By Ramzy Baroud
Heba Ahmed Al-Labadi in August fell into the black hole of the Israeli legal system, joining 412 other Palestinian prisoners held in so-called administrative detention. On Sept. 24, Al-Labadi joined a hunger strike by Palestinian detainees protesting their unlawful incarceration and the horrific conditions in Israeli prisons. Among these prisoners is Ahmed Ghannam, who began his hunger strike in July.
Administrative detention is Israel’s go-to legal procedure when it simply wants to silence the voices of Palestinian political activists but lacks any concrete evidence that could be presented in an open, military court. Not that Israel’s military courts are an example of fairness and transparency. Indeed, when it comes to Palestinians, the entire Israeli judicial system is skewed. But administrative detention is a whole other level of injustice.
The practice of administrative detention dates back to the 1945 Defense (Emergency) Regulations issued by the colonial British authorities in Palestine to quell political dissent. Israel amended the regulations in 1979 and the revised law was used to indefinitely incarcerate thousands of Palestinian political activists during the First Intifada of 1987. On any given day, there are hundreds of Palestinians held under this unlawful practice.
The procedure denies the detainees any due process and fails to produce any evidence as to as why the prisoner — who is often subjected to severe torture — is being held in the first place.
Al-Labadi, who has Jordanian citizenship, was detained at the Karameh crossing on her way from Jordan to the West Bank to attend a wedding in the Palestinian city of Nablus. She was first held at the Israeli intelligence detention center in Petah Tikva, where she was physically abused and tortured, according to Palestinian prisoner solidarity network Samidoun.
Torture in Israel was permissible for many years. In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court banned the practice. However, in 2019, the court clarified that “interrogational torture is lawful in certain circumstances in Israel’s legal system.” Either way, little changed either before or after the Israeli court’s “clarification.”
Of the dozens of Palestinian and Arab prisoners I have interviewed in recent months for a soon-to-be published volume on the history of the Palestinian prison experience, every single one underwent a prolonged process of torture during the initial interrogation, which often extended for months. If their experiences differed, it was only in the extent and duration of the torture. This applies to administrative detainees as much as so-called “security prisoners.”
Wafa Samir Ibrahim Al-Bis, a Palestinian woman from the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, told me about the years she was held in Israeli jails. “I was tortured for years inside the Ramleh prison’s infamous ‘cell nine’ — a torture chamber they designated for people like me,” she said. “I was hanged from the ceiling and beaten. They put a black bag on my head as they beat and interrogated me for many hours and days. They released dogs and mice in my cell. I couldn’t sleep for days at a time. They stripped me naked and left me like that for days on end. They didn’t allow me to meet with a lawyer or even receive visits from the Red Cross.”
Al-Labadi is now lost in that very system, which has no remorse and faces no accountability, neither in Israel itself nor with the international institutions whose duty it is to challenge this kind of flagrant violation of humanitarian laws.
While Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners applies equally regardless of faction, ideology or age, the gender of the prisoner matters insofar as the type of torture or humiliation used. Many of the female prisoners I spoke to explained how the type of mistreatment they experienced in Israeli prisons often seemed to involve sexual degradation and abuse. It frequently involves having female prisoners strip naked before male Israeli interrogators and remain like that for the entire duration of the torturous interrogation, which may last many hours.
Khadija Khweis was imprisoned by Israel 18 times for periods ranging from days to several weeks. She told me that “on the first day of my arrival at prison, the guards stripped me completely naked.” She added: “They searched me in ways so degrading I cannot even write them down. All I can say is that they intentionally tried to deprive me of the slightest degree of human dignity. This practice, of stripping and of degrading body searches, would be repeated every time I was taken out of my cell and brought back.”
All Palestinian prisoners experience humiliation and abuse on a daily basis. Their stories should not be reduced to an occasional news item or a social media post, but should become the raison d’etre of all solidarity efforts aimed at exposing Israel and its fraudulent judicial system.
The struggle of Palestinian prisoners epitomizes the struggle of all Palestinians. Their imprisonment is a stark representation of the collective imprisonment of the Palestinian people — those living under occupation and apartheid in the West Bank and those under occupation and siege in Gaza.
Israel should be held accountable for all of this. Rights groups and the international community should pressure Tel Aviv to release Al-Labadi and all of her comrades who are unlawfully held in Israeli prisons.