Israel and Hamas should follow the announced prisoner exchange with measures to improve human rights, Human Rights Watch said.
Israel should end its punitive closure of Gaza, which Israeli leaders have said was partly to pressure Hamas to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, but which extends far beyond denying military shipments to Hamas. Hamas and Israel should also ensure that everyone in their custody is treated humanely.
“The prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas should mark the beginning of an era in which all parties respect basic rights,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Gaza’s civilians should no longer suffer under Israel’s punitive blockade, and Hamas should end abuses of detainees, whether Israeli or Palestinian.”
According to Hamas and Israeli officials, the exchange deal’s terms would have Israel release 477 Palestinian prisoners specified by Hamas on October 18, and another 550 prisoners in two months, after the release of Sergeant First Class Shalit. The Israeli cabinet voted to approve the terms of the exchange on October 12.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly spoken out against Hamas’s prolonged incommunicado detention of Shalit, which constitutes cruel and inhuman treatment and may amount to torture.
Israeli political leaders have repeatedly linked Shalit’s captivity to the continued broad restriction on the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip. Although Israel removed its forces and settlements from Gaza in 2005, it fully controls access to Gaza by air and sea, and together with Egypt, which has tended to act in coordination with Israel, access to Gaza by land.
Israel tightened its limitations on the movement of people and goods to and from Gaza after Shalit’s capture and increased import restrictions further until June 2010, when it began to ease its closure policy in response to international pressure. However, current imports of around 1,000 truckloads of goods a week remain considerably below the average 2,500 truckloads a week in 2005, before the closure. Imports of construction materials remain banned except in connection with Israeli-approved projects by international agencies.
Israel also bars virtually all exports from Gaza, which has significantly hindered its economic recovery. No goods have left Gaza through Israel since May 12, according to Gisha, an Israeli rights group focused on Gaza. The International Monetary Fund reported in September that despite economic growth since 2010 in Gaza, “its output level is lower today than in 2005,” and 28 percent of the workforce is unemployed. Due to low per-capita income, 51 percent of the people in Gaza are unable to buy sufficient food, according to United Nations aid agencies.
Israel also linked its aerial bombing of Gaza’s sole electricity power station on June 28, 2006, to Shalit’s capture two days earlier and later prevented full repairs to the station, limiting its potential capacity to 80 megawatts instead of the 140 megawatts of electricity it was designed to produce. Because of the blockade, the power station depends on fuel shipments from Israel, which the Palestinian Authority pays for with international financial support. But the Israeli government has limited fuel shipments below levels required to meet the station’s diminished capacity. The power station’s reduced capacity has caused Gaza residents to experience an average of eight hours of blackouts each day.
The Israel Prison Service published the names of the 477 Palestinian prisoners to be freed for public comment and objections on October 16, 48 hours prior to their release. According to the Prison Service, 162 prisoners from the West Bank will be sent to Gaza and 40 will be deported abroad, and barred from returning to their homes. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits individual or mass forcible transfers or deportations from occupied territory to any other country, “regardless of their motive.”
Israeli media reported that many of those being released have been convicted of attacks on civilians and have served only a fraction of their sentence.Around 280 of the prisoners are currently serving life sentences. Insofar as commutations reduce sentences below an appropriate level for the severity of the crime in question, it would effectively amount to immunity for serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law and violate the duty to prosecute serious international crimes.
Human Rights Watch said that Hamas should stop blocking access to Palestinian detainees by the Independent Commission for Human Rights, the official Palestinian human rights ombudsman. Hamas has blocked the ombudsman from detention centers operated by the internal security service for three years, and from Gaza’s central prison since December 2010. In September 2011, the ombudsman documented six allegations of torture in Hamas custody. Human Rights Watch has documented torture by Hamas internal security officials as well as by Hamas police detectives and anti-narcotics agencies.
Israel has refused to allow Gaza residents to visit relatives in prisons inside Israel since June 2007, after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which operated buses for families to visit prisoners, “over 700 families from Gaza have been prevented from seeing their detained relatives.” With the exception of some businessmen and medical patients, Israel bars nearly all Gaza residents from entering Israel or traveling to the West Bank, in violation of its obligations under international law to permit family visits to prisoners.
As of August 31, 5,204 Palestinians were in Israeli prisons, according to the Israel Prisons Service. Of the total, 272 were in administrative detention without charge. Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners are currently on hunger strike to protest Israel’s prolonged solitary confinement of some prisoners, shackling during family visits, and other measures.