By Mandy Turner

Abstract: Western media and politicians ignore the main reason why Hamas undertook its 7 October 2023 attack on Israel – to capture Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Hostage-taking in the region has a history stretching back to 1968 and has been used by many political factions, not just Hamas. Israel’s mass incarceration of Palestinians – one million since 1967 – is one of the reasons why Palestinian prisoners play such a central role in the Palestinian collective psyche and in the national movement, across all political factions. The huge increase in arrests and detentions since 7 October, which has nearly doubled the Palestinian prisoner population in Israeli jails, has further exposed Israel’s repressive carceral practices. Portraying Hamas as a “spoiler of peace” might suit certain narratives, but it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Palestinian political dynamics and motivations.

Citation: Turner, Mandy, 2024. “Locked-in conflict: Israel’s repressive carceral system and the criminalisation of Palestinians was one of the catalysts for October 7,” Security in Context Policy Paper 24-05. March 2024, Security in Context.

Countless thousands of words have been written analysing the reasons why Hamas undertook its 7 October 2023 attack on Israel, and yet Western media outlets and think-tanks continue to ignore the main reason − the one provided by Hamas itself. In public statements and in its document “Our Narrative: Operation Al-Aqsa Flood,” published on 21 January 2024, Hamas has repeatedly declared its primary motivation was to take Israeli soldiers hostage to use as bargaining chips for the release of thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. 

Prisoner swaps in the Israel-Palestine context have a long history, stretching back to 1968. Since then, over 8,000 Palestinian prisoners have been released in swaps with Israeli captives − hence why Palestinian groups put a premium on capturing Israelis. In the past few decades, this practice has been largely confined to capturing Israeli soldiers. But on 7 October, the 253 people captured and taken back to Gaza by Hamas and other Palestinian groups included not just Israeli soldiers but also Israeli civilians and foreigners.

Given the level of Israel’s destruction of Gaza, with nearly 32,000 Palestinian casualties, over 74,000 reported injuries, 75 percent of Gaza displaced, and over 60 percent of housing units damaged, Hamas’s priorities have understandably shifted. As well as a prisoner swap, Hamas’ March 2024 negotiation proposals prioritised securing a permanent ceasefire, a total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the return of Palestinians to their homes, the siege on Gaza being lifted, and a viable plan for reconstruction. Israel rejected all these and has stated its aims are the release of all hostages and the destruction of Hamas

Taking hostages is a war crime; civilians should never be treated as leverage or as “human shields” by a state or non-state group. Yet it is important to understand the logic and politics behind the strategy of hostage-taking in the context of Israel and Palestine. 

Since 1967, Israel has detained approximately one million Palestinians, including tens of thousands of children. As a percentage of population, this is enormous. At least four out of every 10 Palestinian men will spend time in Israeli jails; 70 percent of Palestinian families have at least one relative detained. Palestinian identity and politics have been shaped by decades of Israeli confinement and imprisonment. This is one of the reasons why Palestinian prisoners play such a central role in the Palestinian collective psyche and in the national movement, across all political factions. 

Understanding these historical factors counters and undermines claims made by Washington-based think-tanks, as well as US president Joe Biden, that Hamas undertook the 7 October attacks to undermine the Abraham Accords − signed between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain − and stop the agreement from expanding to include Saudi Arabia. Portraying Hamas as a “spoiler of peace” might suit certain narratives, but it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Palestinian political dynamics and motivations. It also ignores the fact that Israel has made mass incarceration one of its central counterinsurgency strategies in its efforts to destroy Palestinian resistance to dispossession and oppression. 

During the November 2023 ceasefire, Hamas released 110 Israeli and foreign nationals held captive in Gaza. This was in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, of which 107 were children and three-quarters had not been convicted of a crime. These facts brought the issue of Israeli incarceration policies and the experience of Palestinian prisoners to international attention. Yet, apart from Palestinians, few people outside of human rights circles know about Israel’s repressive carceral system and how it has been used as a tool to criminalise Palestinian existence.

Arrests and detentions since 7 October 2023

Israel frames its war in Gaza as one against Hamas. Despite the mounting evidence that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza, Israel’s framing is further diminished by its actions in the West Bank.

Since 7 October, over 400 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers, and the number of Palestinians arrested by Israel has risen sharply. Arbitrary arrest operations have increased, particularly late-night raids characterised by the excessive use of force. Between 7 October 2023 and 16 March 2024, Israel arrested 7,605 Palestinians in the West Bank. Many of these arrests have led to detention; the number of Palestinian prisoners has nearly doubled from 5,200 to 9,100, including 51 women and 200 children. 

