Photo: Families and supporters of Palestinian political prisoners detained by Israel hold a sit-in. Credit: Joe Catron (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Last week, the Palestinian Resistance won a major victory: They secured a deal which would see the release of 150 Palestinian women and children prisoners held captive by Israel in exchange for 50 of the women and children captives held by Hamas.
Since Oct. 7, Israel and its corporate news mouthpieces have whipped up a media frenzy over the 240 people detained by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, framing the situation as a “hostage crisis.” But what corporate media doesn’t acknowledge is that there was already a hostage crisis underway, well before the Palestinian Resistance counter-offensive began. In fact, Israel has been detaining thousands of Palestinian political prisoners — many of them children — in Zionist jails for decades.
Even before the exchange was agreed upon, corporate media’s use of the word “hostage” to describe the detainees was a political choice, because an exchange of prisoners is normal in armed conflict. By calling the Hamas detainees “hostages,” it raised the demand for their unconditional release, with no mention of the demand to release the Palestinian prisoners.
Around 5,200 Palestinian political prisoners were being held in Israeli jails before Oct. 7. But since the launch of Al-Aqsa Flood, that number has skyrocketed to over 8,000, as the Israeli Defense Forces ramp up its terror campaign of kidnapping thousands of Palestinians in overnight army raids across the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Under normal circumstances of the occupation, the IDF made around 15-20 arrests a day. Since Oct. 7, that arrest rate has jumped to 120 a day.
Conditions of Zionist prisons
An estimated two in five Palestinian men will be arrested in their lifetime. Many of these prisoners end up in administrative detention, which means they are held behind bars without charge or even trial, on the basis of “secret evidence”. This is a clear form of psychological torture: Neither the prisoner nor their lawyer are permitted access to the “secret evidence,” and administrative detention periods can last up to six months and are renewable after each one, indefinitely.
Detainees are often deprived of family visits, denied access to medication, and beatings and torture are commonplace to extract forced confessions.
After the launch of Al-Aqsa Flood, the Israeli military in retaliation immediately kidnapped and detained thousands of Gazan laborers who held special permits to work in Israel, on suspicions they had links to Hamas. Though most were released a few weeks later, the former detainees described being subjected to brutal torture techniques, including use of electric chairs, having boiling water thrown at them, having their hands tied behind their backs, being hung and beaten, and barely given anything to eat or drink.
Use of torture against Palestinian prisoners is well known and, in fact, legally sanctioned by Israel’s Supreme Court.
One particularly distressing case is that of Ahmad Manasra, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who was arrested in 2015 for, along with his cousin, alleged involvement in the stabbing of two Zionist settlers in the illegal settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev in East Jerusalem. Manasra’s cousin was fatally shot by other settlers after the attack, while Manasra himself was brutally beaten by a Zionist mob, run over by a car, taunted by settlers and left to die. Manasra was eventually arrested and then subjected to harsh interrogation by police and threatened without the presence of his family or a lawyer. Because they could not sentence him until he turned 14 years of age, Israeli authorities held Manasra captive for another year. In 2016, he was given a nine-year sentence for attempted murder, even though the court acknowledged he played no role in the stabbings. Now 21, Manasra has spent the last two years in solitary confinement, leaving him with serious psychological trauma, severe depression, and schizophrenia.
By contrast, here is how 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz, an Israeli detainee released by Hamas in late October for humanitarian reasons, described her time in captivity:
“When we arrived there, they [Hamas fighters] first of all told us that they believe in the Quran and wouldn’t hurt us. And that they will give us the same conditions they have in the tunnels,” said Lifshitz.
“They made sure we had everything, that the toilets were cleaned. They cleaned it, not us,” she continued. “They were very gracious, this must be said. They kept us clean, kept us fed. We had the same food they did … They were very friendly.”
Lifshitz also stated that she and the captives were visited by a doctor once a day and provided with prescription medication and medical treatment.
Why are there so many Palestinian prisoners?
So why are so many Palestinians being held captive by Israel? After the 1967 War, when Israel gained control of and occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, it brought those territories under military law (East Jerusalem was also annexed and occupied, but Israel applied its own domestic law to Palestinians there) and issued regulations like Military Order 101, a law still in place that essentially criminalizes any form of political dissent against the state of Israel under the basis of “hostile propaganda and prohibition of incitement.”
A few years after that in 1970, Israel issued another military order, Military order 378, which classified any kind of resistance to the occupation as “terrorism.” Over the decades, Israel has issued more and more military orders imposing more and more restrictions on Palestinian rights and political expression. Under such military laws, it’s illegal for Palestinians to organize and participate in protests, distribute dissenting political material, wave Palestinian flags, and even create posts on social media critical of Israel. These military orders give the IDF license to arrest thousands of Palestinians every year for simply resisting the occupation, in whatever form that takes. These laws are why the IDF regularly arrests children for the so-called crime of throwing rocks at occupation forces.
These military orders are separate from, and take precedence over, Israeli law and international law. This is just one facet of Israel’s racist, apartheid system: Palestinians in the West Bank are governed by an entirely different set of laws than Israeli settlers. When taken to trial, they meet another facet of the apartheid system: the dual judicial system that exists for Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli settlers are tried in civil court, while Palestinians must face military court. In military court, Palestinians are handed out much harsher sentences than settlers in civil court who have committed the same crime. And a guilty verdict is all but guaranteed, as military courts have a conviction rate of over 99 percent, with trials often only lasting ten minutes. Israel is also the only country in the world that tries children in military court: In fact, juvenile military courts prosecute at least 700 Palestinian minors every year.
Under this separate and unequal apartheid court system, Palestinians are regularly denied legal counsel and due process. They also face language barriers and mistranslations in court documents that Israeli prosecutors use to their advantage.
Release all the political prisoners
Until just a few days ago, corporate media gave little airtime to Palestinian political prisoners, instead choosing to focus all its attention on the Israeli captives, raising demands for their unconditional release. But the prisoner exchange deal has pushed the plight of Palestinian captives into the mainstream media news circuit, forcing outlets like the Associated Press, Forbes, CNN, and Vox to cover Israel’s inhumane practice of arresting children and placing prisoners into the Kafkaesque nightmare known as “administrative detention.” That too is a victory for the Palestinian Resistance.
But the exchange of 150 Palestinian captives is not nearly enough, when thousands more continue to languish in the brutal conditions of Zionist prisons. Israel should immediately release all Palestinian prisoners it currently holds hostage.