Palestinian prisoners and detainees lack basic access to health care in Israeli prisons

Palestinian prisoners and detainees lack basic access  to health care in Israeli prisons

Rasha Kaloti
Health Policies Researcher, ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies


Israeli authorities are persistent in unlawfully detaining thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. As an occupying power, Israel breaches its obligations under international law to provide health care to Palestinian detainees and prisoners. This is evident in their inhumane treatment of Palestinian detainees and prisoners (leading to the deterioration of their mental and physical wellbeing) and the both medical negligence and restricted access to health care during the pandemic.


Palestinian prisoners and detainees in Israeli prisons

Since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967, over 800,000 Palestinians have been detained by the Israeli forces—approximately 20% of the total population in Palestine. About 8,000 Palestinian children have been arrested by the Israeli forces since 20001.

Israel consistently violates international humanitarian law when its forces arrest Palestinians and hold them within its territory. Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention forbids occupying forces from detaining protected people outside of the occupied territory2,3.

As an occupying power, Israel breaches its obligations under international law to provide health care to Palestinian detainees and prisoners. 

According to Addameer, there were 4,500 Palestinians in Israeli prisons as of August, including 340 administrative detainees, 140 children and 41 females4. The Israeli forces often detains Palestinians indefinitely without charge or trial. This means that detainees and their lawyers are not informed of the reason(s) for their detention, and their imprisonment can be renewed multiple times without any limits4

Palestinian detainees and prisoners are held in dire conditions in Israeli prisons, including torture, overcrowding, isolation, threats against their relatives and, in certain cases, a ban on family visits. Prisoners and detainees have protested these conditions in collective hunger strikes over the years5.


Physical and mental health of Palestinian prisoners and detainees

Disease is widespread among Palestinian prisoners and detainees, ranging from diarrhea and respiratory infections to anaemia, heart disease and kidney failure1. Many kidney and intestinal problems a consequence of repeated hunger strikes6.  

Torture occurs during arrest, interrogation and imprisonment7, violating the Convention Against Torture of 1984, which was ratified by Israel in 19918. Torture includes beatings, interrogation for up to 12 consecutive hours, sleep and sensory deprivation, sexual abuse and solitary confinement7.

Palestinian women prisoners are also subjected to inhumane detention conditions and ill treatment, causing severe physical and mental consequences. Interrogation of women includes blindfolding, handcuffing and tying to chairs. They are often refused a change of clothes for weeks at a time, restricted from accessing toilets, and verbally and sexually harassed7.

Among the mental health consequences of this brutal and vicious treatment are anxiety, insomnia, suicide attempts, acute depression and hysteria9. Some child prisoners are held in solitary confinement for as long as a month, sometimes including sexual abuse9,10, without adequate food, blankets or heat11. As a result, children experience intense fear, helplessness, loneliness, emotional disturbances and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Meanwhile, their families, friends and communities suffer as well.


Access to health care

Medical neglect

As an occupying power, Israel is bound by international law to ensure Palestinian detainees and prisoners receive the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health care12. Nonetheless, the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) restricts their access to health care.

Medical treatment in prisons is often inadequate, with treatment frequently intentionally delayed or withheld. When examined, prisoners are usually only given over-the counter painkillers without any follow-up1,11.  Between 1967 and 2014, over 50 Palestinian prisoners died due to untreated medical conditions1.

The IPS attempts to silence protestors on hunger strikes by shackling and force-feeding them. Decisions on the health care given to protesting prisoners are made by medical staff employed by the IPS, and requests for visits by independent physicians are denied13. An Israeli law passed in 2015 permits the force-feeding and physical restraint of prisoners on hunger strike. U.N. agencies have expressed their concern, as the law does not comply with human rights standards14.


COVID-19 exposure and response

Palestinian detainees and prisoners are at particularly increased risk of COVID-19 due to poor hygiene and overcrowded cells5,15. Despite the call by human rights organisations for protection of detainees and prisoners during the pandemic, the conditions in Israeli prisons continue to deteriorate. In addition, restrictions have been imposed on purchases from canteens, making it difficult for prisoners to purchase sanitary products and disinfectants6,15. IPS officers conduct daily searches without wearing protective gloves or masks6. Additionally, in July, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that prisoners have no right to enforced physical distancing as a protective measure against COVID-19 infection16.

Thus, increasing numbers of Palestinian detainees are testing positive for COVID-19 12. Thus, local and international humanitarian organisations are repeatedly calling for the IPS to release Palestinian prisoners and detainees due to their increased risk6,15. In March, the authorities released 400 Israeli prisoners, but made no move to release Palestinian prisoners or to establish a policy for doing so6.

Israel has the moral and legal obligation to protect those under its control and ensure their right to health, including Palestinian prisoners and detainees.

Health as an essential human right

The World Health Organization considers health to be a fundamental human right of every human being “without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition”17. Israeli occupying forces also are obligated by internal laws and norms to ensure the health of Palestinian detainees and prisoners. They must, but do not, halt ill-treatment, torture, and physical and mental abuse; reduce over-crowding and improve hygiene; provide medication in a timely manner; and permit independent physicians’ visits. Palestinian detainees and prisoners who are considered particularly at risk should be released to mitigate and protect against the spread of COVID-19.

Israel has the moral and legal obligation to protect those under its control and ensure their right to health, including Palestinian prisoners and detainees. More pressure needs to be brought to bear on Israel by Palestinian authorities and local and international organisations to protect the health of all imprisoned Palestinians.




1. Addameer. Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons. January 2014. 

2. Human Rights Watch. Israel’s use of draconian military orders to repress Palestinians in the West Bank. December 2019.

3. International Committee of the Red Cross. Treatment of Detainees.

4. Addameer. Statistics. August 2020.

5. ICRC. Urgent intervention needed to protest Palestinian prisoners and detainees in Israeli prisons from COVID-19 exposure. April 2020.

6. Addameer. Palestinian prisoners’ day. Prisoners fight imprisonment and COVID-19. April 2020.

7. Addameer. Annual violations report 2018. 2019.

8. UN. Torture Convention – Israel initial report. 

9. Middle East Monitor, Sawsan Ramahi. Increasing psychological and neurological illness among Palestinian prisoners. 2013.

10. UNICEF. Children in Israeli military detention. 2013.

11. WHO. Report of a field assessment of health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory. 2016.

12. Al Mezan. Palestinian detainees in Israeli custody are increasingly at risk of contracting COVID-19.

13. Physicians for Human Rights. Right to health in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and for prisoners and detainees in the Israeli prisons system. 2018

14. OHCHR. UN experts urge Israel to halt legalization of force feeding of hunger strikers in detention. 2015.

15. Joint Press Release: on Palestinian prisoners’ day, civil society calls for urgent release of Palestinian prisoners and detainees in Israeli prisons. 2020.

16. TRT World. Palestinian prisoners denied social distancing rights. 2020.

17. WHO. Health is a fundamental human right. 2017.  


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