By Michael Omer-Man
Less than three weeks after at least 1,400 Palestinians in Israeli prisons launched a widespread hunger strike, Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch on Thursday made several astounding admissions regarding Israel’s use of administrative detention. In private meetings with security officials, Aharonovitch called for reducing Israel’s use of the practice, applying it “only if there is a need and not in all cases,” according to a Haaretz report.
He was in effect admitting that the practice is being used even when it is not necessary, if one accepts that it is ever necessary. Furthermore he seemed to be conceding that Israel uses administrative detention instead of carrying out thorough criminal or intelligence investigations.
In a presentation to Israel’s Defense Ministry, Justice Ministry, the IDF, Shin Bet and Prison Service, Aharonovitch recommended that authorities “exhaust investigations and evidence collections” in order to allow the application of criminal proceedings against Palestinian arrestees, a principle that shouldn’t need advocating in a democracy.
The official public explanation of the use of administrative detention – the practice of arresting and holding persons without trial or informing them of what crimes they are suspected – is that doing so in open court could reveal sensitive intelligence collection methods and the identities of informants. Administrative detentions are usually secret orders for six-month periods of incarceration, which can be renewed indefinitely. In some cases, prisoners have been held without charge or trial for several years.
Earlier this year, two Palestinian detainees, Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi, were released from custody after holding prolonged hunger strikes in protest of their administrative detentions. As a result of intensive social media activist campaigns by young Palestinians in Palestine, Israel and overseas, the mainstream media eventually began covering the case and Israeli authorities cut a deal to release the two.
The current large-scale hunger strike, which is largely inspired by the successes of Adnan and Shalabi, has garnered even more international media and government attention. On Wednesday, UN Middle East Envoy Robert Serry said he was “deeply troubled” by the health status of two of the hunger strikers, who have refused food for over 67 days.
The same day, UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk said he was appalled by human rights violations against Palestinians in Israeli prisons, slamming the use of administrative detention.
The international attention is weighing on Israeli officials. According to Haaretz, Israeli Foreign Ministry officials “estimate that several European Union states [might] begin filing protests, especially around the issue of administrative detentions, if the hunger strikes persist.”
But while international pressure might lead Israel to alter its course of action toward a small number of individuals, it is the hunger strike itself — one of the most powerful forms of non-violent protests — that has thrust the issue into the spotlight and which may well lead to a wider change in policy.
Saying as much, Aharonovitch told security officials that while administrative detention is an important tool to aid security, it should only be used “if there is a need.” The question is, if administrative detention is not always needed, why is it being used so widely?