By Robert Inlakesh – Dec 7, 2023
The fair treatment of Israeli captives by Hamas has become part of the information war between Palestinians and Tel Aviv. Left unsaid is that there remain thousands of Palestinians in captivity who barely survive their Israeli detention.
The issue of Prisoners of War (POWs) taken captive by Hamas-led Palestinian resistance forces has become one of the key justifications for Israel’s military assault on the Gaza Strip.
While western audiences are often presented with the image of these groups as bloodthirsty terrorists, a closer look reveals that Hamas and other factions may have treated Israeli captives more humanely than how Israel treats Palestinian political prisoners.
While the Israeli POW issue spans eight weeks, the plight of Palestinian captives has persisted since at least 1967. There are said to be some 137 Israelis that are currently being held captive in Gaza, whom Hamas claims all are males and/or soldiers.
In the seven-day truce struck in November between Hamas and Israel, the Palestinian resistance released 108 women and children held captive in Gaza. In return, Israel was to release 300 Palestinian women and children held in detention and permit much-needed aid into Gaza through the Rafah crossing with Egypt.
Stanley Cohen, a US attorney who has represented both Hamas and Hezbollah members, tells The Cradle that “the laws of war do not limit Prisoners of War to State actors.” He says that “all the laws of war apply, whether it’s state actors or non-state actors.”
This would mean that the same legal obligations on the treatment of POWs should apply to both Hamas and Israel, despite there being a greater moral expectation often placed on UN member states.
How Hamas treats Israeli POWs
Access to interviews with detainees is limited due to Israeli government restrictions on media interaction with the recently freed captives, especially since the embarrassing PR blunder in late October when one of the four Israelis unconditionally released before the truce – 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz – said at a presser that “they treated us very well” in Gaza, but had endured “hell” while being taken captive.
But despite the challenges in obtaining their full stories, certain facts stand out. Recent audio recordings quoted by Israeli media have revealed statements from freed prisoners who claim they were more fearful of Israeli actions than those by Hamas. One former detainee, criticizing the Israeli government, highlighted the lack of support and the challenges faced during their captivity:
“We were sitting in the tunnels and we were terribly afraid not that Hamas but Israel would kill us, and then they would say – Hamas killed you.”
Another former Israeli captive went further in expressing disdain for the Israeli government’s responses on and after the events of 7 October:
“The feeling we had there was that no one was doing anything for us. The fact is that I was in a hiding place that was shelled and we had to be smuggled out and were wounded. Not including the helicopter that shot at us on the way to Gaza. You claim that there is intelligence, but the fact is that we are being shelled. My husband was separated from us three days before we returned to Israel and taken to the tunnels. And you are talking about washing the tunnels with sea water? You are shelling the route of tunnels in the exact area where they are.”
Reports on the health of detainees suggest that there was a gradual decrease in food quantity inside Gaza, with claims that prisoners lost between 10 to 15 percent of their body mass. Dr Yael Mozer-Glassberg, an Israeli pediatrician, described the children’s experience as “psychological terror,” though her account should be viewed with some healthy skepticism.
Mozer-Glassberg’s accounts are the closest thing to a detailed explanation of how the freed Israeli captives were treated. According to a report published by Haaretz, the doctor repeated the following story of two children, stating that “the older one wouldn’t eat until the younger had finished eating and felt full,” adding that “these are the kind of stories I heard from my grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor.”
When reading the language she employs to describe the conditions of the former captives, it is quite apparent that her account is geared towards exaggeration and that the doctor is not a neutral source.
On the other side of the spectrum are the Hamas-released videos showing the handover of mostly Israeli detainees to the International Red Cross. The footage is characterized by high-fives, smiles, waves, hugs, and even Arabic expressions of gratitude to their captors – visuals the Israeli government dismisses as propaganda.
Government spokesperson Eylon Levy said that Hamas “releases footage of crowds terrorizing the hostages in their final moments of captivity,” stating that the videos show how the group “continues to document its own atrocities.” Levy’s portrayal was a clear exaggeration, to say the least.
Tel Aviv’s health ministry has even gone as far as to suggest POWs were administered “drugs” to make them appear happy. Yet contrary to Mozer-Glassberg’s portrayals of terror, these videos provide more direct insights into the experiences of the freed Israelis.
Emily Hand, a 9-year-old Israeli girl who was held by Hamas, was returned to her father during the recent prisoner exchanges. Her father, Thomas, who had been paraded across western media after incorrectly being informed that his daughter was killed on 7 October, stated that “she [Emily] has lost a lot of weight, from her face and body, but generally doing better than we expected.”
Thai negotiator Dr Lerpong Sayed asserted that those he helped release were well cared for, receiving shelter, clothes, food, and water, with mental support provided equally to Thai and Israeli detainees – who he said were held together. There have also been reports of friendships blooming from within the Palestinian resistance groups’ detention tunnels, one between an Israeli woman and a Thai Worker. Claims of intentional injuries during transport and a letter expressing gratitude from a released captive’s family remain contested and unverified.
