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Palestinian Prisoners

Written by Emeritus Professor (WSU) John Macdonald, on the Board of Justice Action and for over 20 years a contributor to the Institute of Community Health of Birzeit University in Palestine..part author of  a report for the World Health Organisation on the mental health of people in Gaza in 2016 (see below).

The information presented here is largely drawn from, or supported by Israeli Human Rights Organisations. This is deliberate, in case the information provided by Palestinian prisoner organisations, like Adameer or Prisoners’ Club, is judged (falsely) of bias.

Stripped of most of their clothes,Palestinian prisoners are subject to ritual humiliation

Justice Action has a concern for the human rights of prisoners everywhere. At the time of writing (November 2023/updated 6th February 2024) the Israeli-Gaza-Palestinian situation has brought increased attention to the rights of hostages and prisoners on both sides of the conflict. It is of note that the number of hostages taken by Hamas is around 240, whereas the number of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails now exceeds 8,000 (a huge  increase since the beginning of October 2023, according to BtSalem, Israeli Human Rights Organisation). The imbalance reflects the wider disproportion in the Israeli-Palestinian context.

Many of these prisoners (mainly men and some under 16) have been detained under the system of  “administrative detention”, a system which allows for indefinite detention without  trial.

 An account dating back to 2020 says there are currently 4,650 Palestinians (security detainees) held in Israeli jails …of those 520 are being held without charge or trial, 200 are children, 40 are women, 455 are serving life sentences, 499 are serving  a sentence of more than 20 years (Mohammed Haddad, Aljazeera, 13th September 2021; B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, says As at the end of September 2020, there were 4,184 Palestinian security detainees and prisoners being held Israeli Prison Service (IPS) (B’Tselem , 24th November 2020 ). It is to be noted that Israel has stopped B’Tselem from accessing more current data, and, of course, the number of Palestinians in detention in Israel has increased enormously since October 2023.One issue is that the media stresses the hostages taken by Hamas in October (around 240), whereas the Palestinians rounded up and detained by Israel are generally called “detainees” and number in their thousands. 

As reported by the World Health Organisation in 2016 (Professor Macdonald contributed to this report after his visit to Gaza): The main reported issues of concern related to the physical well-being of the  ….Palestinian security detainees and prisoners held in Israeli prisons are: lack of access to timely and adequate medical care, both diagnosis and treatment; inadequate nutrition and housing conditions; and denial of family visits and communications. Physical and psychological abuse especially in interrogation, the use of arbitrary punishments and administrative detention without trial are seen as important problems for many prisoners. The assessment team did not have access to Israeli prisons and Palestinian prisoners therein, and was not able to validate independently the reported conditions. (WHO 2016).

Often the distinction is made between physical and mental health. Although often useful, this distinction is increasingly seen to be very limiting: physical and mental health interact with each other. This is obviously true in the case of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails: the vast majority of prisoners are incarcerated because of acts of “terrorism” or “resistance to occupation”, depending on one’s point of view. The psychological effects of imprisonment, often for acts such as throwing stones, have an impact on the physical health of detainees, and vice versa. Clearly, the deprivation of the right to move, accompanied by (allegations of) torture leaves a deep scar on prisoners after release.

It is widely acknowledged that social connection plays a vital role in human health. Typically, the feeling of belonging, strengthened by contact with people who love us, can have a physical as well as mental health impact. The work done by JA to secure tablets for prisoners, allowing them, inter alia, increased contact with family, is significant here. Palestinian prisoners are far from such a possibility of contact; even the location of jails can inhibit visits of loved ones.

(There has been little research done on the health of Palestinian prisoners. Professor Macdonald has undertaken to raise the funds (30K US) to enable such a study, initially asking the mothers of prisoners to report on the health of their sons. Because of the invasion of Gaza and the troubles with the settlers in the West Bank, this initiative has been delayed till further notice.  Further details can be had from JA)