Anyone who has seen a few videos of protests in Palestine, and the Israeli occupation soldiers interacting with Palestinian society, has most likely seen these soldiers brutalizing children, teenagers, adults, and taking them away, shackled and blindfolded. Violent arrests and detention are such a routine part of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation that Palestinian society has designated a special day, April 17, to annually raise awareness of this evil. This year, with the outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons around the world, there is growing urgency to free all prisoners, as incarceration puts detainees at greater risk of infection than the general population.
The novel coronavirus is not a “great equalizer,” as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo claimed, when his younger brother, CNN news anchor Chris Cuomo, came down with the disease. Indeed, even as most understood the elder Cuomo’s comment as a spontaneous and candid statement from a concerned sibling, many were nevertheless quick to point out that pandemics instead amplify existing inequalities in any society, from the US to Palestine. In New York City, which witnessed “white flight” to summer homes in the countryside, almost 100 percent of the COVID-19 patients in some hospitals are people of color, as over 70 percent of “service workers,” now considered “essential workers,” namely bus drivers, janitors, and health care providers, are people of color, carrying on work on what have become the new frontlines. Among the infected, Blacks and Latinx are dying at twice the rate of whites. A Washington Post report shows that, across the nation, counties with a majority black population have three times the rate of infection, and almost six times the rate of deaths, as counties with a majority white population. In St. Louis, Missouri, every single death that can be attributed to the virus has been an African American.
Among the nation’s incarcerated, where people of color, especially Black, Latinx, and Indigenous, are also over-represented, prisoners have felt they are on death row, because they cannot self-isolate, keep at a safe distance from each other and their guards, or even wash their hands as frequently as they need to. As Armanda Shackleford, whose son Gerald Reed is incarcerated at Illinois’ Stateville prison writes: “Guards are rightly receiving hand sanitizer; our children are not.” At the infamous Rikers prison in New York, the rate of COVID-19 infection is reportedly 87 times higher than the average population. Closer to where I live, prisoners staged a large protest at the Monroe Correctional Complex, where six inmates, and five correctional staff members, have tested positive. Calls for the release of prisoners, especially those incarcerated for non-violent crimes, are gathering momentum, and hundreds have indeed mercifully been freed.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention are also among the most vulnerable. And April 17, Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, brings new urgency to calls to free all prisoners in the wake of the pandemic.
A handful of cases of the virus have already been detected at Ofer prison, just outside of Ramallah in the West Bank, after one detainee, Noureddine al-Sarsour, tested positive one day after his March 31 release. Ofer is where administrative detainees and children are incarcerated, and the COVID-19 cases are in Ward 13, next to Ward 14, where children are detained. Even prior to the pandemic, Israeli jails were infamous for systematic and routine medical negligence of Palestinian prisoners. Upon his release, Sarsour was swarmed by a crowd of thousands, who violated the PA-imposed curfew to welcome him home—a social distancing disaster which nevertheless is likely to happen again, if on a smaller scale, when others are released.
Another prisoner also tested positive for the virus a few days after his release, raising the specter of an outbreak in the large complex, where Palestinian prisoners are still serving their entire sentences. Additionally, since March 15, emergency regulations have granted almost unrestrained powers to the Israeli prison authorities, who are commuting daily between their homes in Israel, and the Palestinian prisoners in West Bank jails. Among the new regulations is a ban on visits from families, or even attorneys, unless a court case is imminent. Thus the Palestinian detainees cannot even report human rights violations, which are rampant in the Israeli prison system.
In Palestine, as in the US, the virus is brought in from outside the prisons. As Armanda Shackleford noted, about her son in Stateville, Illinois: “What hurts the most is that our children don’t bring the virus onto themselves. It’s being brought to them.” Case in point: 230 people are being quarantined in DC Jail, after coming in contact with one correctional staff member who tested positive. A petition is currently circulating to free the roughly 1600 incarcerated at that jail, aptly entitled “COVID-19 is a death sentence” for the hundreds trapped inside that jail. The petition points out that most of the 1600 are awaiting trial, and thus presumed innocent. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the Palestinian prisoners in “administrative detention” in Israeli jails knows that they are innocent, and not awaiting trial, since they are not even charged with a crime.
As the virus continues to spread, calls for reform and action are coming from various organizations. Addameer, the Palestinian prisoners support and human rights association, has issued a call to (virtual) action from all concerned, to coincide with Palestinian Prisoners Day.
Palestinian prisoners have also demanded that the Israeli Prisoner Services (IPS) start conducting the daily count via cameras, from a distance, and that they also conduct the daily cell searches from the cell windows, without entering their rooms.
Samidoun, the Palestinian Prisoners Solidarity Network, has also organized a week of action for Palestinian liberation, with daily webinars highlighting different aspects of Israel’s control of the Palestinian people through imprisonment. As they point out on their website: “Palestinian prisoners are at the center of the struggle for freedom and justice in Palestine – they represent the imprisonment of a people and a nation.” And “imprisonment affects nearly every Palestinian family, including Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, occupied Palestine ’48 and even in exile and diaspora.” The webinars will address political prisoners, student prisoners, women prisoners, prisoners for Palestine in international jails, and actions against collective punishment, home demolitions, and torture.
And the Palestine Youth Movement and National Students for Justice in Palestine are hosting an education webinar on Wednesday, April 15, to discuss “the history and importance of the prisoners’ movement in the Palestinian struggle, the current conditions and demands of Palestinian prisoners, the connections between mass incarceration in the United States and Palestine, the history of abolitionist organizing and resistance,” and current abolitionist campaigns and demands.
US law enforcement violence against African Americans represents American society’s racism and sexism: Black men are deemed physically “threatening,” women, the “welfare queens,” are viewed as dependent on the state, seeking maximum benefits without contributing anything. The children are thugs, at best criminals in the making. Similarly, Israel’s incarceration of Palestinians illustrates that country’s fundamental racism and sexism: around 5000 men are currently behind bars as “security threats,” women like Khalida Jarrar, Ahed Tamimi, Dareen Tatour, who do not fit the “submissive” stereotype, are repeatedly jailed, and children as young as three and four years old are viewed as “threats” to the occupying soldiers. The Gaza Strip has correctly been described as an open-air prison, where two million Palestinians have been subjected to a medieval siege for thirteen years. COVID-19 cases have been reported there among returning Palestinians who are now quarantined, and an outbreak of the pandemic among the general population could have an absolutely catastrophic effect on the deliberately impoverished, weakened and sickened population.
Everywhere, COVID-19 has revealed the disproportionate effect of disease on communities that are already disenfranchised by state-sanctioned violence: refugees, the unhoused, the uninsured, and the incarcerated, to name but a few. The social slowdown resulting from lockdowns and quarantines, on the other hand, has allowed for greater reflection, giving way to a new level of social consciousness, with many expressing a desire not to return to “the way it was,” before the pandemic. Hopefully, a greater awareness of the fundamental crimes of the carceral state, from the US to Israel, will lead to a persistent call to “free all prisoners,” not just during a crisis, but indeed until all prisons are empty.