This general briefing, prepared by Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, provides a comprehensive overview of the situation of Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli prisons and detention centers. The issues covered include different violations that prisoners are subjected to, including torture, isolation, and medical negligence, as well as the main categories of prisoners, such as women, children and administrative detainees.
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Since the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in 1967,
more than 800,000 Palestinians have been detained under Israeli military orders in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). This number constitutes approximately 20 percent of the total Palestinian population in the oPt and as much as 40 percent of the total male Palestinian population. It also includes approximately 10,000 women jailed since 1967, as well as 8,000 Palestinian children arrested since 2000.
The current number of Palestinian political prisoners and detainees is estimated at 4,606, spread around 17 prisons, four interrogation centers and four detention centers.
All but one of the prisons are located inside Israel, in direct contravention of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that an Occupying Power must detain residents of occupied territory in prisons inside the occupied territory. The practical consequence of this system is that many prisoners have difficulty meeting with Palestinian defense counsel and do not receive family visits as their relatives are denied permits to enter Israel on “security grounds”. Out of the total number of political prisoners detained in Israel, 7 are female and 194 are children (30 of whom are under the age of 16). This figure also includes 13 Palestinian Legislative Council members, 212 administrative detainees, held without charge or trial and 445 prisoners from the Gaza Strip who have been largely denied access to family visits since June 2007.
The arrest and detention of Palestinians living in the oPt is governed by a wide-ranging set of military regulations that govern every aspect of Palestinian civilian life. These military orders provide for a wide range of offenses divided into five categories: “Hostile Terrorist Activity”; disturbance of public order; “classic” criminal offenses; illegal presence in Israel; and traffic offenses committed in the oPt. The practical implication of these broadly-defined offenses is the criminalization of many aspects of Palestinian civic life. For example, the political parties that comprise the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are still considered “illegal organizations” even though Israel has been engaged in peace negotiations with the PLO since 1993. Carrying a Palestinian flag is also a crime under Israeli military regulations. Participation in a demonstration is deemed a disruption of public order. Pouring coffee for a member of a declared illegal association can be seen as support for a terrorist organization.
Interrogation, torture and ill-treatment
A Palestinian detainee can be interrogated for a total period of 90 days, during which he/she can also be denied lawyer visits for a period of 60 days.
During the interrogation period, a detainee is often subjected to some form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, whether physical or psychological, and ranging in extremity.
The forms of torture and ill treatment employed against Palestinian prisoners include the following: beatings, tying prisoners in “stress positions”, interrogation sessions that last up to 12 consecutive hours, depriving prisoners of sleep and other sensory deprivation, isolation and solitary confinement, and threats against the lives of their relatives. In past instances, detainees have died while in custody as a result of torture. Confessions extracted through such practices are admissible in court. Israel defends its interrogation techniques as a legitimate way of combating terrorism faced by its citizens, but in reality, these practices are in direct contravention of international law, including the United Nations Convention against Torture (CAT), ratified by Israel on 3 October 1991, which requires any State Party to prevent the use of torture and associated practices.
The prohibition is absolute and non-derogable, and allows for “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever.”
On 6 September 1999, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled to ban the use of torture during interrogation. A seemingly considerable victory for human rights defenders has proved in practice not to be applicable to Palestinian “security” detainees. Indeed, the ruling failed to explicitly forbid the use of torture but rather allowed that interrogation methods such as “moderate physical pressure”—widely deemed as torture—be used in situations where a detainee is considered a “ticking bomb”. Furthermore, the ruling, while banning the use of the “necessity of defense” ex ante, continued to allow this defense post-factum in cases of “ticking bombs”, thereby effectively allowing for impunity in cases of torture. As it stands in 2012, the use of torture and ill-treatment against Palestinian prisoners by Israeli authorities is so widespread to be rightly characterized as systematic.
