A July 2008 Fact Sheet Series titled, “Behind the Bars: Palestinian Women in Israeli Prisons” was jointly prepared by the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, the Palestinian Counseling Center (PCC), and Mandela Institute. Along with background information, it covered Israel’s obligations under international law, prison conditions where they’re held, medical neglect, and their educational rights restricted or denied.
Relevant International Laws Protecting Prisoners and Civilians in Times of Conflict, Including Women
The 1949 Third Geneva Convention applies to prisoners of war, replacing the 1929 Prisoners of War Convention. It broadened the categories of persons entitled to prisoner of war status and precisely defined the conditions and places of their captivity – especially with regard to allowed labor, financial resources, required treatment, and rules of judicial proceedings.
It specifically prohibited acts of:
— “Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
— Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;” and
— judicial guarantees “recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”
The 1955 UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners requires “no discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
Other provisions apply to sleeping accommodations, sanitation, personal hygiene, clothing and bedding, food, exercise, medical services, discipline and punishment, instruments of restraint, information to and complaints by prisoners, contact with the outside world, books, religion, retention of prisoners’ property, notification of death, illness, or transfer, among other provisions to provide humane and proper treatment.
The 1974 UN General Assembly Declaration of the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict, requires all states engaged in armed conflicts and military occupiers:
“to spare women and children from the ravages of war. All the necessary steps shall be taken to ensure the prohibition of measures such as persecution, torture, punitive measures, degrading treatment and violence, particularly against women and children.”
The 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions….and relating to the Protections of Victims of International Armed Conflicts – supplements the four Geneva Conventions.
The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women protects them with regard to discrimination, human rights, judicial fairness, equality, reproduction, health, education, employment, and “fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”
The 1988 Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under any Form of Detention or Imprisonment affirms their human rights and obligation for authorities to enforce them – especially for women, children, the aged, sick, or handicapped.
The 1999 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women puts this measure “on an equal footing with International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention against Torture and other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.”
Since 1967, over 700,000 Palestinians have been incarcerated, including 10,000 women. Daily, from 15 – 20 men, women, and children are arrested.
During the second Intifada, Israeli security forces targeted women as well as men, subjecting them to mass arrests and mistreatment in detention, including torture and sexual abuse. From 2000 – 2008, more than 700 women were affected, many held without charge. Under military occupation, due process and judicial fairness conditions aren’t allowed because Israel denies them.
According to Addameer, women are held in vermin-infested cells or sections with “criminal prisoners;” subjected to regular body searches performed brutally by male guards; sexually harassed; denied rights the above laws require, including sufficient and proper food and clothing, medical care, recreation, and education; often placed in solitary confinement; beaten regularly in their cells; and denied contact with family and other prisoners.
In 2004, 120 were held; 17 were mothers; 2 gave birth in prison; 8 were under 18; and some were arrested to pressure their husbands, then told if their spouses had blood on their hands, their children would be killed.
In July 2008, 74 women were imprisoned, including two mothers with babies, subjected to the same harsh treatment. According to the Ahrar Center Prisoners Studies & Human Rights, the number was 140 in August 2009.
Facilities were “designed for men by men and rarely do they meet women’s needs.”
Telmond Prison in Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv, is one of Israel’s largest prison complexes. It has a section for Israeli criminals, including juveniles, as well as Palestinian men, women, and children “security” detainees and other prisoners.
Damon Prison on Mount Carmel, near Haifa, was originally a tobacco warehouse and stable, its appalling conditions unfit for human habitation, especially, of course, for women and children.
Al-Jalameh Detention Center is a maximum security facility in Kishon, near Haifa.
Article 10 of the 1955 Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states:
“All accommodation provided for the use of prisoners and in particular all sleeping accommodation shall meet all requirements of health, due regard being paid to climate conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation.”
Article 19 states:
“Every prisoner shall, in accordance with local or national standards, be provided with a separate bed, and with separate and sufficient bedding which shall be clean when issued, kept in good order and changed often enough to ensure its cleanliness.”
Nonetheless, Palestinian women endure severe overcrowding conditions, affecting their health and safety.
In Damon Prison, women are in three cells, each with 10, 13, and 14 occupants, but only 12 beds. In addition, no storage space is provided for clothes and other belongings. Other conditions include four restricted use common bathrooms outside cells with no showers for 37 women.
Telmond Prison has two type cells – small, four square meter ones for two prisoners, including a bathroom, and larger 20 square meter ones for up to eight women.
Al-Jalameh Prison bathrooms are separate from cell living areas, separated only by a curtain, denying women privacy, personal dignity, and minimum hygiene standards.
All prisons have uncomfortable iron bed frames with 3 – 5 centimeter badly worn, thin mattresses, causing back problems. Requests for better ones and wood frames were denied. No blankets are provided, so if able, families must send them. Only thin blankets and sheets are permitted, so are inadequate in winter with no central heating.
Hygiene standards are poor. Moreover, cells are cold in winter, and extremely hot in summer. They have one window covered by an iron sheet blocking sunlight, allegedly for security reasons. No gas or electric heaters are allowed, or consideration for other basic needs. Essential items like toothpaste, soap, shampoo, detergent and light bulbs aren’t provided. Women are on their own to get them.
