A Seminar on Palestine’s Prisoners: A Lament on Injustice

Israel is a parliamentary democracy represented by a very large number of parties, with universal suffrage for all citizens, regardless of race, religion or sex …

— CIA World Fact Book, 2011

This week a sobering and highly informative closed door seminar was held on the plight of Palestinian Prisoners in the elegant surroundings of London’s Westminster Central Hall, a stone’s throw away from the Houses of Parliament and the 11th century Westminster Abbey, the all affirmation of stability and continuity — in starkest contrast to testimony at the proceedings of the meeting.

The seminar, hosted by Middle East Monitor, had been planned and organized at the height of the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike. Although most prisoners are reported to have ended their desperation-driven fasts following a deal with the Israeli authorities, the issues surrounding their shocking treatment and imprisonment are unchanged.

Sabah al Mukhtar, President of the Arab Lawyers Association, who chaired the gathering, opened by reminding that, “A basic right of a people under occupation is to resist.”

Further, that the Fourth Geneva Convention is specific as to the treatment of prisoners, with absolute outlawing of abuse and stipulation of legal conditions which must include humane treatment, being regarded as innocent until proven guilty and speedy access to legal representation — a far cry from the conditions for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Lord Alf Dubs, who serves on the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, talked of a visit to the West Bank last year. Unable to visit a prison, he did attend an Israeli Military Court and was shocked at what he witnessed.

Remarking on security so tight that not even business cards were allowed in, he was struck by the age of the prisoners. Many were children, including one of fourteen. A fifteen year old was in tears in the dock, a sight Lord Dubs found profoundly disturbing.

The majority of children, he learned, were picked up in the early hours of the morning and incarcerated with no access by parents, no lawyer until they were in the dock, thus no explanation of procedures, discussion of case and, above all, semblance of reassurance. Handcuffs were taken off as they came through the door of the Court, but all were in shackles in the dock. Most defendants were: “just throwing stones.” The Court had no cctv; thus, no record of any miscarriage of justice.

Parents are often denied access to detained children for at least two months. Article 77 of the Geneva Convention states that: “Children shall be the object of special respect (and provided) with the care and aid they require.” The reality, concluded His Lordship, was “a stain” on the Israeli establishment.

Chairman of the UK-based charity, Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights, Tareq Shrourou, stated that at every stage childrens’ rights are abused “from detention to incarceration, to release.” Sixteen and seventeen year olds are still treated as adults in detention. In the West Bank it is not the police, but the army who conduct arrests, whether of children or adults.

Children, as are adults, are blindfolded, in addition to being handcuffed and shackled. Blindfolding is also in defiance of the Geneva Convention.

“That the military might of Israel is threatened by children throwing stones is laughable”, commented al Mukhtar, adding that the whole concept of Military Children’s Courts were legally “outlandish.”

“In the past eleven years alone, around seven thousand five hundred children, some as young as twelve years, are estimated to have been detained, interrogated, and imprisoned …”1

It should be noted that a Palestinian detainee can be interrogated for a period of one hundred and eighty days, during which he or she can be denied a lawyer for ninety days. During interrogation a detainee can be subject to varying levels of torture, physical and/or psychological.

This was graphically described by an urbane, quietly spoken man (name withheld by request) who described the reality of being detained for the first time at fifteen years old.

“I was imprisoned in 1987, 1988, 1990 and 1992 then deported to South Lebanon.”

In 1987, as a student, he had been one of a number who were taken from their school by the authorities, to a detention centre. He was, he said, punched, interrogated, beaten for two months, then released for lack of evidence of any wrongdoing.

In 1988, he stated, in the night, his home “was stormed.” Soldiers rushed to his bedroom pointing guns at him as he awoke and struggled up. He was taken, blindfolded, his hands tied with plastic cuffs.

In prison he was “put in a yard. There were eight rooms on one side and cells on the other. In each room there was a different torture. I visited all eight.”

His head, he said, was banged hard against the wall, on the table as he sat; he was near choked by extreme pressure on his throat; a ruler was banged hard on his nose “in a way that makes you lose control of your head.” Eventually he lost consciousness.

Made to raise his head, stunning blows under the chin resulted.

He described a “breaking chair fall” after which “you are punched whichever way you move.”  And, he recounted, “female soldiers practice sex in front of you. Even as a child I knew how to keep a blind eye.” Shades of Abu Ghraib.

Failure to confess resulted in threats of death, “But I had nothing to tell.” He was finally released after sixty-four days due to no evidence.

He was arrested and released without charge again in 1990. In 1992 he was deported to Lebanon.

