Igniting an intifada

The death of yet another Palestinian in an Israeli jail precipitates large-scale protests in the occupied territories.

Published : Mar 21, 2013 13:17 IST

The funeral procession of Arafat Jaradat in the West Bank village of Sa'ir near Hebron on February 25.

The funeral procession of Arafat Jaradat in the West Bank village of Sa'ir near Hebron on February 25.

THE death of 30-year-old Arafat Jaradat in an Israeli prison on February 22 has unleashed a new wave of anger in the occupied Palestinian territories. His funeral was attended by more than 10,000 people, including Ministers from the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) and leaders from other Palestinian parties. Palestinian groups across the political spectrum urged a tough response to the latest death of a Palestinian civilian in Israeli custody. In the protests that followed, there have already been casualties among the Palestinians. “Israel is killing our children with live fire,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in a live broadcast to his people. He said that he would not allow Israel to “play with the lives” of the Palestinian people. Abbas called for an international inquiry into the circumstances leading to the death of the prisoner.

Jaradat was in Israeli police custody for over a week before his tragic death. He was arrested for allegedly participating in a stone-throwing incident in November last year in which an Israeli sustained minor injuries. An autopsy revealed that Jaradat had many broken bones in his arms, spine and legs. His lips were lacerated and body was badly bruised. “We know, and the Israelis know, that he was tortured to death. This matter can’t and will not pass quietly. We are talking about a healthy young man who was taken away from his family and children and then returned within a few days a dead corpse,” the Palestinian Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs, Issa Qaraqaa, said. The Minister went on to add that the claim by Israel that Jaradat died of natural causes was “a blatant lie”. The P.A. has accused the Israeli authorities of inflicting “extreme torture” on Jaradat. A month before Jaradat’s death, another Palestinian, Abu Ashraf Dhra, died in an Israeli jail.

The Israeli Prison Services continues to claim that the prisoner died as a result of “cardiac arrest”. According to the Prisoner Rights Organisation Addameer, a total of 72 Palestinians have been killed as a result of torture and 53 because of medical neglect in Israeli prisons since 1967. Three thousand Palestinians in Israeli prisons went on a hunger strike on February 24 to protest against the latest incident.

Jaradat’s death coincided with the indefinite hunger strike that 11 Palestinian prisoners had started to protest against their incarceration without trial. One of them, Samer Issawi, recounted his story in a signed article published in the British daily The Guardian. He has been in Israeli prisons for most of his life, sentenced under laws that the Jewish state inherited from the British colonial rulers. One of Issawi’s brothers was killed by Israeli forces while participating in a protest; four other siblings have been incarcerated for long periods in Israeli jails. Issawi, after spending 10 years in jail, was rearrested after his release in a prisoner swap negotiated by Egypt. The Israeli soldier Gilat Shamit was released by Hamas in exchange for the freedom of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in 2011.

Many of the released Palestinians like Issawi were soon rearrested by the Israeli security forces on trumped-up charges. Issawi has said that he will continue his hunger strike until “victory or martyrdom” as it is “the last remaining stone to throw at the tyrants and jailers in the face of the racist occupation that humiliates the people”. That Israel has been implementing policies akin to apartheid in the occupied territories is common knowledge, the latest one being the introduction in early March of a bus service exclusively for Palestinians. The Israeli authorities said that the bus service was introduced as Palestinian passengers posed “a security risk” to the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Until now, Jews and Palestinians used the same buses to commute to work from the West Bank to Israel.

Palestinians in the West Bank have been protesting almost daily for the release of the hunger strikers. More than a hundred Palestinians were wounded in clashes with the Israeli security forces on the day before the death of Jaradat. The protests have only escalated since then. The Prime Minister of Hamas-controlled Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, has supported the continuation of what he has described as the “prisoners intifada [uprising]”. He said that his party would fight on all fronts and “pay the necessary price” to obtain the freedom of all the political prisoners. The P.A. does not want things to go out of control in the West Bank. It fears that a general upsurge among Palestinians would be used as a pretext by Israel to further put off talks on the two-state solution. United States President Barack Obama is due to visit Israel in March. He is expected to focus on the revival of the stalled American-mediated talks between Israel and the P.A.

The Israeli Internal Secret Service (Shin Bet) routinely holds Palestinian detainees in isolation for long periods during which they are interrogated in cells that remain lit throughout day and night. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has supported the demand of the P.A. for an independent international investigation of the circumstances leading to the death of the prisoner. Two weeks before the killing of Jaradat, the Israeli High Court rejected a petition by another Israeli human rights organisation, Adalah, against the Shin Bet. The human rights group demanded that the Shin Bet comply with the requirement of the U.N. Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) to which Israel is a signatory. In May 2009, the UNCAT had condemned Israel for exempting Shin Bet interrogations from video or audio recording. In 2012, the Israeli Parliament extended the exemption by another three years.

The U.N. peace envoy to West Asia, Robert Serry, has called for an independent inquiry into the death of the Palestinian in Israeli custody. He warned that the mounting tensions could precipitate a deadlier round of violence in the occupied territories. “The United Nations expects the autopsy to be followed by an independent and transparent investigation into the circumstances of Jaradat’s death, the results of which should be made public as soon as possible,” the U.N. envoy said. The chairman of the Palestinian Prison Society, Qadura Fares, has also warned that the worsening conditions of Palestinians could lead to a third intifada. The first intifada lasted from 1987 to 1993 while the second went on from 2000 to 2005.

“The situation in the prisons, the economic plight and the stalled peace process are pushing people to the brink, but I would like to believe that we are still far from that,” said Fares. The Palestinian Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs has predicted that the “popular resistance activities would continue”, adding that the tension within the prison system was “a reflection of the strained situation on the ground”. In an apparent bid to defuse tensions, the Israeli authorities released $120 million of tax and customs revenues that they were withholding from the P.A. Israel collects tax and customs duties on behalf of the Palestinians and has habitually been refusing to disburse them for long periods at a stretch. This has contributed to the financial problems the P.A. is facing. Salaries of civil servants and government employees are invariably delayed.

Permanent siege

The Palestinians in the occupied territories live in a permanent state of siege. Since the 1967 war, 80 per cent of all adult males in the occupied territories have been arrested at some time or the other. Israeli military law gives the authorities the right to detain any individual for up to eight days without framing any charges. Prisoners can be held for 60 days for interrogation without recourse to legal help. If the military commander of the region decides that the suspect is “a national security threat”, then a prisoner can be held for six months without the authorities having to give any reasons. The charges can be renewed indefinitely. Ten per cent of the 8,000 Palestinians currently in jail are under “administrative detention”—a euphemism for being jailed without any charges. Even children who are over the age of 12 are arrested by the Israelis. For Israeli Jews, only those 18 and above are considered to be legally adults.

A report released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on March 6 details the systematic abuse of Palestinian children by the Israeli authorities. The U.N. organisation estimates that 700 children aged between 12 and 17 are arrested every year by Israeli security forces in the West Bank. UNICEF has given many instances of the Israeli security forces’ inappropriate use of force against children. The report said that this “amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture”. The report accused Israel of “blindfolding children and tying their hands with plastic ties, physical and verbal abuse during transfer to an interrogation site, including the use of painful restraint”.

Such practices, the report went on to add, “appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalised”. The report also said that Israel had made “some positive changes” in the way it treated Palestinian juvenile prisoners. It noted a 2010 Israeli military order that requires the police to inform the parents of the children who have been arrested and to inform minors that they have a right to consult a lawyer.

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