Palestinian prisoners protest Israeli ‘collective punishment’

Prisoners refusing to step out for yard time after Israeli authorities instituted collective punitive policies.

Palestinian protesters hold up Palestinian flags and spoons, reportedly the digging tool used by six Palestinian prisoners who broke out of Israel's Gilboa Prison in September 2021, to denounce punitive measures taken by the Israel Prison Service against Palestinian prisoners following the jailbreak [Jack Guez/AFP]

Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention have taken a series of actions against recent restrictions imposed on them by authorities, prisoner rights groups said, adding that Israeli measures amounted to collective punishment.

All prisoners are refusing to step out of their cells for their allocated yard time since Israeli prison authorities on February 5 decreased the time and number of prisoners allowed outside at once, in violation of previous agreements between detainees and the jail administration, the Palestinian Prisoners Society (PPS) monitoring group said in a statement on Thursday.

Prisoners have access to an average of five to six hours in the yard, also called fora, every day, divided into morning and evening shifts. But the duration has been cut down by more than half.

The prisoners movement announced late last week that Friday and Monday would be ‘days of rage’. On Friday, detainees refused to return to their rooms following prayers in the yard. The PPS said authorities sent in special forces as reinforcements for any escalations.

Prisoners are also threatening to hold a one-day hunger strike on Monday.

Thaer Shreiteh, spokesperson for the PPS, said such “punitive policies impact the lives and spirits of the prisoners”.

“The prisoners live within a certain daily schedule – they have reading sessions and certain times for exercise for example. So when the administration decreases the fora [yard] time, the goal is to target the daily life of the prisoners,” Shreiteh told Al Jazeera.

He said that “the prison administration knows any shift in the details of a prisoner’s day leads to tension,” adding that it “increases the pressure on prisoners who are in rooms with six or seven other detainees”.

Solitary confinement

Shreiteh said prison authorities on Sunday threatened detainees in Hadarim Prison in the country’s north with banning family visits and canteen access for a month, but that the measure was not final yet.

Last week, detainees in multiple prisons dissolved their representational system – where prisoners from different political parties are elected to represent the demands of other inmates in negotiations with Israeli prison authorities.

On Wednesday, sections in Ofer Prison near occupied Ramallah were raided by Israeli special forces and detainees physically assaulted, and several of them were put into solitary confinement, according to the PPS. An escape plan written on a piece of paper was allegedly found in the prison, Israeli media reported.

Detainees in Nafha Prison in the southern Naqab desert were also being handcuffed and taken out of their cells by force for cell searches, according to rights groups.

Ihtiram Ghazawneh, documentation and research coordinator at the Ramallah-based Addameer prisoners rights group, told Al Jazeera that detainees were officially notified last week by the prison administration that the yard time will take place in two phases.

“An hour and a half in the morning and an hour and a half in the evening, and the prisoners in the same sections will be allowed out in batches, not all together at once,” she said.

Ghazawneh said Israeli authorities cited the recent stabbing of a guard by a prisoner in Nafha Prison for the new measures, which apply to all prisons.

Some 4,500 Palestinian prisoners

In December 2021, Israeli prison authorities raided the cells of Palestinian female detainees in Damon Prison, beating many, after several refused to step out into the cold weather during a cell search, according to Addameer. Shortly after, a Hamas-affiliated detainee in Section 12 of Nafha stabbed a guard in the face with an improvised weapon, lightly wounding him. Hamas said in a statement the incident was “a natural response to the escalation” faced by the female prisoners.

Some 80 detainees in section 12 were handcuffed, forced to remain outside in the cold for hours, and were beaten. The prisoner who carried out the attack was hospitalised, along with three other detainees, before being returned to their cells, the groups said.

Ghazawneh said detainees in Nafha Prison were informed last week that authorities were “planning to set up electronic gates at the entrance to the yard manned by three prison guards, so that if they are suspicious of anyone, or if the gate radar went off on anyone, they will search them”.

It remains unclear whether this additional measure will be implemented, and whether it will encompass other prisons.

Some 4,500 Palestinians are held in Israeli prisons, including 180 children and 34 women. Most Palestinians view them as political prisoners who are in detention because of the Israeli military occupation or their resistance to it.

Prisoners rights groups say the new policy comes amid heightened tensions and collective punishment measures against Palestinian prisoners as a whole since six prisoners, including five affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) party, broke out of Israel’s Gilboa Prison through an underground tunnel last September, before being re-arrested weeks later.

After the jailbreak, Israeli prison authorities shut down all prisons and conducted mass transfers of all PIJ prisoners, forcibly separating and re-distributing them to other prisons. Many PIJ prisoners were also placed in solitary confinement and others taken for interrogation.

Family and lawyer visits for all prisoners were also halted, and other measures such as a ban on canteen access and deductions in yard time were implemented in several prisons. Raids and cell searches also increased.

While much of the measures introduced in the wake of the jailbreak were later cancelled following negotiations with prison authorities, Ghazawneh said that the new policy of reducing yard time comes as part of a general Israeli “policy of collective punishment towards all prisoners”, explaining that the “all the escalations since the prison break are tied to one another.

“They [authorities] are responsible for the escalations because they are implementing restrictions on the prisoners’ daily lives,” she added.

In late December and early January, tensions also escalated when the health of two ill prisoners Nasser Abu Humaid and Abdelbasset Maatan severely deteriorated amid claims of medical negligence by authorities.

Two weeks ago, several prisons returned their meals in an attempt to pressure authorities to release Abu Humaid, who fell into a coma on January 4 and despite waking up, remains in critical health condition.

Military court boycott

The protest steps by prisoners over the past week have built on other actions against Israeli detention policies in recent months.

Some 500 Palestinian prisoners in administrative detention have been boycotting the Israeli military court system since the start of this year to protest their detention without trial or charge for indefinite periods based on ‘secret evidence’.

The collective decision was taken following a series of long, individual hunger strikes by administrative detainees in October – with several prisoners on the verge of death – before they were able to pressure authorities to release them.

As such, administrative detainees are refusing to show up for hearings at all levels – including those to uphold their detention orders, as well as appeal hearings and later sessions at the Supreme Court.

Prisoners and rights groups said they hope to lessen the use of the policy through the court boycott, but that authorities have not responded positively yet.

“So far, they [military courts] are conducting the sessions on their own – without lawyers and without the detainees – but the majority of the administrative detention orders are being upheld. We haven’t heard about them reducing the detention time or cancelling orders,” Sahar Francis, head of Addameer, told Al Jazeera.

Asmaa Mansour’s son, Mohammed, was arrested from their home in Jenin city in the northern occupied West Bank in April 2021, while he was still a minor, and placed in administrative detention.

Mohammed, who turned 18 in November, was due to be released from Israel’s Megiddo Prison on February 2, but authorities renewed the order for the third time 10 days before his release.

The current order against him will now end in July, and the family will not know whether it will be renewed again until close to his date of release.

“They must boycott, that is the right thing to do. Mohammed was preparing himself to be released – he was happy and we were all ready to welcome him home – and then they go and renew his detention order. It’s plain injustice,” Asmaa, 37, told Al Jazeera.

“He told me during the last visit that if his order is renewed again, he will go on hunger strike,” added Asmaa, who is only allowed to speak to her son, or find out anything about him, in a 40-minute visit approximately once a month.

“We are hearing about reinforcements and special forces being deployed but I don’t know anything about him – we’re always anxious and keep monitoring the news,” continued Asmaa. “My mind and heart are always with him.”

Source: Al Jazeera