Death In an Israeli Prison: It’s All Too Routine
Barely a month has passed since news of Prisoner X’s death in an Israeli prison, another prisoner died while in Israeli custody. Arafat Jaradat, a young Palestinian father of two toddlers died after a week in an Israeli jail. He was charged, tortured and confessed to throwing stones at IDF soldiers during a demonstration to protest Israel’s recent assault on Gaza. According to Jaradat’s lawyer, during Jaradat’s military court hearing Israel’ presiding judge was informed that Jaradat was tortured, but that did not protect Jaradat or the 220 Palestinians before him who also died in Israeli custody. Which is not surprising since Israel openly discloses that all Israeli prisons and holding centers dedicated to Palestinian prisoners are staffed with Shin Bet interrogators.
Now we know Prisoner X and Jaradat shared a similar fate, both were interrogated and mysteriously died while in Israeli custody. Prisoner X, was later identified as Ben Zygier who vanished without a trace for two years until an Australian TV documentary forced the Israeli government to reluctantly admit of his secrete detention and death. While it not clear yet whether Zygier died on the hands of his torturers or committed suicide, most Israelis are calling for a full investigation to determine the cause of his death. Unfortunately that is not the case for Jaradat, Israel does not find it necessary to conduct an independent investigation.
The use of detention to curb the tide of national movements or political opposition is not unusual for governments who prefer to detain objectors and preserve the status quo rather than address the real causes of dissent. Here in the US, we shamelessly used it against African Americans who justly and non-violently called for an end to institutional segregation during the civil rights movement. Throughout the civil rights movements many black civil rights protesters and leaders were arrested and imprisoned including Dr. Martin Luther King.
Not withstanding, Israel’s mass use of imprisonment to curtail Palestinian demands to end their occupation is unique in its breadth, scale and longevity. Ten years after Israel’s 1967 war and occupation 650,000 Palestinians were detained in Israeli prisons. Meaning within a decade of the Israeli occupation at least one in every four Palestinian man, woman and child living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza- were detained by the IDF and imprisoned in Israeli military prisons. Just for a moment soak these numbers and reflect on the magnitude of Israel’s use of mass detention. If we in the US used the same measures during the civil rights movement, state and federal agencies during that time would have had to detain 1.5 million African Americans. Would we as a country have stomached such drastic measures? Probably some Americans would justify it, but more likely most would have abhorred the use of indiscriminate wholesale detention.
Israel’s Palestinian detention policy and scheme has been in effect for more than 46 years. Israel has maintained the same operating principles and procedures with the expectations that Palestinians will comply, which is counter intuitive to every human instinct and logic. Israel expects Palestinians to live with the terms of their treatment, repetitiveness and duration of their detention whether innocent or not, fairly or unfairly and without objection. Accordingly, Palestinians who protest their detention pay a heavy price- and dare they strike. Samer Issawi’s arrest and hunger strike illustrates Israel’s expectations and the utility of its detention policies. Issawi (translated his name means follower of Jesus) is from East Jerusalem. He was recently released form an Israeli military prison, and re- arrested at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank (approximately two miles from his home). Israel charged Issawi with breaking the terms of his release and sent him back to prison in Israel. For two hundred days Issawi non-violently protested his re- arrest and detention by refusing to eat. Feeble and sick he was wheeled to his court hearing, but his health condition did not spare him. Israel’s presiding military judge informed him that based on new secrete evidence he may face additional charges and an extended prison term (20-26 years). Since secrete evidence cannot be disclosed; Issawi will be charged and held for at least 20 years without being told why or given a reason.
In 1948, soon after the world witnessed wholesale abuse and atrocities committed and contrived by Germany during World War II, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and ratified. It established common norms and universal rights endowed to every human being as ‘natural rights’- not to be given or denied, awarded or rescinded by states. These rights were articulated in the Charter of the United Nations as ‘fundamental rights’, which are binding on all member states. This understanding is clearly stated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence , which promise: Israel “will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” But so far Israel has refused to meet its legal obligations towards the Palestinians, although it is party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Palestinians have learned that the many international covenants Israel has signed and ratified will not protect them; they cannot rely on Israel’s judicial system for fair treatment; or depend on the international community to force Israel to conform to international standards.
While many Israeli human rights organizations speak out against their government’s abusive detention practices of Palestinians, most Israelis do not see any objection to the over zealous use of mass arrests of young and old Palestinians by their IDF soldiers. Even fewer question Israel’s dual judicial system and laws, or Israel’s one of a kind parallel judicial military system; a civil system for Israelis; a military system specifically designed for the Palestinians Israel occupies. Correspondingly Israel operates two judicial systems and two separate laws and procedures analogously depending on the national aspirations and faith of the detainees.
