Number of Prisoners Held Without Trial in Israeli Jails Hits Highest Peak Since 2008

The number of administrative detainees in Israel has soared since the wave of terror attacks last March, reaching more than 700, including 11 Israeli Arabs

הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf
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Israel's Ofer Prison in the West Bank, this month.
Israel's Ofer Prison in the West Bank, this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

Israel is currently holding 723 detainees in prison without trial, the highest number since 2008 and a significant rise from the 671 held at the beginning of August. Eleven of the detainees are Israeli citizens – none of them Jewish – and the rest are Palestinians.

The number of administrative detainees in Israel has soared since the wave of terror attacks in March, with 52 added since the start of August. Arrests have been made since the fighting in Gaza earlier this month against Islamic Jihad and a crackdown on the organization in the West Bank.

Suspects held in administrative detention are incarcerated in Israel without charges filed against them under a system of “preventive detention.” They are not brought before a court, and their lawyers are not provided with the evidence against them apart from a brief summary of the key suspicions. A confidential intelligence report and administrative detention order signed by the chief of the Israel Defense Forces Central Command are presented to the judge who is required to approve the detention, without the detainee in attendance.

without a trial

Ahlam Haddad, the attorney representing hunger-striker Khalil Awawdeh, told Haaretz that many of the administrative detainees had been arrested because they expressed support for her client. According to Haddad, in five cases she represented recently, the summarized charges cited participation in rallies, speeches at such rallies or possession of Islamic Jihad symbols. She said that until now, the accusations made in these summaries were more substantive.

“Administrative detention is intended for use in extremely rare cases, and here is it being misused” Haddad said. “If you know there was a rally and it was filmed, why don’t you present photo or video proof and file an indictment?”

She noted that in several recent cases in which she has been involved, the Shin Bet security service told the court that it was seeking one-off detention orders for the accused, for the duration of between three and four months, although the usual practice is to have the order extended several times until it stretches to more than a year.

Figures provided by the Israel Prison Service to the Movement for Freedom of Information show that as of mid-June, 184 Palestinians, including one minor, were being held in detention for over a year. Administrative detainees comprise about 15 percent of all prisoners, almost double the rate of the previous record for detainees held, which was set in May 2008, when the total was 803.

Protesters gather outside the hospital where Khalil Awawdeh is held, this month. Arabic on the signs read, "No administrative detention. Freedom for Khalil Awawdeh."Credit: Tsafrir Abayov /AP

According to lawyers representing administrative detainees, since March, many people have been arrested over membership in Hamas or for identifying with the organization. The reasons they are given for the detentions are worded laconically.

Bashir Rajbi, a Hebron resident who was arrested in the middle of June, is suspected of “involvement in activities that support terror, weapons trafficking and associating with Hamas activists,” according to the summary version of the charges made available to his lawyer.

Abeidan Samara, from the village of Burkin, was deemed a Hamas member involved in actions against security forces. Another administrative detainee, Mohammad Zain from the Hebron area, was accused of significant weapons trafficking and smuggling from Jordan. The appeals against their detention were denied by the High Court of Justice.

In another case, the ruling in an appeal filed by Omar Omar, who was detained in connection with his activities in the Hamas students’ organization at An-Najah University in Nablus, the judges wrote that they were persuaded “that his activities endanger the peace and security of the area. Therefore, we see no reason to intervene in the decision to put him in administrative detention.”

Omar’s attorney, Hamza Abu Maizer, spoke of the frustration lawyers experience when representing people in such a situation. “What you say carries no weight. You talk about the family or personal situation, you try to explain the suspicions from another angle and it doesn’t work – what matters is the confidential material,” he said.

An examination by Haaretz found that of the 18 appeals to the High Court to cancel administrative detentions, in not a single case did the justices act in favor of the petitioners. In some cases, the detainees’ lawyers withdrew the petitions after the Shin Bet announced – following a court hearing –that the detention order would not be extended after it expired.

In January, in an unusual move, the High Court reduced the administrative detention of Maher Anati, a resident of al-Fawar refugee camp near Hebron, who had been accused of entering Israel without a permit and interfering with a soldier on duty.

Dan Yakir, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said he couldn’t recall another instance in which the High Court had intervened in an administrative detention case, apart from one in the early 1990s. He said he could remember just one case in which a detention order was cancelled altogether.

Gen. (res.) Nitzan Alon, who was head of the IDF’s Central Command from 2012 to 2015, said the use of administrative detention orders was critical in certain cases. ”In general, I believe that administrative detention has a proper purpose,” he said. He explained that it was a tool to help prevent terror attacks when security forces faced two major hurdles – the fact that terrorist organizations brief their members on how to behave during interrogations and the need to protect intelligence sources that may be exposed during a normal criminal procedure.

Alon said that the number of administrative detentions was linked to policies established by political leaders. “During my term, because of all kinds of policy considerations we tried very hard to reduce the number of administrative arrests, although at times we erred,” he said.

One example he cited was the figures involved in the kidnapping of the three young Israelis in the West Bank in 2014. “We had a certain understanding regarding the threat they posed, and we decided not to apply administrative detention to them – and we were wrong,” Alon recalled.

Alon partially attributed the huge gap between the number of Palestinian and Jewish administrative detainees to the fact that Jewish would-be detainees “have a supportive legal system that jumps on this issue, such as the group Honenu. The legal support they get is more significant” than that available to Palestinians.

All told, figures show that four Jews were placed in administrative detention in the past five years. Two of them, Avraham Yared and Ariel Dahari, were arrested this year and held for three months without being brought before a judge. Yared was first arrested through the regular procedure, and the police announced that they intended to prosecute him. But the indictment was never filed, and his arrest status was changed to administrative. During his detention, 22 right-wing Knesset lawmakers signed a petition for his release.

Prisoners without a trialCredit: The Israel Prison Service

Attorney Or Sadan from the Movement for Freedom of Information and the Faculty of Law at the College of Administration, said that "the use of administrative detention is an extreme measure, which in practice leads to the incarceration of a person without trial. “As many details as possible should have to be visible to the public regarding the use of this tool, so that every person, including elected officials, can examine the extent of its use," he said.

The IDF Spokesperson's Unit said in response that "the tool of administrative detention is only used in situations where the security authorities have reliable and well-founded information indicating a real danger posed by the detainee to the security of the area and in the absence of other alternatives to remove the risk. The decision on administrative detention is an individual decision based on well-founded information regarding each detainee, in part by paying attention to the security situation in the area."

It further noted that "in every case where an administrative detention order is issued, a judicial review procedure is conducted by the military court … The decisions of the military court are subject to review by the appeals court and the High Court of Justice."

The Shin Bet did not respond.

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