Are Palestinians ‘partying’ in Israeli prisons?

In the wake of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit’s release after being held captive in Gaza by Hamas for five years, Israelis are grappling with the question of what to do if another Israeli soldier or civilian is kidnapped. Currently, one of the most popular ideas being bandied about is to exert counter-pressure by making life harder for Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli prisons now.

More than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners will have been exchanged for Shalit once the deal is completed later this month, while another 4,500 Palestinians will remain in Israel’s prison system. By comparison to the isolation, apparent limited diet and other harsh conditions suffered by Shalit, some right-wing Knesset members have likened conditions for Israel’s Palestinian prisoners to a “five-star hotel” or a “day camp.” Prisoners are fed three meals daily, are allowed to exercise and get visitors, according to Ynet.

Indeed, some efforts to cut back privileges already have begun: Responding last June to public anger over Shalit’s unknown whereabouts and isolation, the Israeli government stopped letting Palestinian security prisoners study for college degrees, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “The party is over.”

Removing other privileges for such prisoners, such as access to television, books, newspapers, canteen purchases and even family visits, is expected to be among the policy recommendations of a panel headed by former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, whose report is due out soon. 

How Israel treats its Palestinian prisoners has long been a thorny issue for Israelis, particularly since the First Intifada in the late 1980s. Allegations of mistreatment have led to continual, sometimes scathing, human rights reports, as well as a series of Supreme Court decisions, culminating in a 1999 court ruling outlawing the use of torture. (That ruling, however, contained the loophole that Israeli officials accused in court of torture may be exonerated on the “ticking bomb” defense.) Now a new awareness that Israel still holds thousands of Palestinian prisoners has made the question of how Israel treats its prisoners even more pressing.

Queried on whether they are, indeed, being over-indulged, the Israel Prisons Service (IPS) stated that Palestinian prisoners are “treated in accordance with the law and IPS policy.” An official Israeli source, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, however, said the prisoners “spend all day locked in their cells except for an hour-and-a-half in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, when they’re allowed out to walk around in the yard. I wouldn’t call that a ‘day camp.’ ”

Continuing reports of torture in Israeli prisons have been issued by the group Physicians for Human Rights in Israel (PHRI), whose membership includes some 700 Israeli physicians who make visits to examine inmates who have complained of maltreatment. On Oct. 24, the group’s most recent report on Palestinian security prisoners stated: “Testimonies taken by human rights organizations in past years indicate clear patterns of torture and/or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of Palestinian detainees.”

PHRI and other Israeli human rights organizations attribute the alleged mistreatment to Shin Bet investigators, who interrogate Palestinians inside Israeli jails. Asked how the prisoners are treated by the regular prison guards, PHRI chair Zvi Bentwich, a professor emeritus of immunology at Ben-Gurion University, said: “I don’t think we have a serious problem with the guards’ treatment of Palestinian prisoners.”

Queried about the PHRI report, an IPS spokesman said only, “We do not make policy for the Shin Bet’s investigation of prisoners.”

Dr. Zeev Wiener, a psychiatrist at a community mental health clinic, has, by his count, examined “at least 120” Palestinian security prisoners during his 20 years of volunteering for PHRI. “Most of the prisoners I saw didn’t suffer from ‘extreme’ torture, such as beatings, hangings by the wrists or waterboarding during their interrogations,” he said. “It was mainly sleep deprivation and threats of what would happen to them and their families if they didn’t talk.

“But,” he added, “I did see a few prisoners who were victims of physical torture par excellence — beatings and hanging from the wrists for a long time. But whether we’re talking about real physical torture or intense psychological pressure, the effect is harsh and sometimes chronic, as with post-traumatic stress syndrome.”

Asked whether over his two decades of experience he has seen changes in treatment of Palestinian security prisoners by Shin Bet investigators, Wiener replied: “It’s become more sophisticated. Over the years, the Supreme Court has put increasing restrictions on what the Shin Bet can do, so interrogators have become cautious. My impression is that psychological torture has become more common than physical torture, which, after all, sometimes leaves visible signs.”

The Oct. 24 PHRI report said that, in the wake of the court’s 1999 decision, “Torture and/or ill-treatment [of Palestinian security prisoners] has subsequently become systematic and institutionalized through the misuse of the ‘ticking bomb’ and necessity defense scenario, which is treated in practice as though it were a prior authorization rather than a defense in retrospect, in contradiction of the Supreme Court’s decision itself.”

Wiener, like PHRI’s other physicians who examine Palestinian detainees, does not take his findings directly to prison officials or, certainly, the Shin Bet; by protocol, he gives them to the PHRI, which includes them in its reports. The effect of these reports has been negligible, according to the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, whose data, cited in the Oct. 24 PHRI report, documents that of the more than 600 complaints of Shin Bet torture filed with Israeli legal authorities from 2001 to 2009, not one has led to a criminal investigation.

The complaints are ultimately forwarded to the Shin Bet, which decides on their disposition, the report noted.

Of the 1,027 Palestinians who have been or are due to be freed in exchange for Shalit, more than 300 were involved in murders of Israelis, according to The Israel Project, a pro-Israeli advocacy organization. Of the 4,500 remaining in Israeli prisons, “a few hundred” were murderers or accomplices to murder, an official source said. Thirty-five of them are ages 12 to 15, and were arrested for such offenses as stone throwing, according to PHRI.

Most Palestinian security inmates — which does not include those imprisoned for such criminal offenses as car theft — are housed in nine Israeli prisons: Ketziot, Ofer, Ramon, Nafha, Shita, Gilboa, Megiddo, Hadarim and Eshel.

At the end of September, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners began a hunger strike, demanding an end to solitary confinement, which currently is being imposed on a few dozen of the security detainees, as well as family visits for all — such visits are barred to the roughly 800 detainees from Gaza, viewed by Israel as an enemy country. They also demanded an end to the shackling of prisoners during family visits, as well as to strip searches of visiting family members and the right to take college correspondence courses, access to Arabic-language TV, greater access to books and newspapers, and better food.

The strike, whose demands were supported by PHRI, ended on Oct. 19, the day after Shalit and the first 477 Palestinian prisoners were released in the exchange. Palestinian media reported that the prisoners were declaring victory.

The official Israeli source, however, said, “the hunger strike didn’t change our policy toward Palestinian security prisoners in any way.”

Elyakim Ha’etzni, an attorney, columnist for Yediot Aharonot and long-time settler activist in Kiryat Arba, dismissed the PHRI report as old news: “There’s nothing new in these claims; the guidelines for investigations are all laid down by the Supreme Court with special consideration for ‘ticking bomb’ cases,” he said.

Calling the security prisons “autonomous academies for terrorism,” Ha’etzni said Israel’s prisoners have access to “food, newspapers, radio, TV; they receive donations that they can spend at the canteen. They get medical treatment they never dreamed of receiving before going to prison — thousands of dollars in dental treatment.

“Hamas can advertise in Nablus: ‘Kill an Israeli and get your teeth fixed!’ ” Ha’etzni said. “They get visits from lawyers, from family members. What did Gilad Shalit get?”