Palestinians in Israel’s Prisons: Interviewing Sahar Francis

Sahar Francis is a lawyer and human rights advocate in the Occupied Territories. She works with Addameer ( in Ramallah in the Occupied West Bank on political prisoner’s rights campaigns. In April 2005, she was part of a North American tour organized by Sumoud ( to raise issues of Palestinian prisoners internationally. I interviewed her in Toronto.

Justin Podur (JP): Can you introduce us to your organization, Addameer?

Sahar Francis is a lawyer and human rights advocate in the Occupied Territories. She works with Addameer ( in Ramallah in the Occupied West Bank on political prisoner’s rights campaigns. In April 2005, she was part of a North American tour organized by Sumoud ( to raise issues of Palestinian prisoners internationally. I interviewed her in Toronto.

Justin Podur (JP): Can you introduce us to your organization, Addameer?

Sahar Francis (SF): Addameer is a Palestinian non-governmental organization (NGO) founded in 1992. It was founded by human rights activists in Jerusalem who were working on prisoners rights. When the Palestinian Authority (PA) came to the Occupied Territories, Addameer moved to Ramallah. We run a number of campaigns and conduct various activities. We have an ongoing campaign against torture and we follow torture cases. We visit prisoners monthly to track prison conditions and campaign for their release. We represent prisoners in courts, we submit petitions to the Israeli Supreme Court and take legal cases to the international level. We represent prisoners in Israeli military courts. We also educate the community about rights and prison issues. We provide training to lawyers in the field on how to apply international law in our work. Our website is, if your readers want more information.

JP: Before we get into specific questions, can you now give us an introduction to the situation of Palestinian prisoners?

SF: It’s best to start from the numbers. Since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel has imprisoned 600,000 Palestinians. Currently there are around 8,000 prisoners who we consider political prisoners. Others could be in prison for theft (of cars). Workers who were caught without permits and imprisoned are also not counted as ‘political prisoners’. Among the political prisoners, 344 are juveniles, 119 are women, and 750 are ‘administrative detainees’, which means no charge has been leveled against them. 11 are Arab-Syrian from the Occupied Golan Heights. There are 25 Jordanians, and 120+ Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship. All are held in the same prisons. There are 16 civil prisons – 17, now, actually, recently a military camp was converted into a civil prison – in Israel. There are 2 military camps in Israel, 9 detention centers, and 4 interrogation centers.

JP: Contrast the way Palestinian prisoners are treated with the way Israeli prisoners are treated.

SF: In civil prisons, there are separate sections. They are not put together. The prison conditions are different. Political prisoners do not have rights to use the telephone (‘social’ prisoners who committed ‘social’ crimes do have such rights). Where social prisoners have visitation rights (one per month), ‘security’ cases have no such rights. Of 8,000 prisoners, 3 Palestinian-Israelis got holidary rights. In the ‘social’ prison section, family visits can involve touch. Political prisoners have fences, glass windows, and can speak either by phone or through glass. Political prisoners are counted three times a day and have their rooms searched, the iron bars on their windows checked each time. They are frequently subjected to violations and ill treatment by police, much more so than social prisoners. They are subjected to special searches by outside units, who beat them and leave. They can be gassed and hosed. The authorities deliberately punish political leaders, isolate them, and forbid visitation to them.

JP: And what is daily life like? How do prisoners organize to make life more tolerable? How do they resist?

SF: Within prisons, activists are separated by political party. The schedule is usually: 6am, wake up and counting. 7am, one hour of exercise is allowed. 8am breakfast. After breakfast, prisoners will organize education and study sessions. Dinner is at 6pm, and lockdown at 7pm. They are allowed 3 hours a day outside. They try to organize by committees, with committees for education, health, liason with authorities and other political factions. They discuss daily basics, resistance, decisions on hunger strikes, whether to turn back meals, whether to not stand for counting.

JP: How have Israeli prison policies evolved over time?

