'Our Ruling Was Not a Suggestion': Israel's Top Court in Rare Rebuke of State

The court said living conditions in Israeli prisons needed to be changed, but Israeli officials have ignored the ruling

FILE PHOTO: An Israeli inmate walks through the Rimonim prison
David Bachar

The High Court of Justice on Monday rebuked the state for violating its order of last June to increase prisoners’ living space, with justices voicing their opinions during a hearing on the state’s request to delay implementing the ruling until 2027.

“That ruling was not a suggestion,” said Justice Hanan Melcer. “What will you do if we don’t accept your request?”

>> The smell of fear: What life is really like behind bars in an Israeli maximum-security prison <<

The justices told the state to get back to them within a week with a plan to implement last June’s ruling that would address their suggestions made Monday, such as using the now-empty Holot detention facility, setting up tents to house prisoners or a mass amnesty. The state must also, within a week, submit a plan to improve the cleanliness of the lock-ups and prisons.

Housing prisoners in Holot was Melcer’s suggestion; the facility was closed last week after all the asylum-seekers held there were released as part of the state’s plan to begin deporting them on April 1.

“You were supposed to find a solution for those 3,000 prisoners who are being held in under three square meters and just now you’ve emptied Holot,” he said. “You have a detention facility that’s empty, so there you go. You were prepared to put people who had done nothing wrong there, so put people there who committed minor crimes. There are a lot of people who could be moved there who are not security prisoners. They aren’t dangerous and aren’t likely to flee.”

He then turned to the state’s attorney, Ran Rosenberg, and said, “Listen to the ideas being suggested to you here. Reduce arrests, delay putting people in prison.”

Melcer also slammed the state for waiting so long to ask for the delay. “Why did you wait nine months to submit the request? You could have done it after a month.” Melcer also recalled that during the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, the state quickly prepared itself for the possibility of thousands of prisoners and detainees. “Within three months they had organized mobile homes. I don’t understand why this can’t be done.”

Rosenberg told the justices that to meet the court’s deadline, which was last Tuesday, the state would have had to release security prisoners. Melcer responded by saying, “Don’t hang it on security prisoners.”

Melcer also referred to MK Moti Yogev’s remark on Sunday that the High Court of Justice was responsible for the deaths of soldiers because it blocked the demolition of terrorists’ homes. “Just yesterday they said that the court is responsible for security incidents but here we’re saying that every prisoner should have a living space of three square meters, we weren’t talking about security prisoners. There is almost no country in the world subject to international standards where it’s less than three square meters. We are at the very, very bottom of this list.

“Recently the issue of fleas in the jails came up,” said Melcer, referring to complaints by Case 4000 (Bezeq) suspects about their detention conditions. “There’s also the issue of toilets that isn’t taken care of, and where you don’t have three square meters then the toilets are also not sufficient.”

Justice Uri Shoham also lambasted the state’s behavior. “We’ve convened to save the state from itself, because in the end the state did not comply with the ruling,” he said. Shoham said that if the state had asked for a delay of another four to six months, the court would probably have agreed.

One of the options posed by Shoham was a mass amnesty for certain prisoners. “You could arrange that on the 70th Independence Day there will be clemency given to prisoners who will not endanger the population and thus achieve another solution. You should have come here with creative solutions, and you didn’t and that‘s a problem. It’s very hard to accept,” he said.