On April 17, on the anniversary of Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, over 1,500 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons launched a mass hunger strike. A month later, 834 of the prisoners remain on empty stomachs — with several dozens now placed on “close medical watch” by Israeli authorities. The strike has drawn a wave of solidarity among Palestinians and has been met with severe repression by Israeli authorities.
Weeks before the strike erupted, we visited the military courts in the West Bank as a part of a delegation from Stanford Law’s International Human Rights Clinic. Observing the court proceedings drove home how the prison system serves as a core pillar of the occupation — and why the prison strike has attracted so much support among Palestinians.
The prisoners are demanding better conditions: improved access to family visits and phone calls; access to books, newspapers, mail, and educational opportunities; and an end to administrative detention and solitary confinement.
Yet at the heart of their struggle lies a more insidious problem: the sprawling military court system that has stripped them of their dignity and incarcerated over one in three Palestinian men since 1967. Palestinians imprisoned in Israel are sentenced by a court system run by the Israeli military, without any of the safeguards of the Israeli civilian courts. These military courts are predicated on a legal double standard: they only prosecute crimes against Israeli citizens or property; they do not prosecute crimes committed by Israeli settlers living in the Occupied West Bank, or crimes with Palestinian victims.
As strike leader and political prisoner Marwan Barghouti has put it, Israel’s military courts are an “accomplice in the occupation’s crimes.”
Israeli authorities have cracked down swiftly on the hunger strike — not only have they punished those who have protested, but they are also reportedly looking into setting up a separate military hospital to force feed those still on strike. Far-right National Union activists, meanwhile, have organized a barbecue outside the prison, seeking to mock the hungry prisoners with the wafting scents of grilled meat. And Pizza Hut released an advertisement taunting Barghouti to end the strike with a slice of their pizza.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon has said that the Palestinian prisoners are not political prisoners, but “convicted terrorists and murderers” who were “brought to justice.”
Our observations of the military courts — and the statistics — tell a different story. The courts prosecute between five hundred and seven hundred children each year — 79 percent, between 2010 and 2015, for stone throwing, which under the Israeli military’s own classification is only a “public order” offense. This crime generally involves youth throwing stones at military targets so distant that no bodily harm occurs.
Several other offenses that the military courts process are also nonviolent in nature. Incitement — a catch-all crime that could include posting anti-occupation status on Facebook — increasingly appears on the docket. Infiltration — which involves Palestinians illegally entering Israel in order to work, usually as manual laborers — also accounts for a fair share of the men brought before military courts.
There is a good reason that the practice of trying civilians — especially children — in military courts for such a prolonged period of time is unprecedented in an ostensible democracy. International law does allow military courts for civilians in the exceptional case of belligerent occupation. But the international laws governing occupation never contemplated a situation of a fifty-year occupation. And Israel’s military courts prove exactly why.
A staggering 99.74 percent of the cases heard in military court end in conviction: once accused, a Palestinian has little chance of mounting a successful defense. Evidence, especially when it pertains to children, is often the result of coerced confessions — but exclusion motions throwing out such illicitly obtained evidence are rarely successful. The court proceedings are entirely in Hebrew — a language almost all defendants, and most of their lawyers, don’t speak. Translations are often inadequate, or sloppy: we witnessed a translator walk out of the court midway through a proceeding. Most cases are resolved through guilty pleas — because, according to the attorneys we interviewed, defendants and defense lawyers alike are often punished for attempting to take cases to trial.
Palestinian prisoners, in short, are not just faced with harsh prison conditions, in prisons that their families have limited or no access to. They arrive in these facilities after facing a dehumanizing trial in a language that they do not speak, where the presumption of innocence does not apply, and where they face little chance of defending themselves successfully. When they put their bodies on the line with a hunger strike, they are doing so because the system offers them no other option.
That system must fall.
Mass incarceration is a central pillar of Israeli control over the West Bank. Improving prison conditions or adding procedural protections will not solve the problem. Only ending military control over the civilian population will deliver justice to the striking prisoners, as well as the millions suffering daily indignities on the outside.