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240 Palestinians Freed, Thousands More Arrested: How Israel Utilizes Mass Incarceration as a Weapon of Conquest

Since October 7th, the number of Palestinians in custody has almost doubled from just over 5,000 to nearly 10,000.

Shikma Prison in Ashkelon. Israel. Shutterstick/ChameleonsEye

In August of 1967, the Israeli Army issued Military Order 101. The document starts off with a small glossary of definitions that would guide the next 56 years of “security of the region and… maintenance of public order and proper administration.”

Definitions like:

  • Assembly: “Ten or more persons who have gathered in a place in which a speech is being made on a political subject, or which may be construed as political, or to discuss such a subject.”  
  • Vigil: “Ten or more persons who have gathered in a place for a political purpose or for a matter that may be construed as political.”
  • Procession: “Ten or more persons who are walking together or are gathering to walk together from place to place, for a political purpose or for a matter that may be construed as political, whether they actually move and whether the said persons were arranged as a group or not.” 

Per the order, “A person who violates the provisions of this Order or any order given pursuant to it or does an act that is declared an offense under this Order shall be liable for imprisonment for ten years or a fine of ten thousand liras, or both.” 

Palestinians amongst the rubble in Gaza
Palestinians amongst the rubble in Gaza. Credit: OCHA/Eyad El Baba

Why is this important today? 

Gaza is currently under the second wave of Israel’s bombing campaign, the first of which killed 14,000 Palestinians, many of them civilians, with over 3,000 of those killed children. This second wave of bombings is coming on the heels of a seven-day ceasefire where Hamas released over 100 hostages taken on the October 7th attacks in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

During the initial four-day ceasefire, however, Israel arrested 133 more Palestinians in the West Bank. Since October 7th, the number of Palestinians in Israeli custody has almost doubled, with a little over 5,000 before the attacks and that number rising to nearly 10,000 since then, according to an October statement by Qaddoura Fares, head of the Addameer prisoners’ rights group. The question is, why?

The attacks of October 7 that killed over 1200 Israeli citizens were launched from Gaza, not the West Bank. Most believe that Hamas is headquartered in Gaza, and while there is some belief they have a presence in the West Bank, it is not considered by anyone to be a central base of command by any means.

In fact, back in 2007, there was a clear political split between Gaza and the West Bank, where Hamas was elected as the governing body of the former, and the Palestinian Authority would go on to represent the latter. The IDF has, however, maintained a military presence in the West Bank since 1967. Israeli settlements in the West Bank have continued to expand since then as well, settlements considered to be illegal occupation under international law.

Yet the IDF has continued to conduct raids and military operations in the West Bank in the name of protecting the state of Israel from things like “processions” and “vigils.” So if the current threat and focus of this “war” is the destruction of Hamas, as Israel claims it is, why are there so many Palestinians being arrested in the West Bank? 

Weaponized incarceration

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories. Credit: UN

One theory is that Israel is using the mass incarceration of the Palestinian people as a weapon of conquest. In June of this year (4 months before the October 7 attacks), United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories, Francesca Albanese, released a report on this very topic where she states in her findings: 

“Under Israeli occupation, generations of Palestinians have endured widespread and systematic arbitrary deprivation of liberty, often for the simplest acts of life. Since 1967, over 800,000 Palestinians, including children, have been detained based on an array of authoritarian rules enacted, enforced and adjudicated by the Israeli military. Palestinians are often presumed guilty without evidence, arrested without warrants, and detained without charge or trial. Physical and psychological abuse are distressingly common. Without condoning crimes that Palestinians have committed during decades of illegal occupation, most criminal convictions of Palestinians have been the result of a litany of violations of international law, including due process violations, that taint the legitimacy of the administration of justice by the occupying power. Many such convictions concern legitimate expressions of civil and political rights, and the right to resist an illegal foreign occupier.” 

This coincides with what we know about some of the prisoners released in the recent swap. Once the agreement was made on November 21, Israel released a list of prisoners eligible for release. Over 200 of the 300 eligible prisoners were held without being formally charged. Instead, if you look at the list, their status is simply “under arrest,” a state which Albanese claims happens all too often.

According to her report, of the 7,000 Palestinians arrested in 2022 (over 800 of whom are children), a little over 1,000 of them are being held without trial. In the rare case where these prisoners are charged with a crime, they are tried in a military court, not a civilian one, separate or apart from Israeli citizens who are tried in civil or criminal courts.

The list of offenses of the recently released prisoners ranges from things as simple as throwing stones to things as severe as “throwing incendiary devices” at military officials. Over 100 of the prisoners on the list released by Israel are under the age of 18.

Image: Shutterstock/Number One

Abuses

One recently released prisoner, Muhammad Nazzal (18), claims that Israeli prison guards broke his fingers, arm, and beat him while in custody, refusing him medical treatment as well. A number of media outlets, including the BBC, have reported mistreatment as well, claiming that recently released prisoners were also beaten, even urinated on. Some female prisoners report being threatened with rape as well, which would not be the first time an accusation of this kind has occurred.

In June 2020, the World Organization Against Torture reported that a group of female prisoners were routinely strip-searched and groped by guards. Albanese’s report also notes this type of abuse for both male and female prisoners. There are even instances of Palestinian women being arrested for the sole reason of obtaining information or intimidating their husbands, according to her report.

Even Israeli news outlets like Haeretz have reported on the mistreatment and abuse of Palestinians, stripping them down, handcuffing and photographing them, and putting cigarettes out on them. 

Collective punishment 

The list of injustices and abuses above are not recent phenomena of the current right-wing Netanyahu administration. This is not a nation in the midst of an overreaction to a terrorist attack like the US did after 9/11 (which has also garnered a large amount of criticism for indiscriminately killing and abusing Arabs worldwide). Plain and simple, this did not start on October 7th

Over half of the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners currently in Israel’s custody were arrested before October 7. Over 100 Palestinians arrested during the brief ceasefire were from the West Bank, an area where Hamas has no administrative or military foothold.

The nearly 16,000 Palestinians killed and 1.9 million displaced over the last 2 months are a drop in the bucket compared to the numbers dating all the way back to 1947, when the UN called for the establishment of Israel in Palestine, a decision that Palestinians had no say in whatsoever since the creation of Israel and the subsequent Nakba of 1948 (the Arabic word for ‘catastrophe’ describing the first wave of Palestinian expulsion from the region), millions of Palestinians have either been displaced or killed.

The UN estimates that there are nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees worldwide today, meaning that nearly 1 in every 2 Palestinian persons is a refugee. Numbers of Palestinian deaths since 1948 vary depending on sources.

A pro-Israeli group named the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) sponsors a website that places the total number of Arab/Palestinian deaths around 90,000, and that is not including the last two months, bringing the total number over 100,000.

Israel’s weaponized mass incarceration is a purposeful, systemic practice used to maintain a settler colonial apartheid state—and it is only a single facet of that system.

This is to say nothing of the separate roads Palestinians are forced to use, the endless barrage of checkpoints, no freedom of movement, deprivation of the right to vote, essentials like food, water, electricity, and medical supplies being controlled by Israel, Gaza being declared the world’s largest open-air prison by numerous human rights organizations, and other past world leaders like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela also condemning Israel an apartheid state.

What the world is witnessing right now is the collective punishment of the Palestinian people, not war.

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I am a 26 year old grad student interested in politics, basketball, literature, and cooking.

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