ICRC: Urgent Intervention Needed to Protect Palestinian Prisoners and Detainees in Israeli Prisons from COVID-19 Exposure

Urgent Intervention Needed to Protect Palestinian Prisoners and Detainees in Israeli Prisons from COVID-19 Exposure

April 14, 2020

For the attention of: The International Committee of the Red Cross

The undersigned organizations submit to you this urgent appeal with regard to the rapidly deteriorating condition of Palestinian prisoners and detainees in Israeli prisons in light of the continued spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic across the globe. In support of the Joint Urgent Appeal to the United Nations Special Procedures submitted on April 1, 2020, by Addameer and Al-Haq, we urgently request your intervention to protect these Palestinian prisoners’ right to health, particularly as many are minors, chronically ill, members of vulnerable groups, or held under administrative detention in contravention of international law.

According to Addameer, as of February 2020, there were 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, including 430 administrative detainees and 180 child prisoners. Israeli military forces hold administrative detainees in prison indefinitely without charging them or putting them on trial. Those being detained and imprisoned include journalists, human rights defenders, and Palestinian Legislative Council members. Detainees and prisoners are forced to endure abysmal conditions. Many human rights organizations have documented torture, acts of violence, pervasive medical negligence, and severe restrictions or, in certain areas, complete bans on family visits. To protest the inhumane conditions, the prisoners have staged several hunger strikes.

When Israel arrests Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and holds them in Israel, it violates international humanitarian law, which forbids an occupying power from transferring protected persons outside of the occupied territory. Moreover, Israeli military law, including Military Order 101 and Military Order 1651, targets Palestinian individual and collective life by imposing harsh prison sentences on conduct that encompasses political expression, association, and protest.

COVID-19 presents a new and immediate danger to Palestinian prisoners. There are confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. The West Bank has been in a state of emergency since March 5, 2020, and on April 3, the Palestinian Authority extended the state of emergency for another thirty days. As the public health situation in Israel and Palestine continues to worsen, human rights organizations, Palestinian officials, and religious leaders have demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Our growing concern for Palestinian prisoners and detainees during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic stems from the systematic and routine medical negligence Palestinians have suffered inside Israeli prisons and detention centers. Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, Israel continues to routinely arrest Palestinians from their homes in the West Bank and then immediately place them in quarantine. Hundreds currently detained suffer from chronic diseases that go untreated. While persons deprived of their liberty around the world are more likely to be vulnerable to a COVID-19 outbreak than the general population, Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons suffer particularly dismal and unsanitary detention conditions, including overcrowding, lack of proper ventilation, and poor nutrition. This makes Israeli prisons dangerous breeding grounds for COVID-19 and compounds the vulnerability of Palestinian prisoners and detainees.

In early March 2020, the Israel Prison Service (IPS) halted all family and legal visits for prisoners, claiming that this was a COVID-19 precaution. Israeli authorities have postponed all trial proceedings in military courts and have stopped bringing Palestinians in pre-trial detention or interrogation to court, further deepening Israel’s violations of these Palestinians’ right to liberty and security of person, as well as their right to a fair and speedy trial. Moreover, Israel has barred legal representatives from meeting with Palestinian prisoners. Since legal representatives have been allowed to speak with their clients only by phone, they have been unable to accurately assess the health conditions and safety of Palestinian detainees. The IPS has also continued to refuse to install landline phones inside prisons as stipulated in the most recent hunger-strike negotiations. The refusal to install landlines further distances Palestinian prisoners from their families and legal representatives.

Prisoners have reported that the IPS has imposed new restrictions on purchases from prison canteens that make it difficult for them to obtain necessary sanitary products and maintain proper hygiene. This puts the prisoners even more at risk of an uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. Furthermore, IPS officers are not taking the necessary precautions to stem the spread of the virus. Officers routinely conduct searches and take count of prisoners five times a day without wearing hazmat suits, protective gloves, or medical face masks. A number of Palestinian prisoners at Ofer prison have recently reported concerns over COVID-19 infections amongst prison guards.

The Israeli occupying authorities have disregarded COVID-19 guidelines in dealing with Palestinian prisoners and detainees in the face of the pandemic. Despite a series of guidelines and calls issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and UN human rights experts on the need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in detention settings, conditions in Israeli prisons continue to deteriorate. On March 27, 2020, the Israeli government decided to release some 400 “non-violent prisoners who are serving lighter sentences and nearing the end of their time in prison,” selected on the basis of health condition and age, but the government has not established the same release policy for Palestinian prisoners. The Israeli government has also released some Palestinian prisoners without establishing any health or safety precautions to assist those who have been infected or to protect the communities to which they are returning.

