The recent news that agreement has been reached to secure the release of an Israeli soldier in return for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners is most welcome. Especially for all those who will be released. However it should not obscure the reality of Israel’s ongoing attack on Palestinians.
For example, since the military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, Israel has imprisoned more than 700,000 Palestinians. This represents around 20% of the population. Just take a moment or two to reflect on this. Some 20% of the population of Palestine has been imprisoned by the Israelis over the past 40 years.
Currently there are, according to the Israel Prison Service, approximately 5,200 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights claims that more than 6,000 Palestinians are in prison.
It is also important to note that though these Palestinian prisoners are civilians they are dealt with by Israeli military courts. This in itself is against UN conventions. In addition human rights organizations have found wide spread abuses of the accused people’s rights, including interrogation without the presence of a lawyer.
All this of course in the context of an ongoing occupation. Any kind of resistance to this brutal occupation is met with arrest and subsequent imprisonment via a military court. It should also be noted that most of this resistance to the occupation is either peaceful - marches, demonstrations etc - or involves throwing stones. Not the sort of activities that would normally get you imprisoned in the UK. Even in Northern Ireland during the height of the troubles, was there such a heavy handed resort to imprisonment.
The treatment of Palestinian prisoners within Israeli prisons leaves much to be desired. Amnesty International has reported “consistent allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, including of children. Among the most commonly cited methods were beatings, threats to the detainee or their family, sleep deprivation, and being subjected to painful stress positions for long periods.”
It seems that things have got even worse. As a result since September 27, thousands of Palestinian prisoners have been on a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their incarceration. They have made several key demands, including an end to abusive isolation, restrictions on higher education in prisons, denial of books and newspapers, shackling, excessive fines, and most importantly, an end to all forms of collective punishment, including the refusal of family visits, night searches of prisoners’ cells, and the denial of basic health treatment.
While news of the release of Gilad Shalit has made the front pages of newspapers world wide, little has been reported about this hunger strike, which is now in its third week. Let us hope that amid the joy at the release of some Palestinian prisoners, the world’s media turn some attention to the conditions of the remaining prisoners.
For more information about Palestinian prisoners, see this fact sheet published by the Institute for Middle East Understanding.