Israel seeks to replace Red Cross with ‘external party’ for Palestinian prisoner visits

Civil rights group blasts proposal, says government ‘circumventing international law’ and ‘overriding international regulations based on professional oversight and neutrality’

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Hamas terrorists who were caught during the October 7th massacre and during the IDF operation in the Gaza Strip, seen at a courtyard in a prison in southern Israel, February 14, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Hamas terrorists who were caught during the October 7th massacre and during the IDF operation in the Gaza Strip, seen at a courtyard in a prison in southern Israel, February 14, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The government has told the High Court of Justice it is devising a new mechanism to provide visitation rights and legal representation for Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, as an alternative to visits by the Red Cross.

In a new submission to the court in response to a petition filed in February by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the state said that within the new framework an “external party” would be designated to visit Palestinian prisoners, receive any complaints about their conditions, and pass that information on to relevant parties, thereby fulfilling the function of the Red Cross.

The petition has requested that the court order the government to allow the Red Cross to renew its visits to Palestinian prisoners in prisons and IDF holding facilities for all categories of Palestinian prisoners, after the government halted such visits following the October 7 atrocities perpetrated by Hamas and the outbreak of war with Gaza.

Since that time, the Red Cross, which previously visited Palestinian prisoners on a regular basis, has been barred from visiting the approximately 11,500 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

These includes 9,000 prisoners convicted of security offenses or held in administrative detention for such offenses without being tried, 1,500 criminal convicts and administrative detainees, as well as some 1,000 unlawful combatants, meaning Hamas and other terrorist operatives captured in Israel on or after October 7, or in Gaza during the IDF’s campaign there.

The state has so far not told the court why the Red Cross visits have been stopped, since it has yet to submit its substantive response to the petitions. It has received several extensions from the court to the deadline for submitting its response, arguing it needs more time to fully formulate a new system for prisoner visitation.

This undated photo taken in the winter 2023 and provided by Breaking the Silence, a whistleblower group of former Israeli soldiers, shows blindfolded Palestinians captured in the Gaza Strip in a detention facility on the Sde Teiman military base in southern Israel. (Breaking The Silence via AP)

The government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been highly critical of the Red Cross during the war, in particular its failure to gain access to the Israeli hostages held by Hamas and deliver them medicine.

ACRI lambasted the state’s declared intention of replacing the function of the Red Cross, saying the government was “consciously defying international law” and said that “qualified” non-governmental oversight over detention conditions was essential.

The Red Cross petition is one of two ACRI has filed regarding the welfare and rights of Palestinian prisoners, with the other demanding the closure of the Sde Teiman detention facility where terror suspects have been held. The site has faced allegations of widespread abuse at the facility — including extreme use of physical restraints, beatings, neglect of medical problems, arbitrary punishments and other violations.

According to the state’s response filed on Tuesday, the security cabinet decided at the end of April to create a new system for visitations and for the transfer of information about Palestinian prisoners.

“The mechanism being formulated is expected to fulfill the purpose filled until now by the Red Cross, designating an external party to government authorities which will be permitted to visit prison facilities, receive the complaints of relevant prisoners, and pass on information about them,” the state told the court.

The state’s response said that the new system would be based on the previous framework which allowed for Red Cross visits, including methods for dealing with complaints, establishing the nature of the visits, the transfer of information about the visits to relevant parties, and policy on what type of prisoners could be visited.

But ACRI rejected the notion of replacing the Red Cross, insisting that Israel could not “circumvent the laws requiring ICRC access” and institute its own mechanism, “overriding international regulations based on professional oversight and neutrality.”

An attorney for ACRI noted that the Red Cross has been fulfilling the function of visiting Palestinian prisoners for over 50 years, and arguing that many thousands of prisoners who had nothing to do with the events of October 7 were suffering as a result.

“The Israeli government is consciously defying international law, inventing a far-fetched mechanism in order to replace the arrangement accepted by the world,” the organization said on Wednesday.

Hamas terrorists who were caught during the October 7th massacre and during the IDF operation in the Gaza Strip, seen at a courtyard in a prison in southern Israel, February 14, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“As ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] access stopped, reports emerged of collective punishment, starvation, violence and dozens of Palestinian deaths in Israeli custody. Mounting testimonies reveal Israel has turned its detention facilities into a black hole for Palestinian prisoners enduring appalling conditions,” it said.

The organization said the obligation to allow Red Cross visits for Palestinian prisoners and to provide it with information regarding those prisoners “applies even more strongly during war, when the fear of violating enemy detainees’ rights increases.”

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