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Home > News & Analysis > Analysis
FAQ on Palestinian prisoners
IMEU, Dec 3, 2007

"It would be better to drown these prisoners in the Dead Sea if possible, since that's the lowest point in the world." - Avigdor Lieberman, Minister of Strategic Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister of Israel1

A Palestinian girl holds a picture of a relative held in an Israeli jail, during a rally calling for the release prisoners in Gaza City. (Maan Images)
1. How many Palestinian prisoners are there?

There is no definitive number on how many Palestinian prisoners are being held by Israel. Using numbers provided by the Israeli government, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem states that as of October 30, 2007, there were 8,718 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons or detention camps. On November 3, 2007, The Associated Press and Jerusalem Post put the number at more than 12,000.2

Of these prisoners, 317 are children under the age of 18 and 143 are women.3 Among the total number of prisoners are 433 Palestinians who were imprisoned prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords. They remain in prison despite the Accords' call for their release.4 The number also include members of the elected Palestinian Legislative Council.

2. Haven't Palestinian prisoners been convicted of serious offenses against Israel?

In fact, by the Government of Israel's own numbers, of the 8,718 to 12,000 prisoners currently held, only 5,419 have actually been put on trial and convicted of any offense at all.5 According to Amnesty International, these trials often fall short of international standards for fair trials.6

Israel currently holds 856 Palestinians who have not been charged with any crime under what is called "administrative detention."7 Administrative detention violates international law.8 Such detention orders may last for up to six months, with Palestinians held without charge or trial during this period.9 Israel routinely renews the detention orders and may renew the orders without limitation, thereby holding Palestinians without charge or trial indefinitely.10 During this period, detainees may be denied legal counsel. While detainees may appeal their detention, neither they nor their attorneys are allowed access to the State's evidence, or know the purpose of the detention, thereby rendering the appeals procedure virtually useless.

3. Don't most Palestinian prisoners have "blood on their hands"?

No. The vast majority of Palestinian prisoners are political prisoners who have been arbitrarily imprisoned or detained for no legitimate security reason, but instead for political expression, peaceful resistance or simply because they are Palestinian. According to B'Tselem:

Security is interpreted in an extremely broad manner such that non-violent speech and political activity are considered dangerous...[This] is a blatant contradiction of the right to freedom of speech and freedom of opinion guaranteed under international law. If these same standards were applied inside Israel, half of the Likud party would be in administrative detention."11
Furthermore, of the Palestinians currently being held, thousands of them have not even been put on trial.

Many Palestinians are arrested arbitrarily. For example, from February to March 2002, approximately 8,500 Palestinians were arrested arbitrarily. In many cities, all Palestinian males from the ages of 15 to 45 were rounded up and detained or imprisoned. Palestinians were blindfolded, handcuffed tightly with plastic handcuffs and forced to squat, sit or kneel for prolonged periods of time. Mass arrests and detention of this type have been condemned by Amnesty International as a breach of human rights.

4. How are Palestinian children treated in Israeli prisons?

The issue of child detainees and prisoners is perhaps the most striking example of Israel's policy of arbitrary imprisonment. Approximately 2,000 Palestinian children were arrested and detained from September 2000 to the end of June 2003.12 Children as young as 13 are held in Israeli prisons and are housed with the adult prisoner population. Children aged 13 and 14 constitute approximately ten percent of all child detainees. Almost all child detainees have reported some form of torture or mistreatment, whether physical (beatings or placed in painful positions) or psychological (abuse, threats or intimidation).13 Children are routinely held in detention centers under inhumane conditions.14 For example, in some centers, up to eleven children have been packed into cells as small as five square meters.15

5. How are Palestinian women treated in Israeli prisons?

Most Palestinian women political prisoners were previously housed with the general Israeli prison population in Neve Terze prison, where drug addicts, prostitutes, and other hardened prisoners are held. After hunger strikes, most were transferred to Telmond prison. Some, however, including several administrative detainees, remain incarcerated at Neve Terze.

A few Palestinian women are raising very young children in prison; two, Mervat Taha and Manal Ghanem, gave birth while under detention. For most others, contact visits with children and other family members are permitted twice every six months. However, as a condition for the visits, women are required to submit to full body searches in the nude. This is a condition most have rejected.

Prison guards have stormed Palestinian women prisoners' cells, and searched and confiscated their personal effects without cause, beating the women prisoners in the process. Denial of medical services has been used to punish those who protest the conditions of their incarceration.

6. Does Israel subject Palestinian prisoners to torture and other forms of cruel and degrading treatment?

Yes. Palestinian prisoners are routinely tortured in Israeli jails. A 1999 Israel High Court decision outlawing some forms of physical mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners has not ended Israel's physical and psychological abuse of Palestinian detainees. According to Amnesty International:

Among the thousands of Palestinians arrested after 27 February 2002, some hundreds were transferred to full-scale interrogation by the GSS [Israel Security Agency]...Amnesty International has received reports that some of the detainees interrogated by the GSS were subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation, shabeh (prolonged standing or sitting in a painful position), beatings and being violently shaken."16
The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and B'Tselem report that methods of torture include the following: slapping, kicking, threats, verbal abuse and humiliation, bending the body in extremely painful positions, intentional tightening of the handcuffs, stepping on manacles, application of pressure to different parts of the body, choking and other forms of violence and humiliation (pulling out hair, spitting etc.), exposure to extreme heat and cold, and continuous exposure to artificial light.17

