Israel's Abu Ghraib
An open-ended hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, due to begin next week, aims to expose appalling conditions and systematic abuses, writes Jonathan Cook
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Palestinian women gather in Nablus holding pictures of scores of sons and relatives held in Israeli jails. Starting 15 August, thousands of Palestinian detainees will stage an indefinite hunger strike in protest against prison conditions
In a last-minute attempt to head off a mass hunger strike among Palestinian political prisoners, Israel partially reversed this week its policy of blocking most family visits to inmates. Prison authorities declared that an extra 600 prisoners would be allowed to see close relatives.
Yaakov Ganot, head of the Israel Prison Service (IPS), instructed the 20 Israeli jails holding Palestinian security prisoners to compile lists of those who had been denied visits for more than a year.
Ganot took his decision after Palestinian prisoners submitted 57 demands for improvements in detention conditions, with the restoration of visiting rights top of the list. A hunger strike is due to begin next week.
The plight of the 8,400 Palestinian political prisoners has attracted little attention outside Israel, even though there have been warnings from human rights groups about the dire conditions they endure and reports of abuse at the hands of guards, including a widespread policy of strip searching and severe beatings for those who refuse.
The number of security prisoners being held since the outbreak of the Intifada in September 2000 has risen from 800 to more than 8,000, with Palestinian detainees evenly split between military holding centres and Israeli jails. One in eight prisoners is being held under administrative order, without trial or even charges being laid.
The huge surge in prison population has overwhelmed Israel's jails, leaving many inmates sleeping on cell floors or in makeshift accommodation such as tents. In the Russian Compound in Jerusalem up to 16 prisoners are crowded into four metre by four metre holding cells. There are regular reports of rat and insect infestations, hygiene conditions are often deplorable, recreation facilities are non-existent and access to open-air yards is rarely offered.
Prisoners' basic rights are largely ignored. Lawyers are barred from talking with their clients for long periods, in several prisons the authorities have refused to provide a building for prayer and inmates have been blocked from using the Open University.
In June, Ganot ordered that all security prisoners still studying for their Palestinian Authority matriculation be barred from taking the exams.
But even the publicity surrounding the trial of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade leader Marwan Barghouti, which ended with his receiving five life sentences in June, failed to ignite interest in the subject of the conditions in which he and thousands of other inmates are held.
Attempts to publicise prisoners' problems have been severely hampered by a series of crackdowns by the Israeli police on the main organisation promoting the interests of security prisoners, Ansar Al-Sajin (Friends of the Political Prisoners).
Their lawyers are regularly blocked from meeting with prisoners, and the group's head offices, based in the Galilean village of Majd Al-Krum, have been repeatedly closed down with the director, Mounir Mansour, arrested.
Behind the scenes, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been putting pressure on Israel to abide by its international obligations, especially on ensuring family visits.
Israel violates the Geneva Conventions by transferring many prisoners from the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza into Israel. In many cases authorities then refuse to issue permits to families of prisoners, claiming they pose a security threat to Israel. Without such permits Palestinians are barred from entering Israel.
Every week the Red Cross tries to arrange visits for a handful of families, although any members aged between 15 and 50 are normally refused permits.
According to the prison authorities, a revised set of conditions for assessing the threat posed by family members means the entry prohibitions on 600 families will be cancelled. "Wherever we can accommodate the inmates, we do our best to," said Sharon Gutman, a Prison Authority spokeswoman.
But the decision is unlikely to halt the hunger strike. Many hundreds of prisoners will still be refused family visits, and even those who are allowed to see their relatives will have to do so separated by a glass partition.
Many prisoners have complained to their lawyers that even when their families are allowed to see them -- often after being held up for many hours at checkpoints -- they are strip- searched, offered no visitor facilities and allowed only a few minutes of contact.
Apart from partially relenting on the harsh visiting restrictions, the IPS has refused to countenance other reforms. "The Prison Authority will not budge in conceding to these demands because the security of Israel is at risk," Gutman said.
A key demand is that an extensive system of monetary fines for prisoners is ended. At the moment, the authorities dock hundreds of shekels from each prisoner every time he commits one of a long list of "offences". These include singing inside a cell, hanging a picture on the wall, being late for roll calls, not reporting a crack in a cell wall, having a pen or letter on one's person or not shaving.
