Prisoners from Gaza still denied family visits; hunger strikes continue
For an example of prisoner from Gaza denied family visits, see Young footballer from Gaza nears death on detention in Israeli prison
This morning (15 May 2012), the media reported that an agreement was reached between Israel and representatives of the Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. The agreement follows a hunger strike by almost 2,000 prisoners that lasted some six weeks. The prisoners raised a number of demands, focusing primarily on the conditions of their imprisonment. One of the demands was the resumption of family visits for the prisoners from Gaza, which were stopped in 2007 when Hamas took control in the Gaza Strip. According to the initial media reports, Israel has agreed to resume family visits, with a number of limitations that have not yet been clarified.
According to Israel Prisons Service (IPS) data, as of 30 April 2012, Israel was holding 453 prisoners and detainees from Gaza, including 44 individuals imprisoned until the end of proceedings against them and one held since July 2009 under the Law on Illegal Combatants; the latter, like administrative detainees, does not know what he is accused of or when he might be released. One of the prisoners is a minor, who was arrested in February 2012.
Prior to the Shalit deal, Israel held 613 prisoners and detainees from Gaza. Since the summer of 2007, these prisoners and detainees are not permitted visits by their families. On 6 June 2007, after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military decided to end family visits by Gazans to prisons inside Israel. The ministerial committee on national security formally approved this decision three months later, in September 2007. In two decisions adopted on 5 September 2007 and 19 September 2007, the committee decided that the Gaza Strip would be defined as “hostile territory” due to the Hamas takeover. This definition permits restrictions on the passage of goods into and out of Gaza, the reduction of gas and services supplied, and restrictions on movement to and from Gaza, subject to judicial oversight and humanitarian considerations.
Members of prisoners’ families told B’Tselem about the hardships they face due to the prohibition on visits to their loved ones. Prisoners defined as “security prisoners” are not allowed to talk on the telephone, so even this contact is unavailable to them. Maintaining contact is very hard for the families and the prisoners. This creates a huge emotional burden on children growing up without their father, on women raising a family alone, and on parents and siblings whose son or brother is far away.
Eleven-year-old Jumana Abu Jazar of Rafah lost her mother when she was four months old, and her father was arrested when she was two. Jumana told B’Tselem about how difficult it is for her:
“I only know my father from the pictures we get from released prisoners. I always miss him, especially on holidays and special events like when I get a certificate of excellence at school, and all the parents of the outstanding students come except mine. I stand alone and cry because my father and mother are not with me and are not sharing the happiness of my success and excellence.”
Yusra al-Barim, age 50, from Khan Yunis, told about the sorrow her late husband felt before his death, when he was unable to visit his son:
“He was always saying to me: ‘I ask God for two things: the first is to go on haj to Mecca and the second is to see my son Mus’ab before I die.’”
Safiyyeh a-Shaf’i, age 68, from a-Nuseirat refugee camp, explained about how difficult it is for her that she is not allowed to visit her son, who is 29:
“I am constantly thinking about and worrying about my son. I wonder how he is feeling, if he is sick, whether he is eating well and whether he is dressing properly or if he’s cold. When he was first imprisoned, in 2003, I would bring him food and clothes and I would put money for him in the canteen. The situation was relatively good and I did not feel as worried like I do now because I saw him every two weeks. We would talk about the neighborhood and the neighbors, and about relatives. Despite all the hardships of traveling to the prison, when I got there, I would forget my exhaustion and the humiliations of the security checks on the way.”
In B’Tselem’s correspondence with the authorities and in official publications, two main rationales were presented for prohibiting family visits: (1) the absence of an authority with whom to coordinate visits; and (2) the Israeli government decision preventing people’s exit from Gaza. Additionally, based on the response from the ministry of defense spokesperson to the demand from the International Red Cross (ICRC) that Israel renew family visits, it seems that the prohibition on visits was also connected to the conditions under which then prisoner Gilad Shalit was held.
In June 2008, some of the prisoners, their families, and nine human rights organizations, including Hamoked-Center for the Defense of the Individual and B’Tselem, petitioned the Supreme Court. The petitioners demanded that Gaza residents with family members imprisoned in Israel be permitted to visit them. The petitioners argued that these visits are protected by the basic right to a family life, anchored in the Fourth Geneva Convention to which Israel is a signatory and by international norms regarding prisoners during international conflicts. In addition, the ICRC agreed to continue to coordinate the visits, so that no coordination would be necessary between Israel and Hamas. The petitioners argued that this removes the basis for the first rationale for preventing visits. The petitioners argued further that the sweeping decision to cancel the visits constitutes collective punishment and is inconsistent with the government’s position that it is proper to include visits to prisons within the framework of humanitarian exceptions to the prohibition on entry of Gaza residents into Israel.
