Human rights groups in Palestine call on Israel to release prisoners amid COVID-19 outbreak

Prisoners are at an increased risk of infection owing to overcrowded prison facilities, living in unsafe, unsanitary and disease-prone conditions

April 03, 2020 by Peoples Dispatch
Palestinian prisoners COVID19
Palestinians in Gaza demand protection for Palestinian prisoners against COVID-19. (Photo: via Twitter)

Several Palestinian and Israeli human rights outfits along with prisoners rights and support groups have issued an urgent call to Israel to free all Palestinian prisoners, including those under administrative detention, in various Israeli jails and detention centers. The demand comes due to the serious risk of novel coronavirus spread in overcrowded jails. 

Over the last few days, Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Palestinian Prisoners’ Society, HaMoked, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Public Committee Against Torture, Physicians for Human Rights, al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, Parents Against Child Detention, among others, have made urgent appeals and written multiple letters to the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Israeli prison authorities and the Israeli High Court of Justice, demanding the release of all Palestinian prisoners currently being held in Israel. They have also demanded necessary preventive measures and medical services to protect the prisoners’ lives and well-being.

Following reports of the possible infection of one of the Palestinian prisoners released from Ofer prison inside Israel on March 31, appeals were made to the Israeli prison authorities to take immediate steps to detect and contain the spread of the virus through increased testing and isolating those who had come in contact with the infected prisoner. 

19-year-old Nour Eddin Sarsous from Beitunia town was arrested on March 18 and spent almost two weeks in Ofer prison before being detected as COVID-19 positive. He most likely contracted the virus inside the prison.  Authorities were asked to test all prisoners held in section 13 and 14 of the prison, used to detain minor Palestinian detainees and those prisoners and administrative detainees who are awaiting transfers. 

Rights organizations have raised concerns about the heightened risk for the sick, elderly, children and women prisoners in Israeli prisons and for inmates with existing health conditions and chronic ailments. The immediate release of these at-risk groups has been demanded along with political prisoners and administrative detainees who are being illegally detained by Israel without charge or trial in violation of International law. Some of these political prisoners are detained for indefinite periods. Their release would significantly unburden prisons, reducing the risk of exposure. 

Data from Palestinian prisoners’ rights groups indicates that there are currently approximately 700 sick or ailing prisoners in Israel, 200 of whom are suffering from chronic issues. There are also 180 children and 41 women prisoners.

Palestinian prisoners and administrative detainees face highly restrictive and discriminatory policies introduced by the Israeli prison authorities under the pretext of fighting COVID-19. The Israeli prison service in early March barred all family and lawyers’ visits for Palestinian prisoners. All trial proceedings in military courts have also been indefinitely postponed, preventing prisoners from appealing against their detention. 

Prisoners often live in unclean and overcrowded jails, surviving on poor quality food and lacking access to hygiene products, increasing the risk of COVID-19 spread. They are also not provided adequate and timely healthcare, leading to many of their illnesses and ailments taking a more serious and advanced form.

Social distancing, self-isolation and other routine measures to prevent the spread of the disease are highly unlikely in prisons. Under the current circumstances, demands are growing for the United Nations, the ICRC and the wider international community to exert pressure on Israel for the release of all Palestinian prisoners. Israel must also use testing and medical treatment to screen prisoners before releasing them to safeguard the civilian population as well.