Saving Palestinian prisoners’ lives requires releasing the elderly and sick

As Palestinians commemorate Prisoners' Day on April 17, the biggest demand appears to be how to safeguard prisoners from the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.

al-monitor Palestinians gather for a demonstration to demand coronavirus protection for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, Gaza City, Gaza, March 19, 2020.  Photo by Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

Apr 17, 2020

Hind Shraydeh is very worried about her husband. Ubai Aboudi, an American-Palestinian researcher and director of the Ramallah-based nongovernmental organization Bisan Center for Research and Development, was arrested by Israeli forces at his house in Jerusalem’s Kufr Aqab neighborhood on Nov. 13, 2019. Aboudi was initially held in administrative detention at the Ofer detention center, and Amnesty International and Nobel Prize scientists around the world circulated a petition calling for his release.

Shraydeh told Al-Monitor her husband had breathing problems before his imprisonment and expressed worry about the potential spread of the coronavirus in the overcrowded Israeli detention centers. “Ubai is held in unit 22 at the Ofer detention center near Beitunia, where eight people are kept in a small room within an unhealthy prison environment and where at least one coronavirus case has been [confirmed].”

Shraydeh said she is concerned about the dangers Palestinian prisoners face. “Two Israeli prison guards have the virus, and a Palestinian prisoner released from Ofer has also tested positive. Yet there is little being done to release vulnerable prisoners or even to keep prisoners in touch with their families.”

Nour al-Deen Sarsour, a Palestinian detainee, was released on March 31 from the same prison where Aboudi is being held. On the same day, Palestinian health officials tested him, and he tested positive for the virus. As a result, nine prisoners who interacted with Sarsour were placed in isolation cells to be quarantined without being tested. According to prisoners in Ofer, other prisoners who interacted with Nour, some who have high temperatures, have not been tested.

Shraydeh, who last visited her husband March 1, said that American consulate officials who were briefed on Aboudi's medical condition have not taken the cases of US citizens in Israeli jails seriously. “The White House and State Department have called for the release of US citizens around the world due to the coronavirus, but the consular officials in Jerusalem have not followed up on these guidelines from Washington,” Shraydeh said, adding that over a month has passed since a US consulate official last visited her husband March 3.

"The Department of State takes seriously its responsibility to assist US citizens abroad. Whenever a US citizen is arrested or detained overseas, we stand ready to provide all appropriate consular services,” a US Embassy official told Al-Monitor.

Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, told Al-Monitor Israel has an international obligation for the health of the prisoners, and with the coronavirus pandemic, releasing vulnerable prisoners is the right thing to do.

“Israeli authorities should consider releasing detainees, particularly those at high risk of suffering serious effects of COVID-19; ensure high-quality health care for those who remain detained; and aggressively guard against the threat of the spread in places of detention,” he said.

Jerusalem-based spokesman for the International Committee for the Red Cross Yehiya Masswadeh confirmed to Al-Monitor that the Geneva-based organization has indeed recommended to Israeli authorities that vulnerable prisoners be released because of the pandemic, “including those who are older than 65 or those with serious health conditions.”

The coronavirus has further complicated the situation for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Military courts are not being held on a regular basis, leaving hundreds in waiting. Prison visits are not allowed because of the coronavirus, promises to allow prisoners to call their families have largely been ignored, and even simple things like sending money to prisoners so they can buy basic cleaning supplies or cigarettes are hampered due to the inability of families to reach a post office to make the needed transfer to the prisoners.

Masswadeh said the humanitarian agency has been in talks with Israel about replacing the banned visits with the opportunity to make phone calls. “This is a basic right to all and not just to women prisoners, and we will continue to insist on this right, as we have also increased our prison visits with the aim of ensuring that proper health protocols are [being] implemented.”

General director of Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association Sahar Francis told Al-Monitor that as of March 2020, there were over 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, among them 432 held administratively without trial or charge, 183 child prisoners, 43 female prisoners, six elected legislators, and 26 prisoners who had already served 25 years since before the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Israel has reportedly put 500 Israeli criminal prisoners under house arrest due to the coronavirus but has not released a single Palestinian political prisoner, including some of the older prisoners, according to Francis. “There are older and sick prisoners who are vulnerable and who should be released immediately,” Francis said.

Former Palestinian Minister of Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraqe told Al-Monitor that on the occasion of Palestinian Prisoners’ Day on April 17, supporters around the world are calling for solidarity with Palestinian prisoners and pressing Israel to release some of the 100 prisoners who are over 60 years of age and the 700 sick prisoners as well as 200 child prisoners.

“Due to the unacceptable health conditions in Israeli jails and as part of Israel’s obligation for the health and well-being of the Palestinian prison population, releasing some of these vulnerable prisoners is the humane thing to do in order to save them for the real danger of death — the coronavirus,” Qaraqe said.

One Palestinian official who asked not to be identified told Al-Monitor Israel is refusing to release any prisoners, even for humanitarian reasons, in order to use them as bargaining chips in the current prisoner exchange talks with Hamas.

The Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council, which is made up of 17 Palestinian nongovernmental organizations, made an urgent request March 23 for the intervention of international organizations “to ensure the health and safety of Palestinian prisoners held captive, particularly as many are minors, chronically ill, vulnerable populations or held under administrative detention in contravention of international law.”

Six Israeli rights organizations wrote to the minister of public security and to the Justice Ministry March 19, demanding that immediate steps be taken to reduce to the minimum number of prisoners and detainees held in Israel in order to protect their health during the pandemic.

Shraydeh, forced to play the role of both parents in caring for her three young sons and locked down at home due to the coronavirus, is still hoping that Israel will respond to local US and international requests and free Palestinian prisoners, including her husband. But Israel, which is swamped with its own political problems and with a far right-wing minister of defense — Naftali Bennett — is highly unlikely to make such a humanitarian gesture, even with the pandemic threatening the lives of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, unless someone in Washington makes a call. That seems highly unlikely at this time.

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