He was just twenty years old, with a life’s horrors already lived and childhood’s chrysalis years of discovery and approaching adulthood lost to Israeli jail’s nightmares.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is a signatory, is specific:

In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

Article 37(b) of the Convention adds:

The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child… shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.2

The anomaly of the uniqueness of the military court system in Israel was addressed in detail as “an exception under all laws. A military court must deal with military people, not civilians, not minors.” A further anomaly is that there is no legal appeal system. An appeal is “an administrative decision, made usually not by a judge, or even a lawyer.”

Khaled Almudallal, representing Ufree, the European network to support the rights of Palestinian Prisoners, reminded that, incredibly, there are twenty-seven Palestinian parliamentarians of the Palestinian Legislative Council and two Ministers being held in detention.

A near forgotten tragedy has an equally forgotten background:

As candidates prepared for elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in 2006, the Israeli authorities began a campaign of detention and imprisonment  … The 2006 Palestinian elections were overseen by international observers who declared them to be free and fair (thus) Hamas (became) the democratically elected Palestinian government.

Wrong kind of democracy, thus the democratically elected remain illegally detained by representatives of a people who, ironically, were given by James Arthur Balfour, a “national home” within “Palestine.” The famed letter has no mention of a “State”.  This “home”, it specifies, is conditional on:

 … it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine …

The injustices of historic enormity, legal and territorial, in violation of human rights under a swathe of international legislation, continue unabated – to be met by “the silence of the world”, commented al Mukhtar, adding, regarding the prisoners: “As far as I know, Middle East Peace Envoy Tony Blair, has been equally silent.”

However, the international community is not silent. The Boycott movement gains massive strength. Coincidentally, on the day of the Seminar, the Israeli Ambassador to South Africa had been due to address the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The event was cancelled by the University’s Deputy Vice Chancellor, Joseph Ayee, at twenty-four hour’s notice, due to the “likely reputational damage” it would bring the university.3

Politics Professor, Lubna Nadvi, said the university’s decision represented the general sentiment among students and staff. “Israel is fast becoming a pariah state, like Apartheid South Africa did, that no one really wants to be associated with, including academics and students,” the Professor is quoted as saying.

Yet destruction of Palestinian lives and history, sacred to all nations, is ongoing and six thousand prisoners remain in jail, and in beyond anything that would be recognized as a justice system in a functioning democracy.

In spite of the hunger strike agreement, there is so little progress from Israel, that there are fears that the only negotiating tool those held have – their lives – may be again put on the line.

Organizations represented at the Seminar are working closely with those involved in the Northern Ireland hunger strike to devise a way forward for both sides.

One suggestion, from British MP Jeremy Corbyn, is forming an international friendship network with prisoners, especially corresponding.

At a “Special Session on Children” at the United Nations on May 9. 2002, the Israeli Minister of Justice stated, in a lengthy address, Israel’s commitment to:

Extending the hope and promise of childhood to the millions of children that continue to suffer, even in an era of unprecedented global prosperity, means reducing poverty, protecting children from the scourge of war and violence … providing all children with adequate healthcare, clean water, basic education, and a nurturing and protective environment in which they can grow and thrive.

The yawning chasm between fine aspirational statements and reality on the ground could hardly be starker. For every child taken into custody, childhood dies at that moment.

For every parent arbitrarily held, they know not when they will see their children and family again. Some have shared none of their children’s formative years at all.

“Our revenge will be the laughter of our children”, wrote Ireland’s Bobby Sands, who died on the 66th day of his protest hunger strike, on May 5. 1981, four days short of his birthday. When there is nothing left to lose to achieve justice, those deprived will eventually sacrifice the last tragic bargaining tool in humanity’s creative box to achieve it.

Since the guests became occupiers, Palestine’s children and their parents have now waited sixty-four years to laugh freely.

  1. Graham Peebles, “Confined cruelty: Israeli treatment of Palestinian minors“, Middle East Monitor, March 26, 2012 []
  2. Shazia Arshad, “Child Prisoners“, Middle East Monitor, November 9, 2011 []
  3. Raphael Ahren, “Jerusalem slams Pretoria’s ‘unbelievable ignorance’”, The Times of Israel, May 21, 2012 []

Felicity Arbuthnot is a journalist with special knowledge of Iraq. Author, with Nikki van der Gaag, of Baghdad in the Great City series for World Almanac books, she has also been Senior Researcher for two Award winning documentaries on Iraq, John Pilger's Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq and Denis Halliday Returns for RTE (Ireland.) Read other articles by Felicity.