The money is deducted from the prisoners' "canteen", a pot to which an inmate's family, friends, charities and even the Palestinian Authority contribute and which pays for his toiletries, cigarettes, clothes, stationery, blankets and extra food. Families are not allowed to bring any food into the jails.
According to statistics revealed in the Knesset by Arab member Azmi Bishara in June, some 50,000 shekels ($12,000) were deducted from the 360 inmates of Shatta prison in the Lower Galilee in the first six months of this year.
Another major grievance concerns the authorities' refusal to provide proper medical services to inmates. There has been a steady flow of reports of seriously ill Palestinian detainees being denied access to doctors, or of prison doctors refusing to treat them.
Ghanim Baransi, a 24-year-old from the Israeli-Arab town of Taibeh near Tulkarem, is trying to sue prison authorities after his hand had to be amputated. He was refused treatment for six months after being shot by police who mistook him for a suicide bomber.
Baransi, who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, is at least able to turn to Israel's civilian courts. Other security prisoners are less lucky.
After visiting detention centres, Arab Knesset member Abdul-Malik Dehamshe has raised several cases of sick inmates. In February Dehamshe protested that Raed Saadi, a prisoner in the Negev desert tent encampment known as Ketziot, was losing sight in his right eye because he had been denied surgery. In June Dehamshe asked for the early release of a long-standing prisoner, Mikdad Khatib, a diabetic from the Balata refugee camp, who had lost 20 kilogrammes since his incarceration.
Another elderly prisoner, 70- year-old Wasfi Mansour, who suffers from heart disease and diabetes, was moved without warning from Shatta prison after his case was taken up by Friends of the Political Prisoners. The group's lawyer was subsequently prevented from seeing Mansour.
But the most inflammatory grievances concern the authorities' refusal to install public telephones inside jails and the related policy of strip-searching inmates.
Deprived both of family visits and access to telephones to maintain contact by other means, prisoners have been smuggling small mobile phones into jails. As a result, prison authorities have been strip-searching inmates to find the phones.
Authorities claim the phones are being used to authorise and plan attacks by militant groups. Inmates say that if Israel installed prison phones their calls could be controlled and even monitored and that the need for the trade in mobile phones would end.
Strip-searching has resulted in an increasingly hostile environment in many jails and several violent attacks by guards on prisoners. The worst incidents have occurred in two neighbouring prisons in the Lower Galilee, Shatta and Gilboa jails.
Last month the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel decried an incident, following a fight between an inmate and a guard, in which a special unit, the Nachshon, stormed a ward in the Gilboa prison and sprayed tear gas into the cells. The ward's prisoners were forcibly removed from their cells, they had their hands tied behind their backs and were forced to kneel in the yard in the midday sun. Severe beatings with batons resulted in more than a dozen prisoners being badly injured.
Another disturbing incident, which occurred in January, only came to light recently after the mother of one of the inmates concerned was able to visit her son.
Diana Hussein, aged 44, found out that her 18-year-old son, Rabiah, and two other prisoners had been left unconscious by a beating from guards after they refused to undergo a strip search in Shatta jail during a Muslim religious festival. According to reports, the guards then attempted to rape the three inmates.
Rabiah was placed in isolation for several weeks and refused access to a doctor. Unable to walk, he had to be carried to the bathroom for many days by other inmates. His mother says he is still in severe pain and has difficulty moving. "The doctors are refusing to treat him and giving him only Acamol [a mild, paracetamol-based pain killer]," she said.
Rabiah, from Deir Hanna in the Galilee, is one of 120 Palestinian citizens of Israel who are security prisoners. His mother therefore enjoys visiting rights denied to most other prisoners' families. Under threat from prison staff, Rabiah tried to conceal the attack from her. She only learnt of it after a letter was smuggled out of the jail and published in the Arab press identifying the hometowns of the three victims. Rabiah is the only political prisoner from Deir Hanna.
"I lost my mind when I read the story," she said. "I knew it must be him but I had to wait another 10 days till I was allowed to visit him. I sent letters to every Israeli official I could think of but none of them replied."
Diana says the scandal of Israel's prisons should be properly investigated.
"I see the row about what went on with the Americans in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, but no one seems to care about the abuses of prisoners inside Israeli jails."