Palestinian Political Prisoners

he purpose of this brief is to give an overview of Israel’s mass confinement of Palestinians and clarify the realities of imprisonment by Israel’s lopsided military “justice” system.

1. How many Palestinian political prisoners are there?

There are approximately 5820 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons or detention camps spread across 17 prisons, 4 interrogation centers, and 4 detention centers. All but one of the prisons (Ofer Prison near Ramallah) are located inside Israel, in direct contravention of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that an Occupying Power must detain residents of occupied territory in prisons inside the occupied territory. An additional 1,061 Palestinians were held in Israel Prison Service facilities for being in Israel illegally, 19 of them from the Gaza Strip.

As of March, 2015:

Total Number of Political Prisoners:
Administrative Detainees:
426 (5 PLC members)
Female prisoners:
Child prisoners:
182 (25 under 16)
Palestinian Legislative Council members:
East Jerusalem prisoners:
1948 Territories prisoners:
Gaza prisoners:
374 (1 under the Unlawful Combatants Law)
Prisoners serving life sentences:
Prisoners serving a sentence above 20 years:
Prisoners serving more than 25 years:
Prisoners serving more than 20 years:
Prisoners before Oslo:

2. What does Israel consider a “security offense”?

The majority of Palestinian political prisoners are charged with offenses under Israeli military orders. These orders employ a broad definition of “security”, such that they ban, among other things, political expression.

For instance, Military Order 101 states that it is “forbidden to conduct a protest march or meeting (grouping of ten or more where the subject concerns or is related to politics) without permission from the Military Commander.” The order also prohibits the distribution of political articles and pictures with “political connotations.”4 Similarly, Military Order 938 even considers “supporting a hostile organization by holding a flag or listening to a nationalist song” a “hostile action.” Military Orders 101 and 938 are only two amongst numerous orders that restrict Palestinian political life in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Because of the breadth of Israel’s definition of “security,” Palestinians can be arrested and imprisoned for practically any form of public activity, regardless of whether or not they present any so-called “security threat”. The practical implication of these broadly-defined offenses is the criminalization of many aspects of Palestinian civic life. For example, the political parties that comprise the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are still considered “illegal organizations” even though Israel has been engaged in negotiations with the PLO since 1993 and coordinates security aspects with the Palestinian National Authority. Carrying a Palestinian flag is also a crime under Israeli military regulations. Participation in a demonstration is deemed a disruption of public order. Pouring coffee for a member of a declared “illegal” association can be seen as support for a terrorist organization.

3. Do Palestinian prisoners enjoy minimum standards of due process?

No. International, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations have thoroughly documented the Israeli military court system’s failures in providing Palestinians with minimum guarantees of due process. Some of the failures of the system include the following:
Palestinian political prisoners are put on trial in Israeli military tribunals. These military tribunals are made up of judges, prosecutors, and translators who are all appointed by the Israeli military commander – the same individual who is empowered to make changes to Israeli military orders. Also, some of the judges appointed by the military commander do not have legal training. As a result, these tribunals fail to meet the standard required by Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights which calls for a “fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.”5
Lawyers are denied the means necessary to build a proper defense. According to Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association, it takes an average of 30 to 45 days before a lawyer is able to meet his or her client due to a series of bureaucratic obstacles placed by the Israeli authorities.6 Additionally, lawyers are often searched at the prison before they are able to meet with their client, and client visits are often monitored by guards such that the attorney-client privilege is compromised.7
Palestinian detainees are often tortured, or subjected to cruel and degrading treatment during their interrogation or detention.8 The use of torture, combined with the absence of prompt access to an attorney compromise the veracity of confessions obtained through interrogation.
Palestinians can be held in Israeli jails for 90 days without charge. This period can be extended by another 90 days by Israeli authorities.
Sentences handed down by the military courts cannot be appealed to courts outside the military court system. Given that all actors within the military court system fall under a single command, and share common institutional allegiances and sets of interests, the military courts review process provides limited recourse, at best. As a result, Palestinians convicted of “security offenses” do not have access to an effective appeals process, and hence are denied the right guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to have a “conviction and sentence … reviewed by a higher tribunal according to law.”9

4.What is “Administrative Detention”?

“Administrative Detention” refers to the detention of individuals for preventative purposes. Administrative detention is a procedure that allows the Israeli military to hold detainees indefinitely on “secret information” without charging them or allowing them to stand trial. In the occupied Palestinian West Bank, the Israeli army is authorized to issue administrative detention orders against Palestinian civilians on the basis of Military Order 1651 (Art. 285). This order empowers military commanders to detain an individual for up to six-month renewable periods if they have “reasonable grounds to presume that the security of the area or public security require the detention.”

The practice of administrative detention as exercised by Israel is illegal.

Israel uses administrative detention as “a quick and efficient alternative to criminal trial”, 11 circumventing international procedural protections for the accused.12 Under Israeli law, administrative detention orders may last for up to six months, with Palestinians held without charge or trial during this period.13 Israel routinely renews the detention orders and may do so any number of times, thereby holding Palestinians without charge or trial indefinitely.
The Israeli military detains Palestinians on a broad definition of “security threat” – a definition so broad as to include “political subversion.”14
Detainees are not informed of the reason for their detention.
While detainees may appeal their detention, neither they nor their attorneys are allowed to access the State’s evidence, making it very difficult for them to refute the allegations against them.15

5. Does Israel Use Palestinian Prisoners as Political Bargaining Chips?

Yes. Israel has often used Palestinian political prisoners as bargaining chips in its history of negotiations with Palestinians. For instance, in 1994, Israel agreed to release 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners within 5 weeks, 16 but failed to do so. Instead, it made the release of Palestinian political prisoners an issue to be renegotiated, in order to extract further Palestinian concessions.

