west bank palestinian protest
© Ayat Arqawy/APA Images
Palestinians take part in a Palestinian Prisoners' Day protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 17, 2019.
Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli jails won a small but significant victory April 15 when the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) agreed to several key demands voiced by 400 prisoners who had been on an open-ended hunger strike. Under the settlement, the IPS agreed to provide three-times-weekly access to (supervised) payphones so prisoners could call their families. It moved numerous prisoners from solitary cells back to the general population and made other concessions to the hunger strikers.

The hunger strikers' apparent victory came just two days before Palestinian Prisoners' Day, an observation held annually on April 17 to draw attention to the plight of the thousands of political prisoners held - many for very long terms and many without any fixed term at all - in Israel's broad network of military prisons.

The Egyptian government played a role in mediating the April 15 settlement - presumably in connection with its ongoing efforts to de-escalate the hostilities between Israel and Hamas.

The prisoners most engaged in the hunger strike were from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front, and the Democratic Front. Few prisoners from Fateh participated, though there were indications that if the hunger strike had continued many more prisoners from all factions would join in on April 17.

The hunger strike once again reminded justice activists around the world that Israel - like every colonial and repressive state in history - still routinely uses mass incarceration, along with a stringent system of movement controls, as one of its main ways to try to "control" the subject population.

The political unity and savvy of the strikers and their success in winning several of their core demands also underlined the key role that imprisoned activists have always played within the Palestinians' long-drawn-out struggle for freedom.

The part of the Palestinian prisoners' issue that has received most political traction in the United States thus far has been the situation of the 700 or so Palestinian minors who get caught up in Israel's military courts and military detention system every year. As of the end of March, 205 Palestinian minors were imprisoned in this system, 32 of them being under 16 years old.

In November 2017, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) and seven other lawmakers introduced H.R. 4391, the "Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act" into the Congressional system. If passed, it would prohibit U.S. government funds from supporting grave human rights violations against Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system. Throughout the rest of that session of Congress, an additional 22 Members - all Democrats - agreed to co-sponsor the bill. And it is expected that it will be reintroduced into the current session of Congress in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

It may seem to some that focusing only the issue of the treatment of minors within Israel's military-prison system is addressing only a tiny part of some much bigger problems - that is, not the situation of all the prisoners... and beyond that, not the continuation of Israel's entire, now-52-years-long forceful occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza, and Golan, itself.

But the treatment of children in Israel's military courts and the detention system that lies behind them is quite egregious. Nowhere else in the world are children subjected to military law, sometimes dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night by armed soldiers, interrogated without their parents being present, etc. The issue of the child prisoners also certainly does provide an entry-point into addressing the broader issues as well, along with a handy reminder to members of Congress and their constituents that all these gross Israeli rights abuses are sustained only with US government funding and political support.

Regarding the broader population of Palestinian political prisoners (as distinct from purely "criminal" incarcerees) they currently number 7,450, between adults and children. 497 of the political prisoners are held under regulations that allow infinitely renewable terms of "administrative detention", that is, imprisonment without charge or trial. Of those who have been charged and tried, many have been convicted only on nebulous charges of "incitement"; and Israel's entire military-courts system is notoriously heavily stacked against the defendants.

International law has for decades now prohibited any occupying power from transporting prisoners or detainees from the occupied territories into its own terrain. (This provision was introduced into the Geneva Conventions in 1949, after the world saw what had happened to detained populations whom the Nazi authorities in Germany transported away from their home countries.)

This is another provision of international law that Israel disregards. Indeed, one of the many unfortunate consequences the Oslo Accords had for Palestinians in the occupied territories was that after Oslo, most Palestinian prisoners from the West Bank and Gaza were moved to prisons inside 1948 Israel. That was not just illegal under international law. It made it exponentially harder for their families to visit them. Family members who want to do so have to get special permits to cross into Israel, wait for the special buses that are provided for the purpose, and then spend many long hours on the road or at checkpoints in order to have just a very short visit with their loved one-a visit that in most cases permits no direct contact and can often be heart-wrenching for both the prisoners and families.

In these circumstances the hunger strikers' victory in winning access for the first time to regular phone calls with loved ones was particularly sweet. So was their success in getting significant numbers of prisoners returned from solitary confinement to the general prison population.
Helena Cobban is the President of Just World Educational (JWE), a non-profit organization, and the CEO of Just World Books. She has had a lengthy career as a journalist, writer, and researcher on international affairs, including 17 years as a columnist on global issues for The Christian Science Monitor. Of the seven books she's published on international affairs, four have been on Middle Eastern topics. This new series of commentaries she's writing, "Story/Backstory", will have an expanded audio component published in JWE's podcast series. They represent her own opinion and judgments, not those of any organization.