Abuse of Prisoners Is Intolerable, Whether in Palestine or Northern Ireland

This article was originally published on May 23, 2017 in the Huffington Post.


In my final year of high school in the spring of 1981, headlines in North America chronicled the long decline of Irish Republican hunger striker, Bobby Sands.  It was my first introduction to “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland, but I came through that period with a better understanding of the two sides of that conflict.

While many Canadians might not realize it, there is a hunger strike going on today that is just as significant as that of Bobby Sands and the other Irish Republicans in 1981.  Led by Marwan Barghouti, hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails are five weeks into a hunger strike.  Yet because North American media are ignoring the strike, Canadians are hardly wiser to the plight of the Palestinian prisoners.  Unfortunately, any time Israel is involved, it is nearly impossible to get North Americans to address the realities of the situation.  

Israel and its Canadian supporters like to suggest that all the Palestinians in Israeli jails are terrorists, and that their prison conditions comply with international standards.  But this position is contradicts the facts as reported by independent human rights organizations like Amnesty International.

Israel’s rate of incarceration of Palestinians has remained at astronomical levels for years. Since 1967, through its military occupation of the Palestinian territories, Israelhas jailed more than 800,000 Palestinians – a number constituting as much as 40 percent of the total male Palestinian population.  At present, there are 6300 Palestinians in Israeli jails.  Abusive tactics employed by Israel include torture and ill-treatment, indefinite administrative detention, isolation, and medical neglect – all illegal under international law.  Hundreds of Palestinians are detained merely for their political activities, and each year Israel prosecutes about 700 Palestinian children under age 18 in its military courts. 

Like Bobby Sands and his fellow Irishmen in the early 1980s, Palestinian hunger strikers have legitimate demands: the most important being visits and access by loved ones. Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that prisoners “accused of offences shall be detained in the occupied country, and if convicted they shall serve their sentences therein.”  Yet Israel detains and jails Palestinians in facilities located in Israel proper, and not in the Palestinian territories where they lived and were arrested.  This is no small matter, as Israel also controls access between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, often making it extremely difficult for family members to visit loved ones in detention. 

Of this situation, Magdalena Mughrabi of Amnesty states, “Israel’s ruthless policy of holding Palestinian prisoners arrested in the OccupiedPalestinianTerritories in prisons inside Israel is a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It is unlawful and cruel and the consequences for the imprisoned person and their loved ones, who are often deprived from seeing them for months, and at times for years on end, can be devastating.”

Israel’s use of administrative detention is also particularly damaging to the “liberal democracy” image that Israel tries to project.  The Israeli Army can imprison Palestinians on secret evidence for months at a time, renewably, leading to situations where Palestinian prisoners can be detained without charge for literally years.  Israel has held as many as 1000 Palestinians simultaneously under administrative detention. 

The leader of the hunger strike, Marwan Barghouti, also points out that Israel maintains parallel legal systems in the West Bank – what he terms a “judicial apartheid” – which “provides virtual impunity for Israelis who commit crimes against Palestinians, while criminalizing Palestinian presence and resistance.”  The conviction rate of Palestinians in Israeli military courts is a whopping 99.74 percent, while the conviction rate of Israeli soldiers or settlers accused of crimes against Palestinians is extremely low.

Most Canadian political leaders tout their support of the “two state” solution between Israel and Palestine, but fail to draw a link between the ongoing tensions and Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians.  Given that the Trudeau government is reluctant even to speak out against Israel’s illegal settlements – unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council in December – it is hard to imagine that Trudeau would ever stand up for Palestinian prisoners.   

In 1981, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to cede to any of the Irish republican prisoner demands.  Like Thatcher, Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman has suggestedIsrael too should let the Palestinian hunger strikers die before granting them their human rights.  Bobby Sands and other Irish hunger strikers died martyrs, and attitudes on both sides of the conflict hardened even further.  Northern Ireland went on to suffer sectarian violence for another 17 years before both sides were finally forced to make peace. 

When NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton dared to speak out about the rights of Palestinian prisoners last week, she was criticized by pro-Israel lobby group B’nai Brith Canada.  Yet unless international political leaders stand up for human rights and security of everyone in Israel-Palestine, all talk of a two-state solution will remain just that: talk.  Perhaps when making her comments, Ashton had Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in mind when he stated so eloquently, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”


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