RESEARCH PROJECT: The Health of Palestinian prisoners

Professor John MacDonald

Researchers: The research team of the Institute of Community and Public Health (ICPH) of Birzeit University, Palestine, the Occupied Territories

Endorsement: See attached letter from Professor Rita Giacaman of the Institute

Background to the research:

The health and well-being of all prisoners, not least of Palestinians in Israeli jails, is an issue of great public health importance. Some years ago, when 1,000 Palestinians were about to be released from Israeli jails, as part of a “swap” for Israelis held by Palestinians, I was asked to talk in East Jerusalem to the WHO team there about the social determinants of health (a major concern of public health teaching in Birzeit University). I mentioned the concerns raised by the prisoners’ release. The immediate response of the WHO group was, “Oh, their poor wives!”. They were right of course, in one way since the release of prisoners (some after many years of incarceration) would impact heavily on the wellbeing of the families of those freed prisoners. But the health of the prisoner themselves should remain an issue of paramount concern. The health of prisoners, even their very incarceration, impacts in a serious way of their families, mothers, partners, children, relatives. Social support is a crucial determinant of health, and this is particularly true in Palestine and forms a major background to this proposed research.

There are currently about 9,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. An account from 2021 says there were 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). Since October 2023, the number of prisoners, mainly younger men and even boys, have doubled. Even before this time, a high percentage of Palestinian males have been in some form of Israeli detention. Some are jailed for several months, most for years. Some are held under “administrative detention” without trial. In April 2024, Walid Daquua died in detention, having served 37 years inside. The situation of all these prisoners is largely ignored outside of the Occupied Territories. Despite the obvious importance of the matter of their physical and psychological health and well-being, this issue has rarely been looked at by researchers. The impact of detention is enormous, both on the prisoners themselves, while in incarceration and in what life they have when released, as well as the impact on their families.

As reported by the World Health Organisation in 2016 (a report of which I am a co-author):

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

It would not be surprising if many people reading this do not have much knowledge of the health of Palestinian prisoners, indeed, perhaps even of the fact of the high numbers of these prisoners and the reasons for their incarceration. Whether they are labelled as terrorists or resistance fighters would depend on one’s perspective or sources of information. Regardless, their health is a major public health concern. For some insight into the situation and the work of the Institute, see the articles in the references below.

Aim of the research

The aim of the research is obviously to highlight health problems of the men in prison. The proportion of women held in detention is much smaller and requires a study of its own. The impact on the mothers, whose opinions will form the major part of the study will be documented. It is the hope that drawing attention to the situation of prisoners will help in some way to alleviate their situation and point towards some action that could lead to improvement.

Phase One of the proposed research

The mothers of these prisoners are among the most significant witnesses to the situation of their imprisoned sons and daughters and their own health also suffers as a consequence. Phase One of this research, therefore, will focus on the perceptions of the mothers of prisoners of the health of their children. It will, inevitably, encompass the physical and mental health of both parent and prisoner.

Possible questions (Theses are merely suggestions: the team at the Institute will
adapt/devise its own culturally appropriate questions):

  • What is your impression of the effect of imprisonment on your child’s health and wellbeing?
  • How often was he allowed visitors? Was it relatively easy to see him (distance of travel, frequency of visits, etc.)?
  • What medical facilities were available in the prison?
  • What changes have you seen in your child’s health as a result of their imprisonment?
  • Either in or if out of prison: Has he been helped by contact with friends?
  • Did the events of October 7th, 2023 influence the treatment received in prison? In what way?
  • Did his religion help him in prison? Did prison make him more or less religious?
  • If the opportunity arises in a culturally appropriate way for such a sensitive topic: have you perceived any changes in his sexual health and wellbeing?
  • Were the health services in prison adequate?
  • Did he have particular health issues? How were these managed?

Phase Two

When the funds become available, Phase Two will focus on the perceptions of the health of prisoners themselves. For obvious reasons, the interviewees will be former prisoners. They will be presented with the perception of the mothers and can expand as they wish.


Professor John Macdonald has undertaken to raise the money to fund the Birzeit researchers. Funds raised will go directly to a nominated account:

Name of the Bank: People’s Choice Credit Union
Name of the account: APPEH ONLINE 2
BSB: 805050
Account number: 102716825

This account is kindly provided by The Australian Palestinian Partnerships in Education and Health. When a donation is made Professor Macdonald should be informed by email:

When the sum of US $30K (AUD 47K) has been reached, this will be transferred directly to the Institute of Community and Public Health in Palestine. No one in Australia, including Professor Macdonald, will benefit in any way from the money raised. Should the raised money exceed $30,000, the excess will go to Phase Two of the research (see above). The project aims to raise a second $30,000 for Phase Two. The state of these funds can be asked of Professor Macdonald at any time.

You are being asked either to contribute yourself, however small an amount, or on behalf of your organisation. Alternatively, or in addition, you might like to forward this request to individuals or organisations which might respond positively.

Professor John Macdonald, emeritus professor at Western Sydney University, Foundation Chair in Primary Health Care, has been engaged with the ICPH in Birzeit University for over 20 years, originally named by the UK government to assist the ICPH to set up a Diploma course in Primary Health Care and a Masters in public health, he has taught into these courses almost every year since their inception. He was co-founder of the Australian Men’s Health Forum and of the Men’s Health and Information Centre at Western Sydney University. He is one of the patrons of the Australian Men’s Shed Association.

Thank you very much for your generosity,

John J Macdonald, Emeritus Professor, Western Sydney University
For further information, please contact Professor Macdonald: