Palestinians escalate hunger-strike in Israel jails

Hundreds of Palestinians on hunger strike in Israeli jails said on Friday they would shun vitamin supplements and prison clinics in an escalation of their mass protest against detention conditions.

“We swear we will not retreat. We are potential martyrs. Either we live in dignity or die,” prisoner organizers said in a letter announcing the move and which was read out by Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Islamist Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, during a demonstration.

An estimated 1,600 inmates out of 4,800 launched the hunger strike on April 17 to demand improved conditions in Israeli custody, such as an end to solitary confinement and more family visits. They have also challenged Israel’s policy of indefinite detention without charge of suspected Palestinian militants.

The fate of the hunger strikers has touched a raw nerve among Palestinians, with daily support rallies in the West Bank and Gaza, and political leaders warning that Israel could face new violence should any prisoner die.

Dozens of Palestinians, including militants and politicians who had served terms in Israeli jails in the past, have gone on hunger strikes in tents put up in solidarity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which witnessed daily heavy attendance by residents and visitors from Arab and foreign countries.

The prisoners include Islamists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which reject peace with the Jewish state, as well as members of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular and Western-backed Fatah movement.

Israel says all prisoners receive adequate medical attention, including in civilian hospitals if required.

A Prisons Service spokeswoman said there was no immediate sign of the hunger strike being stepped up.

“As of now, I know that those who should be receiving extra care are receiving it,” the spokeswoman, Sivan Weizman, said.

Defending its so-called “administrative detention” policy, Israel says some cases cannot immediately be brought to open court for fear of exposing Palestinian intelligence sources that have cooperated with Israeli security organs against militants.

Two inmates who helped launch the hunger strike, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla of Islamic Jihad, were in the 74th day of their fast on Friday.

Anat Litvin of Physicians for Human Rights in Israel quoted Halahleh’s doctor as saying his death could be imminent.

“What is very worrisome is the fact that he said that he doesn’t want to be saved if something happens to him and he loses consciousness,” Litvin said, adding that the Prisons Service’s medical facilities might prove inadequate.

“They don’t have the equipment, they don’t have the expertise; constant follow-up that is very much needed is not available,” she told Reuters Television in Tel Aviv.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Overcrowded prisons fail inmates and society alike

“It is known that a wide open living space widens one’s mind, and thus the opposite, a crowded living space and lots of people together, degrades one’s mind. Pharaoh strove to degrade the minds of the Israelites, and so he would press them in one place.” —Netziv (Shemot 2:25)

Jewish tradition highly values the principle of teshuvah (turning away from wrongdoing). But how can people who have run afoul of our criminal justice system turn their

lives around if they don’t even have the space to turn around in their cells?

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court confronted severe overcrowding in California prisons, ruling that existing conditions constitute cruel and unusual punishment. This important victory offers an opportunity to reform a broken system that crowds out the possibility of restorative justice.

Since 2005, there has been, on average, one preventable death a week in California prisons. The Supreme Court determined that “needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result” of overcrowding. Earlier, the lower court heard copious testimony, finding that “[a]s many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium [and] as many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet.” “Wait times for mental health care range as high as 12 months.” Prison infirmaries were operating at twice their capacity, with only half the needed clinical space. At times, “up to 50 inmates may be held together in a 12-by 20-foot cage for up to five hours awaiting treatment.”

Substandard conditions were found in every category, including cleanliness, quality of medical personnel and responsiveness. One prisoner suffering from severe abdominal pain waited five weeks to see a specialist, and died. Another, with “constant and extreme” chest pain, died after not being seen for eight hours. In several cases, cancers were not diagnosed or properly treated for more than a year.

These severe outcomes serve no valid punishment goals and demonstrate an abdication of basic ethical and constitutional duties. The Court agreed, affirming an order to trim prison rolls to 137.5 percent of capacity. This reduction should permit greater access to services, rehabilitation and voluntary religious ministry (which have demonstrably contributed to personal recovery of many offenders). Nevertheless, greater reforms are needed.

The California prison system has evolved into the opposite of what “corrections” and “rehabilitation” should mean. Though the criminal justice system removes people from society for specified time periods, the overwhelming majority of inmates will be returned to the general population. The purpose of the separation is to allow a process of repairing and learning to take place in preparation for resuming membership in society according to the social compact. This would logically entail rehabilitation, education, social services and/or religious ministry, all designed to produce a smooth path to reintegration after incarceration.

But because of severe overcrowding, California fails to afford prisoners opportunities to engage in the requisite mental and physical activities and achieve the desired outcomes of imprisonment. Instead, at a cost of approximately $50,000 a year per prisoner, California is maintaining an extravagant revolving door, forgoing services that would reduce the astronomical recidivism rate.

