CULTURE

The Brutal Conditions Facing Palestinian Prisoners

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Since the October 7th attacks, Israel has waged a devastating war in the Gaza Strip, which has led to the deaths of more than thirty thousand Palestinians. As part of that campaign, Israel has also detained thousands of Palestinians from Gaza; prisoners who have been released have described extensive physical abuse from Israeli forces, and, already, at least twenty-seven detainees from Gaza have died in military custody. At the same time, Israeli forces have arrested thousands more Palestinians, mostly from the West Bank, at least ten of whom have reportedly died in Israel prisons.

The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (P.C.A.T.I.) is an non-governmental organization that was established in 1990, and represents Palestinians and Israelis who claim to have been tortured by Israeli authorities. I recently spoke by phone with Tal Steiner, its executive director. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Steiner and I discussed why so many prisoners have died in Israeli custody since October 7th, the details of the harsh Israeli crackdown in the West Bank, and how P.C.A.T.I.’s work is seen in Israel.

What do we know about what’s been happening in Israeli prisons since October 7th?

We’re currently looking at almost ten thousand Palestinian detainees from the West Bank and Gaza. Of those, we are looking at two groups of concern. The first one consists of more than nine thousand “security” detainees, mostly from the West Bank, who are being held in regular Israeli prisons—not a new phenomenon but one that has changed since the start of the war. That’s an increase of roughly a hundred per cent from normal years. It’s a result of mass-arrest campaigns related to the war.

We know that this means extreme overcrowding of prisons. We’ve heard and collected reports of cells that are designed to hold five or six people holding as many as twelve, or more. We know that this has led to severe shortages of food, of electricity, of sanitary conditions, of being able to walk outside. We know that the International Committee of the Red Cross (I.C.R.C.) has been banned from visiting all Israeli prisons since October 7th. We also know—through evidence that P.C.A.T.I. and other N.G.O.s have collected—of what we view as systemic abuse and violence by prison guards toward Palestinian detainees since October 7th. We’ve documented nineteen different incidents of torture and abuse in seven different Israel Prison Service (I.P.S.) facilities by different I.P.S. units, all of which have led us to believe that we’re looking at a policy rather than just isolated incidents. [A spokesperson for the I.P.S. said that “all prisoners are detained according to the law” and that “all basic rights required are fully applied by professionally trained prison guards.”]

When you said there was a hundred-per-cent increase, what is the time period for that?

There is a dashboard at HaMoked, a partner N.G.O. here in Israel which monitors incarcerations. In normal years, at any given moment, what you see is between four thousand and five thousand security detainees, mostly from the West Bank, in Israeli prisons. And, as I’ve said, since October 7th, the most recent figures are currently more than nine thousand. So this is about a hundred-per-cent increase. And we also see this through reports that the I.P.S. has provided, during Knesset committee hearings, which report overcrowding.

We have actually petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court, because we think this overcrowding violates prior decisions by the Israeli Supreme Court that have ordered the I.P.S. to provide minimum living space. Even before the war, we were looking at less than four metres per person, which is below the international standards of incarceration. But, since the start of the war, the I.P.S. has actually been allowed both by legislators and, later on, by the Supreme Court, to decrease even that, which means that people are now being made to sleep on the floor. The I.P.S. doesn’t have the capacity to even take the people it has detained out for regular walks outside. Prison visitations have been limited.

You said that in normal times there are four thousand to five thousand security detainees, mostly from the West Bank. These are prisoners that are being held in Israel proper?

Yes, most of those prisons are within Israel proper, which in itself is a violation of humanitarian international law. According to humanitarian law, an occupying power cannot take residents of the occupied territory and incarcerate them in its own territory, in the occupying power’s territory. It’s part of the Geneva Conventions, but Israel has not been following that since forever. The vast majority of Palestinian detainees from the West Bank are incarcerated in prison facilities that are inside Israel proper.

Now, that is problematic for many reasons. Firstly, because it means that detainees’ families are quite immediately disconnected from them. It makes it much harder for families to visit. You have to remember that most Palestinian detainees don’t have phone privileges, so they’re absolutely disconnected from the outside world. Since October 7th, both visitations by the International Committee of the Red Cross (I.C.R.C.) and family visitations that the I.C.R.C. facilitates have been blocked. Beyond the very limited visits by lawyers of N.G.O.s such as P.C.A.T.I., which have also been increasingly hard to arrange, those people don’t see any visitors from the outside, and nobody can learn of their situation. This is why collecting the evidence on the abuse that they’ve been suffering is so crucial: because they cannot report it otherwise.

So most of these people are being arrested by the military, but then going into civilian prisons?

Yes. They’re taken into civilian prisons, but in different sections or wards of the prison designated for what are called “security prisoners.” They can be held there, sometimes with Israeli citizens who are also defined as security inmates, or people suspected or charged or convicted for security-related offenses.

So how does your group learn about, say, a Palestinian man arrested in the West Bank by the Israeli military and brought into the I.P.S.?

We have a field worker in the West Bank, and families whose members have been detained can reach out and give details. We also coöperate with different Palestinian organizations representing prisoners. We can also learn about it from the media. When there are wide-scale arrests in the West Bank, it usually gets reported on. We compile a profile of the people who are most likely to become victims of torture. We trace them, which means we understand which prison they’ve been moved to, because one of the problems is that the Israeli military doesn’t give Palestinians information about the whereabouts of their family members.

The second thing is to arrange for a visit. We visit them as lawyers based on their right to counsel. We take their narrative from the moment of the arrest, subsequent interrogation, and incarceration, and identify if they’ve been victimized; then we decide together with them what kind of representation they want.

When you said you were concerned that in some of these cases torture was a policy; what makes you think that?

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