The Palestinians Held Captive by Israel

Palestinian prisoners can be left in grim conditions in Israel’s prisons for years, without charge or trial — just one part of the repression they endure daily.

An Israeli guard stands in a watch tower at a prison in Israel, 2020. (Mati Milstein / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Nineteen-year-old Amal Nakhleh suffers from a rare, long-term condition called myasthenia gravis that causes severe muscle weakness. In November 2020, when he was sixteen, Amal was arrested at an Israeli checkpoint between the Palestinian towns of Atara and Birzeit and presented with a list of charges based around throwing stones.

Amal was released in December, but in January 2021 rearrested and subjected to an administrative detention order that was extended several times.

“I had surgery just before my arrest,” recalls Amal. “This illness requires a CT scan every six months and continuous medical treatment. During my entire fifteen-month imprisonment, they only allowed me to do it once and there was no medical follow up or specialized attention.”

Reports state that at least six hundred Palestinian prisoners are suffering from ill-health, a significant proportion with chronic diseases. Amal also contracted COVID-19 in prison, and recounts the period he spent in quarantine: “They just gave me a bowl of rice for lunch and chocolate pudding for dinner. I weighed sixty-nine kilograms when I went in, and I was sixty-one kilograms when I left ten days later.” International campaigns called for Amal’s release, which eventually took place in May 2022.

Israel’s prison system forms an oft-overlooked dimension of its apartheid rule. The treatment of Palestinian prisoners can involve arbitrary detainment, administrative detention without trial, and conditions that the international human rights community has said constitute “cruel and blatant” and even “sadisticviolations of international law. In 2022, Israeli authorities arrested seven thousand Palestinians, according to the Palestine Center for Prisoners Studies (PCPS). At least 164 of those were women and 865 were children, 142 of whom were under the age of twelve. And of all those arrested, 2,340 were subject to administrative detention.

With Israel’s previous, supposedly centrist government being replaced with a far-right coalition hell-bent on ensuring Palestinians prisoners’ conditions remain unimproved, Palestinians are anticipating the exacerbation of this state of affairs.

Leena Khattab is one of the more than seventeen thousand Palestinian women arrested by Israel since the occupation of the West Bank commenced in 1967. Speaking exclusively to Tribune, she recalls her traumatic experience in prison in 2014, serving a six-month sentence at only eighteen years old.

“I was arrested for supposed stone-throwing; something I didn’t even do,” she says. “From the moment I was arrested in the street, it was a humiliating and disgusting experience. I remember being beaten on several occasions, starting from as soon as I got inside the military jeep.”

“And they exploited the fact that I was a woman. It was so dehumanizing and painful, but I refused to cry or give them the reaction they wanted. In one instance, they ripped my clothes and tied me to a chair outside, leaving me in the freezing weather for several hours.”

Human rights organizations have previously drawn attention to the abuse of women in Israeli prisons, while former prisoners have recounted experiences of sexual assault. Others have spoken up about being photographed and strip-searched. Torture methods used during interrogation have also been documented by Addameer, the Palestinian Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association.

At one point in our conversation, Leena recounts her experience of al-bosta. The word literally translates to public bus, but in this case, refers to the method of transportation that carries Palestinian prisoners to courts or clinics in vehicles with blacked-out windows and tightly divided cells. The rides can be as long as twelve hours. There are no rest stops or toilet breaks, and there is no food. Prisoners refer to it as a moving grave.

“It was the death ride for me,” she continues. “The temperature inside is below zero and we are sitting on hard metal seats while handcuffed in uncomfortable positions and with suffocating crowding. I remember seeing them bring in a child and searching for handcuffs that fit him because his hands were too small. To this day, I wince when someone mentions al-bosta.”

Still, Leena maintains that her experience could have been worse, and as evidence points to those trapped indefinitely in administrative detention in Israeli prisons — at least 820 Palestinians, as of December 2022.

Administrative detention is an unlawful process that allows Israel to hold detainees without charge or trial, on the grounds that they plan to break the law in the future — grounds based on evidence that is not revealed to them. This leaves the detainees helpless, facing unknown allegations with no way to disprove them and no knowing when they will be released. UN experts are among those who have repeatedly raised concerns and called for an end to the practice.

Nidal Abu Aker is a fifty-four-year-old Palestinian journalist who has been arrested multiple times and spent around fifteen years in prison, most of it in administrative detention. The main accusation that Israeli authorities level at Nidal is that he is active in and participates in events affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is outlawed under Israeli law.

The evidence for accusations like these is often kept secret, the accusations themselves thereby forming instruments of repression. In October 2022, six prominent Palestinian human rights groups were raided and forcibly shut down after being accused of undercover connections to the organization.

For Nidal and his family, administrative detention has robbed them of a normal life. His daughter Dalia opened up on the devastating effect that his imprisonment has had on his loved ones: “My father missed out on so many memorable and momentous occasions. I got engaged recently — it was a huge celebration and felt like a national event, with so many members of the community present, except the one person I really wanted there.”

“My father has never been able to build a life outside prison. All he wants is to live a normal life and play his role as a father. But that is impossible.”

Research has shown parental detention can have a profound impact on the social and psychological well-being of children. Now twenty-five, Dalia has witnessed her father go in and out of detention for much of her life.

“It’s so tough. Sometimes my father would serve several months and we’d be eagerly anticipating his release, and then his sentence would be renewed on that day. If he had a fixed sentence at least then we could plan for his release, but instead we never know when he’s coming out and he’s wrongly spending all that time in there.” Nidal’s son Mohammad confirmed that in mid-January, his father’s detention was extended again for another six months.

Mohammad himself spent five and a half years in an Israeli prison, with all but a year in administrative detention. He spoke about unpleasant memories of room inspections and head counts as the most daunting part of his incarceration. “Very minor acts are seen as rebellious, and all rebellions are crushed. There are special forces, the Massada, for this exact purpose.” Mohammad is referring to Israel’s Control and Restraint Unit, members of which have been said to engage in collective punishment during raids on prisons.

“I witnessed these forces invade once,” Mohammad recalls. “They appear to have a license to kill if necessary, and seeing it unfold in real time is akin to seeing a massacre. One person had his leg slashed wide open with the bones visible while another had his nose sliced in half.”

Despite the fear these events instill, Palestinian prisoners try to make the best of it. Leena took up embroidery while in prison, and often sent pieces as gifts to her family. “It was a nice way of me keeping busy, building up a routine, remaining defiant and showing my family I was not letting the prison affair get to me,” she recalls.

As Amal was in eleventh grade during his arrest, he applied to sit his Tawjihi exam — a GCSE or GED equivalent — passing with 79 percent. “It was by no means easy. There were many prison incursions and collective punishment measures, but I tried to make use of my limited free time by studying.”

Imprisonment is only one part of a system that sees Palestinians daily subjected to violence and killings, kept under siege, living in homes at constant risk of demolition and forcibly dispossessed. In such circumstances, the ordeals of Palestinian prisoners are also a microcosm of the Palestinian experience generally — and Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s new national security minister, has reiterated his pledge to introduce harsher measures for Palestinian prisoners, including adopting the death penalty.

But as long as the international community continues to look the other way and shield Israel from accountability for its human rights violations, Palestinians like Amal and Leena will continue to speak out. “Freedom and dignity are red lines; that’s all we want in our land,” says Leena. “I hope the world will hear us, but I have no idea if they will.”