Moreover, since U.S. incarceration rates have quadrupled in recent decades, we are jamming additional people into a system that was already failing to provide basic care and services necessary to sustain its inhabitants and ready them for return to society. As a consequence of these conditions, we are fostering the very criminality we seek to control. We can’t (nor would we want to) imprison everyone forever, so we have a compelling interest in making sure that people come out better, not worse, and more able to contribute to society.

Jews, with our history of enslavement and alienation, should be especially sensitive to forced deprivations of liberty under inhumane conditions. Indeed, in the Jewish tradition, even persons convicted of crimes are created in the Divine image. The Talmud seeks to protect the humanity of those facing capital punishment as well as lesser sentences. Dangerous overcrowding and unsafe conditions are an assault on a person’s humanity and, by extension, his/her Divine image. Even when society deems conduct criminal, Judaism calls for justice and compassion, and prophets like Amos, Micah and Isaiah taught that everyone must be treated fairly and equally.

In considering the current state of prisons in California, an urgent question is whether we are willing to perpetuate a system that forces people — largely the young, people of color and our most vulnerable — into unproductive and irretrievably negative paths. The Court has done its duty by ruling that the Constitution cannot allow overcrowding when the results are death, infection and inhumane conditions.
Now it is our duty to design and implement the necessary reforms to ensure true teshuvah, of individuals and the system.

Stephen Rohde, a constitutional lawyer and author, is vice chair of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA)/Jewish Funds for Justice and represented a man on California’s death row. Hanna Liebman Dershowitz, an attorney who has specialized in criminal justice reform, serves on PJA’s Los Angeles regional council. PJA was a signatory to an amicus brief in the overcrowding case in the Supreme Court with various Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups.

Buck Stops at Prisoner Torture

Why am I not surprised at the news of the mistreatment of Iraqis in an American version of Saddam Hussein’s prisons, crimes, which in fact, occurred in the very same Baghdad prison that was notorious as a torture center in pre-occupation Iraq?

Take a group of American men and women in their 20s, mostly with high school educations, move them thousands of miles from their families, place them in dangerous situations amid an alien culture, provide them with little understanding of why they are there other than patriotic platitudes, surround them with a population that apparently hates them on sight and you have all the necessary conditions for what has been going on for some time behind the razor wire and the sandbags surrounding Abu Ghraib.

This is not intended to condone such conduct, but to explain it. Before joining in the deserved and universal condemnation that greeted the photographs and reports from Baghdad, it would behoove us to place them in context. And the most important context is that of war itself.

The purpose of war is to destroy the enemy by any means possible. It is not to die for your country but to make the enemy die for his. To this end, you bomb, shoot, explode, kill, maim and, in general, act in ways that would get you imprisoned or worse as a civilian.

Now, suddenly, you are expected to break all of the laws you were taught to respect back home and to do so with the full backing and approbation of the state, your friends and family.

The condition of war, in short, creates serious problems of cognitive dissonance in citizens of democratic societies. One of the reactions to this conundrum is to lash out in anger at the nearest targets available for blaming for the situation.

If they are helpless to strike back, and your superiors ignore or even encourage such behavior, so much the easier. My guess is that the offending troops slept well at night, much relieved of their anxieties.

I recall one incident from Israel’s War of Independence that occurred a few days after we wrested Beersheba from the Egyptians. Some of the Egyptians we had captured were kept in the courtyard of a mosque, and suddenly, one of our soldiers started tossing hand grenades over the fence and into the crowd.

No one moved to stop him, and when he used up his grenades, he walked away. I don’t know the toll of dead and wounded, but it must have been considerable.

It turned out that his brother, in another unit, had been captured by the Egyptians, cut up into pieces and left on a road for us to find. However inexcusable, one can understand the context of his action. I don’t think he was ever punished for it, and he was quietly discharged from the service.

The same happens in all armies. You need only read of the constant humiliations suffered by Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints, or the willful physical damage caused by soldiers breaking into Palestinian homes (the same complaint voiced by many Iraqis) to understand the mindless cruelties that even the most disciplined military units commit against the enemy, deserving or not.

The media are quoting the parents of the accused soldiers as refusing to believe that their sons and daughters could commit such atrocities. That is an understandable reaction, and they are probably right.

At home, they would never have acted in that way. They live in communities where everyone knows everyone else, community norms are respected, religion acts as a damper on aberrant behavior and from which they escaped by joining the military.

As of this writing, the Army has scheduled courts-martial for some of the easily identified of the troops and reprimands for others.

Harry Truman had a plaque on his desk that read "The buck stops here." In these situations, the responsibility for such behavior lies first with those who committed the indecencies. More goes to the unit’s commanding officers who condoned them. But beyond that, the blame must be shared by those political leaders who sent men and women into situations for which they were culturally unprepared, poorly motivated and badly trained.

The rest of us should be asking ourselves how we elected such people to office. In the end, the buck stops with us.

Yehuda Lev is a former associate editor of The Jewish Journal.