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Israeli doctors condone solitary confinement for Palestinian prisoners

April 29, 2016 7:38 P.M. (Updated: June 8, 2016 7:04 P.M.)
An Israeli soldier leads a handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian after he was arrested in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Sept .12 2012. (AFP/Abbas Momani, File)
By: Lily Leach

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- During his harrowing 65-day placement in solitary confinement in Israeli custody, Muhammad Hammad suffered from injuries in three places that had been inflicted by Israeli forces during his 2002 arrest.

Despite his desperate need for surgery, the only medical treatment he received consisted of a couple tablets of Advil.

Hammad told Ma’an he wasn’t seen by a doctor until he was transferred from Jerusalem's notorious al-Maskoubia interrogation center -- also known as the Russian Compound -- to prison more than two months later, where he would serve a three-year sentence without ever receiving treatment.

“Whatever you say to the doctor, he doesn’t care. It’s just routine. The only thing that matters is that the doctor sees you. The result is irrelevant,” Hammad said.

As a result of Hammad’s mistreatment by Israeli Prison Services (IPS) medics in solitary confinement, the ex-prisoner has suffered from lifelong medical complications.

A report by Physicians for Human Rights - Israel (PHRI) released last month revealed that Hammad’s experiences were commonplace.

The group reported that Israeli doctors condone the mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners -- particularly those in solitary confinement -- as a matter of routine, in violation of medical ethics and international law that in some cases equates solitary confinement to torture.

The report was released as Israel’s medical community was already under scrutiny, after repeated witness reports since an increase in violence in October of the Israeli military preventing Palestinian ambulances from reaching injured or dying Palestinians while Israeli paramedics failed to treat them.

Detention and violence carried out by Israeli forces against Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory are frequently documented, but torture of prisoners and wide-scale medical negligence by IPS doctors goes largely unwitnessed, leaving little room to hold Israel accountable for grave violations against detainees.

“You saw the video of (Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif) being killed in Hebron,” said Hammad. “The ambulance and the medics were filmed around him -- they didn’t care about him. What about people inside the prison, where there are no cameras, nothing to show the treatment when we are being tortured? They don’t care about us.”

‘Not a medical issue’

Author of PHRI’s report Ola Shtiwi told Ma’an that IPS doctors are involved in a prisoner's health from the moment they arrive to a detention center and throughout their custody in solitary confinement.

IPS doctors wear prison guard uniforms, and are addressed by military-style ranks like sergeant and corporal.

“When they detain you and someone comes to ask you about your medical condition, you have no idea who they are. They could be a doctor, a soldier, or a garbage collector,” Hammad, now 42, told Ma’an.

“In prisons, doctors are no different than other IPS employees. They are trained and required to fulfill the purpose of the institution, which is to have as much control and oppress the prisoners as much as it can under the pretext of security,” Shtiwi argued.

Although IPS doctors are under the purview of the Israeli Ministry of Health, they are not regulated by the Israel Medical Association (IMA), and as a result are not bound to the IMA’s code of medical ethics, according to PHRI.

PHRI’s report argues that the Ministry of Health and IMA should intervene to stop the practice of solitary confinement -- or at very least remove doctors’ involvement in it.

The IMA in response to PHRI’s demands refused to take a categorical position against solitary confinement based on the rationalization that, while prolonged separation “might cause mental harm,” they also recognize “the needs of the state to protect its security and that of prisoners.”

“There is no doubt,” the IMA said, “that solitary confinement is decided by the IPS and that physicians must not give it their blessing or participate in it.”

Both Hammad and PHRI denied the IMA’s claim that physicians refrain from endorsing solitary confinement.

Hammad told Ma’an that in his experience, doctors worked not to give treatment to prisoners, but rather in line with the aims of interrogators, insisting that IPS interrogators routinely use prisoners’ illnesses and injuries against them during their torture.

Shtiwi echoed Hammad’s experiences, saying: “The loyalty of doctors working in prisons is with the security institution. They don’t see any problem with the fact they give information to interrogators.

