Jailed without charge: How Israel holds thousands of Palestinian prisoners

Israel has called Palestinians released under a truce with Hamas violent ‘terrorists.’ But most haven’t been charged.

Released Palestinian prisoners react after leaving the Israeli military prison, Ofer, amid a hostages-prisoners swap deal between Hamas and Israel, near Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank November 26
Israel has imprisoned Palestinians for decades, many of them without charge or trial [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

As Palestinian prisoners were being released last week, Israel imposed a ban on celebrations by their family members. “Expressions of joy”, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said, “are equivalent to backing terrorism”.

Israel has presented imprisoned Palestinians as “terrorists” and has subjected many of the detainees to abuse.

But of the 300 Palestinian women and children whom Israel has identified for potential release as part of the humanitarian pause between Israel and Hamas, nearly 80 percent were not even formally charged.

An overwhelming majority of Palestinian prisoners were arrested under a quasi-judicial process known as administrative detention, under which Palestinians are initially jailed for six months. Their detentions can then be repeatedly extended for an indefinite period without charge or trial.

Most Palestinians, including children, are tried in military courts and handed lengthy sentences in what critics call sham military trials because in many cases Palestinians are deprived of defence lawyers and due process. In comparison, Israeli citizens are tried in civil courts, highlighting the two-tier justice system that discriminates against Palestinians.

Here’s a look at the treatment of Palestinian prisoners, how Israel has weaponised administrative detention and why many Palestinians are forced to go through Israeli military courts.

INTERACTIVE - Administrative detainees in Israeli prisons-1701154523

Who is on the list?

The vast majority of the Palestinians – 233 prisoners out of the 300 – on Israel’s release list have not been formally charged and were held as administrative detainees. An overwhelming majority of them are children. The youngest is 14.

Almost three-quarters of them are from the occupied West Bank, which has seen a surge of arrests since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza on October 7. The West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem had already seen a spike in Israeli raids this year even before the war.

The longest serving prisoner among the 300 has been held for 102 months, or eight-and-a-half years. The most recent prisoner was arrested two months ago.

Nearly half of the prisoners have no affiliation with any Palestinian political or armed group. Others are believed to be affiliated with Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

What are the effects of administrative detention?

Prisoners may be held under administrative detention indefinitely. During that time, which could span years, the prisoners, their families and their lawyers may remain in the dark as to what the prisoner has been charged with and what evidence there is against them.

Israel has arrested an estimated one million Palestinians since occupying East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 1967, according to a United Nations report released last year. A considerable number of them are believed to be administrative detainees.

Israel has ramped up arrests since the October 7 Hamas attacks on southern Israel, doubling the number of Palestinians in custody to more than 10,000 b efore releasing some of them. Hamas fighters killed at least 1,200 people during their attack. Israel’s subsequent assault on Gaza has killed nearly 15,000 people, most of them women and children.

How does the Israeli military judicial system work in the occupied territories?

The Oslo Accords of the 1990s led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), but a semi-government run by Palestinians has not ended the Israeli military judicial system. Israel still directly controls a majority of the West Bank and has allowed construction of illegal settlements on Palestinian lands.

The PA has faced criticism for its security coordination with Israel, under which it is obliged to share information regarding armed Palestinian groups. It has a penal code and a judiciary, but the three million Palestinians in the occupied territories could easily fall under the jurisdiction of Israel’s military courts if they are accused of endangering Israeli security. That could include any activity tied to the hundreds of Palestinian organisations that Israel has deemed illegal over the decades.

When charges are filed, they regularly include “terrorist” activities, which could include acts against Israeli soldiers or settlers, and “incitement”, which includes influencing public opinion. Traffic violations or being in Israel illegally for work also bring Palestinians into the military judicial system, which has a conviction rate of 99 percent.

In contrast to Palestinians, Israeli settlers arrested in the West Bank are tried in civilian courts inside Israel. This practice has in effect created two legal systems, which human rights groups have called discriminatory and a form of “apartheid”.

How are Palestinians treated in prison?

Some of the Palestinian prisoners who have been released as part of the truce have said they were beaten and humiliated by Israeli soldiers before being freed.

Beatings grew more intense and frequent after the start of the war, but testimonies of prisoners over the decades have pointed to a longstanding pattern of beatings, torture and abuse of prisoners.

Since the start of the war, rights groups have reported that the Israeli Prison Service has also considerably restricted water, food, medical care and communal items for prisoners and has restricted or altogether halted family and lawyer visits.

This means that Palestinian prisoners have effectively lost some of the limited privileges that they had earned through years of campaigning and hunger strikes in prisons that are now severely overcrowded as well.

How does Israel treat its child inmates?

Hundreds of children, some as young as nine years old, have been detained by Israeli forces in what many have said represents a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children fare no better than adults in Israeli prisons, and an array of abuses against them has been documented.

The rights group Save the Children said in a report in July that 86 percent of children are beaten in Israeli detention, 69 percent are strip-searched and 42 percent are injured during their arrests. They have suffered gunshot wounds and broken bones among other injuries.

Some children have reported violence of a sexual nature, and some are transferred to court or between detention centres in small cages, the London-based child rights organisation said.

Palestinian children are “the only children in the world who are systematically prosecuted in military courts” and an estimated 10,000 have been held in the Israeli military detention system over the past 20 years, according to the group.

Source: Al Jazeera