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21 JUL 2024

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  • Ariana Sonsino

Why Does Israel Have So Many Palestinian Prisoners?

Examining the judicial system and treatment of Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli military courts

Israel Jail Depiction

  • Israel, like most democratic countries, applies administrative detention, which at times allows indefinite detention without charge or trial.

  • While Israel is often criticized for detaining minors, the United States and other democratic countries also practice similar detention policies.


  • Israel is recognized for providing Palestinian prisoners with considerably better conditions than those experienced by Israeli captives held by Palestinians. 


Does the Israeli Justice System Discriminate Against Palestinian Offenders?

According to Human Rights Watch, a disparity exists within Israel’s criminal justice system, largely stemming from the dual legal systems that Israel employs, specifically in Judea and Samaria. Palestinians in Judea and Samaria are subject to military law and tried in military courts, in contrast to the area’s approximately half a million Israelis, who are governed by civil law and tried in civil courts. An IDF International Law Department legal advisor notes that this bifurcation exists because international law prohibits Israel from imposing its own legal framework on Judea and Samaria. 

Under military law, Palestinians can be detained for up to eight days prior to appearing before a judge, compared to the 24-hour period mandated under Israeli law. Palestinians assert that they are subject to more stringent rules than Israelis, particularly in contexts such as public gatherings and political demonstrations. 

This disparity is also questionable in the treatment of minors. Israeli civil law affords protections to minors, including prohibitions against nighttime arrests and rights during interrogations, which are not always provided to Palestinian minors. Testimonials shared by Palestinian prisoners indicate that a large percentage of minors are held in custody until trial completion - a stark contrast to the treatment of minors in Israel. 

Israel has faced criticism for its use of administrative detention, although several other democracies around the world also use this practice, including the US, Australia, and England

This policy, created by the British during the British Mandate, allows for indefinite detention without charge or trial. Many Palestinian prisoners, especially those convicted of security offenses, opt for plea bargains to avoid uncertain pretrial detention and military trials, which have an almost 100 percent conviction rate. 

Despite criticisms that administrative detention is a violation of international law, Israel asserts that the policy is a necessary measure for preventing terrorism

Israel has also used this practice with Jewish Israeli detainees, although it is less common. “We see administrative detention being used by Americans in Guantanamo, so we know that this measure is internationally recognized and accepted,” said Maurice Hirsch, former director of military prosecutions. “And since this is an internationally accepted measure, why should it be only Israel that is prevented from using it, when we are dealing with probably the highest terror threat that anyone has ever seen?”

Israeli security agencies work hard to gather intelligence on attempted terror attacks in order to thwart the threats by stopping those individuals who are involved. 

As of the end of 2023, reports indicated that Israel was holding over 1,300 Palestinians in administrative detention. Israel, however, has set strict protocols to ensure that the detainment process remains lawful. 

How Many Palestinians Have been Imprisoned And for What Crimes?

Since 1967, Israel has reportedly arrested nearly one million Palestinians. Most have been held in the 32 prisons and correctional facilities in Israel. 

Each year, an estimated 500-700 Palestinian minors are detained, a figure that has accumulated to about 10,000 over the past two decades, according to Time Magazine. Notably, many of them are initially incarcerated as minors but face trials as adults after several years of detention.

 While the detention of minors in Israel receives much criticism, it is not a practice unique to Israel. In 2015, for example, the United Kingdom sentenced a 14-year-old boy to life in prison for organizing a terror attack. Similar instances have occurred in Austria, Australia, and other democracies. In fact, the United States is known for being the world leader in child incarceration

The most common reasons behind the arrests of Palestinians are:

  1. Security-related offenses: A significant number of arrests are linked to security concerns, which usually include involvement in terrorist activities, such as acts of violence against Israeli civilians or soldiers, or membership in terrorist organizations.  

  2. Political activities and protests: Palestinians can be arrested for participating in political activities or protests that disturb public order or are seen as security threats.  

  3. Stone throwing: A common reason for the arrest of Palestinian youth is throwing stones or firebombs, usually at security forces or civilian vehicles, which has led to injury and death on several occasions. This act, seen by Palestinians as a symbol of resistance, is treated as a criminal offense as it can and has resulted in numerous deaths. 

  4. Terror Incitement: Palestinians can also be arrested for incitement, which can include social media posts, speeches, or other forms of expression that incite violence against Israel or support terrorist activities. Such expressions have included publicly praising the October 7 massacre, antisemitic tropes, calls for violence, etc. The Israeli Police shared that while it “firmly upholds the fundamental right to freedom of speech, it is imperative to address those who exploit this right to perilously incite violence.”

  5. Other criminal activities: Like any legal system, Palestinians can also be arrested for typical criminal activities, such as theft, assault, drug offenses, and other common crimes. 

How Many Palestinians Have Been Arrested Since October 7?

By mid-December 2023, the prisoner count reached approximately 8,000 Palestinians, marking the highest figure in 14 years. Of these, over 3,000 are in administrative detention

Since October 7, the number of Palestinians detained and held in Israeli prisons has notably increased. Israeli forces began arresting individuals who were affiliated with the terror group Hamas, involved with the October 7 attacks (whether directly or indirectly), or inciting violence against Israelis. 

Reflecting on the complexities and contradictions of the situation, Ami Ayalon, a former director of the Shin Bet, commented, “The crackdown in a way contradicts our intention not to open another front in the West Bank. On one hand, we understand that the more people killed and arrested, the more hatred rises. But on the other hand, we don’t want to pay the price in terrorist attacks.”