Hamas alleges that Israeli airstrikes have killed around 60 Israelis they were holding captive, including their Palestinian guards, with 23 of the bodies still trapped under rubble. The Israeli army, blaming Hamas, has discovered two of these corpses.
Amid varying accounts from families and doctors, it appears that conditions in the facilities where Israeli detainees were held were unpleasant, possibly exacerbated by Israel’s cutoff of all essential services at the start of the war.
A lack of hygiene, water, food, medicine, and electricity are all realities for the 2.3 million Palestinian civilians living in Gaza right now. If anything, the conditions that the Israeli captives faced were consistent with, if not better, than those faced by Gaza’s civilians.
How Israel mistreats Palestinian Prisoners
Unlike the Israeli detainees, freed Palestinian political prisoners have spoken directly to the international media and provided horrifying accounts of physical abuse, including torture, beatings, and even rape. According to a number of Palestinian women and children who were freed in the latest exchanges, they were threatened by Israelis not to speak out about their treatment in detention.
“There are no laws. Everything is permitted,” Lama Khater, a freed Palestinian captive, told the media. “I was led to the investigation handcuffed and blindfolded, I was threatened with being burned, I was explicitly threatened with rape and with deportation to the Gaza Strip,” she added.
Palestinian journalist Baraah Abu Ramouz, who was also freed from Israeli detention, gave the following testimony of what she witnessed:
“The situation in the prisons is devastating. The prisoners are abused. They are being constantly beaten. They’re being sexually assaulted. They are being raped. I’m not exaggerating. The prisoners are being raped.”
Mohammed Nazal had his fingers broken, his back bruised, and hands fractured by Israeli prison guards. “One week ago, we were savagely beaten with metal bars. I put my hands on my head to protect it from injury, but the soldiers did not stop until they broke my hands,” the 18-year-old freed prisoner said. Despite his clear injuries and horrifying testimony given to the media, where he said he was left lying on the floor in pain and was denied medical treatment, the Israeli authorities tried to claim he was a liar and released a video claiming he was unharmed. His testimonies and medical reports were later verified, revealing that Israel had lied and not Mohammed.
Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian icon and activist who was being held without a charge, looked shaken and weak following her release, stating:
“The circumstances in the prison are very difficult, with daily abuse against female prisoners. They are left without water or clothes, sleeping on the floor and being beaten…The Israeli authorities threatened me with [targeting] my father if I spoke about anything that happens in prison.”
Their testimonies consistently highlight that conditions inside Israeli prisons further deteriorated after 7 October. Freed detainees spoke of physical and psychological abuse, and deprivation of essentials such as food, water, medical care, and proper sleeping arrangements.
Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association, Adameer reports that over 7,600 political prisoners are held in Israeli military detention, with more than 3,000 of these civilians captured since 7 October – far surpassing the total number of Israelis held in Gaza.
The overlooked Palestinian struggle
Tel Aviv’s claims that these Palestinians are all “convicted terrorists” is a farce. Israel’s military court system maintains a near 100% conviction rate for Palestinians, while thousands more are held under what is called “administrative detention” — jargon for those individuals detained without any charge. One testimony, which I recorded last year, came from now 22-year-old Abdul-Khaliq Burnat, who told a harrowing story from when he was held in Israel’s notoriously brutal al-Moskobiyya detention center:
“They shouted at me, beat me with their fists, slapped me and used tools. I was restricted with a plastic zip tie which cut into my wrists, whilst I was strapped to a chair in a stress position for 20 hours of the day .. for three days they had me in a smelly, tiny cell; it was so cold in there and there wasn’t any light, I was stripped of all my clothes for the whole time and tied up naked, they didn’t give me any food and I couldn’t even use the bathroom.”
During his detention in May of 2021, Abdul-Khaliq says that he was informed daily by Israeli interrogators about how many women and children were being killed in Gaza at that time. His captors then brought his then 17-year-old brother Mohammed to the same detention center and beat him so severely that he was hospitalized on three separate occasions.
Mohammed Burnat still languishes in Israeli jail, where he has been held without a charge since his 2021 arrest. Abdul-Khaliq, who was first held captive for 13 months, at the age of 17, has again been taken captive by Israeli forces following the 7 October operation, and is currently being held in administrative detention.
When taking into consideration that the plight of Palestinian political prisoners represents one of the most important issues in contemporary Palestinian society, one can begin to understand the rationale and strategic thinking behind the resistance’s Al-Aqsa Flood operation to capture Israeli POWs.
Since 1967, Israel has detained over 1 million Palestinians, including tens of thousands of children, according to the UN.
Cases of torture, sexual abuse, and psychological trauma have been well documented throughout decades of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and detention of its people, yet this has not received a fraction of the media attention afforded to the Israelis imprisoned only two months ago.
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