Israeli abuse of jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti ‘amounts to torture’

<span>A mural shows the jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip in April 2023.</span><span>Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images</span>
A mural shows the jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip in April 2023.Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Marwan Barghouti spends his days huddled in a cramped, dark, solitary cell, with no way to tend to his wounds, and a shoulder injury from being dragged with his hands cuffed behind his back.

Barghouti holds almost mythic status within Palestinian politics, seen as a figure whose potential to unify different factions has only grown during his 24 years in prison.

The books, newspapers and tele­vision that he used to be able to access have been gone since last October, along with any former cellmates. The lights that flicker in his cell each evening are intended to make sleep near impossible.

“Mentally he’s a very strong person, but physically his condition is deteriorating, you can see it. He’s struggling to see out of his right eye, as a result of one of the assaults,” said his lawyer Igal Dotan, who visited Barghouti in Israel’s Megiddo prison two months ago. “He has lost weight – he doesn’t look good. You wouldn’t recognise him if you compare his current appearance with the famous photos of him,” he said.

Israel jailed Barghouti on five counts of murder while accusing him of directing attacks against civilians, which he denies. His lawyers and supporters fear that as one of the highest profile Palestinian detainees, he was abused to send a message to others that no one is safe.

Former prisoners and numerous rights groups say that conditions inside Israeli jails for Palestinians changed overnight last October, after Hamas attacked towns and kibbutzim in southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking another 250 hostage.

In the months since, the Palestinian prison population has almost doubled after Israeli forces began conducting regular raids across the West Bank, detaining more than 8,755 people according to the Palestinian prisoners and ex-detainees commission. Most were held under administrative detention, meaning without charge.

As the numbers inside Israeli prisons have swelled, with Palestinians packed into overcrowded cells, so too have abuses. Former detainees recounted regular beatings and physical violence, along with a lack of basic care including limited food, no access to clean clothes, reading materials, warm blankets, hygiene products or medical care.

“During this war, the Israeli authorities are trying to deal with all prisoners in a way that allows them to get revenge on the Palestinians. They understand what they represent in our collective mind, they are symbols of struggle,” said Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian prisoners and former detainees commission and an ally of Barghouti. “After hearing all these descriptions of Marwan as a potential future leader, my analysis is that they decided to target him specifically.”

Barghouti told his lawyers during their visit to Meggido in March that earlier that month he was dragged to an area of the prison without security cameras and assaulted. He recalled bleeding from the nose as he was dragged across the floor by his handcuffs, before he was beaten unconscious.

Dotan counted bruises in at least three places on Barghouti’s body when he visited weeks later, adding that he probably has a dislocated shoulder from the assault and is in constant pain, but prison officials have refused a full medical examination of his injuries.

He has been moved to three different detention facilities since October, each time held in solitary confinement. Last December in Ayalon prison, “he was beaten on several occasions,” said Dotan, including an incident where guards swore at him while Barghouti was “dragged on the floor naked in front of other prisoners”.

“What Barghouti has endured amounts to torture, but that has become standard across all detention facilities since 7 October,” said Tal Steiner, of the rights group the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. The Israeli prison service did not respond when contacted for comment. Both PCATI and the International Committee of the Red Cross have been denied formerly routine visits to Israeli prisons since last October.

Steiner added that PCATI collected 19 testimonies from prisoners describing physical assault, sexual or other types of humiliation as well as sleep, food and medical deprivation.

“If this is how they allow themselves to treat high-profile prisoners like Barghouti, imagine what they do to detainees who don’t have the same profile,” she said, describing the overall level of abuse as “unprecedented”.

The Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights detailed at least 10 deaths in detention since October, including five where their doctors attended the autopsies. Two autopsies recorded “severe signs of violence and assault”, while in another their physician “found that the specific cause of death was medical neglect”.

At least four cases involved potentially lethal denial of medical treatment, including the death of 25-year-old Arafat Hamdan, who required insulin to treat his diabetes and died in detention two days after his arrest last October.

Every former detainee began their descriptions of detention with the lack of food, and their drastic weight loss in prison. Menus produced by the Israeli prison service show that Palestinian prisoners, referred to as “security prisoners” in the documentation, are given a different diet to other prisoners, one without meat or an ability to buy extra food from the canteen.

In his living room in Ramallah, 74-year-old activist Omar Assaf, who was released in late April, held up a small plastic cup of water, using his thumb to mark the halfway point to show how little rice he was given each day. “What I witnessed the past six months was unprecedented. There is no comparison to what it was like before,” he said. Assaf was arrested in a raid last October and held in Ofer prison in the West Bank without charge, although he laughed recalling Israeli officials accusing him of allegiance to Hamas due to his beard, despite his leftwing politics.

“The first night I got to Ofer prison, I met people with obvious signs of beatings – you could see the bruises, other people had black eyes,” he said. “Sometimes the guards would throw tear gas inside the cells, or fire rubber bullets at close range. I saw people being dragged along the floor by their handcuffs and beaten.”

Prisoners wounded with rubber bullets, he added, received no treatment for their lacerations. But none of this compared to how detainees from Gaza in an adjacent section were treated, he added. “We could hear them being attacked with dogs. We heard them screaming,” he said.

Those detained by Israeli forces in Gaza and brought to military barracks near the enclave described systematic abuses in a report by the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees. These include being forced to kneel for up to 16 hours a day while blindfolded, beatings with metal bars, tortured with loud music and injuries from spending hours in tight handcuffs.

“They have no connection to the outside world,” said Steiner. “There are multiple reports of extreme torture and ill treatment. This is the Israeli Guantánamo, with all of the issues connected to forced disappearances.”

Lawyers and prisoners’ rights groups draw a direct line between the abuse of Palestinians detained within the Israeli prison system and far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who oversees it and handpicked its new acting head Kobi Yaakobi for his tough stance. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported last month that the Shin Bet intelligence service complained to the attorney general about Yaakobi’s choice to improve conditions for Jewish Israelis imprisoned for terror offences, in contrast to the deteriorating conditions for jailed Palestinians.

“This is policy directed by Itamar Ben Gvir,” said Dotan, in reference to the changes for Palestinian prisoners. “There has definitely been a shift, but so far we haven’t seen any official document where this new policy is explained.”

Fares felt that Israel’s treatment of Palestinian detainees showed “they want revenge”. Hiring an Israeli legal team to fight Barghouti’s case, he said, had marginally improved his treatment. “He continues to be isolated, but they stopped beating him,” he said.