Every year on April 17th, Palestinians from across the occupied territory mark the occasion of Palestinian Prisoners’ Day as a reminder of the plight of thousands of Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli military jails.
Ever since the coronavirus outbreak in Palestine, which began last month in the city of Bethlehem, the issue of Palestinian prisoners has come to the forefront, with a number of reports claiming prisoners were exposed through contact with Israeli doctors and prison officials.
Activists and right groups have decried what they call a “deliberate policy of medical negligence” in Israeli military prisons, overcrowded cells, and unhygienic conditions that put prisoners at increased risk of contracting the virus.
Additionally, rights groups have criticized Israeli authorities for exploiting the virus to violate the rights of prisoners by cancelling family and lawyer visits, forcing detainees to attend court proceedings without the presence of legal counsel.
All Palestinian prisoners, including minors, are processed in Israeli military courts which have a 99.7% conviction rate.
Since the start of this year, Israel has detained 1,324 Palestinians, including 210 minors and 31 women, according to a joint statement from local prisoners rights groups.
Since the coronavirus outbreak began on March 5th, Israeli forces have continued their arrest raids in the West Bank and East Jerusalem unhindered, detaining 357 Palestinians, among them 48 minors and four women.
Earlier this month, families of Palestinian prisoners were put on edge after a young man was released from the Ofer detention center near Ramallah and subsequently tested positive for the virus.
“As the Palestinian people confront the challenges of colonial occupation and this vicious virus, Israel has persisted in its illegal policies against Palestinian prisoners,” senior PLO official Dr. Hanan Ahsrawi said in a statement.
“It has denied them access to family and lawyer visits and refused to take any preventive measures inside prisons, including testing for COVID-19, even after 1 prisoner tested positive upon release and several occupation officers in prisons have tested positive,” she said.
While Palestinian Prisoners Day typically draws large crowds to protests and sit-ins across the West Bank and Gaza, this year, Palestinain activists found new ways to commemorate the occasion while under quarantine.
In the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, activists flew kites from their rooftops with the photos of residents of Aida that are serving time in Israeli prisons.
Local activist Munther Amira wrote on his Facebook page urging others to raise kites in the name of prisoners, saying “the occupation may jail their bodies, but they are here with us, and we have never forgotten them. The dawn of freedom is certainly near.”
Palestinian leaders and activists used the occasion to to double down on calls to release Palestinian prisoners, particularly those with health issues and chronic illnesses.
“As an occupying power, Israel has undeniable and binding obligations under international law. It is directly responsible for the life and health of all prisoners and must face consequences for its grave violations of international law,” Ashrawi said.
There are currently 5,000 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails, 541 of whom are serving one or multiple life sentences.