“Doctors are most responsible for prisoners receiving ill treatment because they have access to the most private information about the prisoners, which they have the power to share, ignore, or abuse.”

‘Devastating psychological impacts’

Highlighting the grave breach of medical ethics prison doctors face when condoning solitary confinement, PHRI said the practice is chosen precisely for its “devastating psychological impacts,” noting that it leads to forced, sometimes false confessions.

While the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement during interrogation is unknown, up to 90 percent of the 11,790 Palestinians who were interrogated by Israel’s General Security Service between 2000 and 2007 were held incommunicado, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel estimates.

The conditions of Hammad’s solitary confinement were characteristic of other prisoners’ experiences, which PHRI said are “not adequate for human life.”

His damp, windowless cell had dim, changing colored lights installed to disorient him. His toilet was a hole outside, which he needed permission to use under prison guard escort.

While the effects of solitary confinement compared to other forms of physical torture often go unnoticed, Shtiwi told Ma’an that its impact on “the physical and mental health of the prisoners are severe.”

Hammad for his part said he still suffers from hemorrhoids and a slipped disk that resulted from his 65-day stint in the cramped, filthy cell.

Ammar, a Palestinian resident of Ramallah, told Ma’an he also experienced solitary confinement during a brutal interrogation process.

First, interrogation officers hung him from a heavy door, slamming him against the wall multiple times a day, eventually breaking his nose.

After 22 days hanging from the door, Ammar was transferred to solitary confinement for 21 days in one-meter by one-meter cell.

“It was worse than the door,” he told Ma’an without hesitation.

‘Two sets of rules’

Israel’s use of solitary confinement has been repeatedly condemned by the international community, and slammed as a component in Israel’s systematic efforts to target Palestinians living under occupation.

“There are two sets of rules in Israeli prisons,” Hammad said. “First there are the rules for Israelis. Then there are the rules for Palestinians, who get nothing.”

While the IPS uses solitary confinement for both Jewish Israeli prisoners and Palestinian prisoners under the so-called “separation ordinance” -- a practice that doubled between 2012 and 2014 according to PHRI’s report, incommunicado isolation during interrogation is largely used for Palestinian detainees.

Furthermore, PHRI said Israel’s implementation of solitary confinement stands in "stark contradiction” to the UN’s stance on torture. The international rights body in 2011 defined solitary confinement in excess of 15 days as torture, saying it should be used only as a last resort.

Israel responded to UN criticism by saying that solitary confinement against Palestinian prisoners was only used for “short periods of time, mostly two to three days.”

PHRI asserted that “It can be established with certitude [...] that (Israel’s) answer does not at all reflect a reality where Palestinian prisoners are held in solitary confinement for interrogation for as long as 35 days,” as well as periods lasting years to indefinitely under the separation ordinance.

“The imprisonment and ill treatment of Palestinian prisoners is the continuation of the occupation and repression of Palestinian people -- not only by doctors in IPS but also in the treatment of Palestinians in Israeli public hospitals,” Shtiwi said.

When faced with institutionalized discrimination in the public sector and mass incarceration -- some 40 percent of the male Palestinian population has spent time in Israeli prisons -- it's no wonder some Palestinian prisoners feel left with no choice but to resist.

Palestinian prisoners staged protests at the end of March in a number of Israeli prisons to demand an end to solitary confinement.

Inadequate medical care has also been a focus of previous prison uprisings. During Hammad’s second prison sentence in Israel’s Ktziot prison in 2007, the sick prisoners staged a protest demanding their release to obtain hospital treatment.

According to Hammad, the protest lead to the violent 2007 raid by the IPS’s special unit the Massada, who fired tear gas on the prisoners and beat them with batons. One detainee was shot and killed and 250 others were injured.

“We decided to fight so Palestinians can live with dignity. And because of the conditions of the occupation, it isn’t safe to resist -- (Israeli forces) can arrest or kill you at any time,” said Hammad.

“But because of the racist way Israelis treat us, they push us to become so frustrated that some of us believe it’s better to die than stay alive.”

Some names have been changed following security concerns of those interviewed.

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