Around the world, UN experts have highlighted the need to ensure the release of prisoners and other detainees in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Iran, following a decision taken on March 9 to release 70,000 prisoners, none of whom were political detainees, calls by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran led to the subsequent release of political prisoners. Indonesia and Afghanistan are following suit in releasing prisoners, and a number of prisons and jails in the United States have released prisoners in response to the spread of COVID-19. On March 25, 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated: “Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views.” On March 30, 2020, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) called on governments to take measures to protect individuals deprived of their liberty during the pandemic and to consider “reducing prison populations by implementing schemes of early, provisional or temporary release of low-risk offenders, reviewing all cases of pre-trial detention, [and] extending the use of bail for all but the most serious cases.” The SPT also urged “that all detainees, people in quarantine and closed medical settings, their families, and all staff, should receive reliable, accurate and the latest information concerning all adopted measures.”

Given the recent rules and regulations promulgated by the IPS during the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has remained the only entity permitted visits and direct communication with Palestinian prisoners. ICRC visits to Israeli places of detention have continued, albeit with special precautions to ensure the protection of detainees. Yet the ICRC has not provided any updates to the prisoners’ families or the wider public on the conditions of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention, particularly those kept in quarantine. 

We urge the International Committee of the Red Cross to intervene immediately to ensure respect for the right to health of Palestinian prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic and, in particular, to:

        i.          Call on Israel, the occupying power, to immediately release Palestinian prisoners and administrative detainees held in Israeli prisons and detention centers, to the maximum extent possible, in order to ensure their safety from an uncontrolled spread of the pandemic, particularly those who are more vulnerable or more susceptible to the disease, such as those who are chronically ill;

       ii.         Call on the IPS to ensure the protection of all prisoners and to fulfil their right to the highest attainable standard of health, without discrimination, by adopting, for example, WHO guidance on preventing COVID-19 outbreak in prisons, and taking the necessary measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic in Israeli prisons;

      iii.          Urge the IPS to install landlines in all Israeli prisons and ensure the maintenance of contact with family and legal representatives for Palestinian prisoners through unmonitored phone or video calls, especially while family and legal visits continue to be suspended;

       iv.          Call on the IPS to publicly guarantee that it will eliminate the use of solitary confinement, an internationally recognized form of torture, as a means of managing the spread of COVID-19 in its prisons and administrative detention facilities; and

        v.         Call on the IPS to publicize all plans and policies to ensure the protection of all prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We urge you to take bold and immediate action to save the lives of Palestinians detained in Israeli prisons. We await your response.


Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School*

Center for Constitutional Rights


Endorsing Organizations:

International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

National Lawyers Guild (NLG)

Abolitionist Law Center

Detention Watch Network

Jewish Voice for Peace

National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild

Amistad Law Project

Community Justice Project

Popular Resistance

Cornell Law School International Human Rights Clinic: Litigation and Advocacy

Boston University International Human Rights Clinic

Global Health Justice Partnership of Yale Law School and School of Public Health

Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (UC Hastings)

Community Lawyering Clinic (Drexel)

International Association of Democratic Lawyers

The National Association of Democratic Lawyers of South Africa

European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights

Asociación Americana de Juristas (AAJ)

Italian Democratic Lawyers (Giuristi Democratici)

Ukrainian Association of Democratic Lawyers

Hellenic Union of Progressive Lawyers (HUPL)

Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, England

National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) - Philippines

Centro de Derechos Humanos - Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador

Jewish Voice for Peace - NYC

New York City Jericho Movement

Jewish Voice for Peace New Haven

Mending Minyan Havurah

Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA)

Veterans for Peace Connecticut 42

Greater New Haven Peace Council

U.S. Peace Council

Middle East Crisis Committee

Project Blueprint

Adalah Justice Project

American Muslims for Palestine

Friends of Sabeel - North America

Palestine Legal

Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network

Tree of Life Educational Fund

Berkeley Law Muslim Student Association

Columbia Middle East Law Student Association

Muslim Law Students Association at Columbia

Rightslink at Columbia Law School

Columbia South Asian Feminism(s) Alliance

Columbia Law Students for Palestine

Columbia University Turath: Arab Students Association

Columbia Muslim Students Association

Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine

Fordham University Middle Eastern Student Association

Harvard Islamic Society

Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee

Students for Justice in Palestine at UConn

University of Houston Muslim Student Association

The Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA) Executive Board at Yale Law School

Yale Black Law Students Association

The Board of the Middle Eastern and North African Law Students’ Association (MENALSA) at Yale Law School

Yale Muslim Law Students' Association (MLSA)

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) Chapter at Yale Law School

Yale Law Students for Human Rights in Palestine & Israel

Black Students for Disarmament at Yale

Dwight Hall Peace Initiative

Dwight Hall Student Executive Committee

Migration Alliance at Yale (MAY) - formerly, Yale Refugee Project (YRP)

OneVoice on Campus, Yale

Yale Arab Students Association

Yale Dominican Students Association

Yale Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Student Association

Yale Muslim Students Association

Yalies for Pakistan

Yale Students for Justice in Palestine

Yale Students for Yemen

Yale Undergraduate Prison Project

Last modified 

April 16, 2020