Palestine, Prisons, and Settler-Colonial Incarceration

Israel’s mass incarceration of Palestinian prisoners is notorious for its many human-rights violations, including the regular imprisonment of children and systemic torture. But framing these practices only in terms of legality misses the point. Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinian detainees is not just a failure of justice, but an integral part of a genocidal settler-colonial project.

by | Dec 22, 2023

A political prisoner is typically defined as someone imprisoned for their political activity, or who is imprisoned on an official charge that is sometimes unrelated to their actual activity.

While the exact meanings of the term are contested, conventionally it refers to individuals regarded by the reigning political regime as resisting that regime in some way. A related term is prisoner of conscience, popularized by groups such as Amnesty International. This describes someone prosecuted by the state because of their personal beliefs.

While it would be correct to refer to many Palestinians imprisoned by Israel as political prisoners, it is important to emphasize that what Israel does goes beyond this practice and is even worse. This is seen in the cases of imprisonment and torture of children, in images of hundreds of Palestinians captured and stripped naked, and of mass graves — all reminiscent of the Nazi Holocaust. 

Understood through a colonial framework, such practices shed light on the logic behind the Israeli bombardment of schools, hospitals, and refugee camps; along with IOF soldiers’ abandonment of premature babies in incubators to die by exposure. Israeli incarceration of Palestinians must, in other words, be seen through the framework of settler colonialism and connected to the larger context of colonial expropriation. Israeli imprisonment is not just punitive or politically disciplinary, it is genocidal. Understanding this, we can also understand why attempts to frame Israeli imprisonment through the lens of justice fail to address the root cause of Palestinian incarceration. 

Israel’s imprisonment practices are, in short, part of the genealogy of settler colonialism. They closely parallel and indeed draw upon the experience of the settler-colonial projects of the United States, Canada, and other European settler states. A settler-colonial perspective highlights that the Israeli state, far from being a legitimate project of self-determination, is a white supremacist colonial power, and Zionism is a white supremacist ideology.

From this perspective we see that imprisonment is meant to destroy the lives and culture of the colonized and is therefore an aspect of a genocidal project. In this essay I will critique not only Zionism, but also the discourse of liberals and even some on the left who inadvertently reinforce the Zionist project through superficial analyses of Israeli incarceration which erase the settler-colonial context.

Incarceration of Palestinians: A brief overview

According to the Israeli human-rights NGO B’Tselem, by September 2023 the Israeli state held 4,764 Palestinians. The number had jumped to over 10,000 by late October, in the third week of the IOF bombardment of Gaza. The older figure, based on a 2021 study by the Palestinian human rights organization Addameer, included about 200 children, 40 women, and 520 individuals held without charge or trial — what the Israelis call “administrative detention.”

The number of Palestinians imprisoned since the beginning of the one-week truce and prisoner exchange of November 24 has now exceeded the number Israel released during that truce week. Eighty percent of the more than 3000 Palestinians taken prisoner since October 7 are held in “administrative detention,” without charge or trial. As Tala Nasir of Addameer put it in a recent interview, Israel’s “mass arrest campaigns are still taking place in all the cities, villages, refugee camps in the Palestinian territories. And most [detainees] are being held under administrative detention.” 

Since 1967, Israel has imprisoned more than 700,000 Palestinians from the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, a practice illegal under international law. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are subject to military law, in contrast to settlers, who are subject to civil law. Human-rights groups emphasize that any numbers are only estimates because it is difficult to keep track of the massive expansion of imprisonment since October 7. Under the military system by which Israel imprisons Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, any soldier or cop can carry out an arrest, without warrant, on the flimsiest of pretexts. 

In September 2021, the non-profit Institute for Middle East Understanding, which compiles data for journalists and researchers, provided a helpful overview of Israeli imprisonment of Palestinians. I cite only a few telling examples. Their analysis discusses, for example, how almost all cases of Palestinians brought before Israeli military courts end in convictions and that most convictions are the result of plea bargains. This is because Palestinian defendants correctly see the system as so unfair that if they go on trial, they will be convicted and given longer sentences.

Israeli imprisonment is not just punitive or politically disciplinary, it is genocidal. Understanding this, we can also understand why attempts to frame Israeli imprisonment through the lens of justice fail to address the root cause of Palestinian incarceration.

