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Palestinian Lawyers Are Working Harder Than Ever To Support Prisoners

Above photo: Abbas Momani/AFP.

A Palestinian human rights lawyer with Addameer on the hardships and necessity of providing free legal aid.

And documenting human rights abuses.

On May 11, CNN obtained footage of what appears to be Palestinian prisoners detained in Israel’s Sde Teiman military base in horrifying conditions, depicting prisoners being “warehoused” in an overcrowded camp and forced to sit blindfolded and handcuffed. While these revelations — which came from three Israeli whistleblowers — are causing an uproar worldwide on social media and prompting “concern” from the U.S. government, the mistreatment of Palestinian detainees held in Israeli-run facilities is hardly anything new.

According to the Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association Addameer, there are 9,500 Palestinian political prisoners currently being held in detention — a quickly rising number since the events of Oct. 7. Meanwhile, the activists and advocates defending the rights of Palestinian prisoners are forced to work under extreme constraints, as they face intimidation campaigns and other oppressive hardships.

Tala Nasir, a Palestinian human rights lawyer, has worked with Addameer for the past six years. In this interview, she discusses the increasingly dire situation for political prisoners since Oct. 7 and the immense challenges Addameer lawyers face.

Tell me about Addameer and the work you do.

Addameer was created in 1991 to provide Palestinian political prisoners with free legal aid in the form of advice and representation. Within our different units, our teams focus on monitoring and documenting violations and human rights abuses. We conduct visits to prisoners where they are detained, and we collect testimonies to advocate for Palestinian prisoners on the local and international level — including within U.N. mechanisms.

We also aim to raise awareness and ensure there are trained lawyers ready to assist detainees — so that prisoners are aware of their rights. We also facilitate an active network of grassroots and community activists [to build further support].

What is the current situation of Palestinian detainees?

The situation has gotten worse since Oct. 7, with increasing restrictions against lawyers. Occupation authorities in the West Bank have conducted massive arrests of Palestinian activists. Out of 7,000 arrests, 240 were women and 500 were children. Journalists and aid workers were also among those arrested.

In Gaza, we don’t have accurate information and statistics. However, we know that an alarming number of people have been forcibly disappeared and put in the two main military camps set up for this purpose: Sde Teiman and Anatot. Advocates are banned from visiting detainees, and the Red Cross hasn’t gained access to them either.

In the West Bank, all lawyers have been allowed to conduct visits again, but with many restrictions and long delays on visit permits. So we aim to continue supporting our individual prisoners while continuing to document what is happening.

Thanks to first-hand accounts of prisoners who were released [in Gaza], we know that detainees are put in isolation, prevented from going out for more than a few minutes, denied medical aid, given inedible food, have reduced access to clean water and can only take a shower every three to four days at a maximum of 15 mins. There are frequent beatings, reports of torture, threats of any kind and aggressive treatment by guards, such as interrogations conducted with police dogs.

We also know by official sources that more than 12 prisoners have been killed and — according to autopsies conducted by Israeli authorities — five were the result of torture. This number is only what has been officially announced. There are possibly more who suffered this fate, especially those interned in Gaza, as the IDF is not disclosing anything about their situation. Some people have been released and have given accounts of being handcuffed and blindfolded all the time, made to sleep in squalid conditions on the floor and kept awake most of the time without any access to lawyers.

Have the exchange deals — which saw political prisoners get released — helped the situation at all?

Exchange deals are political and we only know about them when they are announced on the news. They take place within the military court system and our role there is minimal — that’s why people are held for an ever increasing number of years. We have cases of people being detained for 40 years and we are still unable to release them. That’s why we have launched a campaign against military courts and life sentences, hoping that those detained can be released in any way possible.

What do you think is the logic of the authorities behind these mass arrests that occurred both in the West Bank and Gaza?

In every instance of an uprising in the occupied territories, the IDF will make mass arrests to silence Palestinians raising awareness. With the genocide in Gaza, there have been more than 5,300 detainees held — which is an unprecedented number. People have been indefinitely detained without charges and without ever being presented in front of a court. Charges can be sparked by very simple things such as “incitement” on social media. The rationale behind these campaigns is simply to silence and repress.

Also, new legislation has been passed regarding “unlawful combat,” which means detainees in Gaza can be held indefinitely without charges, and lawyers can be barred for at least six months before being allowed to conduct a visit. Those released from Gaza were never taken to court, so we never got an answer about the rationale behind their release or why they were arrested in the first place.

What are the main barriers to your work right now?

Two years ago Addameer was pronounced a terrorist organization by Israeli authorities. On that basis, they can arrest any of us at any given moment. They raided our offices and placed all alleged evidence into a secret file that was never presented to us. Never did they explain how they could link us to any terrorist organizations.

Israeli organizations have put pressure on our foreign funders to cut their funding, but none of them took the designation as real because no evidence was presented. We are well aware of why we were designated [as a terrorist organization]. It’s because of our work with the international courts.

We’ve been disappointed and disheartened that none of our work over the past 30 years was able to stop what is happening now. We are nevertheless continuing to document everything because we hope that one day we will be able to hold Israel accountable in the courts.

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