On February 28, 2005, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State released its 2004 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. In the section on Israel and the Occupied Territories, the report points to "problems in some areas" in reference to Israel’s treatment of Palestinian prisoners and detainees. The report quotes complaints made by "credible" non-governmental organizations (NGOs) against the Israeli Prison System (IPS)-complaints that Palestinian NGO’s and prisoners rights groups have been making for decades-that Israel’s treatment and detention of Palestinian political prisoners is in violation of international law and human rights.
Torture, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment
The U.S. government report states that "some" members of Israel’s security forces abuse Palestinian detainees. However, according to the Israeli Human Rights group B’Tselem, in Israel, "for years, torture was commonly used by Israel’s General Security Service (GSS) interrogators. Since in 1987, the GSS interrogated at least 850 Palestinians a year by means of torture. The methods included violent shaking, binding the detainees in painful positions, and covering their head with a foul-smelling sack. All governmental authorities-from the Israeli army to the Supreme Court-took part in approving torture, in developing new methods, and in supervising them."
In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that only "some" methods of interrogation used against Palestinian detainees were illegal and unacceptable. By not fully banning torture, the Israeli Supreme Court has legally condoned some forms of torture which is in violation of international law. Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) provide that no one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. This principle was ratified by the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel argued that Chief Justice Aharon Barak’s ruling came after pressure from American legal academics. Adalah lawyers added that in the past, Barak had issued many decisions in favor of the use of torture to extract information or confessions from Palestinian suspects.
Israel and International NGOs
The U.S. report points out that in June 2003, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in Israel petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to end the IPS’s "systematic abuse of prisoners" in Israel’s Sharon Prison. In July the court closed the case after the appointment of a new prison warden. Furthermore, a November 2003 PHR report found that Palestinian detainees in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound interrogation center were given medical examinations upon arrival to determine if the prisoner could endure "the application of violent approaches to those jailed." The U.S. report states that "a reputable international organization with access to this facility also reported during 2003 that it is investigating the use of Israeli doctors in this capacity."
The report found that although IPS facilities-home to common law criminals and convicted security prisoners-generally meet international standards, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) found that police detention and interrogation facilities for Palestinians were "overcrowded and had austere, provisional conditions."
Palestinian Prisoners’ Rights Groups
According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Association there are close to 8,000 Palestinians currently being held in Israeli prisons or detention centers. Of those, 400 Palestinians were sentenced before the Oslo Peace Accords and remain in prison despite the Accords’ call for their release. Nineteen are serving are serving sentences of 20 years or more; 140 are sentenced to over 15 years; 300 are children; and 1,200 are being held under administrative detention. Israeli law allows its military to hold Palestinians under administrative detention for up to six months without charge or trial. Israel routinely renews the detention orders and may do so without limitation, thereby holding Palestinians without charge or trial indefinitely. There are 128 Palestinian female prisoners in Israeli jails.
In February 2005, Israel released 500 Palestinians as part of the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement. However, according to IPS, the majority of those released were administrative detainees. The bulk of the released prisoners–”250–”are members of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh party. One hundred seventy are members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The remaining eighty have no political affiliation.
Palestinian prisoners’ rights advocates and the Palestinian Authority (PA) were not happy with the recent release. They argue that the release was not coordinated with them through a joint committee as stipulated in the Sharm agreement. Furthermore, they argue that the release did not address the urgent need to release prisoners who are ill, the elderly, those who are serving sentences 20 years or more, and most importantly, child prisoners.
According to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, 3,000 Palestinian children have been arrested since 2000. Today, there are 300 Palestinian children in Israeli custody. Four percent of the incarcerated children are in administrative detention. The majority, 55 percent, were arrested for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. According to Israeli military orders, a Palestinian child 16 and older are treated as adults and are tried and sentenced by Israeli military courts as adults. Israeli military orders are applied to Palestinian children, even as juvenile legislation defines Israeli children as 18 or younger.
Furthermore, Palestinian children receive the same treatment as adult prisoners. They are subject to torture, solitary confinement, and/or overcrowded cells. They are deprived of sleep, adequate education, medical treatment, family visits, and recreational programs.
Defense for Children International and Save the Children have stated that Palestinian children are being "physically and mentally abused." They confirm Palestinian accusations that children are denied access to their families and legal representation during interrogation and are held in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
Israel insists that it will not release Palestinians convicted with the killing of Israelis. However, in most cases, Israeli courts fail to prove a detainee’s direct responsibility for the death of Israelis. According to the IPS, only 2,731 Palestinian prisoners have "blood on their hands." If that is the actual number, then the vast majority of Palestinian prisoners are political prisoners who have been arrested for political expression or for no legitimate security reason. This is in contradiction to international covenants enshrining the freedom of speech for all persons, especially political dissidents.
According to B’Tselem: "Security is interpreted in an extremely broad manner such that non-violent speech and political activity are considered dangerous…. [This] is a blatant contradiction of the right to freedom of speech and freedom of opinion guaranteed under international law. If these same standards were applied inside Israel, half of the Likud party would be in administrative detention."
Minimum Standards under International Law
Administrative detentions and imprisonment of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories inside Israel are both illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
According to Article 76: "Protected persons accused of offences shall be detained in the occupied country, and if convicted they shall serve their sentences therein. They shall, if possible, be separated from other detainees and shall enjoy conditions of food and hygiene which will be sufficient to keep them in good health, and which will be at least equal to those obtaining in prisons in the occupied country."
Furthermore, Palestinian prisoners are routinely tortured by Israel and held in detention centers and prisons that do not meet the minimum international standards and are routinely denied visitation rights. Article 1 of the Convention defines torture as "any act by which sever pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession…."