Israel Needs to Reconsider Policy on Palestinian Prisoners

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Zakaria Zubeidi, who was recaptured Friday, in Jenin, 2011
Zakaria Zubeidi, who was recaptured Friday, in Jenin, 2011Credit: Daniel Bar-On

After four of the six prisoners who escaped from Gilboa Prison, including Zakaria Zubeidi, were caught alive, and despite the fact that the search for the remaining two continues, the police, Shin Bet security service, and the Israel Defense Forces are hoping that the chances of an escalation in the West Bank have decreased.

So far, and in contrast to the political culture of the last decade under Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has responded in a judicious manner. He didn’t try to inflame the public with fearmongering speeches and did not resort to warmongering. Defense Minister Benny Gantz noted the continued cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, emphasizing that “these are six people among the millions who live here. We should be able to deal with these six and their abettors without disrupting other balances that prevail in those areas.”

The fact that the escaped prisoners found it difficult to survive outside the prison for even one week indicates that they are less sophisticated and connected than they were presented as being, highlighting the extent of the lapse which enabled them to escape to begin with.

The escape affords a glimpse into the deep rot extending through the Prison Service, which requires a serious reorganization. After the men are returned to prison, and after an external commission of inquiry is set up, and after the people responsible are found and the lessons drawn – which one hopes will be implemented this time, unlike the recommendations made after an escape attempt in 2014 – there should be some renewed strategic thinking about the need to incarcerate so many Palestinians for “security” reasons.

The issue of these prisoners is at the bottom of the heap of Israel’s priorities. The breakout and the great interest it evoked provide an opportunity to put on the agenda the issue of incarcerating Palestinians, an enterprise that has become a “conveyor belt of detentions.” Israel has turned the prolonged detention of security prisoners, ones with or without “blood on their hands,” with or without trial, into an acceptable norm. For Israel, the reason is always security-related, even when detainees and prisoners do not pose any security risk, only a political one.

It’s hard to assess the frightening number of Palestinians who have spent time in Israeli prisons throughout the decades of occupation. There is hardly any Palestinian family which has not had one of their sons detained or imprisoned. As of this month, there are more than 4,500 security prisoners in jail, one third of them not yet convicted. There are also more than 500 administrative detainees (held without trial and for indefinite periods).

The breakout provides a glimpse of this enterprise and its dimensions, of the conditions in prison and its impact on the Palestinian street. But this is also an important opportunity to bring up the question of this draconian policy of incarceration as a tool for political repression, used as a central mainstay of the apparatus sustaining the occupation and the military control over millions of people.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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