Palestinians from the West Bank who are arrested by the Israeli military and charged with security violations (as defined by Israel) and other crimes are prosecuted by two Israeli military courts located in Ofer and Salem in the oPt. Not all Palestinians who are arrested are prosecuted in the military courts; some are released while others are administratively detained without trial (see administrative detention below). Of those who are charged, approximately 99 percent are convicted,
and of these convictions, the vast majority is the result of plea bargains.
As an Occupying Power, Israel has the right under international humanitarian law to establish military courts in the oPt, but applicable international human rights and humanitarian law restrict the jurisdiction of such courts to violations of criminal security legislation. The jurisdiction of Israeli military courts, however, is far broader and includes offenses unrelated to such legislation. Moreover, it is questionable whether the use of military courts to try civilians can ever satisfy the requirements under international human rights law that trials take place before independent and impartial tribunals. International law also guarantees certain fundamental fair trial rights, but these are regularly flouted by Israeli military courts:
- The right to prompt notice of criminal charges: Israeli military orders contain no requirement that the charge be given to the accused without delay, and in a language he or she understands in as required by international law. In practice, information on charges against the accused are often not disclosed by the prosecution until the day of the first hearing, which typically determines whether the accused will remain in detention until the end of the proceedings.
- The right to prepare an effective defense: During interrogation, a detainee can be held for up to 60 days without access to a lawyer. Lawyers acting as defense counsel before the military courts highlight many further obstacles preventing an effective defense, including difficulties in meeting with their clients in detention facilities inside Israel; the lack of proper facilities to hold confidential meetings; court documents written in Hebrew; and the provision of incomplete prosecution material.
- The right to trial without undue delay:Palestinians can be held in custody for four days before being brought before a judge. Furthermore, a Palestinian can be held without charge for interrogation purposes, by order of a military judge, for an initial period of up to 60 days, which can be extended for another period of up to 30 days. They can therefore be held for a total of 90 days before being charged.
- The right to interpretation and translation: Israeli jurisprudence provides that a prisoner must be interrogated in his native language and that his statement also be written in that language, but in practice the detainee’s confession or statement is frequently written in Hebrew, requiring the detainee to sign a statement he/she cannot understand. Moreover, all proceedings in the military courts are conducted in Hebrew with insufficient or inadequate translation.
- The right to presumption of innocence: Israeli military orders do not include an explicit provision regarding the presumption of innocence. The exceedingly low rate of acquittals in the military courts, the practice of denying bail to the vast majority of pre-trial detainees, and the uncorrected prosecutorial reversal of the burden of proof against the accused all serve to indicate a strong presumption of guilt built into the military court system.
Administrative detention is a procedure that allows the Israeli military to hold detainees indefinitely on “secret information” without charging them or allowing them to stand trial. In the occupied Palestinian West Bank, the Israeli army is authorized to issue administrative detention orders against Palestinian civilians on the basis of Military Order 1651 (Art. 285). This order empowers military commanders to detain an individual for up to six-month renewable periods if they have “reasonable grounds to presume that the security of the area or public security require the detention.” On or just before the expiry date, the detention order is frequently renewed. This process can be continued indefinitely. As of 1 September 2012, there were approximately 212 Palestinians held in administrative detention by Israel including 7 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
International law permits administrative detention under specific, narrowly defined circumstances. In accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) there must be a public emergency that threatens the life of the nation. Furthermore, administrative detention can only be ordered on an individual case-by-case basis, without discrimination of any kind. Administrative detention should not be used as a substitute for criminal prosecution where there is insufficient evidence to obtain a conviction. Israel’s use of administrative detention, however, in its collective and large-scale application, deliberately infringes on these restrictions and amounts to arbitrary and wrongful detention. As such, it violates Articles 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the ICCPR.
In many of the legal cases pursued by Addameer, administrative detainees spent years in prison after being sentenced for committing violations, in accordance with military orders. When the period ended, however, rather than be released they were placed under administrative detention under the pretext that they still posed a threat to security. Palestinian detainees have spent up to eight years in prison without charge or trial under administrative detention orders.