As to the unofficial argument that preventing visits is intended to put pressure on Hamas due to the conditions of imprisonment imposed on the soldier Gilad Shalit at the time, the petitioners emphasized that such pressure is prohibited and that under the Geneva Convention, violation of the convention by one side does not constitute justification for violation by the other side.
In its response to the petition, the State argued that since Israel commenced the process of Disengagement from the Gaza Strip, it is no longer considered an occupying power in the Gaza Strip and that with Israel’s declaration of Gaza as a “hostile territory,” Israel has no obligation to permit Gaza residents to enter its territory, not even to visit prisoners; this would be true for any individual from a country hostile to Israel who was imprisoned here, and would not be entitled to visits from family members. The State emphasized that the restriction is on the entry of the visitors from Gaza, and not against the visits themselves, since residents from the West Bank or from Israel who are relatives of prisoners from Gaza can visit them. The State clarified that this is a matter of policy and that it has the right to decide who will enter its territory. By means of this argument, the State also rejected the claim of collective punishment, emphasizing that it had no obligation to permit citizens of a hostile entity to enter its territory.
Regarding the argument about Gilad Shalit, the State said that the visits continued even after his abduction and were stopped only when Hamas took power in Gaza, and that there is no connection between the two, even if it was impossible to ignore the conditions of Shalit’s imprisonment at the time the decision was made regarding visits by foreign residents to Israel for the purpose of family visits. The Supreme Court denied the petition, and stated in its ruling that the decision falls within the realm of the government’s policy-making, a broad area in which the court does not usually intervene.
The ongoing denial of the rights of prisoners and detainees from Gaza to received family visits is a very serious blow to their right to family life. Even before the Disengagement, Israel chose to imprison Gaza residents in prisons within Israel, a violation of international law requiring anyone incarcerated by an occupying power to be held within that territory. Hence, Israel has the obligation to enable the family members of prisoners from Gaza to visit them. Furthermore, over the years, Israel has permitted residents of Gaza to leave the Gaza Strip, even when there were no humanitarian reasons for doing so. Thus, for example, in 2011 some 10,000 merchants from Gaza entered Israel. As such, there is no justification for Israel’s decision to restrict the movement of prisoners’ families, who even in Israel’s view do not constitute a security risk.
Linah Alsaafin, The Electronic Intifada,
Ramallah–Hours before the 64th anniversary of the Nakba, commemorating the ethnic cleansing of more than half of the Palestinian population in the 1940s by Zionist militias, an historic agreement ending a 28-day mass hunger strike was signed by the Israeli Prison Service and the Higher Committee for Prisoners, in the presence of the Egyptian mediator.
The Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike, which began on 17 April (a day that Palestinians commemorate as Prisoners’ Day), was a heartfelt outcry against the arbitrary punishments and gross human rights abuses that the Israeli Prison Service routinely carries out against the prisoners. The agreement on paper appeared to acquiesce to the three main demands of the prisoners: an end to administrative detention (where a person is detained without any charges brought against him or her, with detention subject to indefinite renewal), the release of 19 prisoners from solitary confinement, and respecting the internationally-recognized right to family visits for the prisoners from Gaza, who haven’t seen their families since 2007 — a form of collective punishment imposed after the capture of an Israeli soldier.
However, once again the realization of the agreement was left for Israel to decide — and since the end of the mass hunger strike in the early hours of 15 May, rumors of Israel reneging on its promises have solidified into facts.
The solo hunger strikes of Khader Adnan, Hana al-Shalabi, and five other prisoners who had passed 70 days without food, were in protest of capricious imprisonment — which forced world attention being on to Israel’s indiscriminate use of administrative detention. More than three hundred Palestinian prisoners are administrative detainees, including children and 24 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
The signed agreement led many to believe that Israel would curtail its use of administrative detention, especially after it announced that all administrative detainees would be released at the end of their current detention periods unless substantial evidence was provided against them. However, two weeks after the agreement, more than 25 prisoners have had their detentions renewed without such significant evidence presented.
Among these prisoners is Hussein Abu Kweik, who spent a total of 12 years in prison and survived an assassination attempt that killed his wife and three of his sons in 2002. Abu Kweik’s latest arrest was on 31 May 2011, and his detention has been renewed for another six months. Husam Khader, a former Fatah member of parliament, was arrested on 2 June 2011, and has also had his detention recently renewed. Mohammad Natshe, a Hamas MP, was given a renewal of four months after a year of administrative detention, Agence France Press reported (“Israel extends prisoners’ administrative detention,” Ahram Online, 27 May 2012).
Samer Barq, who also has Jordanian citizenship, was recently transferred to Ramle prison clinic after restarting his hunger strike on 22 May. He was supposed to be released eight days after the signing of the agreement, but was handed another three months of detention instead, according to the Prisoner’s Club (“Transfer of the hunger-striking prisoner Samer Barq to Ramle prison hospital,” PNN, 28 May 2012 [Arabic]).
