Israel Prison Service Refuses to Translate Regulations Into Arabic, Citing Nation-state Law

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel says issuing prison rules only in Hebrew could infringe on the rights of 60 percent of Israel’s prisoners who do not speak Hebrew

A sign directing toward Israel's Ramon Prison and  Nafha Prison, which are next to each other, close to Mitzpe Ramon in southern Israel, January 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israel Prison Service is refusing to translate its regulations into Arabic, citing the controversial nation-state law to say it is not a legal requirement, as it includes a provision making Hebrew the country’s sole official language

As a result, the prison service rejected a request by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel that the regulations be translated into Arabic for the benefit of Arabic-speaking prisoners.

The nation-state law accords special status to Arabic and states that nothing in the law would affect its status. But prison service rules had never been translated into Arabic, and ACRI’s request was the first of its kind.

The group noted that about 60 percent of inmates in Israeli prisons are Israeli Arabs or Palestinians whose native language is Arabic, and that most of them are not fluent in Hebrew. The decision to publish the regulations in Hebrew alone constitutes improper discrimination, ACRI argued.

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“Prisoners who are denied access to regulations cannot protect themselves and cannot insist on their rights or even know of their existence,” ACRI said in its request, which it submitted to the prison service after being contacted by prisoners.

In its response on Monday, the prison service said no law or court ruling requires it to translate the regulations. It pointed to a ruling by Supreme Court Justice David Mintz that cited the nation-state law in rejecting a challenge to the requirement that appeals be filed in Hebrew rather than in English.

“The Hebrew language is the official language of the State of Israel, in addition to the special status accorded to the Arabic language,” prison service lawyer Ohad Buzi wrote in his response to ACRI. “The nation-state law states that ‘The use of the Arabic language at state institutions or [those appearing] before them will be regulated by law.’ There is no support in legislation or court opinion to your claim that there is a purported obligation to publish the prison service’s provisions in the Arabic language. Such a requirement needs to be settled through legislation.”

The prison service added that in cases in which prisoners require clarification regarding their rights or obligations, there are employees available who speak Arabic. Israel’s prisons have Arabic signage, Buzi noted, including “a large amount of information regarding [prisoners'] rights and obligations in detention that constitute a general summary of what is prohibited and permitted in the daily prison routine.”

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said in response: “The obligation to translate prison service rules and orders stems from and is implied in the principle of equality, as well as in a Supreme Court ruling. This obligation is even greater in regards to Arabic-speaking prisoners and detainees, who are totally dependent on information that the prison service makes available and provides to them.”