Detainees used as bargaining chips by both sides in Israel/Gaza conflict

Palestinian armed groups have held Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for 1,000 days, denying him visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). They have also denied him communication with his family, bar a couple of letters in almost three years.

Gilad Shalit was seized by Palestinian armed groups from an Israeli military base near the Gaza Strip on 25 June 2006. His continuing incommunicado detention brings into relief the plight of detainees used by both sides of the Israel/Gaza conflict as bargaining chips in political negotiations.

Since early June 2007, the Israeli authorities have barred all family visits for some 900 Palestinians from Gaza detained in Israeli prisons. Up to then, visits were already limited to some family members only. Some people have not seen their jailed relatives for a decade or more.

The ban on family visits for Gazan detainees is part of a blockade imposed by Israel on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, which constitutes collective punishment for its 1.5 million inhabitants.

In response to international concerns that the blockade is causing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon said in February 2009: “Israel is facing a serious humanitarian crisis, and it is called Gilad Shalit, and… until he is returned home, not only will we not allow more cargo to reach the residents of Gaza, we will even diminish it.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has given a similar message: “We will not reopen the border crossings [into Gaza] and assist Hamas so long as Gilad Shalit is in their brutal prison.”

For their part, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups in Gaza insist that Gilad Shalit will only be released when Israel releases several hundred of the 8,000 Palestinians detained in Israeli jails. “The Shalit case is dependent on prisoners swap… He will never be released if the Israeli occupation does not release Palestinian prisoners whom Hamas wants free, whatever the consequence might be,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, in October 2008.

Among those Hamas wants released are Hamas parliamentarians and members arrested by Israeli forces after Gilad Shalit’s capture, ostensibly to pressure Hamas to release him.

In communications with Amnesty International, Hamas officials have indicated that Hamas acknowledges every detainee’s right to ICRC visits, to humane treatment and to communication with their family. These are Amnesty International’s key demands on Gilad Shalit’s case, based on his status as a prisoner of war.

However, the officials have claimed that visits cannot be arranged “due to security reasons”, as they could lead to the disclosure of Gilad Shalit’s whereabouts. Under international humanitarian law, these considerations do not invalidate the rules that make ICRC visits necessary.

The ICRC reiterated in December 2008 its readiness to conduct a confidential assessment of Gilad Shalit’s condition, adding that “in the case of Gilad Shalit, we deplore the fact that political considerations have outweighed humanitarian concerns, and respect for basic humanitarian principles, making it virtually impossible to help him or his family.”

One of the 900 or so detainees from Gaza held in Israeli prisons is Riyad Ayyad, who has been detained without charge or trial since 2002. His wife, Amna Ayyad, told Amnesty International: “I went to Israel for five years [for prison visits] and never caused any problem.

“If I had done something the Israeli army would have arrested me. My husband has never been tried and we have no idea when he will be released. Why can’t they at least allow me to visit him? And now, since… summer [2007], there are no visits any more for anyone from Gaza. My son was born when his father was already in prison and now he has not even seen his father for many months.”

The ICRC noted its concern over the Israeli authorities’ policy to bar family visits for Gazan detainees in September 2008: “Gazan families are still unable to visit some 900 relatives detained in Israeli prisons following the June 2007 decision by the Israeli authorities to suspend the Family Visit Programme. Among other consequences, the suspension is depriving children of the chance to see their parents or other family members.”

In October 2008 Israel’s Minister of Defence, Ehud Barak, suggested extending the ban to imprisoned Hamas supporters from the West Bank. He said: “This approach to prisoner visitations [preventing visits from Gaza], though it infringes on their rights on some levels, is in line with the government’s policies regarding the sanctions imposed on Gaza. This approach receives significant vindication when taking into account the prolonged captivity of the soldier Gilad Shalit.”

Amnesty International has called for a halt to the use of detainees as bargaining chips in political negotiations.

“Hamas, in its capacity as the de facto administration in the Gaza Strip, must ensure that Gilad Shalit is treated humanely,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s researcher on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. “He should be allowed immediate and regular visits from the ICRC and regular communications with his family and the outside world. The Israeli authorities must permit the immediate resumption of family visits for Palestinian detainees from Gaza, and lift the blockade on Gaza.”