There is no accurate information on Palestinians arrested in the Gaza Strip, because Israel has refused the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and lawyers access. But media sources have reported hundreds being detained in military camps inside Israel in harsh conditions. By refusing to provide information, Israel has conducted what amounts to “forced disappearances” which are considered a crime against humanity. 

Palestinians in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, are subject to Israeli military rule and the Israeli military court system. Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians with East Jerusalem identity cards are subject to Israel’s civic penal code system. Even so, they experience repressive policing practices facilitated by extremely elastic interpretations of what constitutes a “threat to Israeli security.” 

Israel has been in a constant state of emergency since its establishment in 1948. However, since 7 October, Israel has issued a series of emergency orders that have expanded the powers of arrest, prolonged the duration of interrogations, restricted access to lawyers, and imposed harsher penalties.

Criminalising Palestinian existence and resistance

Most Palestinian prisoners have been arrested under “administrative detention” measures − detention without charge or trial. Such measures are usually used by repressive regimes to detain political dissidents and have been used extensively by Israel against Palestinians since 1967. 

Under this system, Palestinians are initially jailed for six months, but their detention can be repeatedly extended for an indefinite period. Approximately 500 Palestinians have been detained “administratively” by Israel every year since 1989. Before 7 October, the number of Palestinian administrative detainees held in Israeli prisons was around 1,320; it is now over 3,500.  

Since 2005, Israel has detained Palestinians from the Gaza Strip under its 2002 Unlawful Combatant Law. This is similar to administrative detention, as it allows arrests without clear charges, with an indefinite duration. This law was originally intended to permit the use of Lebanese citizens to be held in Israel as “bargaining chips” to secure the return of Israeli prisoners and bodies in Lebanon.  

Israel particularly uses administrative detention to remove journalists, activists, parliamentarians, and potential leaders from civil society, which is why the numbers of students (especially leaders in student unions) detained “administratively” are high. In 1985, for instance, half the Palestinians who received administrative detention orders were students. Over 100 students from Birzeit University are currently in Israeli prisons. 

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel reports that “most of those incarcerated did not commit criminal offenses and are imprisoned for actions carried out as part of their struggle for Palestinian liberation.” 

Israel argues that these arrests and detentions are for “security purposes” and to “counteract terrorism.” But Israel defines these widely to include expressions of Palestinian cultural and political identity, as well as membership of, or support for, political organisations it has proscribed as “terrorist.” Israel has outlawed nearly all Palestinian political groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and some factions of Fatah. 

In October 2021, Israel also outlawed six Palestinian civil society organisations: Addameer, the prisoner support organisation; Al-Haq, the human rights organisation; the Bisan Center for Research and Development, which campaigns for the socio-economic rights of the poor and marginalised; the children’s rights organisation, Defense for Children International-Palestine; the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, which represents Palestinian farmers; and the feminist organisation, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees.

Praising, sympathising with, or supporting a proscribed organisation carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years. Anyone caught in possession of materials from a proscribed organisation can be arrested. Israel’s extremely loose interpretation of what constitutes “terrorist material” includes Palestinian literature and the Palestinian flag

In its April 2023 report to the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Law for Palestine calls these practices “a tool for eroding Palestinian national identity and consolidating Israeli colonialism.”

Israel’s military rule and the military court system

Palestinians who live in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, are ruled by Israeli military law through more than 1,800 military orders. Through these, Israel denies Palestinians the right to freedom of expression, assembly, or political affiliation. This is in sharp contrast to Israeli citizens living illegally in the West Bank, who are governed under Israeli civil and criminal law and tried in Israeli civil courts. This separate and unequal legal system is a central pillar of why it is now generally accepted that Israel has imposed an apartheid system over Palestinians. 

Military orders designate five categories of offences, which include: “hostile terrorist activity,” “disturbance of public order,” “classic” criminal offenses, illegal presence in Israel, and traffic offences committed in the occupied territory. In most cases, Palestinians stand trial in Israeli military courts. These trials take minutes to process, are conducted in Hebrew, and have a conviction rate of over 99 percent. So, if you are arrested, it means a guaranteed jail sentence, with all the resulting negative impacts on lives and families that come with it. It often also comes with a financial penalty: Palestinians are paying around USD $6 million a year in fines imposed by Israeli military courts. 

