The scene looks unreal, yet is on brand for the most far-right government in Israel’s history. The National Security Minister jubilantly speaks from his desk, a large tray of food in front of him. With immense satisfaction and joy, he mocks Palestinian prisoners in Israel and brags that he has banned them from bread baking, right before stuffing his face with freshly baked bread. “This is only the beginning,” he says, smiling at the camera.

The recent incident provoked no international backlash, criticism, or application of pressure. Accordingly, Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir soon after began implementing a plethora of cruel, degrading, and inhumane measures against Palestinian prisoners that eventually pushed 1,000 of them to go on an open hunger strike in late August to protest their dire conditions.

The prisoners’ move only prompted Ben-Gvir to squeeze and hammer the detained Palestinians even more. Last week, the extremist minister decided arbitrarily to reduce family visits to once every two months, leading Palestinian prisoners to collectively declare another hunger strike, which started on 14 September.

   Cruelty is precisely the point of Ben-Gvir’s unprovoked and pointless punitive measures against captive Palestinians   

Unfairly imprisoned

These two hunger strikes are the biggest in years for Palestinians, who are usually imprisoned without a fair trial. Under Israel’s discriminatory system, it is only Palestinians who are tried in kangaroo military courts with a conviction rate of 99.74%, while the conviction rate for reported Israeli attacks on Palestinians is about 1.8%. A quarter of Palestinian prisoners are even jailed indefinitely without any trial or charges, a practice known as “administrative detention” which is applied almost exclusively to Palestinians.

Palestinians also receive much harsher sentences compared to Jewish Israelis for the same offences. For instance, a Palestinian child or teenager throwing rocks at Israeli military vehicles raiding their village can face up to 20 years in prison, while Israeli settlers throwing rocks at Palestinians get community service, at most. Palestinian actions are often treated as a “security offence”, which carries a terror label and thus leads to harsher imprisonment conditions, as opposed to similar actions by Israelis.

Cruelty is the point

Israel’s Security Minister campaigned on making life impossible for Palestinian prisoners. Since taking office, Ben-Gvir hasn’t wasted a moment to deliver on this promise, whether by reducing shower time to just 2-4 minutes per Palestinian prisoner, giving orders to Israeli prison officials to arbitrarily place Palestinian prisoners in solitary confinement, or launching additional random inspections in Palestinian women’s cells.

More recently, the far-right minister decided to ban Palestinian prisoners from receiving dental care, and instead ordered that they be charged about $50 USD per hour for any dental visits, regardless of medical urgency or the patient’s financial situation. Ben-Gvir further dictated set time limits for dental care visits.

Furthermore, the minister blocked the early release of over 1,000 Palestinians, despite the Israeli security establishment’s recommendation to do the opposite to reduce prison overcrowding. Ben-Gvir is also said to be planning to reduce the types of shampoo available to inmates in the prison cantinas, restrict their television access, cut back on time allowed in prison yards, and limit the availability of lamb meat.

Cruelty is precisely the point of Ben-Gvir’s unprovoked and pointless punitive measures against captive Palestinians. These decisions cause unnecessary suffering and tension, and have no clear security value or legitimate goal other than to boost the extremist minister’s standing and approval ratings, and to solidify Ben-Gvir’s reputation as a tough politician who is cracking down on Palestinians and showing them Israel’s full might and strength.

The Israeli opposition leaders see through these cheap stunts. Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid has called Ben-Gvir—who has previously been convicted of terror offences and racist incitement—a “TikTok clown” and “minister of TikTok and pita [bread]”.

Palestinians are dying in prison

Only a few short months into Ben-Gvir’s term in office, Palestinian hunger striker Khader Adnan died in his prison cell after being denied transfer to a civilian hospital despite his sharply deteriorating health. Another prisoner facing the threat of imminent death is Walid Daqqa, who has terminal cancer. Daqqa’s request for early release to be with his young daughter was denied, although he already spent more than 37 years in prison.

Next on the minister’s list of electoral promises is to legislate the death sentence exclusively against Palestinians, after pushing a bill through the Knesset that allows for deporting Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of occupied East Jerusalem who are labelled “terrorists”.

Two-tier system

Of important note is that Israel’s latest series of punitive and cruel measures against prisoners apply solely to Palestinians and not to Jewish Israelis. This is because in the eyes of the ruling coalition, only an Arab can be a “terrorist”, while no Jewish Israeli can receive this label, no matter how egregious their crime. In fact, the coalition includes members of Knesset like Zvi Sukkot, an extremist settler who himself was suspected of burning down a mosque and was banished by the IDF from the West Bank in 2012.

The discriminatory nature of these measures highlights their illegality, unjustifiability, and deep immorality. Such blatant inequality before the law—in terms of the right to a fair trial, legal representation, access to justice, and humane treatment—are some of the many reasons that have led major international, Israeli, and Palestinian human rights organisations to conclude that Israel maintains a policy of apartheid, which is a crime against humanity under international law.

Imprisonment as a tool of suppression

Israel refuses to recognise Palestinian prisoners as prisoners of war, instead treating them as politically motivated criminals or terrorists and, subsequently, systematically depriving them of their rights, including the right to receive visits from their families. For instance, there were about 4,450 Palestinian “security prisoners” in Israel in April 2022, including 160 children, 32 women, and 530 administrative detainees; all were incarcerated without charge or trial.

Israel has also routinely used its imprisonment of Palestinians as a tool of suppression, intimidation, and harassment, as well as to disrupt Palestinian political life. This includes arresting members of the Palestinian parliament, most prominently MP Khalida Jarrar, who was put under administrative detention without trial or charges, and deemed a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

Israel’s cruel practices of unjustly imprisoning and detaining Palestinians and subjecting them to harsh conditions of confinement can only further fuel the conflict, and create more grounds for instability.

As the occupying power, Israel bears full responsibility for the Palestinian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and has a set of obligations towards Palestinian prisoners, including respecting their right to life, health, and dignity. These prisoners should be allowed fair trials, family visits, access to healthcare, and humane treatment, just as Jewish Israeli prisoners are. Israel must end all forms of violence and discrimination against Palestinian prisoners, especially the policies of administrative detention and putting Palestinian prisoners, including minors, in prolonged solitary confinement, defying international standards.