Calls and visits are denied to many of Israel’s Palestinian prisoners, leaving their fate in the pandemic unknown.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Translater 1: Several days ago, we issued a warrant that said that any bank which transfers money to terrorists, or to their families, will be marked as such and invite sanctions. This is something I have been promoting for several months already. I am happy it has come to fruition and I stand behind it. Why should we permit such actions by banks? We should chase with every means, every shekel, and every dollar that goes to the families of murderers.
Speaker 2: [foreign language 00:00:30]
Translator 2: We refuse the occupation’s decision that prevents the Palestinian banks from opening accounts for the Palestinian prisoners. We say that this is a criminalization for the legitimate Palestinian national struggle as long as there is occupation. This occupational step is considered a violation against the authority and sovereignty of the Palestinian authority, the ruling authority on this land and over the Palestinian people.
Marc Steiner: Welcome to Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us today. Now what you just saw was the Israeli minister of defense Naftali Bennett, and a Palestinian protester, Hisham Al-Sharabi. The coronavirus has brought the hard condition of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails into a harsh light, and to a boiling point in Palestine. According to the Oslo agreements, Israel has the authority to collect taxes on behalf of the Palestinian authority, and is obliged to transfer that money to the Palestinian authority. But in February, 2019, the Israeli Knesset, their parliament, decided to confiscate the money from the Palestinian authorities taxes because some of it was earmarked to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, as well as money for their families when they were imprisoned. The response, the Palestinian government said they will refuse to take any of the tax money until it receives all the money. And this has plunged that organization of Palestine into a financial crisis.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Palestinians need money more than ever. It helps slow the infection rate. The Palestinian authority has, once again, asked Israel to release their money. The money that’s rightfully theirs. Instead, Israel decided to impose sanctions against any banks that would transfer money to the accounts of Palestinian prisoners or their families. When some of the banks announced that they would acquiesce and freeze those accounts, protests erupted throughout the occupied West bank. The why is all of them important? We must bear in mind that Palestinian prisoners do not receive adequate supplies during their prison stay, regardless of whether they’re in the midst of a pandemic or not. Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails use their accounts to buy food, clothes, hygienic products from prison canteens to supplement the most basic meager needs.
So now we’re joined once again by Sahar Francis, the general director of the Ramallah-based Daydreamer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association started in 2006. And the organization is a Palestinian NGO providing legal and advocacy of support for Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli and Palestinian prisons. Shara Francis has been an attorney in human rights for over 20 years, as well as being on the Board of Defense for Children International, and sits on the the Board of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and joins us once again here on the Real News. And welcome back to the Real News Shara, good to have you with us.
Sahar Francis: Good evening.
Marc Steiner: So, let me begin here. The coronavirus crisis started and all of the businesses of prisoners were suspended. In our previous conversations together, you told us that even phone calls were not allowed. So last week, prisoners were finally allowed to make one short phone call. So, can you tell us a bit about the situation now, what’s going on inside the prisons? What has happened since COVID, and kind of lay it out for our viewers?
Sahar Francis: So basically, since the start of all the circumstances of the Corona, COVID-19 virus situation, the prisoners, and it’s around 4,700 more of less, they are totally disconnected from the outside world because there were not granted even this phone call yet to contact their families, and to tell them how they feel, and to get the news from their families. They canceled, actually, all the lawyers visits as well to the prisons. And as you said, the conditions inside the Israeli prisons before the COVID situation were harsh and difficult, especially on the health level. The lack of health treatment is very a known policy, and it’s something that the prisoners suffer for long, long years. In 2019, actually, three detainees died out of health neglect in the Israeli prison system.
So the situation of the COVID is really very worrying, taking in consideration that we know that the prisoners didn’t get any hygiene stuff or any facilities that can protect their safety. And the only thing they get is a chloride in order to clean their rooms. And they were given lately, in the last two weeks as well, cloth masks and gloves. That’s all. And still the prison guards are entering their rooms to count them three times a day. And they canceled all the treatment outside the prison, so sick people or old people that they were in need of healthcare outside of the prison for the last two months, they were not able to go out to get the healthcare they need. There’s the children, around 140 or 180 actually, children that they are also under the threat of imagine that a child would be isolated for 14 days because of the corona, COVID situation.
Marc Steiner: So, when you… I’m curious. So, when you were talking about children, we’re talking about people who are under the age of 18?
Sahar Francis: Yes.
Marc Steiner: Who are in prison.
Sahar Francis: It could be between 12 and 18, actually. Most of them, they would be between 14 and 18. And these children, some of them, they are sentenced for more than one year.
Marc Steiner: So, and I’ve interviewed a few of those people, but I’m curious, what do we know about the COVID pandemic inside the Israeli prisons? Do we know how many prisoners have died or gotten sick or infected? Do we know anything?
Sahar Francis: We don’t know much information about whether people were infected or not. The prison service didn’t inform or disclose such information about whether some of the detainees were infected or not, but some of the detainees who were arrested lately and they were released after one month or one month and the half of interrogation, at least one of them he was found positive after he was released. He was getting the checks by the Palestinian hospital in Ramallah city.
And after that, for at least two days, the prison authority of [inaudible 00:07:27] prison refused to do tests for the other detainees who were with him in the same room and in the same section. Just after the threat of the prisoners to enter into a hunger strike, actually, the prison authority decided to do the checks for some of the detainees, and they isolated the rest to where direct contact with this detainee. Some of the detainees under interrogation were also sent for quarantine for 14 days, and the first check was positive. The second and the third negative, but they were kept in difficult conditions in quarantine, totally isolated without any human conditions inside the cells where they were kept.
