Opinion |

Israel Could Have Prevented COVID-19 Outbreak Among Palestinian Prisoners

Israel's High Court rejected two petitions urging the adoption of available methods that could reduce coronavirus infection among Palestinian security prisoners. Last week 87 of them tested positive – in one jail

Amira Hass
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Palestinian inmates in Gilboa Prison, northern Israel, in 2006
Gilboa Prison. The High Court repeated the government's view that “social distancing” as a means of preventing the spread of the coronavirus doesn’t apply to prisons.Credit: Itzik Ben-Malki
Amira Hass

There was a media report last week about 66 new COVID-19 patients being diagnosed in just two days among Palestinian security prisoners in the Gilboa Prison. Did that report jog the memories of judges Ofer Grosskopf, David Mintz and Isaac Amit of the High Court of Justice?

In late July the three justices had rejected a petition warning of the danger of the spread of the illness in that specific prison, in northern Israel. They accepted the opinion of the State Prosecutor’s Office that the Israel Prison Service was doing everything necessary to prevent the infection of inmates in the country’s prisons, including Gilboa.

A month earlier, in June, the High Court had rejected another petition, asking for the option of early release (as part of the means of dealing with the pandemic) to apply to security prisoners as well.

Prison service emergency regulations for the coronavirus era hold that prisoners whose period of incarceration does not exceed four years, and who have no more than a month left to serve, can be released. The regulations increased the number of conditional discharges to 1,000 and enable early release even if the facility in question is not completely full. But the rules made an exception in the case of Palestinian security prisoners. Unsurprisingly, once again, the High Court was not shocked by yet another form of discrimination against the Palestinians, and dismissed the petition.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, most prisoners, Arabs and Jews, have been afraid of its spread in their prisons. The standard of jails in Israel is especially low, and the overcrowded conditions endured by most inmates is infamous. Unsurprisingly, the crowding is especially severe in the wings housing the Palestinian security prisoners – as indicated by a Public Defense report already in 2017. For example, in Gilboa the average cell size is 22 square meters, from which we subtract about six square meters for the shower, toilet and kitchenette. Six people live there, in fewer than three square meters each.

Up until last week everything seemed to be under control at the prisons in terms of COVID-19. The number of prisoners who had contracted the disease was small, and they were scattered among several facilities. In July there were seven – only two of them security prisoners. None was in Gilboa.

But last Tuesday it was announced that 66 of Gilboa’s Palestinian inmates tested positive. On Thursday that number already rose to 87 – an increase of 21 within two days, among 450 prisoners. In other words, over 20 percent had been infected in less than a week.

Did the High Court justices give a thought to this sharp uptick? Did it occur to them that those who submitted the petition this summer knew what they were talking about, when they warned of a danger of an outbreak in Gilboa in particular? Are the justices upset by the thought that the prison service may not be trying as hard now as it promised to avert infection by the coronavirus, and of all places in the same facility noted in the petition submitted to them?

Do they remember what attorneys Maisana Morani and Hassan Jabarin of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, tried to explain, at the time? For their part, the justices repeated the opinion of the government, to the effect that “social distancing” as a means of preventing the spread of the coronavirus doesn’t apply to prisons, because inmates should be considered members of the same family unit, who live together in a single residence. Even in Gilboa.

The attorneys mentioned, however, that prison guards enter every prison cell about five times a day. “It’s not like a private home where I can tell the guards not to enter, in order to be careful,” explained Morani. “The guards go in and leave, and also go home and return [to work]. It’s not like in a private space.”

And what about the two senior deputies in the High Court division of the State Prosecutor’s Office – lawyers Renad Eid and Yonatan Kramer. In their response to Adalah’s petition, they wrote: “The nature of the presumed failure in safeguarding the lives and health of the security prisoners in Gilboa Prison, about which the petitioners are complaining, is not at all clear, beyond the general complaint about the matter, which lacks any basis.

“The only thing the petitioners claimed, in a general way only, is that in light of the crowded conditions in Gilboa Prison, ‘there is a fear of a major and serious risk to the lives of prisoners, or at the least, of a serious undermining of the right to health of the prisoners in the security wings in Gilboa Prison due to the coronavirus.’” This studied confidence, with which they dismissed the Adalah lawyers’ fears – wasn’t it shaken to some degree by the facts and figures?

Israel and its official institutions are addicted to the principle of contempt for the lives of the Palestinians. That’s why the two petitions urging adoption of readily available methods – which could reduce the danger of infection among Palestinian prisoners – were rejected.

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P.S. – Last Tuesday I asked the spokesperson’s department of the prison service for figures about the rate of illness among all inmates, both criminal and security prisoners, men and women, Israeli and Palestinian: the number of those who have tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic; the number of active cases; and the number of those seriously ill. I asked whether there is another prison besides Gilboa, with such a large number of cases. I asked about the total number of prisoners and detainees. I assumed that the figures would be immediately accessible on the computer system used by those doing everything possible to prevent the spread of the pandemic in the country’s prisons.

But the spokesperson’s department treated my request for information as though it were a complicated investigation, replying that I had to send it a question based on the Freedom of Information Law. By the time it’s answered, the data regarding the number of patients will already have changed, I replied. After another request, I immediately received these two figures: Twenty-three security prisoners had fallen ill in the past nine months. Another 87 were infected last week – all of them in Gilboa Prison. As of last Thursday.

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