There are two Israeli military courts, both of which are located inside military bases – at Ofer (near Ramallah) and at Salem (near Jenin). There are juvenile military courts there too, which prosecute Palestinians as young as 12 years old. Both the judges and the prosecution are serving Israeli military personnel and they all wear military uniform. The system has been compared to the US military trials at Guantanamo Bay

In March 2017, I visited the military court in Ofer Prison. It is built on expropriated land from the Palestinian village of Beitunia. Housed in seven mobile trailers at the back of the prison, you enter the small compound through a series of iron gates, corridors, and security checks. I witnessed a trial where one of the accused was clearly very ill – his skin was yellow, his hair had fallen out, and his eyes were bloodshot. My lawyer friend leaned over and whispered that the young man had cancer. Moving from cabin to cabin, watching the legal procedures, I saw the same scenes repeatedly: young men brought into the courts in manacles, bewildered while proceedings took place in a language they did not understand (Hebrew), and facing decisions that would affect their lives forever.  

Under military rule, everyone is deemed guilty because the rationale underpinning it is to frighten the population into submission. This is the direct opposite of the principle underpinning all modern legal systems  – i.e., that people are innocent until proven guilty. In June 2023, Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur for Palestinian Human Rights, criticised Israel’s “unlawful carceral practices”, and highlighted the abusive and inhumane conditions Palestinians face inside Israel’s prisons.

Inside Israel’s prisons

Conditions inside Israel’s prisons are harsh. Palestinian prisoners experience torture during interrogation, as well as humiliating and cruel practices during incarceration. Israel has developed certain techniques to inflict pain and harm without leaving any marks. Stress positions are a favourite, such as being made to squat for long periods of time or being seated on a backless stool with arms and feet cuffed while forced to bend backwards down to the floor. These are painful postures that result in long-term damage and chronic conditions. Since 1967, at least 72 Palestinian prisoners have died due to torture at the hands of Israeli interrogators. 

Most Palestinian prisoners are classified by Israel as “security prisoners” as opposed to criminal prisoners. Security prisoners are deprived of many rights granted to other prisoners, including visits, phone calls to family, the early release system, and access to certain books. Israel refuses to define Palestinian detainees as either “prisoners of war” or “political prisoners” because to do so would imply certain rights under the Geneva Conventions. 

Many Palestinian detainees, particularly human rights defenders and political activists, suffer multiple arrests over decades. For instance, Khalida Jarrar, an elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (the Palestinian parliament), a human rights activist, and a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, has been arrested 14 times since 1989, spending more than 11 years under administrative detention in Israeli prisons. She is often rearrested just days after release. During detention in July 2021, Jarrar’s daughter Suha died suddenly of a heart attack. Israel would not release Jarrar temporarily on humanitarian grounds to attend the funeral. Israel’s punishments follow Palestinians to, and beyond, the grave. Israel is currently holding the bodies of at least 15 Palestinians who died in prison. Jarrar was arrested again in December 2023 and was sentenced to administrative detention in January 2024.

And yet Israel’s repressive practices have failed to erode collective solidarity, the creative spirit, and resistance amongst Palestinian prisoners. The Abu Jihad Museum for the Prisoners’ Movement Affairs is housed at the campus of Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, a suburb of East Jerusalem. Built in 1997, it was named after Khalil al-Wazir, known as Abu Jihad, a Fatah leader who was assassinated by Israeli commandos in Tunisia in 1988. The three-storey building is an incredible archive of information about Palestinian prisoners, their artwork, letters, books, and notes. When I visit, I am always drawn to the hand-written bulletins of the political factions, particularly the political cartoons, and think how these must have helped to keep collective spirits high. Palestinian prisoners being held in administrative detention have often gone on hunger strikes as protest against the repressive conditions under which they are held. One high profile case was that of Khader Adnan, who died in May 2023 in Israeli custody after 87 days on hunger strike.   

Since 7 October, conditions in Israeli jails have become even harsher. Palestinian prisoners are experiencing reduced exercise time, forced isolation, reduction in food and access to water, an increase in physical and mental abuse (including torture), deliberate medical neglect, and more deaths in custody. Al-Haq reports that seven Palestinian prisoners have died in Israeli prisons since 7 October. Child detainees have had phone privileges removed, ending a crucial lifeline for them with family. Personal possessions have been confiscated. Female detainees have reported experiencing sexual harassment, including the threat of rape and forced strip searching. Electricity and water supplies to security wings have been disconnected – in some for a few hours, in others for most of the day. Cataloguing these conditions, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel concludes that Israeli jails “have become an apparatus of retribution and revenge.” 

