Palestinian prisoners call for unity in revolt against prison conditions

On Tuesday, September 6, more than 400 Palestinian political detainees in Israeli prisons enter their thirteenth consecutive day of punitive measures imposed on them by the Israel Prison Service (IPS), including being locked in their prison cells and denied recreational yard-time, all due to alleged affiliations with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). These repressive measures are also a response to prisoner protest and disobedience, which has re-ignited the battle of the Palestinian prisoner movement inside Israeli prisons.

On September 1, almost ten days after launching a collective civil disobedience movement in Israeli Prisons, Palestinian political detainees were planning on going on a collective hunger strike in light of these punitive and retaliatory measures.

Just a day before, on August 31, Khalil Awawdeh ended his hunger strike of 182 days protesting his illegal imprisonment by Israeli authorities without charge or trial. Awawdeh is expected to be released on October 2 of this year following his hunger strike’s victory. 

Awawdeh was supposed to be released in August as part of the ceasefire agreement during the Israeli onslaught on Gaza, called Operation Breaking Dawn

Israeli prisons are a battleground

Over 4,500 Palestinians are documented to be imprisoned by Israel, including 32 Palestinian women and 175 children and minors. Many Palestinian detainees are either arrested by the military in overnight raids that collectively terrorize entire neighborhoods, villages, and towns, or are arrested at military checkpoints, which are guarded by heavily armed soldiers.

Palestinian political detainees are regularly exposed to systematic mechanisms of abuse, mistreatment, and torture. “The issue is not simply trying to overcome the justice system,” says M., a Palestinian who spent over two decades in Israeli prison, who spoke with Mondoweiss under conditions of anonymity. “The issue is to find ways to survive that place, and to be able to go on living after you come out.”

Palestinian political detainees have been warning against the abuses practiced by the IPS ever since the Gilboa prison break of September 2021. Some of these practices, such as night raids, ransacking prison cells, denial of basic access to healthcare, were eased.

“The issue is not simply trying to overcome the justice system. The issue is to find ways to survive that place, and to be able to go on living after you come out.”

M., a Palestinian who was detained by Israeli for more than two decades

However, as of March 2022, the punitive measures were reinstated. It is important to note that between February and March, the Israeli authorities began a large-scale military and special ops operation called “Operation Break the Wave,” in which Palestinian resistance fighters, as well as members of civil society, human rights defenders, journalists, and officials were assassinated, detained, or judicially targeted.

“In this battle, which was imposed on us, we refuse to head towards any direction other than victory,” said a Palestinian prisoners movement statement on August 31.

Since August 20, Palestinian detainees across all Israeli prisons and political factions have persisted in pursing strategic steps of “rebellion and disobedience,” according to the Palestinian Prisoners Society.

Palestinian political detainees recognize that Israeli practices against them continue to escalate and intensify. In light of these conditions, they have re-oriented towards a new strategy of unity across political factions. 

This latest battle has become known among prisoners under the slogan of “unity in confronting the jailer,” and is being run by a “Higher Emergency Committee,” which is notably different from how past campaigns have operated, in that they were coordinated through factional heads.

The most prominent decision to emerge from the Emergency Committee was the announcement that 1000 Palestinian detainees would go on hunger strike, according to a spokesperson of the Palestinian Prisoners Society. This was a measure of last resort, a strategy of pressuring the IPS to heed Palestinian demands. 

The strategy worked. 

The IPS agreed to end the arbitrary transportation of detainees with long-term sentences. This led the hunger strike to be postponed, according to “Statement #6” put out by the Emergency Committee on September 1.

Tortured confessions and kangaroo courts

The Israeli colonial regime continues to hold Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza in military prisons after being tried in military courts. Palestinians from Jerusalem and those with Israeli citizenship face discriminatory treatment in Israeli civil courts, which criminalize them because they are Palestinians — considered demographic threats and threats to national security.

Most Palestinian prisoners (including minors and children) are arrested, detained, and illegally transferred across occupied territory into prisons located inside Israeli territory — a violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions. 

Prisoners are often isolated from the outside world by the IPS by denying family visitation, limiting access to educational materials and television, and sometimes illegally putting them in solitary confinement.

Moreover, human rights experts, international medical staff, and other officials are prevented from visiting these prisons, effectively imposing a humanitarian and media blackout in the prisons.

Many prisoners are sentenced based on coerced confessions, which are obtained by Israeli interrogators through the systematic use of physical and psychological torture, including the use of violence, threats, intimidation, stress positions, sleep deprivation, being put in extremely cold or extremely hot conditions, and blackmail. However even without confessions or substantiated evidence, Israeli military courts can still arbitrarily hold Palestinians without trial or charge, under the provisions of administrative detention.

In recognizing that Palestinian prisoners have limited access to the outside world, the statement by the prisoners’ movement appealed to the “fortitude of every person loyal to this homeland,” calling on people outside of prison to “support us and back us in confronting the jailers.”

A move towards unity

Palestinian detainees are often placed under conditions that leave them with psychological scars, not only making it difficult to endure the prison, but but also making re-integration into their communities post-release even more complicated. The heaviest impact is on children, who can be treated with a criminality that violates their rights.  The case of Ahmad Manasra is exemplary of this.

Since 2019, the IPS, led by Minister Gilad Erdan, decided to “downgrade conditions of terrorists in prisons so that they will be set at the minimum required under international law.” This was further pushed after the Gilboa prison break.

The latest mobilization efforts in the prisons ever since August have been preceded by the efforts of political detainees who are imprisoned with no sentence.

For this reason, Palestinian political detainees continue to battle Israeli colonialism and apartheid from inside their prison cells. Strategies like hunger striking are used as a last resort to push for negotiations with the IPS to better living conditions — often, these are bare minimum demands, such as access to family calls, yard time, and entry of goods.

On January 1 and until March 31, all 490 Palestinian detainees held arbitrarily initiated a boycott of Israeli courts. Under the title “Our decision is Freedom, No to Administrative Detention,” detainees launched a campaign that went largely unnoticed in mainstream media.

The practice of administrative detention persists especially against human rights defenders and lawyers, who Israel sees as a threat, yet is unable to provide legal backing in its prosecution. Instead, it settles for alleging evidence, which remains undisclosed in a “secret file,” and is not shown to either the defendants or their lawyers.

As of August, Palestinian political detainees have dissolved their factional leadership in the prisons and demanded that all be approached as a unified front of Palestinians. This development has not been witnessed since the First Intifada of 1987.

Historically, Palestinians held in Israeli prisons are divided according to political affiliation. Factional leaders continue to dominate mobilization decisions in internal Palestinian political dynamics. IPS representatives often negotiate or strike deals with these factional leaders.

However, the Unity Intifada of 2021, having empowered Palestinian communities to choose unity over division in the struggle for liberation, seems to have bled into the prisoners’ movement.

As of August, Palestinian political detainees have dissolved their factional leadership in the prisons and demanded that all be approached as a unified front of Palestinians. This development has not been witnessed since the First Intifada of 1987, when Palestinian mobilization was more focused on community-building and cooperative work.

In a statement directed towards Palestinian communities, prisoners have affirmed “the unity that is embodied by the detainees inside the prisons,” which they assert must extend beyond the prison’s walls. The title of this kind of unity is simple yet striking: the “liberation of both the people and the land of Palestine.”

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