Al Mezan is commemorating Palestinian Prisoners’ Day while pressing the Israeli authorities to uphold the rights of Palestinian prisoners and detainees. Detention facilities and prisons in Israel have long been criticized by Al Mezan for overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and inadequate access to healthcare. Classified separately to regular prisoners, Palestinians in Israeli custody are subjected to depressed conditions, which, as the highly contagious COVID-19 spreads through Israel, puts them at increased risk.
The majority of Palestinians in Israeli custody—4,636 prisoners and detainees, including 43 women, and around 180 children, as of March 2020—are defined as “security” prisoners by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS), which entails special restrictions that regular criminal prisoners do not face, such as the denial of phone calls. With the recent emergency regulation to combat the spread of coronavirus prohibiting visits of attorneys and family members to prisons, the ban on phone calls means that thousands of Palestinians in custody are isolated from their families and legal representatives.
Along with five Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations, Al Mezan submitted an urgent petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice demanding that security inmates in Israeli prisons be able to communicate with their families. The petition emphasized the importance of this contact for minors in detention. In response, the court issued an order allowing the minors to have 10-minute calls every two weeks; however, a decision regarding adults represented in the petition is pending.
There are also reports of crowding in cells that hold Palestinians—with security inmates being held eight per cell, rather than the regular four persons per cell—a discriminatory measure with direct impact on Palestinian prisoners’ ability to ward off the coronavirus, as its contagiousness increases with proximity. Also, the health instructions and guidelines concerning the virus are being distributed only in Hebrew—a practice that serves to jeopardize the health of Palestinians as Arabic-speakers.
As part of our work to provide legal aid to Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, Al Mezan sent a letter on 10 March 2020 to the IPS requesting information and demanding that appropriate preventive measures be implemented to resolve overcrowding, improve hygiene conditions, and regulate the interaction between prison personnel and inmates. On 24 March, the IPS responded with an evasive memo that failed to address the issues. To Al Mezan’s knowledge, concerted measures have not been taken to ensure the provision of healthcare and hygiene needs of Palestinian prisoners and detainees per World Health Organization (WHO) guidance on preventing the spread of COVID-19.
A further 430 Palestinians are being held as administrative detainees, a prevalent practice used against Palestinians that allows for indefinite detention without charge or trial, and amounts to a serious violation of international law.
The international community, including states, the United Nations, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, must take action to ensure Israel’s respect for the rights of Palestinian prisoners and detainees, allowing communication with family members and lawyers, and to heed WHO recommendations by providing access to adequate healthcare, a hygienic environment and allowing for distancing among inmates and prison personnel.