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Israel holding over 1,000 Palestinian detainees without charge, most since 2003

Israel says it uses so-called administrative detention to thwart attacks and to hold dangerous militants without divulging incriminating material for security reasons

Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian man during a protest to mark the 'Land Day' in Huwara village, near the West Bank city of Nablus, on March 31, 2023.
Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian man during a protest to mark the 'Land Day' in Huwara village, near the West Bank city of Nablus, on March 31, 2023.ALAA BADARNEH (EFE)

Israel is holding over 1,000 Palestinian detainees without charge or trial, the highest number since 2003, an Israeli human rights group said Tuesday.

Israel says the controversial tactic, known as administrative detention, helps authorities thwart attacks and hold dangerous militants without divulging incriminating material for security reasons. Palestinians and rights groups say the system is widely abused and denies due process, with the secret nature of the evidence making it impossible for administrative detainees or their lawyers to mount a defense.

HaMoked, an Israeli rights group that regularly gathers figures from prison authorities, said that as of April, there were 1,016 detainees held in administrative detention. Nearly all of them are Palestinians detained under military law, as administrative detention is very rarely used against Jews. Four Israeli Jews are currently being held without charge.

“There is no sense of when the nightmare will end,” said 48-year-old Manal Abu Bakr in Dheisheh, a refugee camp near the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Her 28-year-old son Mohammed lost his four college years to administrative detention. Her husband, Nidal, a journalist and radio presenter, remains in custody. He has spent 17 years behind bars in the past three decades, more than half of it without charge, according to a prisoner’s rights group, the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club.

The hearing on the renewal of his detention is set for September. “I’m exhausted,” Manal said. “It’s hard even to hope.”

HaMoked says 2,416 Palestinians are serving sentences after being convicted in Israeli military courts. An additional 1,409 detainees are being held for questioning, have been charged and are awaiting trial, or are currently being tried.

Among the 76 Palestinians incarcerated in the last month, 49 are administrative detainees. Administrative detention orders can be issued for a maximum of six months, but can be renewed indefinitely.

“The numbers are shocking,” said Jessica Montell, the director of HaMoked. “There are no restraints on the use of what should be a rare exception. It’s just getting easier and easier for them to hold people with no charge or trial.”

A widespread military crackdown on Palestinian militants in the occupied West Bank has helped fuel the sharp rise in administrative detentions.

Israel’s campaign of raids into Palestinian cities and towns following a string of deadly Palestinian attacks last year led to the arrest of over 2,400 Palestinians since March 2022, according to the Israeli military. Israel’s Shin Bet security service did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the latest administrative detention figures.

Israel describes the ramped-up raids as a counterterrorism effort to prevent further attacks. Palestinian residents and critics say the operation only further stokes the cycle of bloodshed, as the incursions ignite violent protests and firefights with Palestinian militants.

Nearly 90 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed by Israeli fire this year, according to an Associated Press tally. Palestinian attacks against Israelis have killed 15 people in the same period. Israel says most of the Palestinians killed were militants, but the dead have included stone-throwing youths and bystanders who were not involved in violence.

The last time Israel held this many administrative detainees was in May 2003, HaMoked said, in the throes of a violent Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada.

“The numbers always increase when there are heightened tensions on the ground,” said Sahar Francis, a director of Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners’ rights group. Administrative detention “is an efficient tool for the arrest of hundreds of people in a short time.”

The West Bank has been under Israeli military rule since Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want it to form the main part of their future state.

The territory’s nearly three million Palestinian residents are subject to Israel’s military justice system, while the nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers living alongside them have Israeli citizenship and are subject to civilian courts.

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