Palestinian Prisoners in Israeli Jails Threaten Hunger Strike Over Coronavirus Response

Inmates complain of ban on meeting attorneys and lack of protective measures by guards during searches in their cells without any protective gloves or face masks

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Palestinians at a protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails outside the UN High Commissioner's offices in Rafah Gaza, March 16, 2020.
Palestinians at a protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails outside the UN High Commissioner's offices in Rafah Gaza, March 16, 2020. Credit: AFP

Palestinian prisoners serving sentences in Israeli jails for security-related offenses are threatening to go on a hunger strike to protest measures enforced by the Israel Prison Service, seeking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The prisoners object to searches conducted in their cells by prison guards without any protective gloves or face masks, as well as a ban on leaving cells and meeting their attorneys and family members, who the prison service fears might infect prisoners or guards with the virus if allowed into prisons.

Fear of the virus’ spread has intensified over the past week after four security prisoners were put in isolation in the Megiddo prison after coming in contact with a guard who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Israel Prison Service said that prisoners “showing no symptoms were transferred to isolated cells after it was suspected that they came in contact with an infected person… in accordance with Health Ministry orders.”

These prisoners have not been tested for the coronavirus, as the regulations in place call for a test only in cases where there is both exposure to a confirmed patient and symptoms of COVID-19, which include fever, cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.

The prisoners are also protesting the fact that the prison service cut down on the food, hygiene and cleaning products they are allowed to order to prison canteens. “Prisoners are enclosed in their cells,” a source close to the group of Palestinian security prisoners told Haaretz, adding that other prisoners serving sentences for criminal offenses “who deliver food are walking around, handing it out with no gloves or masks. The security prisoners are last on the chain and no one cares.”

Meanwhile, prisoners reported that the money they normally receive from the Palestinian Authority and from their families isn’t going into their accounts, following the closure of the Palestinian postal bank in the West Bank.

As part of their protest, prisoners affiliated with Hamas returned their breakfast and lunch servings on Thursday, while those affiliated with Fatah returned some meals during the weekend. They plan to launch a full hunger strike at the beginning of April.

The Israel Prison Service said in a statement that “due to the coronavirus crisis, the Israel Prison Service is required to handle a complex scenario that threatens staff, prisoners and the general public. The Israel Prison Service is employing preventive measures.”

It added guards are “using protective and sterilization measures in dealing with criminal and security prisoners, while maintaining the appropriate and necessary balance in these circumstances.”