RAMALLAH, West Bank — Many Palestinians are living in a state of anxiety, fearing that their relatives detained in Israeli prisons could become infected with the coronavirus in the absence of the necessary health care and preventive measures.
On March 20, the Israel Prison Service (IPS) imposed a precautionary quarantine on a group of prisoners in Megiddo Prison, said Qadri Abu Bakr, head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Prisoners Affairs Commission. He told Al-Monitor the prisoners had been in contact with an investigator who had tested positive.
Palestinian concerns have increased due to conflicting news from prisons. On March 19, the Palestinian Prisoners Club and the Hamas-run Prisoners Information Center announced that four prisoners in Megiddo Prison had been infected with the virus, based on what prisoners had reported. However, the IPS denied such claims, saying the four prisoners had been isolated as a precaution but had not shown any symptoms.
On March 24, prisoners at several Israeli prisons have sent their breakfast back and closed some sections of the prisons in refusal of IPS policies, which they claim take advantage of the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 and rob them of their rights, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club. These policies include removing more than 140 items from the prisons’ canteens, such as cleaning materials and many detergents such as soap and shampoo, which Abu Bakr noted can help prevent the spread of the virus.
The prisoners’ protest steps began on the morning of March 20, when some also sent their breakfasts back to protest the IPS policies.
“The protest steps will continue in the coming days and may reach a hunger strike,” he added, pointing out that the IPS started sterilizing some prison sections after the prisoners sent their breakfasts back.
Although there have been no casualties among the prisoners yet, the possibility of the virus infecting them remains high, since they are exposed to military investigators, doctors and Israeli prisoners who may have been in contact with an infected person in Israel, where more than 1,656 cases had been recorded as of March 24. In addition, the virus could spread quickly given inadequate health care and preventive measures in prisons, as well as direct contact due to overcrowding.
Since the virus surfaced Feb. 20 in Israel, Palestinians have increased their demands for prisoners to be released, especially the sick and elderly. On March 19, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to release the prisoners and said he would hold it fully responsible for their safety. Just days before, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh also had issued an appeal.
Shtayyeh said in a post on his official Facebook page that the government “will address the International Committee of the Red Cross and call on it to work on releasing prisoners and ensuring the safety of those in the occupation’s prisons, and making sure that the IPS respects public safety measures to protect our prisoners, especially in terms of limiting prison overcrowding.”
The preoccupation with the virus in the Palestinian territories and Israel has been evident in the calm that has prevailed in recent weeks. But that could easily change should a prisoner get infected. Threats have surfaced, as Hamas’ military wing Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades said March 19 it would also hold Israel fully responsible for the lives and safety of prisoners.
“The leadership of the resistance is in permanent session to assess the situation and consult on appropriate measures regarding this dangerous development that affects the health of our prisoners,” al-Qassam Brigades spokesman Abu Ubaida said on his Telegram account.
There are more than 6,000 male and female inmates in Israeli prisons; some are elderly. According to the Prisoners Affairs Commission, there are more than 700 male and female sick prisoners, 170 of whom are in critical condition, including 25 patients with cancer and 17 prisoners who almost permanently stay in the Ramla Prison hospital. Meanwhile, dozens suffer from movement disabilities, paralysis, hepatitis C, kidney failure, heart diseases and other illnesses, making them more vulnerable to the virus.
With 60 total COVID-19 cases recorded in the West Bank as of March 24, rumors are inflaming concerns among Palestinians.
On March 9, the Palestinian Ministry of Interior in Ramallah announced the start of a campaign to combat misinformation about the coronavirus, which is causing panic among citizens; as a result, security forces have arrested and prosecuted a number of people for supposedly spreading rumors.
Palestinian police spokesman Louay Erzikat told Al-Monitor, “The police Cyber Crime Unit and the General Investigation Department have been assigned to follow up on rumors on social media,” pointing out that the police had arrested 25 citizens, and other security agencies such as the Palestinian Preventive Security and the intelligence services had arrested dozens.
He said the arrests are carried out according to legal principles; after a 24-hour hold by police or security services, citizens are referred to the public prosecutor's office that asks the court to detain them for several days so their cases can be investigated before their trials begin.
He explained that Palestinian laws punish those who publish fake news to one month to one year in prison, with a fine of 50 Jordanian dinars to 200 dinars ($70 to $282).
Erzikat added that high-ranking officials in the government and the PA have given instructions to vigorously pursue the sources of rumors, given the panic and concerns they have caused among citizens.
In conjunction with the efforts of the Interior Ministry, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate announced March 9 it is cooperating with the Palestinian Observatory for Verification and Media Professionalism (Kashif) in monitoring fake news and exposing those who spread rumors that mislead the public.
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