Israel’s civil system protects its citizens regardless of the location or offense Israelis commit; this includes Israel’s well-armed illegal settlers who forcefully take Palestinian owned lands and profit from Palestinian resources. Israel’s illegal settlers are responsible for a host of violations including violently attacking, terrorizing and harassing Palestinian farmers; uprooting their olive trees; obstructing their passage to their fields; defacing their houses of worship and destroying their properties. Israel has charged a handful few of its settlers with offenses committed in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, but when they are charged, they are prosecuted in regular civilian courts within Israel.
Meanwhile Palestinian, who are arrested, regardless of age or charge, are prosecuted in Israel’s military courts and are transferred and held in military prisons in Israel. That applies to young children, non- violent protesters, teachers, health workers, as well as Palestinian legislative council members, mayors and political leaders. Israel is well aware that their transfer and detention is in violation of the Geneva Convention, which clearly states “the deportation or transfer of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory, in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Convention.” Furthermore, Palestinian government officials and leaders are afforded protections by international law and the 1993 Oslo Accords, which Israel also ignores.
Most distressing is the fate of young Palestinian children the IDF arrests. These minors are transported to Israeli prisons away from their family who must file official requests to visit their children, and secure IDF permission to navigate Israel’s endless checkpoints, which may or may not be approved. In 2010 members of the British parliament traveled to Israel to investigate a list of 100-69 minors in Israeli detention centers, they were horrified and stunned after a visit to one of Israel’s juvenile detention court hearing. According to Haaretz while the visiting MPs were sitting in one of the halls of the court they heard” a jangle of chains outside the door of the courtroom, Army officers led child detainees into the military courtroom. The children’s legs were shackled, they were handcuffed and they were all kitted out in brown jumpsuits. One had to wonder if the soldiers felt threatened by 13- and 14-year-old boys.” They concluded in dismay “The children were better off pleading guilty regardless of whether they had done something, because if they were detained until the end of proceedings, this could be three times longer than their punishment.” Never mind that these young Palestinian minors will be marked with a permanent record, or that the IDF will use their detention record to justify interrogating them during a village raid or while crossing Israel’s countless of check points. These young Palestinians become captive suspects to be held at the whim of IDF soldiers.
No country has used detention on such a magnitude and for so long to break the spirit of a people like our friend and ally Israel. Israel’s casual and frequent use of administrative detention is it’s most obscene practice. Although international law allows it’s application in extreme situations; Israel uses administrative detention routinely to imprison Palestinians without charge; deny Palestinians their basic right to be informed of what crimes they are suspected of committing; or according to Israel’s hyper vigilance standards may be willing (or imagining) to commit; and detain and hold Palestinians without the right to be put to trial. Since 1967 Israel is responsible for detaining 20% of the total Palestinian population. So on average one in five Palestinians have been detained by Israel and that does not include the number of re-arrests. While most Palestinians Israel detains are held without charge, but thereafter they suffer the consequences. Once Palestinians are detained, listed and marked they are unable to travel abroad, seek a scholarship, work or freely move in their own community.
In a span of few weeks we have learned of two deaths in Israel’s prisons- one is a Palestinian and another is an Israeli. Jaradat’s death has orphaned two young children and widowed his young pregnant wife. So has the death of Prisoner X, whose young family is silently grieving the loss of their father. And while Israel’s dual judicial system may eventually lead to some answers to the unfortunate death of Prisoner X, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have perished at the hands of their interrogators leaving behind families and friends who will continue to carry the burdens and scars of a the senseless Israeli occupation that our tax dollars have continued to sustain, despite our own interest in ending it.
Will the detention and death of Jaradat and Prisoner X give us the courage to confront the cruelty of Israel’s detention practices? Regrettably neither death nor Israel’s illegal mass detention of Palestinians will be a major concern for our government or American supporters of Israel who will just chuck it as normal and routine. Meanwhile, we are cajoling, urging and encouraging Palestinian and Israelis to resolve this contracted conflict and end Israel’s occupation. Do we seriously think that Israel’s mass detention policies and torture practices improve relations among Israelis and Palestinians? Promote trust between Israeli and Palestinian? Or are helpful activities that will lead to an end to the conflict? Most certainly not, but unfortunately we have come accustomed to expect substandard practices from our close ally. In the process we have diminished Israel’s human rights standards, democratic values, reputation and international standing. And whether we accept it or not we carry a measure of responsibility for our silence.
Aware or not- our tacit deference to Israel’s inhumane policies and procedures are rotting Israel’s moral standing, numbing and polluting its society; and along the way we are also deadening our own conscience and lowering international common accepted norms. Meanwhile we are also sanctioning the same cruel techniques honed since 1967 on Palestinian prisoners to abuse Israelis too. Regardless of what kind of resolution Palestinians and Israelis end up with- two states, a confederate state, or one state the scars of Israel’s wholesale inhumane treatment of Palestinians will not be forgotten or easily forgiven . Most certain the painful psychological trauma of Israel’s detention scheme will more than likely confront all involved once this tragic whirlwind settles-prisoners, jailers, and interrogators.
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