Released Palestinians allege mistreatment in Israeli prisons
By Hossam Ezzedine
RAMALLAH – Released under a prisoner-hostage exchange between Israel and Hamas, former Palestinian detainees have described beatings, deprivation and a radical deterioration in conditions in Israeli jails following Hamas’s bloody October 7 attacks.
On that day, Hamas fighters streamed across the Gaza Strip’s militarized border into Israel, kidnapping around 240 people and killing 1,200 others, most of them civilians, Israeli officials say.
In response, the Israeli military launched a campaign to eradicate Hamas that has since killed nearly 15,900 people, most of them women and minors, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run government.
The only respite in fighting was a seven-day truce that ended Friday (Dec 1) and saw scores of Israeli hostages freed by Hamas in exchange for more than 200 Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli jails.
One of those prisoners, 23-year-old activist Rouba Assi, told reporters after her release last week that Israeli prison authorities “took everything away” from Palestinian detainees.
Since October 7, they had been subject to a “state of emergency” announced by prison officials.
For detained Palestinians, there would be no more leaving their cell — and therefore no more visits — no more buying food from the canteen, no more power in their electrical outlets, and more frequent surprise searches, authorities said in a statement.
The Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, an advocacy group that keeps a tally of detainees from the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, has said visits from representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also stopped.
Under its guidelines on confidentiality, the ICRC has not commented on that claim.
Assi is uniquely placed to compare life on the inside before and during the war.
Between 2020 and 2022 she was jailed for 21 months on charges of throwing stones and belonging to an illegal organisation, the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
She was arrested again after the start of the current war, along with 3,580 other Palestinians detained so far, according to the Prisoners’ Club.
There are around 7,800 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, the Club says.
During her latest stint, Assi found things were very different.
“In Damon prison (in northeast Israel) seven of us slept in a cell designed for three detainees, on the bare floor, without a mattress or a cover, despite the cold and regardless of one’s age,” she said.
“We often went to bed without having eaten, and the portions we received were meagre,” she continued. “All the gains made over the years of struggle by Palestinian prisoners were wiped out in a single stroke.”
In a statement earlier this month, Amnesty International regional director Heba Morayef said: “Testimonies and video evidence also point to numerous incidents of torture and other ill-treatment by Israeli forces including severe beatings and deliberate humiliation of Palestinians who are detained in dire conditions.”
Ramzi Abbasi, a Palestinian activist from east Jerusalem, was freed under the Israel-Hamas deal from Ketziot prison in the Negev desert, where he was serving time after being sentenced in April for inciting violence.
“They beat us day and night,” the 36-year-old told AFP. “Some prisoners had their legs or arms broken after October 7 and received no care.”
Ketziot, he said, is “a cemetery for the living. The inmates there live without food, without clean clothes — they’re neglected.”
Approached several times by AFP, Israeli prison authorities declined to comment on the allegations.
Amnesty said it had received an account from a Palestinian from east Jerusalem who was subjected to “severe beatings which left him with bruises and three broken ribs”.
The unnamed detainee said police ordered prisoners to “praise Israel and curse Hamas”, but even after they did, the “beating and humiliation did not stop”.
In a letter to the ICRC delivered from prison by one the recently released detainees, inmates denounced the “revenge” allegedly meted out by Israeli authorities.
The message said six prisoners had died in Israeli jails since the start of the war.
The Israeli prison administration responded that the inmates underwent autopsies and were found to have died due to health issues unrelated to the conditions of their detention.
The prisoner-hostage exchange deal has brought the long-simmering question of Palestinian detainees back to the fore, with Hamas and its allies — who have hundreds of militants in Israeli prisons — saying those kidnapped on October 7 will be used as bargaining chips to “empty” Israeli prisons.
But during the same week of exchanges that saw 240 Palestinian prisoners released in return for 80 Israeli hostages, 240 other Palestinians were incarcerated, according to the Prisoners’ Club.