SF: It is important to understand politically, that Israel uses imprisonment as a policy. It is not about security – it is a tool deliberately deployed against leaders. Most of the political leaders in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are in prison. By using mass arrests – during the first intifada they arrested 8,000 and put them into administrative detention with no charges. Under administrative detention, if you are deemed a ‘threat’, you can be locked up for 6 months, with unlimited extension. It is mostly used against students and political leaders, cases where no evidence can be found or even manufactured. Even under the Oslo ‘peace process’ before the second intifada, there were more than 850 administrative detainees, people from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP, the DFLP. More than 250 of these were held for over 2.5 years. They arrested most in 1995/1996, and held them until 1998, releasing some only in 1999.

With the second intifada, the situation has become much more intense. In 2000, there were 4 administrative detainees. Today there are 750. Administrative detainees, under military order 1500, can go 18 days without seeing a judge and have no right to a lawyer. From March to June of 2002, 15,000 were arrested and 2,000 were held for over 3 months. Since then the number has dropped to 750.

JP: Elaborate on the agenda behind imprisonment.

SF: People are targeted for their connections and importance in community life. Students, religious leaders, people with influence. It is a well-connected system from arrest to the last day of prison, designed to try to break prisoners will to resist by humiliation, ill-treatment, torture, and oppression. The message to prisoners is clear: this is the price of resistance. Lighter sentences, better treatment, is offered to those who collaborate.

It is also a method of ethnic cleansing. People are taken from prison and then deported. In the 1990s 450 people were deported this way, from south Lebanon. Today they also will arrest people, confiscate their identification, and dump them at the Jordan border. In 2002, during the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the fighters were deported to Gaza. They deport family members: they deported the sister of a wanted Palestinian man to Gaza – this was the Ajourri case.

JP: Were there any legal pretexts put up for doing such a thing?

SF: The High Court ruled that Israel has the right under international law to transfer civilians from one place to another for security reasons. In fact the 4th Geneva Convention obliges the occupier to do so in order to protect the occupied, for a limited time. The Supreme Court decided – despite the fact that the Israeli authorities themselves have a different military governor for Gaza and the West Bank and different military orders that apply – the Supreme Court decided that Gaza and the West Bank were the same area (for this case). This opened the way for the military governor to deport people to Gaza, and 19 more deportations followed. In some cases, the families of the deportees were not allowed permits to go to Gaza to visit their deported family members.

JP: How widespread is the use of torture in Israeli prisons?

SF: It is pervasive. Since the occupation began, torture has been a part of the system. In the 1970s, rape was used – with sticks and bottles – against prisoners. The latest case was that of Lebanese Abdel Karim Abayd and Mustafa Dirani. These were kidnapped and taken to Israel as bargaining chips for the release of Israeli Ron Arad. They were taken to a secret prison where the Red Cross cannot enter and no visits are allowed. They were tortured. Dirani reported that he was raped. He sued his interrogator, known as ‘George’, and the case is still going. Dirani was released and so able to talk about it.

Stress positions are frequently used: prisoners are tied to a small chair, a child’s chair, and handcuffed, made to lean forward with their legs tied and a sack on their head. It is hard to breathe, and the hood has a bad smell. They are left in a corridor and loud music is played for 24 hours to prevent a prisoners from being able to sleep. They are tied to water pipes or to tables, placed in front of a blasting air conditioner all day, made to take ice cold showers, locked in a small dresser where they can’t sit or lie down, tied to a roof, pricked in sensitive places with needles.

Since the 1980s, Israeli authorities have emphasized forms of torture that do not leave marks (hence the use of tying). A well-known case in 1986 was that of the hijackers of bus 300. 3 Palestinians hijacked this bus. The Israeli army stormed the bus, killing 2 hijackers. The third was photographed alive, being held by authorities. Some time later, Israeli authorities reported that all three were killed in the raid. In the 1990s Israel admitted to have killed him. The killers were put on ‘trial’ and the President granted them amnesty. After the incident, in 1987, came a decision by the Landau Committee of the Knesset. The decision had two sections, one of which was published. The published section gives explicit, direct authority to torture. It is called ‘moderate physical and psychological pressure’. Thus torture was legalized, until 1999: authorities had to apply for permission, a 3-month permit to torture, renewed every 3 months.

In the early 1990s, a form of torture was shaking. After a prisoner was weak and tied for some time, they would hold his shoulders and collar and shake. In 1995 a prisoner, Abd-Esamad Harezat died from this shaking.