How Long Is The Average Prison Sentence for Palestinians?

The length of sentences for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails varies widely, influenced by factors such as the nature of the offense, the legal framework applied, and the specifics of each case.

For lesser offenses, such as stone-throwing that does not result in death, sentencing can reach up to 20 years in jail. This sentencing, especially in cases involving minors, has been a source of significant controversy within the Palestinian community. The extension of the penalty to 20 years in 2015, described by then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked as a necessary deterrent, has been particularly contentious. 

More serious offenses typically result in much longer sentences, in certain cases extending to life imprisonment. The severity of these sentences reflects the gravity of the charges.


How Does The Israeli Imprisonment Process Work? 

The process of imprisoning Palestinians, especially those residing in Judea and Samaria, operates within a unique framework in Israel characterized by military law. When Palestinians are arrested, typically by the IDF or other security agencies, they are usually taken to detention centers for interrogation. This initial phase can, in certain circumstances, involve prolonged detention periods without formal charges being filed. 

Under the prevailing military law, Palestinians have the right to legal representation, although some Palestinians have shared that access to a lawyer during the early stages of interrogation can be limited. 

The legal proceedings for Palestinians take place in military courts, which are presided over by judges who are usually career military officers with legal training. The judicial standards and protections in these military courts, however, differ significantly from those in Israeli civil courts. For instance, the standards of evidence and the rights afforded to defendants can vary considerably. This has led to situations where detainees and their families report not being fully informed about the specific charges due to the classified nature of the evidence, making it challenging to disprove any potentially false allegations.

In cases of administrative detention, every detainee’s case is reviewed by a judge to determine the legitimacy and length of detention. Detainees may appeal to Israel’s High Court of Justice, which values the appeal process and typically employs a three-justice panel for such reviews. The Court advocates for the cautious and rare use of administrative detentions, emphasizing that they should not serve as punitive measures and only be applied in the absence of less restrictive legal options, specifically, against individuals posing a direct threat to public safety.  

This military court system has come under scrutiny for perceived shortcomings in protecting due process. Human rights organizations have pointed out that these factors contribute to a legal environment where the rights of Palestinian detainees are not as protected as they would be under a civilian legal system. 

How Are Palestinian Prisoners Treated In Israeli Jails?

Over the years, some released Palestinian ex-prisoners have claimed to have experienced harsh treatment during their detainment in Israeli facilities. These accounts often include allegations of torture and abuse, such as beatings, inadequate access to food, water, and medical care, and limited family visits. 

A significant revelation surfaced in 2000 when an Israeli government report revealed that the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, during the first Intifada from 1988 to 1992, a period of intense Palestinian uprising against Israelis engaged in systematic torture against Palestinians. The report disclosed that the Shin Bet’s methods went beyond the government-sanctioned “moderate physical pressure,” resulting in severe abuses, particularly in prisons along the Gaza Strip. It is important to note, that this instance saw the Shin Bet operating outside of its legal guidelines and was sanctioned by the Israeli government's own report and investigation.

Due to the increase in arrests following the October 7 massacre and the subsequent Israel-Hamas war, Israeli prisons have experienced severe overcrowding. “Times of Israel” reported that 84% of security prisoners are now confined to spaces much smaller than the legal limit, with many lacking proper bedding. Ex-prisoners who were released as part of the temporary ceasefire deal in November 2023 described a deterioration of conditions in the prisons post-October 7. They claimed that the prison officials sought “revenge” for Hamas’ actions, alleging instances of abuse and torture. However, it’s important to note that these same individuals have made false accusations of abuse, claims that have often been investigated and debunked

While these allegations are concerning, their validity has yet to be confirmed. Worth noting is the fact that Israel has also faced criticism for their above-par treatment of Palestinian prisoners. “The Palestinian prisoners are held in accordance with the law’s regulations, and their basic rights – such as food, conditions of imprisonment and medical treatment – are upheld,” said Sivan Weizmann, Prison Service spokeswoman. In fact, Israeli doctors saved the life of Yahya Sinwar, the mastermind of the October 7 massacre, by performing brain surgery while he was in prison for kidnapping and murder. 

Samer al-Issawi, a Palestinian who, in 2001, was sentenced to 30 years for shooting Israeli soldiers, described his experience in prison. He revealed that prisoners have the option to choose between ready-made meals or self-cooking, with an account available for their parents to deposit money for the purchase of food and cigarettes. Additionally, inmates have access to doctors and healthcare services. They are also granted time for exercise and prayer. 

The treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails sharply contrasts with the treatment of Israelis held captive by Palestinians. Historically, and continuing into the current war, Israeli hostages are held in underground tunnels or cages, deprived of sunlight, subjected to torture or abuse, provided with minimal food, and utterly denied any medical attention. 

Bottom line: While the Israeli system does have flaws - it does not “live up” to the accusations thrown at it from various organizations. 



Time Magazine, What Palestinian Children Face in Israeli Prisons, December 15, 2023

Ministry of National Security, Prisons and corrections, n.d. 

B’Tselem, Administrative Detention, n.d. 

B’Tselem, The Military Courts, n.d. 

Human Rights Watch, Children Behind Bars, n.d. 


Ariana Sonsino

Ariana Sonsino

Ariana Sonsino, a Texas native, graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. Ariana now applies her diverse skills as the Marketing Manager at Awesome-Deloitte blending her background in both marketing and public relations.


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