Israel’s top court has rejected a petition by the Adalah Legal Centre for Minority Rights. The petition called on Israel to implement COVID-19 protection guidelines for inmates at Gilboa prison, a facility in northern Israel housing around 450 Palestinians classified by Israel as ‘security prisoners’.
A group of UN human rights experts called on Israel in April ‘not to discriminate against’ the thousands of Palestinian prisoners who face a high risk of exposure to the coronavirus. The group called on the country to release the most vulnerable of the prisoners. The experts added that there are more than 4,250 Palestinian prisoners, including 183 children and 43 women. The experts added that 700 of the detainees inside Israeli dungeons have pre-existing medical conditions.
Israeli state authorities argued that Palestinians held in prison were no different than family members or flatmates living in the same home. The Supreme Court accepted this argument and ruled against social distancing in the prison. Myssana Morany, an attorney for Adalah, released a statement after the ruling in which she condemned the court for accepting “the fiction pitched to it by Israeli authorities that Covid-19 social distancing policies – essential for everyone else – are not relevant to the Palestinian ‘security prisoners’ it holds behind bars.”
“Israeli authorities claimed today in court that social distancing policies essential for protecting prisoners serving time for criminal charges are somehow not relevant for ‘security prisoners’. The Israel Prison Service should have stood together with us today and demanded that it be granted the means to protect the people for whose health and safety it holds direct responsibility.”
“We were, instead, subject to absurd arguments equating prisons with family living rooms, while prisoners continue to be forced to come into daily contact with guards potentially exposed to Covid-19 outside the prison walls.”
Morany went further on to say that the ruling “flies in the face of health and human rights professionals around the world who have called for social distancing within prisons,” and that it “leaves Palestinians held by Israel exposed to the virus with no option to protect themselves.”
Adalah has flagged that the ‘precedent-setting ruling’ endangers the lives and health of Palestinians held by Israel, which poses a threat to society as a whole.
The UN said in a statement that Israel has released hundreds of Israeli prisoners due to the pandemic, but have rejected the release of any of its Palestinian inmates. “This indicates discriminatory treatment towards Palestinian prisoners – which would be a violation of international law,” the UN experts said.
Although Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Israeli prison facilities must guarantee a minimum living space of 4.5 square metres per prisoner, the prison services in Israel have not abided by the ruling, according to Adalah.
At Gilboa prison, at least 30 prison guards and seven inmates have contracted COVID-19. In addition, 489 guards and 58 prisoners are said to be currently in quarantine, according to information given to the court by Israeli state representatives. At least one of the patients with COVID-19 is also battling cancer.
The conditions in Gilboa prison currently make it impossible for inmates to practice social distancing, with six prisoners housed in each 22 square metre cell. Thus includes three bunk beds, a shared toilet, and bathroom. Adalah pointed out that “under these conditions, prisoners are unable to adhere to Israeli Health Ministry’s social distancing guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19, thus endangering their safety and lives.”
Early in July, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry launched an international campaign demanding Israel to release a 46-year-old Palestinian cancer sufferer who had contracted COVID-19. Kamal Abu Waer’s health had deteriorated in recent months following his diagnosis of throat cancer. He is still being held at Gilboa prison on multiple life sentences for his alleged role in attacks on Israelis during the second Intifada.
The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has called on all responsible authorities to wage an ‘international campaign’ to place pressure on Israel, in order to provide Abu Waer with proper treatment and urge for his immediate release. The case of Abu Waer has been raised with the UN Secretary-General, the UN’s Human Rights Council and the World Health Organisation.
According to experts it is illegal under international humanitarian law, for Israel to hold Palestinians in prisons within Israel from the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, or Gaza. However, all but one of Israel’s prisons that contain Palestinians are located inside Israel.