One practice utilized routinely by Israel that combines physical and mental abuse is isolation. Every year, dozens of Palestinian prisoners and detainees are held in isolation, for reasons of state, prison or the prisoners’ security. Approximately 58 prisoners are currently held in isolation out of personal choice or for health and other reasons, and 2 are held in isolation for reasons of state or prison security.
An unknown number of prisoners are presently held in solitary confinement. Isolation can be ordered by the courts, and by security authorities such as the Israeli Security Agency (ISA),
but is most frequently levied by prison officials. The length of time in isolation that prison officials may order can extend from 12 hours to up to longer periods of six to 12 months, with court approval. The courts may order that a prisoner be isolated for up to 12-month renewable periods, and the ISA may order isolation for similar periods when citing security concerns.
Prisoners held in isolation are held in a cell alone or with one other prisoner for 23 hours a day and are only allowed to leave their cell for a daily one-hour solitary walk. Isolation cells in the various Israeli prisons are similar in size—typically from 1.5 by 2 meters to 3 by 3.5 meters. Each cell usually has one window measuring about 50 cm by 100 cm, which in most cases does not allow in sufficient light or air from the outside.
Isolation is not acceptable under international law. Article 10 of the ICCPR provides that all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners clearly express that solitary confinement, as a form of punishment, should be used infrequently and exceptionally. It also stipulates in Article 31 that corporal punishment or punishment by holding a prisoner in a dark cell and any other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment are prohibited as a disciplinary measure. The Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners encourage the restriction or abolition of solitary confinement as a punishment.
Addameer is concerned by Israel’s excessive use of solitary confinement and isolation against Palestinian detainees held in prison custody as well as under interrogation. The use of isolation under interrogation is particularly worrisome as it is applied in combination with other methods in order to exert pressure that may amount to ill-treatment or torture. In addition, the severe and sometimes irreversible mental reactions to isolation, resulting from the minimal environmental stimulation and social interaction, undermine the very definition of isolation as a preventive measure.
Israeli authorities responsible for prisoners regularly neglect their duties to provide medical support for Palestinian prisoners in their care, as required by the Geneva Conventions. Medical problems are widespread, and range in severity from chest infections and diarrhea to heart problems and kidney failure. Treatment is often inadequate and is delivered after substantial delays. Often medication is limited to over-the-counter pain killers.
Although all prisons include a medical clinic, physicians are on duty irregularly and specialized medical healthcare is generally unavailable. Prisoners are not treated outside the assigned clinic hours and typically must wait for long periods of time before being examined. Once they are examined, however, most prisoners are simply prescribed painkillers without any thorough medical follow-up. Transfers to hospitals for needed treatment may take place only after weeks or months.
Detention conditions have a huge impact on the health of prisoners and detainees. As a result of their imprisonment, released detainees are often faced with chronic health problems such as skin diseases, extreme fatigue, anemia and weakness, kidney problems, rheumatism, problems with their teeth and ulcers.
Denial of Family Visits
Family visits are routinely, and often arbitrarily, restricted or cancelled. Moreover, many Arab-Israeli, West Bank prisoners and Gaza prisoners are denied their visitation rights completely. This is in complete contradiction with Israel’s responsibility, as the Occupying Power, under international law. The right to family visits is an entrenched right in international law, expressly provided for in the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, the European Prison Rules, and, in relation to child detainees, the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Israel detains Palestinians from the oPt in detention centers outside 1967 occupied territory. This practice is illegal under international law and poses significant challenges to Palestinian prisoners’ ability to receive family visits as they must acquire permits to enter Israel in order to visit their relatives in prison.
When family visits are able to take place, severe restrictions are placed on them by the IPS. Only first-degree relatives may visit, but any male family member aged between 16 and 35 is typically prevented from visiting. Once at the prison, family members can only expect to communicate with their loved ones from behind glass separation walls or by telephone.
For Palestinian prisoners from Gaza, the situation is particularly dire: prior to 2007, they were permitted family visits, but following the 2006 Palestinian election results and the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Israel denied residents of Gaza held in Israeli prisons family visits due to “unspecified security reasons”, a measure that can be understood as collective punishment of the Gaza population. On 9 December 2009, the Israeli High Court of Justice rejected an appeal contesting the policy’s legality.
During Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike in April 2012, one main demand of the prisoners was to reinstate family visits to Gaza prisoners. Though Israel agreed to resume the visits upon the conclusion of the hunger strike, as of 30 August 2012, only around half of the current 445 Gaza detainees had received one family visit, and it remains unclear whether any will receive consistent visits.
As of 26 September 2012, there were 8 female Palestinian prisoners held by the IPS in Hasharon prison in northern Israel. Female prisoners are also often held in Damon prison, and in interrogation centers throughout Israel.
Both Damon and Hasharon prisons lack gender-sensitive approaches. This is to the detriment of female Palestinian prisoners’ health and hygiene. A study conducted by Addameer in September 2008 revealed that approximately 38% of Palestinian female prisoners suffer from treatable diseases that go untreated. For instance, those suffering from diseases such as asthma, diabetes, kidney and eye diseases, sickle cell anemia, cancer, and seizures have little to no access to medical services. Long delays in providing substandard medical treatment are typical. Although all prisons include a medical clinic, physicians are on duty irregularly and specialized medical healthcare is generally unavailable. To date, there are no specialized gynecological services available for Palestinian women held in Israeli prisons and detention centers, despite their continuous requests for access to such services and complaints launched against the IPS’s repeated denials. Also of particular concern is the absence of trained Arabic-speaking female medical specialists.
Female prisoners are subjected to the same psychological and physical abuse as their male counterparts; female prisoners report beatings, insults, threats and sexual harassment. Female prisoners are also routinely humiliated by intrusive body searches, which often occur before and after court hearings and during the night as punitive measures.
Each year approximately 700 Palestinian children under the age of 18 are prosecuted through Israeli military courts after being arrested, interrogated and detained by the Israeli army.
As of 1 September 2012, there were 194 children held in prisons by Israel. Of these, 30 are under the age of 16, a policy that is a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which defines a 'child’ as “every human being below the age of eighteen.”
The policy is also duplicitous since Israel’s own civilian court system (applying to Israeli citizens) defines the age of legal majority as 18, whereas the age of majority in military legislation prior to 27 September 2011 was 16 (applying to Palestinians). On that date, OC Central Command signed an amendment to raise the age of Palestinian minors in the military court system from 16 to 18 years. However, the amendment also contains a variety of stipulations that will not necessarily provide Palestinian minors with increased protection under the law, including a provision that states that minors over the age of 16 may still be held in detention with adults, which is contradictory to the requirements of international law. Furthermore, children are still sentenced on the basis of their age at sentencing rather than when they committed the offense, again in contradiction to the sentencing policy of Israel’s civilian courts when dealing with Israeli citizens, who are sentenced according to age when the alleged offence was committed.
The rights of Palestinian children are violated in a number of ways during their arrest, interrogation, detention and trial. Palestinian children are often held for the purposes of interrogation without being accompanied by their attorney or an adult family member, which is a clear violation of Israel’s duties under the Fourth Geneva Convention, the CRC, and the ICCPR. Furthermore, torture and ill treatment are routinely used against children to illicit forced confessions. Most worrisome is the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual abuse directed toward Palestinian children in Israeli detention. In 2010, DCI Palestine characterized the use of these methods to obtain confessions as “widespread and systematic”.
It estimates that close to every affidavit signed by child prisoners contains an aspect of sexual harassment or sexual abuse during the interrogation phase of detention.
In July 2009 the Israeli authorities established a separate military court for the prosecution of Palestinian children under Military Order 1644. Previously the Israeli authorities prosecuted Palestinian children and adults in the same court system. Since its implementation, however, Addameer contends that Military Order 1644 has done little to improve the protection of Palestinian children before the Israeli military legal system since it did not increase the age of majority or stop the practice of sentencing children according to their age at sentencing.