Although international law mandates proper amounts of well-prepared nutritional food, what’s served is poor, unbalanced, and inadequate. At Telmond, a typical breakfast includes a spoon of yogurt, a slice of tomato, pepper and bread. Lunch is the main meal, consisting of small amounts of either bean soup with potatoes and eggs; rice and wheat soup; small salad, rice and schnitzel; rice, a single kebab and beans; fish and potatoes; meat, rice and hummus; or rice, bean soup and chicken – all poor quality in small amounts, some of it inedible.
At Telmond, women have canteen access every 15 days where items like beans, spices, tomatoes, other vegetables, olive oil, snacks, soft drinks, coffee, tea, pens, notebooks, and other products are available. Yet prices are much higher than in the Territories, creating an added hardship for women with few resources to make purchases.
Clothing provided is very inadequate, requiring families to send what they can, yet packages are sometimes withheld. Recreation, such as it is, is greatly restricted, women allowed outside in a narrow courtyard for short periods, mornings and afternoons.
Imposed punishments are often arbitrary, such as for destroying public property when their old mattresses decompose or paint comes off walls. Women also face collective punishment if a prohibited item is found in a cell.
Individual punishments include solitary confinement, strip searches by male guards, confiscation of personal items, intimidation, denying outside contact or canteen privileges, and harassing day or late night searches. They’re frequent and harsh, a detainee saying, girls scream, are sprayed with tear gas, are severely beaten, and some placed in isolation. When they’re searched, they’re forced to undress, and if resist, they’re handcuffed and guards do it with cell doors open for others outside to observe.
Currently, about 25% of Palestinian female prisoners suffer from untreated diseases, the result of inexcusable medical neglect. Malnutrition causes weight loss, general weakness, anemia, iron deficiency, and poor health. Because of poor sanitation and ventilation, insect infestations, lack of sunlight, cold winters, hot summers, dirt, isolation, and stress, diseases like rheumatism, skin rashes, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, sickle cell anemia, kidney, eye, and dental problems, emotional trauma, and others are commonplace. They’re poorly addressed or treated.
Incarceration also affects mental health, showing up in depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, women in prison longest affected most but, with rare exceptions, none are treated.
From 2003 – 2008, four pregnant women gave birth under extremely difficult conditions with little pre or post-natal care. Hospital transfers entail being shackled, hands and feet, then chained to their beds until entering delivery rooms, then again after giving birth.
Yet doctors know that shackling during labor may cause complications such as hemorrhaging, decreased fetal heart rate, and if a caesarean is needed, even a short delay may cause permanent brain damage.
Imprisoned Palestinian Girls Denied Education
Girls as young as 16 are incarcerated with adults and denied any form of education, either vocational or continuation of their schooling. Israeli juvenile offenders, in contrast, may complete up to grade 12.
In 2008, five Palestinian girls, under age 18, were imprisoned. Four were high school students, unable to continue their education. Three of them were pending trial, one for over seven months, the other two from February and April 2008. A whole year or more may be lost, and if sentenced to lengthly incarcerations, perhaps no chance for personal development. As a result, affected girls are understandably depressed, not knowing what kind of future to expect or what more may happen to harm it.
Families may bring books once every three months if they’re able to enter Israel to do it. While general reading materials are allowed, technical publications and science books are prohibited as are encyclopedias, dictionaries, and large books, except with special permission.
The Tawjihi secondary education exam is the only opportunity for female prisoners. As a result, girls see it as the most important event in their lives, their reputations and futures riding on it. Yet at times, the exam is prohibited – for example, cancelled to impose collective punishment or because a Palestinian bringing it was obstructed at checkpoints, searched crossing the Green Line, again before entering the prison, or not allowed to come at all.
Eligibility for the exam requires registering with the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education, typically done through families. As for the girls, everything is arbitrary, ad hoc, and uncertain as they’re afforded no institutionalized learning framework, forced instead to rely on their own resources to obtain materials and study them. Even at exam times, teachers can’t enter prisons to instruct formally nor may girls communicate with them by phone, letters, or other means. The combination of prison, isolation, uncertainty, and helplessness adds greater levels of stress, mental pressure, and anxiety.
For those who qualify and get the chance, higher education is only in Hebrew – at the Open University of Israel, an added burden for young girls with poor language proficiency. Those permitted to enroll have to pay all costs, including tuition, books and fees, that alone making university training unaffordable for most families struggling to get by. The cost of an Israeli education is five times what a Palestinian college charges.
Another prison regulation permits only sentenced prisoners to enroll, those administratively detained or awaiting trial are prohibited. And those allowed must apply at least five years ahead of scheduled releases, adding still another hurdle. As a result, no female prisoners are enrolled at the Open University. From 2000 – 2008, only three managed to do it for a portion of their incarceration, but at no time was it easy, and training in hard sciences are excluded.
Israeli justice is cruel and inhumane in violation of fundamental international laws, including Fourth Geneva’s Article 147 affirming the right to a fair trial, and Article 49 prohibiting individual or mass forced transfers or deportations from the occupied territory to that of the occupying power or any other country. Article 76 states that:
“all protected persons accused of an offense must be detained within the occupied country and if they are sentenced, they have to serve the sentence within it.”
Yet Palestinian men, women, and children are held in Israeli prisons far from families, rarely given permits to visit them. They’re incarcerated for resisting occupation. International law permits it. Israel systematically breaches it, subjecting Palestinian men, women and children to cruel and inhuman confinement and treatment – atrocities by any standard.
Their struggle is ours – to free them and return their dignity and rights, those afforded only to Jews, but not all in an increasingly unfair society favoring privilege over democracy and equality.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at email@example.com. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.