This system is not only rife with double standards, it deploys torture as a routine mechanism: physical violence, prolonged shackling, stress positions, sleep deprivation, isolation or solitary confinement, denial of family visits, deliberate medical neglect of imprisoned persons with serious health problems causing “many premature deaths” are all common. The official torturers are incentivized by the whole system: between 2001 and 2020, approximately 1,300 complaints of torture against Israeli authorities were filed with Israel’s Justice Ministry. These have resulted in one criminal investigation and no prosecutions. Individual and mass hunger strikes are the only recourse for imprisoned Palestinians and are commonplace. 

During the prisoner exchange in late November, the world witnessed a stark contrast between released Israelis, who reported being treated humanely by Palestinian resistance captors, and the treatment of released Palestinians by Israeli forces. The latter, among other things, assaulted released prisoners and their families during the release process; delayed the release of prisoners until late at night; and forced child prisoners to wear clothes that were too big for them or too light for the cold weather and to go barefoot. In front of Ofer Prison in the West Bank, where families gathered to meet their children and loved ones, IOF forces shot gas bombs and both rubber bullets and live ammunition. In Jerusalem, Israeli forces raided prisoners’ homes before their release and assaulted journalists, preventing them from covering reunions of prisoners with loved ones. Further, as Addameer’s Tala Nasir reports, IOF forces criminalized “any signs of celebration.” 

The families of the released prisoners were summoned to Al-Moscobiyeh center, where they were subjected to harsh and arbitrary conditions that prohibited them from gatherings, banned them from marches and fireworks, prevented them from chanting slogans, in addition to confiscating the sweets that were inside the houses.

Imprisonment and torture of children 

Of the 300 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel on November 24, most were teenage boys. Many of them turned 18 in Israeli prisons. Israel prosecutes between 500 and 700 Palestinian children in military courts each year (2021 figures). Since 2000, the IOF has detained over 10,000 Palestinian children in its military detention system, making it the only country in the world that systematically tries and imprisons children using military courts. Soldiers frequently arrest Palestinian children in the middle of the night. Before interrogations, children are blindfolded and deprived of sleep. There is no right to legal counsel during interrogation under Israeli law and military courts accept confessions obtained after torture of children. 

Children are charged as adults and receive lengthy sentences, up to 15 years. They are subjected to harsh interrogations. Most are stripped of their clothes and interrogated for days on end. Physical and psychological torture to force confessions are common. About 25 percent of children are subjected to stress positions and the same number are forced into solitary confinement. IOF interrogators make them sign documents in Hebrew, which they cannot read. Many experience psychological trauma. The IOF practices a deliberate policy of starvation in their prisons, from which children are not spared. They have also been documented to kidnap children to pressure their parents to surrender to the IOF. Prisoners, including children, are subjected to sexual assault. Many go in able-bodied and become disabled because of the physical abuse. 

Palestinian children released during the prisoner exchange have reported IOF captors beating them, breaking their limbs, subjecting them to humiliation, and depriving them of food and water.

“Bad” Palestinians versus “good” Palestinians

Since October 7, liberals and even some on the left have made a moral equivalence between armed actions by Palestinian resistance groups and Israel’s slaughter of over 20,000 Palestinians (and more than 8,000 children as of this writing) in Gaza. This equivalence bleeds into left and progressive discussions of Israeli incarceration practices. For example, according to Orly Noy of B’Tselem, “it is almost ironic that while Israel is incarcerating Palestinian children for throwing stones, at the same time, the only lesson that it teaches the Palestinians is that the only way to actually release Palestinian prisoners is through such heinous crimes, such as the one that Hamas carried out on October 7th.” In The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill writes

If, as Israel alleges, [the Palestinians they imprison] have committed violent crimes, particularly against civilians, then Israel should give them full rights to due process, to see the alleged evidence against them, and they should be tried in civilian courts with the same rights afforded Israeli defendants… Palestinians taken by Israel, including some on the list of prisoners proposed for release, have certainly committed violent acts. But to pretend that the context of this violence is irrelevant is as absurd as it is unjust, given the appalling conditions Palestinians have lived under for decades.

Since 2000, the IOF has detained over 10,000 Palestinian children in its military detention system, making it the only country in the world that systematically tries and imprisons children using military courts. Soldiers frequently arrest Palestinian children in the middle of the night. Before interrogations, children are blindfolded and deprived of sleep. There is no right to legal counsel during interrogation under Israeli law, and military courts accept confessions obtained after torture of children.