Marc Steiner: So now, when we watched this video earlier on, we heard the protestor getting really angry, not just at Israel occupation, but also at the Palestinian government. So, the question is why is the Palestinian government insist on this kind of strange convoluted system of support for Palestinian prisoners, instead of kind of really pushing the issue around the treatment of Israeli… Of prisoners in every prisons, as human beings providing them with enough food and clothing with Israeli money. I mean, the whole idea of confiscating money, not letting it go to the prisoners, and then putting them in prison and not taking care of the prisoners inside, I’m just curious why the Palestinian authority hasn’t pushed a bit harder on this? It seems like the people are just left floundering to rot in these prisons.
Sahar Francis: I think it’s now clear for the Palestinian authority after all these years, that they did a mistake, actually, back in 1994 or a bit after when they started paying the prisoners this monthly canteen in order to purchase their needs inside the prison, and actually replacing the responsibility of the Israeli prison system in feeding and taking… Supporting the prisoners with all their needs inside the prison that the prison… The Palestinian authority actually ended up in paying huge amount of money every month for the prison, the Israeli prison system, in order to maintain the wellbeing of the Palestinian prisoners inside the Israeli prisons.
This is supposed to be the responsibility of the state of Israel, not just for the prisoners themselves inside the prison. The main problem I think is with the families that they are kept alone in the occupied territories, especially when the father or the husband is arrested for such a long period, 20 years, or life-sentenced, or 25 years, and they are left without anyone that can feed them. So this is why the, actually, the Palestinian authorities started paying the salaries for the families. And this is again, according to the international law, supposed to be the responsibility of the occupiers, and Israel never-
Marc Steiner: So, it begs a lot of questions here. You said something earlier, I’m just curious about how many children have been released and why are they not being released?
Sahar Francis: You mean children that they were released now in this period?
Marc Steiner: Yes.
Sahar Francis: Not for the COVID circumstances, actually, Israel refused to release not just the children, any of the Palestinian prisoners because of the circumstances, the opposite. They keep arresting on a daily basis. Just in April, they arrested more than 100 detainees. Every day they raid the Palestinian villages and the Palestinian cities, and they arrest more and more people. So instead of respecting what the international community, or let’s say specifically the High Commissioner for Human Rights in her message requesting states to release prisoners in order to ease the situation and the crowdedness inside the prisons, the Israeli authority acted in a different way. Like, actually, they increased their arrests.
Marc Steiner: So I mean… So “A”, we don’t know, as we said a moment ago… We don’t know how many of the Palestinian prisoners are infected with COVID. We don’t know if, or if any, have died because of the COVID. We don’t know the conditions of the children. And on top of that, there’s a larger question here. When we talked in the beginning about the Israeli government seizing funds, not allowing those funds to go into the Palestinian authority to take care of prisoners and their families, the whole question of the paternalistic policy of controlling Palestinian money. You know, this is what the British did to both Jewish and Palestinians before 1948. This is what they did in Kenya and India as colonists. I mean, to even have a conversation and not say, “How could this go on,” is, to me, madness.
Sahar Francis: I think it’s even beyond controlling the financial resources of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian authority. It’s actually maintaining the control over all the aspects of our life. Because when you think about the 5,000 Palestinian prisoners, not all of these people were involved in really serious activities. Most of these detainees are arrested because of their political affiliation, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, because of their opinions, students, administrative detainees.
Even throwing stones would be considered a terror act, that according to the new amendment to the Military Order, actually, the Israeli authority can confiscate this money that the Palestinian authority are paying for children that they are convicted with throwing stones. So actually, I think it goes to criminalize and make our struggle against occupation as a terrorist act, actually. To undermine our struggle for self-determination as a people.
Marc Steiner: So, just to close, I’m curious… I mean, you’ve been doing this work for a long time now, and I know the struggle and the fight has not gotten easier, it’s gotten harder. So talk a bit about where you are now, and what your next steps are, and what the people of the world who are watching this should know?
Sahar Francis: I think, as you said, it’s even getting more difficult because as a human rights organization, we are also under attack by the Israeli authorities, blamed to be associated with terrorism as well because we try to seek accountability at the end of the day in the legal work and the advocacy on the international level that we do. So I think, taking in consideration all the political circumstances, especially in the United States foreign policy positions, and the rest of the world. And with a plan for the annexation very soon by the Israeli government, I think it’s becoming very urgent that third-party states, that they have responsibilities according to the international law to stop this occupation, and to help the Palestinians, and support the Palestinians to guarantee their self-determination, they should act. It’s not enough with condemnation and state and political statements. It’s real time for actions in order to stop the Israelis from implementing their annexation plan and really granting the Palestinians their self… Like their own state, full independent state with full self-determination.
Marc Steiner: Well, Sahar Francis, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you, you, and we all appreciate your perseverance and strength in what you try to do in fighting for the human rights of people both in Israeli and Palestinian prisons. And we wish you luck and look forward to talking to you soon. And we want to stay on top of this and what happens, especially what happens to the Palestinian prisoners and the children who are inside of Israeli prisons. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Sahar Francis: Thank you.
Marc Steiner: And I’m Marc Steiner here for the Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Please let us know what you think. I want to hear from you. And stay safe, stay home, take care.
Marc Steiner, interim co-Editor at TRNN, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for Civil Rights protests, in the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught Theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993 through 1997 his signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR – which Marc co-founded – and Morgan State University’s WEAA.