Child detainees and the “politics of unchilding”

According to data from the Israel Prison Service, between January 2016 and September 2020, Israel detained an average of 263 Palestinian children aged 12-17 years old at any one time, including an average of 51 Palestinians aged 12-15 years old. When arrested and detained, Palestinian children in the West Bank are denied the legal protections granted to Israeli children. They are often arrested in the middle of the night, handcuffed and blindfolded, and taken to temporary holding facilities and interrogation centres inside Israeli settlements in the West Bank before being transferred elsewhere in the morning.

Defence of the Child International-Palestine collected sworn affidavits from 766 children between 1 January 2016 and 31 December 2022, which describe horrific arrest, interrogation and detention experiences. These included being subjected to physical violence (75 percent), being strip searched (80 percent) and being interrogated without a family member present (97 percent).  

The most common charge brought by Israel against Palestinian children is stone throwing, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. Most arrests of Palestinian children take place within a few kilometres of an Israeli settlement or a settlement road. This shows just how much of a provocation and flashpoint settlements are: inserted between Palestinian villages and towns, built on expropriated land, and protected by the Israeli army. 

Every year, between 500 to 700 Palestinian children are arrested by Israeli forces and prosecuted in a military court. Palestinian children are the only children in the world systematically prosecuted in military courts. Time in prison at such a young age scars people for life. The Palestinian scholar and activist Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian has referred to Israel’s repressive actions against Palestinian children as “unchilding” whereby Israel refuses to see Palestinian children as children, instead treating them as “nobodies unworthy of rights,” and “dangerous and killable bodies” to be caged and removed.

Prisoners and national liberation movements

Since the 1960s, the PLO and then the Palestinian Authority has administered the “Martyr’s Fund,” which provides payments to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and to the families of prisoners and those killed by Israel. Support for these payments are high, with 91 percent of Palestinians regarding them as essential in the context of Israel’s military rule and mass incarceration system. The United States and Israel have been trying to force the PA to end these payments, which they have pejoratively named “pay for slay.” This is because they claim such payments reward violence; both countries passed legislation towards this aim in 2018. But these attempts to destroy the close bond between Palestinian prisoners and the Palestinian public will not work. 

Prisoners have always played a critical role in liberation movements. The most iconic was Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years by apartheid South Africa, until he was freed in 1990. Robben Island, where Mandela was held for 18 years, is now a museum that pays tribute to the centrality of the prisoners in the struggle for liberation. In March 2013, the Robben Island Declaration, which announced the global campaign to free Marwan Barghouti and all Palestinian prisoners, was launched from Mandela’s former prison cell. The solidarity connections between South Africa and Palestine run deep. The shared history of colonial incarceration, hunger strikes, and prisoners’ movements is also the reason why there is a strong bond between Ireland and Palestine. 

In the latest round of negotiations, Hamas scaled back its demands that Israel release all Palestinian prisoners to around 1,000 in exchange for the remaining hostages held in Gaza. But the release of all Palestinian prisoners remains a central priority. This is no different to the objectives of some operations undertaken by Fatah and the PFLP in the 1970s and 1980s.

Palestinian prisoners will continue to play a central role in Palestinian politics because liberation has so far been denied. Collective responses and statements made by Palestinian prisoners enjoy support across all political factions and the Palestinian public. Palestinian Prisoners Day, 17 April, is a national holiday in the occupied territory – the date marks the release of prisoner Mahmoud Bakr Hijazi in the first prisoner exchange between Fatah and Israel in 1971. The Palestinian Youth Movement calls Palestinian prisoners “the compass of our struggle.”  It is impossible to overestimate the esteem in which Palestinian prisoners are held in the Palestinian collective psyche. 

Ignoring these basic facts shows a lack of understanding of Palestinian society, and indeed all societies still struggling for liberation. By filling its jails with even more Palestinians arrested since 7 October, Israel is ensuring that hostage-taking for prisoner swaps will remain a Palestinian resistance strategy for many years to come.

Article or Event LinkLocked-in conflict: Israel’s repressive carceral system and the criminalisation of Palestinians was one of the catalysts for October 7 PDF
Mar 26, 2024



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