Why are so many Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails?

Four in 10 Palestinian men spend time in Israel jails. Hamas says it wants to exchange captured Israelis for them.

People gather with the pictures of Palestinian prisoners
People gather with the pictures of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli custody during a rally in solidarity with them in the city of Nablus in the occupied West Bank on April 17, 2023 [File: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP]

In golf carts, vans and on motorbikes, Hamas fighters have taken dozens of Israeli civilians and soldiers back to the Gaza Strip after their attack on Israel on Saturday.

As Israel’s fighter jets bomb the Gaza Strip in retaliation against the surprise Hamas assault, the Palestinian group has said that it plans to use the captured Israelis to strike a deal for the release of Palestinians in Israel’s prisons.

But just how many Palestinians are currently in Israeli custody? And how many of them are children?

The Palestinians in Israel in prisons

Many would argue that all of Gaza is effectively an open-air prison — 2.2 million people blockaded by Israel in a tiny coastal enclave.

But the number of Palestinians who have actually spent time in Israeli jails too is of a similar order. Since 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, it has arrested an estimated one million Palestinians, the United Nations reported last summer.

One in every five Palestinians has been arrested and charged under the 1,600 military orders that control every aspect of the lives of Palestinians living under the Israeli military occupation. That incarceration rate doubles for Palestinian men — two in every five have been arrested.

By comparison, in the United States, the country notorious for the world’s largest prison population, one in 200 people is imprisoned. The imprisonment rate among Black Americans is more than three times the overall rate — but even then is a tiny fraction of an average Palestinian’s likelihood of spending time in jail.

Palestinian Prisoner rights group Addameer has described the Israeli prison system as a “complex of monstrous machinery in form, laws, procedures, and policies…designed to liquidate and kill”.

Today, the number of Palestinians currently behind Israeli bars is 5,200, including 33 women and 170 children. If tried, Palestinian prisoners are prosecuted in military courts.

So, why are there so many prisoners?

Two months after Israel occupied Palestinian and Arab territories in the 1967 war, its government issued Military Order 101 which essentially criminalised civic activities under the basis of “hostile propaganda and prohibition of incitement”.

The order, which is still in use in the occupied West Bank, outlaws the participation and organisation of protests, printing and distributing political material, waving flags and other political symbols, and any activity that demonstrates sympathy for an organisation deemed illegal under military orders.

Three years later, another military order (378) was issued by the Israeli government. This established military courts, and basically outlawed all forms of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation as “terrorism”.

Hundreds of other military orders have been issued and implemented since then to curtail any Palestinian civic and political expression.

How many Israeli prisons are there detaining Palestinian prisoners?

There are 19 prisons within Israel and one inside the occupied West Bank that hold Palestinian prisoners.

Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, it is against international law for an occupying power to transfer an occupied people from the occupied territory.

“It is unlawful and cruel and the consequences for the imprisoned person and their loved ones, who are often deprived from seeing them for months, and at times for years on end, can be devastating,” Amnesty International has previously said.

What is administrative detention?

There are 1,264 Palestinian administrative detainees, which means that they are held indefinitely behind bars without facing trial or any charges. This practice, a remnant of the British Mandate era, can be extended indefinitely based on “secret evidence”, meaning that a detainee can spend months if not years in prison without being charged.

While Israel says the procedure allows authorities to hold suspects while continuing to gather evidence, critics and rights groups say the system is widely abused and denies due process.

How many Palestinian children have been arrested by Israel?

Since the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000, more than 12,000 Palestinian children have been detained by Israeli forces.

At least 700 Palestinian children under the age of 18 from the occupied West Bank are prosecuted every year through Israeli military courts after being arrested, interrogated and detained by the Israeli army.

Addameer describes the arrest and imprisonment of children as systemic and part of a collective punishment campaign.

The most common charge is throwing stones, which is punishable by a maximum punishment of 20 years.

The children are often subjected to physical and psychological torture, according to child rights groups. They are interrogated without the presence of a parent or lawyer, and critics have accused Israel of exploiting their detention to turn them into informants and to extort their families financially by forcing them to pay huge fines.

What are some of the Israeli military orders against Palestinian children?

Military Order 1726 states that children can be held in preventative detention for 15 days before an indictment is submitted and that a military court can extend that detention by 10 days each time for a maximum of 40 times.

Military Order 1745 stipulates that interrogation sessions of children should be audiovisually recorded in a language understood by children, but excludes children arrested under security pretexts which refers to all Palestinian child detainees.

Under Military Order 132, Palestinian children aged 16 and older were previously tried and sentenced by Israeli military courts as adults.

Furthermore, Palestinian children continue to be charged according to their age at the time of sentencing, instead of their age at the time of the alleged offence, as provided by international law.

In August 2016, Israel changed its law that stated that children under 14 could not be held criminally responsible. This was done after Israeli authorities waited for Ahmed Manasra, who was 13 years old at the time of his arrest, to turn 14 before charging him with attempted murder and sentencing him to 12 years – which was later commuted down to nine.

Source: Al Jazeera