Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Israel has arrested so many Palestinians in the two weeks since the start of its bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip that it has doubled the number of Palestinians in its custody.
There were about 5,200 Palestinians in Israeli prisons prior to October 7 when the Palestinian armed resistance group Hamas launched an attack on Israel, which responded almost immediately with a relentless bombing campaign.
The number of prisoners has now risen to more than 10,000 people, Palestinian officials said on Thursday afternoon.
Over the past two weeks, according to officials and rights groups, Israel has arrested some 4,000 labourers from Gaza who were working in Israel and is holding them in military bases. Separately, it has also arrested 1,070 other Palestinians in overnight army raids in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“Arrests are taking place 24 hours a day,” Sahar Francis, head of the Ramallah-based Addameer prisoners’ rights group, told Al Jazeera.
Most of the people from Gaza are being held at a military base called Sde Teyman, near Beer al-Sabe (Be’er Sheva) in the southern Naqab desert, she said.
Hundreds of others are being held in Ofer prison near Ramallah, and in the Anatot military camp near the village of Anata in occupied East Jerusalem.
Palestinian lawyers and officials have highlighted the severe mistreatment and dire conditions under which detainees are being arrested and held.
‘Dangerous’ prison conditions
At a press conference on Thursday afternoon in Ramallah, head of the Palestinian Authority’s Commission for Detainees’ Affairs Qadura Fares, said recent developments regarding prisoners are “unprecedented” and “dangerous”.
“We hesitated a lot about holding this press conference addressing yet another chapter of Israeli crimes, on what our male and female prisoners are being exposed to in the occupation’s prisons, for fear of creating tension and anxiety among the families of prisoners, and our Palestinian people in general,” said Fares.
“Prisoners are subjected to starvation and thirst; they are prevented from accessing their medicine, specifically for those suffering from chronic illnesses that require regular medication,” he said, adding that matters became worse “when the prison administration cut off water and electricity”.
Addameer also reported the prevention of access to medical care. “They also shut down the prison clinics, and also prevented prisoners from going to hospitals and external clinics, despite the presence of some cancer patients among the prisoners who require continuous treatment,” said the rights group.
“The most dangerous thing” over the past few days, continued Fares, was “physical attacks” and degrading treatment. “Everyone who is arrested is assaulted.
“Many of the prisoners have had their limbs, hands and legs broken … degrading and insulting expressions, insults, cursing, tying them with handcuffs to the back and tightening them at the end to the point of causing severe pain … naked, humiliating and group search of the prisoners,” he said.
‘Cut off from the world’
Aside from the 4,000 residents of the Gaza Strip, most of whom are held at the Sde Teyman military camp, about 6,000 Palestinians are imprisoned in Israeli jails and detention centres.
The 5,200 jailed before October 7 are largely residents of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
But in the past two weeks, the Israeli army arrested another 1,070 Palestinians during overnight military raids in those areas.
During periods of “calm” under Israel’s 56-year military occupation, 15-20 people are arrested on a daily basis. But since October 7 daily the arrest rate of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem has gone up to 120 people, according to Palestinian officials.
The arrests take place through surprise military raids on Palestinian homes at dawn, humiliating searches of family members and their homes, destruction of property and belongings, as well as verbal and physical abuse.
Francis said that Palestinians being held inside Israeli prisons and detention centres are “cut off from the world”.
“There is no yard time, no contact with their families, no family visits and no regular lawyer visits,” she explained.
Israeli authorities have also shut off access to canteens, which are necessary to buy basic supplies such as toothpaste, and limited meals to two a day instead of three.
The Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset, on Wednesday approved a plan currently effective for three months allowing the reduction of the minimum living space allotted to each prisoner, previously set at 3.5 square metres – to accommodate a rising crush of prisoners.
In a press conference by Palestinian civil rights groups on Tuesday in Ramallah, Addameer called on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to “abide by its responsibilities” as the sole authorised international organisation monitoring the situation of Palestinian detainees, and called on the group to visit them, particularly those from Gaza in military camps.
“We are not seeing any real pressure from the ICRC,” Francis told Al Jazeera. “They say that they are trying but Israel is preventing them, but that’s not an excuse. Too much time has passed.”
Israel is using different legal pretexts to withhold the detainees from different areas, according to human rights groups.
Palestinians from the Gaza Strip who were arrested inside Israel are being held under the “Unlawful Combatants Law” which allows authorities to detain Palestinians indefinitely without effective judicial review.
The law defines an “unlawful combatant” as a “person who has participated either directly or indirectly in hostile acts against the State of Israel, or is a member of a force perpetrating hostile acts against the State of Israel.”
On October 13, Israel amended the law to make it easier to arrest Palestinians on mere suspicion. Some of the provisions include “expanding the scope of those entitled to issue arrest warrants to include generals and those of lower rank”.
The Unlawful Combatants Law is the equivalent of administrative detention in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which allows Israel to hold Palestinians from those areas indefinitely under “secret evidence”.
Most of the 1,070 people arrested in those areas since October 7 are being transferred to administrative detention, Francis said.
“They are signing off on dozens of administrative detention orders every day,” Francis said.
Israel’s latest assault on Gaza began on October 7 after Hamas launched a surprise attack just outside the besieged enclave on Israeli territory. So far, at least 1,400 people in Israel have been killed, according to Israeli officials.
Since then, Israel’s retaliatory bombardment has killed at least 4,137 Palestinians in Gaza, including 1,524 children, while 81 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank.