On 17 April 2020, Palestinian Prisoners Day, EuroPal Forum hosted a webinar via the ZOOM communications platform titled ‘5000 Prisoners: Israeli Racism and Medical Negligence Amidst the COVID-19 Outbreak’.
The webinar, which heard from Motasem Dalloul, Akram Satari, and Charlotte Kates, sought to bridge the lack of coverage on the issue of Palestinian prisoners through facilitating a forum to better understand the current status quo for Palestinians in Israeli jails amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.
In this light, the webinar was opened by EuroPal Forum’s Public Relations Officer, Robert Andrews, who noted that the webinar consists of just one action in EuroPal Forum’s broad campaign to highlight the dynamics of the prisoners’ issue. Andrews noted that EuroPal Forum have pursued a number of initiatives to this end, including a letter campaign that has seen the NGO write to a number of public officials, foreign ministers, and parliamentarians with the expressed aim of raising awareness about the plight of Palestinian prisoners.
The first speaker of the webinar was Gazan-based journalist and political commentator Motasem Dalloul, who concentrated his segment on looking at both the history of the denial of health care to Palestinian prisoners and the gravity of the threat to Palestinian prisoners in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Dalloul started his segment by noting that the abuse of Palestinian prisoners is not a novel phenomenon and is not limited to factors of a specific nature. Rather, he noted that Palestinian prisoners have been subjected to continuous widespread and systematic abuse that can be traced to the start of Israel’s illegal occupation beginning in 1967. This abuse can be clearly seen, according to Motasem, through both the means and methods through which Palestinians are arrested and taken into Israeli custody, as well as the complete denial of health care once within the prison system.
Since the start of March, according to Motasem, Israel’s systematic arrest campaign has seen the detention of 357 Palestinians (including 48 children and 4 women), while since the start of 2020 Israel has arrested close to 1,300 Palestinians (including 210 children and 31 women). Among those arrested were individuals who were participating in initiatives – such as delivering food parcels, sterilisation and deep-cleaning – designed to stem the spread of coronavirus within their communities.
Following Dalloul’s presentation, another Gazan-based journalist and former child prisoner, Akram Satari, presented a first-hand account of the system inside Israeli jails, including why it is imperative that the international community acts now to safeguard Palestinian prisoners amidst the growing threat of COVID-19.
Satari started his presentation by recounting his own personal experience as a 16-year old subjected to chronic abuse and medical negligence at the behest of Israel. After suffering a stroke and paralysis while detained as a child prisoner within the Israeli prison system, Satari recounted the subhuman treatment he was subject to within the prison system. Here, he narrated his experience living in makeshift tents and camps surrounded by barbed wire with a complete lack of medical assistance given to those suffering with chronic illnesses or conditions. He notes that, in his case, he did not see a doctor for 2 months and was refused medical treatment and physical therapy and was merely told that ‘drinking water’ would remedy his condition.
Before the end of his segment, Satari alluded to an important point of contention: the prospect for a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel. Under this umbrella, Satari noted that after the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict (Operation Protective Edge) there have been calls for Israel to release 54 prisoners who were re-arrested after being released in the Shalit deal in 2011.
Amidst COVID-19, this demand for the release of 54 prisoners has been reduced by the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar. In this light, Satari said that Hamas have signalled their intention to release information about the Israeli soldiers held captive and to initiate a humanitarian swap-deal designed at securing the release of a number of elderly and young Palestinian prisoners.
The final speaker of the webinar, Charlotte Kates, the international coordinator of Palestinian prisoner rights group Samidoun. Kates’ presentation focused on the different initiatives available to raise awareness about the situation facing Palestinian prisoners.
She began her segment by noting that with the global pandemic of COVID-19 the prisoner issue has become more critical on a health level than ever before despite being critical on a political, social, and human level prior to the outbreak. In this context, it is important, as Charlotte notes, for international activists to focus on the case of Palestinian prisoners because the ‘potentially devastating impact of the spread of this virus among the prisoners is really quite clear’. These prisoners, 5000 in number, are ‘mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, teachers, students, community organisers, women’s leaders, workers’ union leaders, freedom fighters, people who are engaged in all aspects of struggle and all aspects of society locked away in Israeli jails and threatened with death by the spread of COVID-19’.
In commenting on the steps that can be taken across Europe and the wider international community, Kates stressed that the issue of Palestinian prisoners must be increasingly integrated into the wider BDS movement and struggle; in essence, campaigning must adapt so as to take issue with, for example, European Union funding of Israeli research and development projects and with the European-Israel Association Agreement. These campaigns are vital, according to Kates in ‘fighting back against the interconnectedness of the European Union, the United States, and Israel’. She concluded by calling for greater organised efforts and contact with elected representatives while simultaneously disrupting the existing connectedness between Israel and European states.