Tensions boil as Palestinian prisoners face collective punishment

Rights groups decry information blackout over conditions of injured prisoners; relatives of hunger-striking inmate, meanwhile, demand international intervention.

A guard at an observation tower along a wall of Gilboa Prison,in northern Israel
Activists urged the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the prisoners and check on their conditions [File: Ammar Awad/Reuters]

Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Tensions have reached boiling point in several Israeli prisons holding Palestinian prisoners, with rights groups saying authorities are keeping a number of inmates, including several injured by Israeli forces, in unknown conditions.

“The situation in the prisons is critical and very dangerous,” Milena Ansari, international advocacy officer for Addameer, a Ramallah-based prisoners rights group, told Al Jazeera, citing the continuing closure of Hamas prisoners’ sections amid recent collective punishment measures.

Tensions escalated on December 14 in the northern Damon prison, where three female prisoners and representatives of the other inmates refused to leave their cell during an evening raid due to the cold weather outside, according to the Ramallah-based Addameer prisoners’ rights group. The Israeli officers then cut off electricity in their section, beat them and transferred one of the prisoners, Shurooq Dwayyat, into isolation, Addameer said.

The other two, Marah Bakir and Muna Qaadan, were placed in solitary confinement the next day after they protested by beating on the cell doors. Their rooms were also raided, and the three female prisoners refused their meals until they were all returned to their cells. During the raids, a number of other women were beaten by Israeli special forces, one to the point of unconsciousness, according to a statement by the Palestinian Prisoners Society (PPS) monitoring group. Some also had their headscarves forcibly removed.

When the news reached Nafha Prison in southern Israel, a Palestinian inmate affiliated with Hamas, Yousef Mabhouh, from the Gaza Strip, stabbed an Israeli prison officer in the face with an improvised weapon, lightly wounding him, according to the Israeli Prison Service (IPS). Hamas in a statement said the incident was “a natural response to the escalation” faced by the female prisoners.

The section where the attack took place was then raided by special forces who took 80 prisoners out of their rooms, “handcuffed them for hours in the freezing cold, and beat some of them severely. Mabhouh was subjected to severe assault, after which he was transferred to the hospital by helicopter”, Addameer said.

The PPS said severe injuries were caused to several prisoners in Nafha during the raids and none of the seriously wounded had received medical treatment. Among the injured was Khaled Abu Joudeh, who had a right-eye injury; Ziad Awad, who sustained injuries to the face after being attacked by police dogs; and Ihab Saad, whose nose was broken, among others.

Meanwhile, all female detainees in Damon prison have been forbidden family visits and access to the canteen over the past two weeks, with some also facing financial fines.

Addameer said prisoners held in solitary confinement are completely cut off from the world. “They are held in an empty cell containing only a mattress and a blanket. Other than their clothes, they are not allowed to take anything with them into solitary confinement, including reading materials, a television or radio set,” it added, noting that the rooms do not contain a toilet.

Both the PPS and Addameer accuse Israel of a deliberate information blackout following this month’s events.

“We don’t know the medical condition of some of the prisoners or what has happened to them,” Addameer’s Ansari said, alleging a “cover-up”. “We’ve been unable to gain access to the prisons where this is happening and document events. The lawyers have also been denied access.”

The PPS, meanwhile, urged the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the prisoners and check on their conditions.

Al Jazeera reached out to IPS for comment before publication on December 30. On January 4, IPS responded that it “does not comment on foreign sources of information”.

Milena Ansari
Milena Ansari from Addameer. The group says that Israel has imposed a media blackout on the condition and whereabouts of several Palestinian prisoners who have been beaten and isolated [Al Jazeera]

Hunger-striking prisoner

Simultaneously, Palestinian hunger striker Hisham Abu Hawwash, who is protesting against his “administrative detention”, has been moved to an Israeli hospital and is on the verge of death, unable to speak or move after 135 days on hunger strike with his weight dropping from 89 to 37 kilograms (196 to 82 pounds).

The Red Cross said last week that Abu Hawwash’s health was in a critical condition and required “expert clinical monitoring”.

The 40-year-old, who is from Dura near Hebron in the southern occupied West Bank, was arrested by Israeli soldiers in October 2020 and was placed under administrative detention, a procedure used by the Israeli army to detain Palestinians on “secret information” without charging them or allowing them to stand trial.

Since then, the six-month administrative detention order has been arbitrarily renewed twice, most recently on October 25. Earlier this month, the Ofer military court earlier rejected an appeal submitted by his lawyer and instead renewed the order for another four months.

Hisham's wife and children
Hisham Abu Hawwash’s wife Aisha, 30, and two of his children, Saba, 2, and Izzedin, 6. None of them has been able to visit their father in hospital or prison [Al Jazeera]

On Monday, friends and family members held a protest outside the Red Cross offices in Hebron appealing for international intervention.

“Several days ago, the IPS refused to move my brother to hospital even though his condition had deteriorated significantly,” his brother, Emad Abu Hawwash, told Al Jazeera.

“Only when his situation became critical did they agree to him being moved to hospital because the IPS didn’t want to be responsible for his death should he die in prison,” said Emad, adding that Hisham’s wife and children had been prevented from visiting him in hospital as Israeli authorities refused to give them permits to enter Israel.

“We’re now engaged in a letter campaign to various international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, appealing for help.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera from the Hebron protest, activist Hisham Sharabati said the hunger striker’s supporters had also initiated a digital petition to Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz demanding his freedom.

As the situation in Israeli prisons continues to escalate, Hamas’s leadership has threatened a hunger strike by a group of prisoners as a first step in protesting against Israel’s treatment of the prisoners, with more steps to follow.

The Palestinian public has also taken to the streets in support of the prisoners with protests taking place in numerous West Bank towns and cities.

Source: Al Jazeera