In 1999 the Supreme Court decided it would no longer grant permission for ‘illegal interrogations’. No mention of torture was made. If interrogators need the information, they could appeal to ‘necessity’ according to the penal code, in the event of a ‘ticking bomb’. Of course, a ‘ticking bomb’ was never defined, so the window for torture was kept open. But the practice of torture changed. Tying to small chairs became less frequent – now normal-sized chairs are used. Prisoners are usually only tied during interrogation, and most torture is now psychological: threats to arrest and assassinate family members, demolish family homes, take you to collaborators, tell others you are a collaborator, isolate you, forbid you your lawyer. According to various military orders, Israel can hold prisoners for 30 days without charges, but it can be extended to 90 or 180 days.

JP: How are Palestinian women and children treated in Israel’s prisons?

SF: Israel does not apply the international definition of a child (under 18) to Palestinian children, though it does apply that definition to its own children, for the purposes of incarceration. According to the military orders Palestinian children of 16 years old are jailed as adults. There are no juvenile courts in the military system Palestinians are subject to (there are in the Israeli civil system for Israeli children). The same torture practices are used against children as against adults. If children are under 16 they are imprisoned separately, but those over 16 are imprisoned with adults. There are no special educational facilities or social supports for children. In Israeli law, the judge has the discretion to not send a child to prison, but to a special center or program. This is not so for Palestinians.

Palestinian children are not as experienced or psychologically able to resist torture, and so they are more vulnerable to becoming collaborators under the pressure of fear.

Women prisoners are treated to the same torture, beating, and interrogations as men. There are 119 women prisoners, 19 of whom are mothers. Recently, Manal Ghanem delivered a baby, Nour, in prison. Nour is 1.5 years old. He will be taken away from his mother at 2 years. Manal Ghanem also has a rare blood disease in her red cells and needs transfusions. She has been sentenced to 50 months. We are seeking her release for health conditions.

JP: What has the impact of Addameer’s campaigns been?

SF: We had a successful campaign under Oslo for the release of administrative detainees. By 1999 there were just 40 administrative detainees and just before the intifada there were only 4. We have an ongoing campaign for Manal Ghanem, the young mother I just mentioned. We work with the Palestinian prisoners of the PA – there are 5, though it has gone up in the last month because the PA has promised to ‘crack down’ because of the ‘ceasefire’.

JP: What has the impact of the so-called ‘ceasefire’ been on imprisonment?

SF: The Israelis are not serious about peace. In the last 3-4 months, Palestinians kept up a ceasefire. Israel kept building the wall, kept arresting, kept assassinating, kept demolishing houses, kept up the checkpoints. The proclaimed ‘withdrawal’ from Jericho did not include the checkpoints: Israel still controls all entry and exit points. They violate the International Court of Justice ruling on the wall, and no one in the international community can stop them. They have insured 3500 new homes for Israeli colonists in the Mal Edumim settlement. They obviously have no intention to withdraw from the West Bank. As for Gaza, the few thousand settlers in Gaza will mostly end up in West Bank settlements. It is hard to see how the PA can get anything from Israel in this global environment where the US is behind Israel unconditionally, Europe is silent, and no other party has any influence. It is a hard time. During the Oslo years, Palestinians accepted Israel’s conditions on prisoners – ‘no release for anyone with Jewish blood on his hands’. This is why so many prisoners were not released. We started the second intifada with 1500 political prisoners still in prison. Israel uses them as bargaining chips. It is, after all, the easiest political issue to solve. If it does not want to give anything on the settlements, the wall, or the refugees, it can pick up prisoners and then offer to release them. Give up the right of return, and we’ll give you 2000 prisoners back. It’s a way of dividing the resistance because the negotiators have to think of those 2000 people and the 2000 families and the political impact of refusing such an offer.

We believe that prisoners should be at the same level as the wall, settlements, right of return, and other issues. Israel must be forced to comply with international law. Prisoners should either be treated as prisoners of war or civilians who have the right to resist occupation. They are arrested because of conflict, they should be released when the conflict is over. Israelis deny their status and criminalize them. But international standards should apply. The Geneva Conventions apply.

Sahar Francis works for Addameer ( Justin Podur is a writer and activist based in Toronto.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.