In 1999, Israel agreed to release Palestinian prisoners arrested prior to May 4, 1994 in the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum. However, Israel failed to release these prisoners, and opted to hold onto them instead.

Another example is the “arrest” of 27 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and 6 Palestinian ministers on June 29, 2006. These 33 officials were arrested following the kidnapping of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit. More recently, Israel reneged on its agreement to release all pre-Oslo prisoners as part of Secretary Kerry led negotiations between July of 2013 and April of 2014.

6. Do conditions of detention for Palestinian children meet minimum standards?

No. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Israel is obligated to refrain from imprisoning children except as a measure of last resort and only for the shortest appropriate period of time. Yet, over 8,000 Palestinian children were arrested and detained between September 2000 and December, 2014.1 Today, 425 children remain in Israeli jails, some as young as 12 and 13. Almost all child detainees have reported some form of torture or mistreatment, whether physical (beatings or being placed in painful positions) or psychological (abuse, threats or intimidation).18 Children are routinely held in detention centers under appalling conditions: In some centers, up to eleven children have been packed into cells as small as five square meters.19 Children are also kept in centers with adults, all in contravention of the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child.20

A United Nations committee reported:

A few witnesses also drew the attention of the Special Committee to the appalling conditions of imprisoned minors, mixed up with adults, sometimes with women adults. They were allegedly arrested in the same way as adults, at night, taken to military camps and beaten up. They were interrogated without the presence of relatives and could not meet their lawyers for 60 days. They were subjected to various threats such as destruction of their homes, life imprisonment, beheading or rape. One youth had reportedly been confined in an isolated cell for 60 days. They were often kept three to a cell, sleeping on the floor, struggling with cockroaches and suffering poor hygienic conditions owing to lack of water. They were often exposed to ill-treatment when transferred to the court or to another prison. Unlike Israeli detainees, they had no rehabilitation or recreational programmes.21

7. Do conditions of detention for Palestinians meet minimum standards?

No. Israel has regularly failed to ensure that the conditions under which Palestinians are detained or imprisoned meet minimum standards.22 Prisons and detention centers often provide prisoners little to no protection from the summer heat, or the winter cold. They are poorly equipped, poorly maintained and overcrowded. In many cases, prisoners have contracted diseases as a result of poor hygiene.

In January 2006, a report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur found that:

Prison conditions are harsh: prisoners live in overcrowded and poorly ventilated cells which they generally leave for only two hours a day. Allegations of torture and inhuman treatment of detainees and prisoners continue. Such treatment includes beatings, shackling in painful positions, kicking, prolonged blindfolding, denial of access to medical care, exposure to extreme temperatures and inadequate provision of food and water.

Additionally, Israel transfers Palestinian prisoners to facilities in Israel despite its obligation to detain them within occupied Palestinian territory.23 Moreover, according to the UN Special Rapporteur, “family visits remain a serious problem. As prisons are held in Israel and many Palestinians are denied admission to Israel, a majority of prisoners receive no family visits.”24

8. Why is the release of Palestinian prisoners so important?

No issue highlights Israel’s 48-year denial of Palestinian freedom under military occupation better than that of political prisoners. Palestinians have been subjected toone of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. Since 1967, Israel has detained and imprisoned over 800,000 Palestinians as part of a policy to quash resistance to Israel’s occupation and to intimidate the civilian population. Of the 3.9 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there are few who have not been personally affected by Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinians – either through their own imprisonment or that of a family member, friend, or colleague. This number constitutes approximately 20 percent of the total Palestinian population in the Occupied State of Palestine and as much as 40 percent of the total male Palestinian population. It also includes approximately 10,000 women jailed since 1967, as well as 8,000 Palestinian children arrested since 2000.

The widespread imprisonment of Palestinians, along with the inhumane treatment they receive while imprisoned, has placed the release of all Palestinian prisoners high on the national agenda.

9. What is the Permeant Status Position on Prisoners?

The Palestinian position regarding Prisoners is simple. Israel must release all Palestinian prisoners held in its jails, not only as part of a final-status agreement, but also part of the process of negotiations and confidence building measures intended to build momentum for a peace deal. Israel must also live up to its commitments both in its bi-lateral agreements and under international law, including:

The release of all Palestinian Prisoners arrested before the commencement of the Oslo peace process as stipulated in the Sharm Al-Sheikh memorandum.
Cease its policy of administrative detention and its application of military laws and regulations, which deny Palestinians a fair due process.
Ease and facilitate family visitation on a regular and uninterrupted basis.
Stop the isolation of prisoners in individual cells and improve the health (including dental health), sanitary, and educational services provided to Palestinian prisoners.
Cease the use of torture both physical and psychological in interrogations.
Cease the transfer of Palestinian Prisoners to prisoner within Israel’s proper in contravention of the Geneva Conventions

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