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Israel's Jails Are Filling Up With Palestinians — Is This The Bargaining Chip For Gaza Hostages?

The number of Palestinian prisoners in Israel's jails has doubled since the Hamas attack of Oct. 7. Some ask if the roundups of Palestinians is a tactic to win the release in an exchange with Hamas for the 200 hostages held in Gaza.

Photograph of an undercover Israeli police man arresting a young Palestinian boy.

Oct. 24, 2014 - Jerusalem, Israel - An undercover police man arrest a young Palestinian

Marco Bottelli/ZUMA
Francesca Mannocchi

Updated Nov. 1, 2023 at 4:10 p.m.

TULKAREM — Abdullah Allariya was released from Megiddo prison last week. The city of Tulkarem learned about it through the sound of gunfire. This is how the release of a prisoner is celebrated here.

Armed groups take to the streets, joined by the neighborhood. Children learn the taste of freedom and the smell of gunpowder. Fathers take M16 rifles off their shoulders and put them in the hands of their children, grandchildren, and younger siblings. An exhibition of violence that becomes a declaration of a right regained – this is what it means to be free after months of administrative detention.

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Allariya was arrested at the end of December last year, along with six other young people from the Tulkarem refugee camp. He spent 10 months locked in a cell with eight other individuals.

Then, on October 7, things took a turn for the worse.

That Saturday morning, prison official entered the cells and said: What happens out there should have nothing to do with what will happen in here. Translated, it meant: Do not react. And the prisoners didn't.

But from that Saturday, everything changed in Megiddo prison, as in other Israeli prisons. The prison guards took away the detainees' blankets, cut off water and electricity, and eliminated one of the daily meals. Four days ago, Allariya received news of his release at 5 in the morning, and he was able to leave Megiddo 10 hours later. During the time between the news of his release and the opening of the gate, he was beaten twice.

The day Allariya walked free, there were 3,000 people in Megiddo. A year ago, there were 1,000.

Stark data

Stories like Abdullah's illustrate the severity of the lives of Palestinian prisoners and also explain the recent negotiation attempts by Hamas – the release of all prisoners in exchange for the freedom of Israeli hostages. To understand why this issue is so central, we need to take a step back and consider some stark data.

According to information from Addameer, a prisoner rights group based in Ramallah, since October 7, Israel has arrested 4,000 workers from Gaza and over 1,000 people in the occupied West Bank, doubling the number of Palestinian detainees from just a few weeks earlier.

Before the massacre, there were about 5,000 Palestinian prisoners. Today there are more than 10,000.

Before October 7, an average of 15-20 people were being arrested daily. However, according to Palestinian officials, the daily arrest rate of Palestinians in the West Bank has since risen to 120 people per day. Many of these arrests occur in the almost daily raids of Jenin, Tulkarem, and Nablus.

Over a press conference held by Addameer in Ramallah, Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Authority's Detainees Commission, warned of an "unprecedented and very dangerous" situation. Detainees are being subjected to hunger and thirst with no access to medicine, Fares said. Prisoners with chronic illnesses requiring regular treatment have rapidly deteriorated with the prison administrations cutting off water and electricity.

Everyone who is arrested is regularly attacked.

"They have also closed prison clinics," he said, "preventing detainees from accessing external medical facilities, despite the presence of some cancer patients among the detainees who require continuous care. The most dangerous thing is that in the last three weeks, we have received alarming reports of repeated physical assaults. Everyone who is arrested is regularly attacked."

Photograph of IDF soldiers arresting two Palestinian men and bandaging their eyes.

May 10, 2023, Hebron, West Bank: Israeli army arrest two Palestinians in the West Bank

Mamoun Wazwaz/ZUMA

Brutal laws, lawless prisons

This abuse was confirmed by Abdullah Allariya.

He described cells packed with up to 15 people, and degrading mistreatment: "They punched us in the face, beat us, spat on us, and trampled on us. They made us kneel before them, one by one. Those of us who refused were dragged to an isolation cell and beaten for hours. If you could enter, you would know it from the blood on the floor, but even the International Red Cross hasn't been allowed in for months."