Human Rights Defenders
In light of Israel’s non-compliance with the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on the construction of the Annexation Wall issued on 9 July 2004, Palestinians in villages affected by the Wall have adopted a number of strategies to oppose its constructionand Israeli land annexation, including petitions to the Israeli High Court of Justice, non-violent resistance and weekly demonstrations, and increased international advocacy efforts. In response to these strategies, Israel has adopted a policy of arrest, detention, intimidation, threats and, at times, collective punishment. Leading Palestinian human rights activists, prominent figures, such as mayors and teachers, and members of the Popular Committees, who are instrumental in coordinating weekly protests and advocacy efforts including legal cases, are often personally targeted and arrested in an attempt to sideline them from organizing the protests, or to discredit them and their efforts. Local cameramen and photographers, as well as members of the press, are also targeted.
Addameer documented at least 292 confirmed cases of Palestinian human rights defenders who were detained and arrested since between 2003 and August 2009 in 16 villages affected by the Wall, including many children as young as twelve. Since then, the number has continued to increase. In 2009 alone, some 89 Palestinian human rights defenders were arrested in relation to their advocacy work against the Wall. In 2010, at any point in time there were between 40 and 100 human rights defenders in prison. By the end of 2011, there were at least 295 documented cases for the year of Palestinian human rights defenders held in Israeli custody for their involvement in protests against the unlawful construction of the Wall and the annexation of their land for settlement expansion.
Some of the protestors and human rights defenders are prosecuted in the Israeli military courts under military order 101, which criminalizes many civic activities including organizing and participating in protests; taking part in assemblies or vigils; waving flags and other political symbols; printing and distributing political material. In addition, the order deems any acts of influencing public opinion as prohibited “political incitement”. Under the heading “support to a hostile organization”, the order further prohibits any activity that demonstrates sympathy for an organization deemed illegal under military orders, be it chanting slogans, waving a flag or other political symbols.
Youths and children as young as twelve are often the first ones to be arrested in mass arrest campaigns, either during demonstrations, immediately after them or during night raids. Evidence suggests that the purpose of their arrest and detention is threefold. First, targeting the youngest and most vulnerable is intended to exert pressure on their family and the entire community to put an end to all advocacy efforts and social mobilization. Second, ISA officers often arrest children for recruitment purposes. Addameer has collected testimonies suggesting that children from Wall-affected communities are routinely asked to become informants and provide information on both prominent figures involved in advocacy efforts and other children participating in demonstrations. Lastly, arrest is also used as a strategy to deter children from participating in demonstrations and from throwing stones at the Wall or other targets.
Despite the lack of evidence or independent witnesses, and the vague or empty basis of the charges levied against human rights defenders, the vast majority of activists will be found guilty of committing a “security offense” and sentenced to a term of imprisonment. In the Israeli military courts, the accused’s inalienable right to due process is never upheld. Soldiers’ testimonies and, occasionally, photos of individuals at a demonstration, are very often sufficient for an individual to be found guilty of an offense under the military orders that govern the West Bank. Moreover, if the detainee has been coerced into signing a confession, they will invariably be sentenced and serve time in a military jail. Increasingly high fines and bail charges are being requested by the military courts to secure the release of activists’ arrested in relation to opposition to the Wall. Evidence suggests that these amounts have been increasing drastically in recent months, and are being used as a financial means of repressing the protests.
Palestinian Legislative Council Members
Although according to international law and Israeli courts no one can be detained for their political opinions, in practice Palestinian political leaders are routinely arrested and detained as part of an ongoing Israeli effort to suppress Palestinian political processes – and, as a necessary result, political sovereignty and self-determination.
In recent years, this process has focused particularly on members of the PLC. Following the capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit on 25 June 2006 by Hamas at the Kerem Shalom Crossing on the Gaza Strip border, Israeli forces seized dozens of leaders and activists associated with Hamas in coordinated raids across the West Bank, including PLC members. The latter were either placed in administrative detention or charged with offenses based on their membership of the “Change and Reform List”, which the Israeli authorities allege is affiliated with Hamas, an illegal party according to Israeli military legislation. These detentions occurred despite the fact that Israel itself allowed the elections to be held and did not oppose the Change and Reform List’s participation in these elections. In fact, it was only in February 2007 that the Israeli authorities declared the Change and Reform List to be illegal, almost a year after most of the initial arrests.