Other violations are taking place
Spokesperson Amjad Najjar from the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club asserted that other violations against the prisoners have been taking place, away from the media’s eyes. “Prisoners have been subjected to humiliating strip searches in the Nafha, Rimon and Naqab prisons,” he said. The agreement was supposed to improve living conditions for the prisoners and end the punitive measures that the Israeli Prison Service carries out against them. “There are a number of prisoners who have been taken into solitary confinement, but we are not sure of their names or numbers at the moment,” Najjar added.
Despite expectations, solitary confinement is still in use too. Dirar Abu Sisi, who was captured in Ukraine while visiting his brother on 19 February 2011, began refusing one meal a day after he was placed in solitary confinement a week after the agreement was signed. Abu Sisi told a lawyer from the Prisoners Club that he would begin refusing two meals a day if he did not get transferred back to the cell division by 31 May. He has stopped taking medication for asthma, blood pressure and a heart condition since 29 May (“The solitarily confined prisoner Dirar Abu Sisi begins gradual hunger strike and stops taking medicine in order to get out of solitary confinement,” PNN, 29 May 2012 [Arabic])
Ma’an News Agency reported on Monday that prisoner Kifah Khatib has been hunger striking for more than 40 days and is in solitary confinement in Shatta prison. The prison spokesperson Sivan Wiezman however denied that there were any hunger strikers in Shatta (“Hunger-striking prisoner ‘collapses in court’”).
Meanwhile, the logistical arrangements for family visits for the prisoners from Gaza, to be resumed again in June after six years, is yet to be decided upon. Israel offered the prisoners from Gaza the chance to see their families for half an hour every two months, which the prisoners unequivocally rejected. Prisoners from the West Bank receive family visits every two weeks for a period of 45 minutes.
“All Israeli policies against Palestinians are entrenched in the spirit of revenge,” said Amaney Dayif, head of the department of prisoners for Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. “Collective punishment is the norm, and naturally with the escalation of Israeli harsh measures comes the escalation of the prisoners’ means of protests.” Sahar Francis, director of prisoner rights group Addameer, concurred. “Unfortunately the IPS’ [Israeli Prison Service’s] policies is not to respect the basic human rights of Palestinian prisoners, and tries to take away the prisoner’s dignity after incarceration,” she said. “The IPS’ approach is to treat the Palestinian prisoners as if they are criminals and terrorists, with the suppression and violations against the prisoners being an extension of the process against Palestinian people in general.”
Another mass hunger strike on the horizon?
Will Israel’s contravention of the agreement spark the fires for another mass hunger strike, given the intricate and complicated process that comes with coordinating such a huge ordeal? “The prisoners have threatened to go back on hunger strike,” Najjar said. “They’ve already informed their lawyers and the IPS … the Egyptian mediator is too busy with the Egyptian elections to take an important role in this.” Francis drew attention to how a hunger strike is the last weapon in the prisoners’ arsenal. “There is always dialogue between the prisoners and the IPS regarding the demands of their prisoners, employing legal proceedings,” Francis said. “After dialogue has been exhausted, then a hunger strike is initiated as a last resort. Prisoners coordinate with each other as based on their transfer from one prison to another, from meeting in court rooms or prison hospitals, and through family visits who take the responsibility of disseminating information through newspapers.”
Throughout Israel’s occupation of Palestine, there have been dozens of prisoners’ hunger strikes set to reclaim their basic rights and dignity. Some have failed, whereas others were considered successful. Yet planning for a third mass hunger strike in less than a year’s time is unprecedented. Many are keen on viewing the agreement between the Israeli Prison Service and the Palestinian prisoners as a victory, overlooking Israel’s infringements in favor for the more general achievement. This may explain why the solo strikes of football player Mahmoud Sarsak (who at the time of publication is on his 80th day of hunger strike) and Akram Rikhawi have gone unnoticed in the media and with little protest in the street.
In a lecture given at the Friends Meeting house chapel in Ramallah on 30 May, the high-profile lawyer Jawad Boulos, who is credited with managing the hunger strike deals of Khader Adnan and Hana al-Shalabi, considered that transferring the 19 prisoners from solitary confinement back to the cell divisions was the main success in the agreement. “Close your eyes for five minutes and imagine spending years not speaking to anyone, not seeing anyone, not having any human interaction, all in a 2 meters by 3 meters cell,” he said. “When you remember prisoners such as Hasan Salameh who has spent 13 years in isolation and have described being back in the company of others as a rebirth, then this agreement is definitely a victorious one.”
Linah Alsaafin is a recent graduate of Birzeit University in the West Bank. She was born in Cardiff, Wales and was raised in England, the United States and Palestine. Her website is http://lifeonbirzeitcampus.blogspot.com/.