Palestinians are held in detention centers and prisons that do not meet the minimum international standards and are routinely denied visitation rights.18 Amnesty International reports that:

According to consistent reports received by Amnesty International, detainees' conditions in Ofer and Ansar III/Ketziot are poor and may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment...In both camps, detainees sleep in tents; in Ansar III/Ketziot nights are particularly cold. Conditions in Ofer are said to be overcrowded, with detainees sleeping 25 to 30 to a tent. In both camps detainees initially slept on pieces of rough wood...Detainees were said to be given frozen chicken schnitzels which they had to defrost in the sun; a tub of yoghurt, one or two cucumbers and two pieces of fruit between 10 prisoners."19
7. Why is the release of Palestinian prisoners so important?

No issue illustrates Israel's denial of freedom to the Palestinians more pointedly than that of political prisoners. The Palestinians have been subjected to the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Approximately 20 percent of the Palestinian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has, at one point, been arbitrarily detained or imprisoned by Israel.20

Israel's imprisonment and detention of Palestinians is a manifestation of its failure to abide by international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention: administrative detentions and imprisonment inside Israel are both illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention.21 Israel's failure to release Palestinian political prisoners and its continued arbitrary arrest of Palestinian civilians leads to an unfortunate conclusion: that Israel views itself as above the law and the Palestinians beneath it.


1 Avigdor Lieberman as Israel's Transport Minister offered to bus Palestinian political prisoners to the Dead Sea to be drowned. Israel Radio, July 7, 2003.
2 "Statistics on Palestinians in the custody of the Israeli security forces." B'Tselem, and "Fayad wants release of 2,000 prisoners." The AP and Jerusalem Post. November 3, 2007.
3 In 1999, Israel re-instated Israeli Military Order No. 132 which allows for the arrest of Palestinian children aged 12 to 14. The Palestinian Prisoner's Club has noted that 50% of those arrested and detained by Israel since September 2000 are children under the age of 18. See: Defence for Children International/Palestine Section And "Barghouthi: Israel has detained four times the number of prisoners it plans to release." Maan News. November 26, 2007.
4 Under the Oslo Accords, Israel was obligated to release the vast majority of Palestinian prisoners arrested prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords. (Interim Agreement, Annex VII). Israel failed to do so. The Sharm el-Sheikh Agreement of September 1999 provided for the establishment a joint committee charged with recommending the release of certain prisoners. Despite the fact that the committee recommended the release of these 433 prisoners, Israel failed to do so.
5 "Statistics on Palestinians in the custody of the Israeli security forces." B'Tselem.
6 Amnesty International, Israel and the Occupied Territories (January to December 2002). See:
7 "Statistics on Palestinians in the custody of the Israeli security forces." B'Tselem.
8 The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Israel is a signatory, provides that: "Everyone has the right to liberty and security of the person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law." (Article 9(1)).
"Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him." (Article 9(2)).
9 Administrative detentions are currently carried out on the basis of Military Order No. 1229, of 1988. This Order empowers military commanders in the West Bank to detain an individual for up to six months if they have "reasonable grounds to presume that the security of the area or public security require the detention." Commanders can extend detentions for additional periods of up to six months. The Order does not define a maximum cumulative period of administrative detention, and consequently, the detention can be extended indefinitely. The terms "security of the area" and "public security" are also not defined. As a result, their interpretation is left to the military commanders. Given that these are military orders and not judicial orders, they are executed without obtaining the approval of a judge.
10 Khalid Jaradat was held in administrative detention for a period of 12 years, with only a one week release between administrative detention orders. Israeli security services confirmed that his detention was for nonviolent political expression. See:
11 See:
12 Defence for Children International/Palestine Section, Press Release, Palestinian Child Arrest Figures Top 2,000 in 2nd Intifada - Torture Experienced by Most, 26 June 2003.
13 Defence for Children International/Palestine Section: Palestinian Children in the Judicial System,
14 Ibid.
15 Defence for Children International/Palestine Section, Press Release, Israeli Government Fails to Release Child Detainees - 330 Still in Custody, 7 June 2003.
16 Amnesty International, Israel and the Occupied Territories: Mass detention in cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions, 14 (May 2002). On 9 September 1999, the Israeli High Court ruled that the Israel Security Agency (formerly known as GSS) could no longer use four methods of torture (violent shaking, tying prisoners in contorted positions to a small child's chair, covering the prisoner's head with a sack and sleep deprivation). This ruling was widely reported as an end to Israel's practice of torture. In reality, the ambit of the ruling was very narrow: it only applies to the Israel Security Agency. The vast majority of torture is carried out by Israeli soldiers, police and military police in detention centers (not prisons) where the practices to continue to be carried out. Defence for Children International/Palestine Section, A Generation Denied 28 (2001).
17 See: and
18 Defence for Children International/Palestine Section, Annual Report 21 (2001).
19 Amnesty International, Israel and the Occupied Territories: Mass detention in cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions, 14 (May 2002).
20 Defence for Children International/Palestine Section, A Generation Denied 163 (2001).
21 The Fourth Geneva Convention provides that:
"Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive." (Article 49(1)).

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