international human rights organizations. In a June 2004 press release addressing Hasharon prison, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel stressed that “the impression received from the prisoners' affidavits … is that the abuse of prisoners in this prison is systematic and not related to ‘a few rotten apples’.”
The release noted that attempts to improve conditions had been unsuccessful. Likewise, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) noted that the hunger strike “follows a long line of complaints submitted by the prisoners, PCATI and other human rights organizations concerning appalling conditions of imprisonment in the Israel Prison Service facilities .... In spite of all of these, no action has been taken by the authorities ….”
Demanding Humane Treatment
On August 11, the Unified Leadership of the Hunger Strike made public the prisoners’ list of demands submitted to the IPS. The seven page list identifies 15 areas in which the prisoners are demanding improvements and includes categories such as family and lawyer visits, food, health care and university education, among others.
The list includes general demands, such as an end to collective punishment, the confiscation of personal belongings and fines, as well as specific demands, such as allowing prisoners to take photographs with family members during visits. Because family visits have been so infrequent since September 2000, access to a phone has become a major demand for prisoners.
Prisoners are demanding that the IPS take the following actions, among others:
Isolation: Restrict the maximum period of punishment in isolation to one week; end the practice of handcuffing isolated detainees in the cell; and allow isolated detainees access to toilets and a sink, among other supplies.
Toilet/shower facilities: Separate shower areas from toilet areas.
Provision of supplies: Provide, at the expense of the prison, tooth paste, tooth brush, soap, and cleaning and hygiene supplies.
Family visits: Remove physical barriers separating prisoners and visitors; expedite processing time for visitors and extend family visit time to one hour; allow all relatives to visit; allow personal contact with visiting children; allow family members to bring personal belongings and clothes to prisoners; and detain prisoners in close proximity to their place of residence.
Searches: End full body strip searches; decrease frequency of other searches and undertake searches without force and destruction of personal property.
Food: Allow prisoners to prepare their own food in accordance with their religious guidelines and customs; and allow prisoners to purchase fruit, vegetables and meat.
Adequate health care: Provide each prisoner a general check-up at least once a year; equip clinics for emergency cases and have a physician in each prison clinic seven days a week; conduct surgeries promptly; and provide glucose monitors and blood pressure monitors to those in need.
Education: Allow access to university education and computers; reopen all libraries and establish study rooms; and provide without delay newspapers and other printed materials.
End arbitrary transfer and increase freedom of movement: Do not transfer a prisoner to another facility until he/she has served at least two years in one place, unless the prisoner makes such a request; decrease delays during transfer into or out of the prison; and increase freedom and ease of movement within different areas of a prison.
The official Israeli response to the hunger strike has been harsh. Prior to the launch of the strike, Minister of Public Security Tzachi Hanegbi was quoted saying that, as far as he was concerned, prisoners “can strike for a day, a month, even starve to death.” Israeli officials and prison administrators portrayed the planned strike as either a “terrorist” ploy that would enable prisoners to launch attacks on Israelis from within prison walls or an attempt to raise the prisoner issue on the Palestinian political scene. Proponents of both claims denied that the strike was related to actual conditions of detention.
Upon launch of the strike, prison administrations immediately confiscated from prisoners liquids and salt, which striking prisoners use to provide their bodies with minerals. Prison guards also searched prisoners’ cells, confiscated personal belongings, removed radios and televisions, and barred family visits. Israeli media reports indicated that prison administrations planned to barbeque grilled meats near the striking prisoners.
During the strike, the IPS has attempted to break the strike by beating prisoners, threatening them, raiding their cells, forcibly strip searching prisoners and confiscating personal belongings, including clothes. Tens of prisoners, including women, have been placed in isolation and many others are being repeatedly transferred, both within and between prisons.
By August 26, reports emerging from the prisons indicate that the situation is rapidly deteriorating. Though dozens of prisoners are suffering from deteriorating health and scores of public solidarity activities have taken place in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the IPS gives no indication that prisoners’ demands will be met. Boding ill for the future are reports that IPS authorities are refusing to transfer prisoners to outside hospitals for treatment and that medical staff are informing ill prisoners that they will be treated only if they cease their strike.