by Rose-Marie Barbeau

Megiddo (Israel) -- Four thousand Palestinians remain in Israeli jails, hostage to the peace process -- and for none is the future more uncertain than 300 administrative detainees, jailed for the threat they posed that process. The terms of Oslo II, signed in September 1995, include the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, but no timeframe was specified. One and a half years later, the January 17, 1997 Hebron protocol included an agreement to begin immediate talks on the release of the 4,000 prisoners currently being held in Israel. But three months later, the peace process is stalled and their fate hangs in the balance. Among those 4,000 are some 300 administrative detainees, some of whom can now measure their detention in years; none have been charged with any crime or tried in a court where they could be legally represented and could hear any evidence against them.

Many of these administrative detainees were arrested prior to the Israeli redeployment from West Bank cities, in what some observers believe to have been a dovetailing of interests between the Israeli and Palestinian security services: the locking-up of critics of the Oslo process. For this reason, it appears, the Palestinian Authority has not pressed Israel particularly hard for their release, despite the fact that some of the detainees are from Area A (under PA control) and that new detentions continue of Area A residents. In the past week, a Gaza resident, Issam Nibal, joined those under administrative detention. The practice of administrative detention (that is, without charges or trial) of political activists was common during the apartheid era in South Africa, and was condemned internationally by legal and human rights organizations. Now, the Israeli publication News from Within calls the Israeli military authorities in the West Bank "the prime instigator of administrative detention worldwide." Israel uses as legal rationale for administrative detention the British Emergency Regulations of 1945, overlaid by its own military order no. 1229 of 1988. In fact, the legal process involved in administrative detention is straightforward: it begins and ends with the simple labeling of a Palestinian political activist as a threat to the sacrosanct Israeli "security."

Of the 300 administrative detainees being held in Megiddo (284) and Asqalan (16) prisons, 19 are Palestinians taken illegally from Lebanon by Israel. All 19 have completed their sentences and were subsequently held under administrative detention. Both their original prison terms (for actions carried out in Lebanon -- belonging to political parties not outlawed there) and their administrative detention in Israel are flagrant violations of international law. Of the 300 Palestinian administrative detainees, 10 have been imprisoned for more than three years; 20 have been detained for between two and three years; and 20 for one and a half years, all without being charged. At least 100 were rounded up in the months following last year's suicide bombings in Israel, and so are nearing one year and more under administrative detention. One of these is Imad Saba', the executive director of the Bisan Centre, a Palestinian NGO based in Ramallah in the West Bank. Saba' had encouraged people to boycott the January 1996 Legislative Council elections as a legitimate and non-violent means of showing their opposition to the Oslo process. He was arrested by Israeli troops just three days before the Palestinian Authority was to take over in Ramallah in December 1995, in a clean-up operation aimed at Palestinian opposition figures.

Saba's detention was just recently extended for yet another six months. He is accompanied by others who publicly expressed opposition to the Oslo agreements, such as Riyad Zaki, of the Hebron office of Defense for Children International, and Ibrahim Ghraghit, who heads the YMCA's rehabilitation centre in Beit Sahour. One of the most recent detainees, Kamal Samara, is an Israeli citizen from Lod. The detainees have become more and more frustrated with their unfair and illegal imprisonment, as their requests to be either charged or released are simply ignored and their terms of detention lengthen. As Allegra Pacheco, an attorney with the Palestinian human rights organization LAW, explains, the situation is worse for administrative detainees than for other prisoners because "they have no release date.

A week before their current detention order expires, the Shabak [the Israeli security service] comes and announced that it has been extended." Pacheco and other human rights activists are pushing for the release of these political prisoners as a confidence-building measure. They point out that political prisoners should be the easiest to release. "Until these men have been tried in a fair court, they have no blood on their hands," she says, adding that movement restrictions could be imposed if necessary, as opposed to the inhumane and undemocratic policy of administrative detention. The administrative detainees launched a six-month campaign of non-violent protests, including hunger strikes, petitions, and other public appeals to pressure the Israeli authorities to come up with charges and evidence to back them, or to set them free. However, after the weekly announcements of the extension of detention orders has continued as a routine procedure, the prisoners' frustrations have risen almost to the breaking point.

Pacheco says of Megiddo that, "the place is on fire." Non-violent protests ended on March 22 in over-crowded Megiddo Prison, where Palestinian prisoners have spent a long, cold winter in tents outside the hilltop prison with heaters denied them because of what the Israelis termed the "security risk." Tensions boiled over when the announcement of further extensions was made. Protests and fights with guards broke out; Palestinian prisoners joined the detainees and the fights continued for most of the day. Some of the tents caught fire as the fighting caused a short in the electricity and part of the prison was burned. Dozens of protesters were overcome by tear gas; many were then beaten as they were being taken to the prison clinic for treatment. The Israeli authorities immediately banned access to Palestinian detainees and prisoners by attorneys or Red Cross representatives for the next three days.

Protests broke out again with the next announcement two weeks later, and Pacheco predicts that riots will erupt again this week. She reported that in the previous riots, following the Shabak announcement, chaos erupted. The detainees set fire to beds and anything else they could get their hands on. The prison authorities, in recognition of the explosive nature of the situation, sent five unarmed Israeli soldiers into the detention tents to put out the fire and withdraw immediately. No attempts were made to forcibly quell the unrest, as on the previous occasion. The administrative detainees, not convicted of any violent crime, yet are kept in isolation, denied letters or telephone contact with the outside world, with family visits allowed once every two weeks and conducted from behind plastic windows. They are not allowed to carry on with their professions while inside. A civil engineer who wanted to work was prohibited from doing so, for example, yet Yigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, is allowed a computer in his cell. Pressure by human rights organizations to end administrative detention has been futile; even appeals for a change in the practice of back-to-back renewals of detention orders have been ignored.

The joint Israeli-Palestinian committee on prisoner release was supposed to meet in March, but has not done so. The very presence of Palestinian detainees and prisoners inside Israel violates Article 116 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, by which "every internee shall be allowed to receive visitors, especially near relatives, at regular intervals and as frequently as possible." Under the now six-year-old closure system, by which any Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza must obtain a permit from the Israeli authorities prior to entering Jerusalem or Israel, it remains extremely difficult and often impossible for family members to visit detained relatives. If they are lucky enough to obtain a permit, it can take an entire day just for a 30-minute visit to distant Megiddo. Furthermore, lawyers from the Palestinian areas have been unable to make prison visits for the past two years, and have to rely on colleagues who hold either Jerusalem ID cards or Israeli passports.