Self-described socialists such as Dan LaBotz, Stephen Shalom, Meagan Day, the signatories of the so-called Left Renewal statement have gone even further in their denunciations of Palestinian armed resistance and “violence” in recent interventions

While well-meaning, these analysts misunderstand the colonial nature of Israel and therefore the role of incarceration within this project. Scahill’s comment, in particular, suggests that he sees the role of Israeli imprisonment as criminal punishment (some “have certainly committed violent acts”). The logic here is one that divides Palestinians into a binary of “bad” ones (usually, Hamas) on one side against “good” ones (non-Hamas) on the other. This is not only superficial, mistaking effects for causes, but also misguided. It does not clearly perceive the colonial nature of Israel and of its incarceration regime. Worse, the very logic which positions one category of Palesetinians as “criminal” and another as “innocent,” “good” versus “bad”, is inherently a logic of liberal Western imperialism which erases the material and political conditions of Palestinian oppression and legitimizes Israeli colonialism. This binary makes invisible a fundamental fact about Zionist colonialism throughout its history: that, from the perspective of Zionists, the mere act of existing as Palestinian is in itself the criminal act. 

Colonial incarceration and genocide 

The invocation of liberal and legal frameworks — human rights, justice, and so on — is seductive. After all, since 1948, Zionists and the Israeli state have committed countless human-rights violations. However, to end Israel’s crimes, we need to go to the root of the problem. This means seeing the Zionist incarceration and concentration-camp system as systemic, as a tool for Israeli genocide of Palestinians. 

These thoughts are inspired by the work of Black and Indigenous abolitionists in Turtle Island. Though the United States is no longer an active settler colony like Israel, the legacy of settler colonialism still greatly impacts Native people today. For example, as Nick Estes has argued, we should really refer to the Indian reservations in both the United States and Canada as concentration camps. He also shows how these evolved into the South African bantustans. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has discussed how incarceration of Native Americans on reservations, in boarding schools, and in prisons proper, along with armed aggression by settler states, have been different aspects of the same project, a history of “constantly trying to think of ways to make Native peoples disappear.” 

The 1978 US Supreme Court decision, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, eliminated Native sovereignty over crimes committed by non-Natives on Native American land. White people have taken this as license to commit crimes with impunity on those lands. Gender studies professor Luana Ross (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes) reminds us that “Indian reservations are the only places in the United States where the criminality of an act relies exclusively on the race of the offender and victim.”

Moreover, the US state has historically criminalized not only “violent acts” by Natives, it has criminalized all aspects of Native life from traditional dancing and drumming to speaking Native languages to wearing long hair. It might be obvious to mention here that rates of incarceration of Natives in the United States far exceed those of whites, and are comparable to the rates for Black people. Merely to exist as Native (or Black) has often been a criminal act throughout US history.

Like incarceration of Natives in Turtle Island, the imprisonment system of Palestinians is the outcome of a genocidal European colonization project. In the case of Palestinians, this is at least three-quarters of a century old. This colonization is ferociously supported by US and European imperialism, which sees Israel as indispensable to the interests of the capitalist class, as well as to the project of smashing progressive, working class and anti-imperialist liberation movements in the Middle East and North Africa. Ideologically, US imperialism and its European clients also deeply identify with Israel’s racist colonization project, seeing it, in Max Ajl’s incisive words, as “the purest expression of Western power, combining militarism, imperialism, settler colonialism, counterinsurgency, occupation, racism, instilling ideological defeat, huge profitable war-making and hi-tech development into a manticore of destruction, death, and mayhem.” 

To put an end to Israel’s crimes, we need to go to the root of the problem, which is not quantitative. The problem with Zionism is not that its acts of violence and injustice exceed supposedly universal norms of human rights. The problem is qualitative. It is the entire system of colonialism and the larger system of US-led imperialism of which it is a creature. The solution is not reforming the Zionist state or its incarceration system. It is dismantling it and replacing it with a secular, democratic, socialist state with equal rights and dignity for all the people between the river and the sea. 

Ahmed Kanna
(he/him) is an anthropologist, educator, and revolutionary socialist living in Oakland. When not doing Marxism (and sometimes also when doing it), he plays guitar for the queer feminist band DCE.
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