Even at the best of times, the nearly 13,000 inmates in Israel’s prisons are a marginalized population whose rights and needs are low on the public agenda. Palestinians in Israeli prisons are particularly vulnerable and the Coronavirus pandemic has pushed this group even further to the margins.
Over the past year, HaMoked and its partners in the human rights community have been instrumental in ensuring that the rights and wellbeing of the prisoner population are protected, and that the pandemic is not used to further deny their rights.
A petition we submitted in January ensured that prisoners were given access to Coronavirus vaccines, and some 75% of the inmate population has since been vaccinated. More recently, we joined a petition led by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, demanding that the Israel Prison Service (IPS) publish its regulations and procedures in Arabic. These procedures dictate every aspect of prison life, but while some 60% of the inmate population is Arabic-speaking, the IPS is refusing to translate these vital documents to Arabic.
And yesterday, the High Court of Justice heard HaMoked’s petition demanding that Palestinian “security” detainees be given access to phone calls during the pandemic. We first petitioned the court on this issue in March 2020, when prison visits were suspended as part of Israel’s Coronavirus response. Criminal prisoners (both Israeli and Palestinian) have daily access to a telephone. But some 4,300 Palestinians are defined as “security” detainees, and this population is denied access to phone calls. The freeze on visits thus rendered them completely cut-off from the outside world. Thanks to our petition, minor detainees are now allowed a fortnightly call to their families until visits are reinstated. Adult detainees were only allowed a single call to their families during Ramadan 2020.
But a year later, this very partial solution is clearly insufficient. At yesterday’s hearing, we emphasized that most adult detainees have not received a single family visit in over a year, and must therefore be provided with an alternative way to realize their right to family life. The court accepted the IPS’ argument that the situation is dynamic and that it is providing solutions in response to the changing circumstances. We were compelled to delete our petition, but with some silver linings: the IPS has agreed to grant another Ramadan call to all “security” detainees, and an additional single call to all female detainees and hospitalized detainees.
It is a frustrating outcome to our yearlong litigation. The Court essentially said that rather than ruling on the principled issue, any prisoner who wants phone calls should submit their own petition. It is unreasonable to put the burden on each individual prisoner to demand their rights to family life and humane treatment.
HaMoked will continue to carve out a space for Palestinian detainees to realize their basic rights, during the pandemic and beyond. Still pending before the High Court is our petition demanding an end to the Israeli military’s practice of arresting Palestinian children from their homes in the middle of the night – I hope to be able to share some (hopefully good!) news on this in the near future.
Executive Director of HaMoked