On Palestinian Prisoners Day, Adalah calls for protective measures to shield Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli prisons from the ongoing threats of COVID-19

The conduct of all the authorities in Israel, especially the executive and the judiciary, during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate fully the ease of violating the rights of prisoners and the lack of effective protection of their rights.

As every year, Adalah marks Palestinian Prisoners’ Day (17 April) to raise awareness of the Palestinian political prisoners and to the human rights violations to which are they subjected.


There are currently 4,450 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons, of whom 440 are administrative detainees (held without charge or trial); 140 are children; and 37 are women. Further, 300 are East Jerusalem residents; 250 are residents of Gaza; and 70 are Palestinian citizens of Israel (data from Addameer – Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, April 2021).


From the outbreak of COVID-19 in mid-March last year, Palestinian political prisoners, who are classified by the Israel Prison Service (IPS) as “security prisoners”, suffered and continue to suffer from grave health risks, as well as other extremely harsh measures of confinement imposed by the IPS and other Israeli authorities. With prisons being closed and over-crowded places, they are high-risk areas for corona outbreaks. Palestinian political prisoners constitute the most vulnerable group of prisoners, and especially so during the COVID-19 emergency. As detailed below, it was easy for the IPS and other authorities, including the courts, to violate their rights, and to justify these infringements, as the scope of external supervision was severely restricted.


Isolating prisoners, closing prisons


Over the past year, Adalah brought numerous cases before the Israeli courts and state authorities to defend the rights of Palestinian prisoners. At the early stages, the IPS took drastic steps to isolate Palestinian prisoners, completely shutting the prisons and cutting them off from the outside world. In March 2020, Adalah, on behalf of lawyers, prisoners and their families, filed a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court (SCT) demanding the cancellation of Emergency Regulations prohibiting family members and lawyers’ visits.  Many months later, the Israeli authorities eased restrictions on lawyers’ visits – while instituting many conditions which continue to impose a severe burden - and allowed some telephone calls in a very limited number of cases. The SCT refusing to intervene in the discretion of the IPS and allowed these cases – which challenged the severest practices - to remain pending for most of the year, even in the face of fundamental violations of the right to counsel and the right of family visits.


Further, in light of the exclusive control over prisons and prisoners by the IPS, and to enable some monitoring of prisoners’ conditions during the pandemic, Adalah also requested an additional hearing in its case on behalf of Member of Knesset Yosef Jabareen (Joint List), asking the SCT to reconsider its decision and to rule against the sweeping ban on visitations by MKs to Palestinian prisoners. This case remains pending.


Adalah also challenged a pre-bill (in advance of a law) that permitted the holding of criminal proceedings and detention hearings in courts in the absence of detainees or prisoners, replacing their presence by real time audio or video telecommunications. Clearly, these arrangements disproportionately infringe on fundamental constitutional rights of prisoners, as they prevent the court and attorneys from being able to get a full impression of the prisoners’ conditions during detention and to ensure that prisoners were not ill-treated or tortured.


Health and safety measures


Adalah also demanded that the IPS take immediate preventive health measures, conduct COVID-19 tests, and permit prisoners' families from the OPT to deposit money in prison canteens to allow their purchase of food and sanitary products in order to cope with the spread of the virus. These demands were infrequently met. In May 2020, Adalah filed a petition to the SCT demanding the implementation of Health Ministry guidelines to maintain social distancing in crowded cells in Gilboa Prison, months before the COVID-19 infection rates spiked. Despite the high-risk posed of spreading the virus in the overcrowded cells, the SCT rejected this request, ruling incredulously that these rules are not relevant for prisoners.


Vaccinating prisoners


At the end of 2020, Israel started administrating COVID-19 vaccinations to the Israeli public, mostly elderly people, healthcare workers and other very high-risk groups. However, the Israeli Public Security Minister ordered the IPS not to vaccinate prisoners, contrary to the Health Ministry’s directive. Only after five human rights groups, including Adalah, petitioned the Israeli SCT challenging the Minister’s decision, did the IPS begin to vaccinate prisoners.


Current challenges


Among the main COVID-related challenges now facing the Palestinian prisoners is the severe overcrowding in prison cells and the lack of access to immediate and appropriate healthcare services, risks that are aggravated as the prisoners continue to be largely cut off from the outside world.  The conduct of the Israeli authorities, especially the executive and the judiciary, during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate the ease with which prisoners’ rights can be violated.


Under these exceptional circumstances, Adalah calls on the Israeli authorities, including the IPS, to allow full access of lawyers and family visits to prisons; to increase health protection measures for prisoners; and to release the most vulnerable, especially older prisoners and those with serious health conditions that increase the risk of COVID-19.