Israeli Jails Have an Arab Majority, but Rules in Hebrew Only – Until Now

Minister orders prison service regulations to be translated into Arabic, after the state had refused to do so, citing Israel's nation-state law

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Israel's Gilboa Prison.
Israel's Gilboa Prison.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev has instructed the Prison Service to translate all of its regulations into Arabic. Until now the service had refused to do so, in part on the grounds that the nation-state law allowed this.

Bar-Lev’s decision came in the wake of a High Court of Justice petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which noted that 60 percent of the inmates in Israel are Israeli Arabs or Palestinians. The association argued that failure to translate the regulations discriminated against the Arabs, and “barred them from access to the rules and from being able to defend themselves, insist on their rights or even know what their rights are.”

In its response, the Prison Service cited the nation-state law, which is a constitutional-strength Basic Law, and Justice David Mintz’s ruling, which was also based on it.

“The Hebrew language is the official language in the State of Israel, while the Arabic language has special status,” Prison Service attorney Ohad Buzi wrote. “The Nation-state law stipulates that ‘arrangements regarding the use of Arabic in state institutions or vis-à-vis them will be set by law.’ Your argument that there is a supposed duty to publish the Prison Service rules in Arabic has no basis in legislation or legal rulings. Such a determination must be made via legislation.”

Following the Prison Service’s response, ACRI petitioned the High Court and this week the state announced that Bar-Lev decided to accept the request. “After the government was formed, the matter was brought before the minister, and after reviewing it, he decided that in light of the high percentage of Arabic speakers among the inmates and in light of the unique characteristics of the inmate population, the Prison Service regulations ought to be translated into Arabic,” the prosecution said.

Pursuant to the ruling, within the next 18 months, a portion of the rules dealing with the state’s duties and rights, as well as the rules of what is permitted and what is prohibited in the prisons, will be translated.”

In the wake of Bar-Lev’s decision, the petition, which was filed together with Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, and with Doctors for Human Rights, is likely to be withdrawn. “We commend the Minister of Public Security for his important decision. This is a first and important step in making accessible to inmates all the relevant information about their rights and duties within the prison system,” lawyers for ACRI said.

“However, we also expect the scope of the documents that will be translated to be expanded, so that regulations concerning elementary issues related to inmates’ basic rights will be translated into Arabic, and that the timetable for completing this work will be significantly shortened.”

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