The illegal policies of the Israeli prisons have long been overlooked by the international community. The prison system is, in many ways, a microcosm of the belligerent occupation.
A hunger striker nears death, yet Israel is unmoved
After 77 days on hunger strike, Thaer Halahleh is losing his hearing and he is vomiting blood. He now weighs less than 55 kilograms and the prison doctors have told him to expect death at any moment.
Bilal Diab, who began his hunger strike on the same day, is suffering from hypothermia and has lost sensation in his feet. He too is at imminent risk of death.
When Mr Halahleh was arrested in June 2010 he was not charged with a crime. Instead, he was placed in a prison cell without trial. The 33-year-old father of one has spent six and a half of the past 12 years jailed in this way. At no time was he presented with any evidence to justify his imprisonment. Mr Diab, too, is incarcerated without charge, trial or access to the material upon which his detention is based.
These men are part of a group of more than 2,500 Palestinian prisoners who are engaging in a mass open-ended hunger strike in protest against the inhumane and illegal treatment meted out by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS). Six others have been on hunger strike for between 52 and 70 days. All are in critical condition. They are responding to prolonged isolation, physical abuse, the denial of family and lawyer visits and the denial of education materials in the most non-violent and dignified way imaginable, and more prisoners are joining every week.
In response, the IPS is fining prisoners up to $130 (Dh477) per day as a punitive measure. Many have been placed in solitary confinement. More have had their water and electricity supply cut off. Almost all are being denied access to their lawyers and families.
The illegal policies of the IPS have long been overlooked by the international community. It is, in many ways, a microcosm of the belligerent occupation; Israel escapes meaningful condemnation despite violations of international law, resulting in impunity and a free rein to add to those breaches.
These abuses are imprinted on the faces of many. Mahmoud Issa has already spent 10 years in isolation. Imagine the psychological effects of such cruel and inhumane treatment. Imagine the loneliness of 10 years without family visits, without contact with humanity. Na'el Al-Barghouti, who spent 10 consecutive months in isolation, has spoken of his interactions with prison cats, how he used to record their meowing on a smuggled voice recorder and listen to the sound later, when he was alone.
When the Palestinian struggle for independence was driven by violence, the world's media gorged itself on stories of Dalal Mughrabi and Laila Khaled, of hijackings and night raids and attacks in Tel Aviv. Today, the conflict has been reshaped by the non-violent demonstrations in Nabi Saleh and Bil'in. Violence has largely been cast aside, and the resistance is being played out on the floor of the United Nations and in stop-start negotiations that ignore the ever-expanding settlements and Israel's systematic policies of discrimination.
Regrettably, peaceful resistance does not hold the same attraction for the world. It is only in recent days that the world community has begun to sit up and take notice of what is taking place in Israeli jails.
Today, more than 300 Palestinians are detained without charge or trial by Israel. Elected officials, human rights defenders and political scientists are among those who are held captive on the basis of "secret material" that is revealed neither to the detainees nor their lawyers.
While administrative detention is allowed under international humanitarian law, Israel's practice goes far beyond what is permitted by the Fourth Geneva Convention. More than 60 years since the drafting of this Convention, and at a time when more and more attention is given to the realisation of human rights worldwide, Israel continues to ignore its provisions.
According to the Israeli authorities, the "test of a democracy is how you treat people incarcerated". With this in mind it is worth recalling the case of Hana Shalabi. Following her arrest in January she was blindfolded, forcibly strip searched and assaulted. She was given a six-month administrative detention order and spent the first three days of her internment in solitary confinement. Ms Shalabi, like Khader Adnan, was shackled to her hospital bed despite being close to death. On her 33rd day of hunger strike she was violently dragged across the floor. There is nothing exceptional about her story. Similar experiences can be recounted by thousands more Palestinian families.
In March of this year, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called for Israel to end its policy of administrative detention, declaring it to be discriminatory and in violation of international law. The European Parliament resolution of September 4, 2008 made the same demand and urged Israel to ensure that the minimum standards of detention be respected. Both the UN Human Rights Committee and the Committee Against Torture have declared that prolonged administrative detention constitutes ill-treatment that exposes the detainee to torture and other violations of human rights.
Yet rather than address the problem and the legitimate demands of the prisoners, Israel has responded with the suppression of dissent and more degrading treatment.
Let us praise the pride and the humanity of these prisoners. Their strength is to be marvelled at. We must support Mr Halahleh and those with him in peaceful protest with all our might. However, only the international community has the power to save the lives of the hunger strikers now. To do so, they must intervene strongly before it is too late for the lives of those striking and for the improvement of the conditions of the Palestinian people as a whole.
Shawan Jabarin is General Director of Al-Haq, an independent non-governmental Palestinian human rights organisation based in Ramallah.