When 17-year-old Mahmoud* was shot in the back by an Israeli settler in the West Bank in July, he didn’t expect to be the one punished for the unprovoked attack.
“This bullet punctured my lung and caused internal bleeding, and broke three of my ribs,” Mahmoud told Novara Media. Initially, the teenager was taken to hospital where he received urgent medical treatment, but when his stitches were removed 18 days later he was arrested by Israeli forces and transferred to a prison in Ramallah. In August, he was sentenced to six months ‘administrative detention’ without charge.
Last weekend, Mahmoud was released as part of the prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas. “I was so surprised because no one told me that I was about to be free,” he said. “[Israeli forces] told me that I was being taken to investigation, but when they didn’t [interrogate me], I knew I was about to be released.”
After seven weeks of war, the four-day truce between Israel and Hamas began last Friday morning. During the ceasefire, which was extended to a week before ending at daybreak this morning, Israel released around 240 Palestinian prisoners – the majority children – in exchange for more than 100 Hamas hostages.
The testimony of freed Palestinian prisoners, amid their high-profile release, has shone a spotlight on horrifying conditions in Israeli prisons – and on the fact that thousands of innocent people are held inside them without charge.
Mahmoud told Novara Media that he is relieved to be reunited with his family – but given the arbitrary nature of his detention, his relief is tinged with fear. “There is no guarantee that I will not be re-arrested,” he said. “I didn’t do anything in the first place.”
Before 7 October, there were about 5,200 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons. Since then this number has skyrocketed, with Israeli forces arresting 3,200 more people, including 145 children. In just the first four days of the truce deal, Israel detained at least 133 more people – almost matching the 150 it initially released.
Part of the reason Israel can detain so many people is that it doesn’t seem to matter whether they have actually committed a crime or not. Israel’s military judicial system has a conviction rate of 99%, with many Palestinians claiming they were coerced into confessing. Meanwhile, the ‘crimes’ Palestinians are regularly jailed for can be as minor as stone-throwing, or even sharing social media posts in support of Gaza or waving the Palestinian flag. Many prisoners didn’t do anything at all.
In recent weeks, Israel has been ramping up the use of administrative detention, the practice under which Mahmoud was detained. Administrative detention allows Israel to hold Palestinians indefinitely without charge or trial. Human rights groups have described the country’s use of administrative detention as a blatant violation of human rights law.
Even before 7 October, the number of Palestinians held in administrative detention was at a 20-year high, with 1,310 imprisoned without charge or trial by the end of September. By 1 November, this number had climbed to 2,070. Of the 150 Palestinian prisoners released, 98 had been detained without charge.
Palestinians have faced dire conditions and inhumane treatment in Israeli prisons for decades. But in the weeks following 7 October, prisoners reported a dramatic escalation in the violence. Anwar*, an ex-detainee who was imprisoned for five years before he was released in late October, said that what occurred in prison following the outbreak of war was “unprecedented”. “There are prisoners with me who have been there for thirty years, and they too say this has never happened before,” he said, in a video interview conducted by an independent journalist and shared with Novara Media.
During his last weeks in detention, Anwar said he saw prisoners routinely beaten and given significantly less food, while visits from family members and lawyers were arbitrarily stopped. Personal belongings – from photos and clothing to items bought in the canteen to cook with – were taken away and destroyed. “These were confiscated and disposed of as a form of punishment [and] to return the prisoners to a state of deprivation,” Anwar said.
Mahmoud also witnessed terrible conditions in prison. “Whenever I asked to be seen by a doctor they gave me Acamol [paracetamol]. They treated us so badly: we were beaten, suppressed, and the food was terrible and wasn’t enough for all the prisoners,” he said. For four months, Mahmoud was unable to see his family. “My first visit was supposed to be 11 October, but they cancelled all visits after 7 October,” he said. Mahmoud was only allowed to speak to his family every 14 days, and was not allowed to contact his lawyer.
In some cases, Anwar said, prisoners were subject to “extreme” humiliation and psychological torment. “They wanted to take revenge on the prisoners [for 7 October],” he said. He described guards “asking a prisoner to walk like a dog, to kiss the Israeli flag on the officer’s shoulder, to insult the resistance, to insult Gaza”.
Mohammad Abdel-Samad from the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society was recently involved in a case where a Palestinian prisoner refused to kiss an Israeli flag. “He was beaten hard, especially in sensitive places in his body to affect him seriously, resulting in permanent disabilities,” he said. Another former prisoner told Abdel-Samad that blood in prison “is like a water cannon. It is everywhere” and that “the amount of torture abuse and suffering is unthinkable”.
A report released this month by Amnesty International also details “horrifying” torture and degrading treatment by Israeli forces, including guards urinating on a prisoner’s face and threatening a woman with rape.
Teenagers who were released from prison at the same time as Mahmoud told journalists they watched fellow prisoners tortured to death. Since 7 October, Israeli authorities report four Palestinians have died in Israeli detention facilities in circumstances that have not yet been impartially investigated.
Abdel-Samad believes Israeli forces want Palestinians to fear what goes on inside the prison to scare them into silence. “They want to stop people going to marches, protests, and from expressing themselves,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s working. We have been living under occupation since 1967, and we keep speaking up, and we keep fighting for our rights.”
Anwar described a similar mood of resistance among prisoners. “[The prisoners] asked me to say [to the world] that we are 5,000 martyrs, not just prisoners, for Gaza and for Palestine,” he said. “Their will is strong, their resilience spreads morale to the entire nation.”