As recently as 2009, nearly a third of all Palestinian legislators were held in Israeli detention, preventing the PLC from reconvening since mid-2007. As of 26 September 2012, 13 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) continued to be held by Israel, the majority of them (7) under administrative detention. Many of the PLC members placed in administrative detention in the past few months were released only within the past two years after serving a full sentence following their arrest in 2006.
- Addameer calls on the international community to raise the issue of political prisoners in all their meetings with Israel. In particular, it calls on the international community to ask that Israel:
- Stop applying the jurisdiction of the military courts in the oPt to civilians in such a broad manner and instead apply it in accordance with the provisions of international law;
- Respect fair trial standards for all political detainees, including those accused of committing acts that are considered crimes according to international law;
- Release all administrative detainees held on account of their political views or activities carried out in resistance to the occupation and ensure that the judicial review of administrative detention orders meet the minimum international standards for due process;
- Afford every child under the age of 18 their rights as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child;
- Bring an end to its institutionalized policy on torture and ill-treatment, and ensure that these abusive practices cease to be used against prisoners in its care and that any such abuse is properly investigated and punished;
- Guarantee that minimum standards of detention be respected, particularly with regard hygiene, nutrition, and access to health care;
- Allow visits of family members according to the principles of international law, including by immediately resuming family visits to prisoners from the Gaza Strip, extending visitation rights to non-family members and allowing “open visits” and physical contact to all detainees.
Addameer is particularly concerned about the continuing impunity with which Israel is allowed to act with regard to its treatment of Palestinian prisoners and detainees. It therefore calls on the international community to seek avenues to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law, including by calling on State parties to the Geneva Conventions to fulfill their obligation to ensure Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law; promoting the use of universal jurisdiction, supporting referral to the International Criminal Court, and any other avenues deemed fit.
Current Israeli Detention Statistics (1 September 2012)
Type of Prisoners
Number of prisoners
Total number of political prisoners
212 (7 PLC)
194 (30 under 16)
Palestinian Legislative Council members
East Jerusalem prisoners
1948 Territories prisoners
Prisoners serving life sentences
Sentence above 20 years
Prisoners serving more than 25 years
Prisoners serving more than 20 years
Addameer operates under the legal assumption that the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip comprise the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), which Israel has held in belligerent occupation since 1967.
Addameer defines as “political prisoners” those prisoners detained in relation with the occupation, as opposed to detainees suspected or convicted of crimes/offenses unrelated to the occupation, as adopted in the Report of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, A/HRC/12/48, 15 September 2009, para. 1434. For the purposes of this document, “prisoners” refers to persons who have been held in prison custody – remandees or convicts. “Detainees” refers to persons held prior to indictment or under administrative detention orders.
Previously, a Palestinian detainee could be interrogated for a total period of 188 days, and denied lawyer visits for 90 days. This military order was amended to reflect the new interrogation periods on 1 August 2012.
Article 2(1) of the United Nations Convention Against Torture
Article 2(2) of the United Nations Convention Against Torture
Official Report of the Work of the Military Courts in the West Bank, 2010 (Hebrew) (Military Courts Report 2010).
. Of the 8,516 cases concluded in the military courts in 2010, full evidentiary trials (in which witnesses were questioned, evidence was examined and closing statements were delivered) were conducted in only 82 – or 0.96 percent – of them.
A main demand of Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike in April 2012 was for Israel to end its policy of long-term isolation for “security” reasons. Following the conclusion of the hunger strike, Israel agreed to remove 18 out of 19 prisoners from long-term isolation, though one prisoner was kept in isolation and an additional prisoner received a new isolation order.
Formerly known as the General Security Service (GSS).
Article 1, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child