The worsening of the detainees' conditions follows the tightening of laws enacted by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Two weeks ago, it approved a plan – effective on a quarterly basis for now – to reduce the minimum living space assigned to each prisoner. Before October 7, it was 3 square meters per person, but today, the space shrinks as the number of detainees increases.

These decisions are in line with the prison plan of the far-right Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir. Months ago, the minister had already started issuing regulations that worsened the prisoners' conditions, including depriving them of hot water and banning bread from their diets. Additionally, he blocked the implementation of the early release law and ordered prison authorities to intensify random inspects and raids in prisoners' cells.

On October 13, less than a week after the Hamas attack, Israel also changed the law to make it easier to arrest Palestinians based on mere suspicion. According to Al Jazeera, these rules are considered equivalent to administrative detention in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Administrative detainees are held under the "preventive detention" procedure, which relies on classified intelligence information not shared with the detainees or their lawyers. There are no trial hearings, and lawyers are not informed of the evidence. Administrative detention hearings are closed to the public, and the duration of detention is unpredictable. In theory, it should last from three to six months, but it is often renewed at each interval.

Almost all of the 1,100 people arrested since October 7 have been imprisoned under administrative detention. They are effectively being held hostage without charges or trial.

Children targeted

As early as 2015, a United Nations report described the "physical abuse and humiliations suffered by Palestinians in Israeli prison facilities." The report mentioned "physical torture, psychological intimidation during interrogations, beatings, isolation, and refusal of family visits."

The report also pointed out that an increasing number of children were subjected to the same treatment. Perhaps the most striking case is that of Ahmad Manasra, who was arrested at the age of 13 and interrogated without legal support. Despite his age, despite being severely injured during the arrest, despite a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and especially despite evidence that he had not participated in the stabbing incident for which he was arrested, Manasra has been in prison since 2013 and in isolation since 2021. He is held under an anti-terrorism law which was passed years after his arrest.

According to Palestinian organizations, among those arrested in recent weeks, 170 are children, with 20 of them held in isolation.

There is a fundamental point underlying the reports on prison conditions: Beyond the treatment reserved for Palestinian prisoners, their detention is illegal according to international law. Israel remains an occupying state in the West Bank (the area with the highest number of arrests), so the forced transfer of individuals from the occupied territories to Israeli prisons is in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which regulates the obligations of occupying forces.

"They have humiliated us. None of us will forget."

This also forms the basis for Hamas's demands – prisoners in exchange for hostages – which Israel has rejected.

We are no longer in 2011, when Corporal Gilad Shalit was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Today, Israel is at war with Hamas. A war that is being fought with the fate of Hamas's hostages and the detained Palestinians hanging by a thread.

"We have lost our dignity," says Allariya, while the fighters of Tulkarem fire in the air. "They have humiliated us. None of us will forget, neither those released nor those still in the cell."

Why are prisoner exchanges in the Israel-Palestine conflict controversial?

Prisoner exchanges have been a recurring feature of the Israel-Palestine conflict. They have taken various forms and have been used as a means to secure the release of individuals held captive by both sides. Understanding the historical context of these exchanges is crucial in assessing their impact on the conflict.What are the main challenges and controversies surrounding prisoner exchanges in the Israel-Palestine conflict?

Prisoner exchanges often raise complex ethical, political, and security issues. Critics argue that they can incentivize violence, while supporters see them as a humanitarian gesture.

Who is Gilad Shalit 

Gilad Shalit is an Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas militants in 2006. He became a symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was held captive for five years. His release in 2011 through a prisoner exchange had a profound impact on the region, sparking debate within Israel about the value of trading many Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier. It also raised concerns about the potential for released prisoners to engage in future acts of violence.

​How did the prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit work?

The prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit required Israel releasing over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit's release. The terms of the deal were complex and included the release of both political prisoners and those convicted of serious crimes.

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