Hunger striking Palestinian prisoners protest lack of access to medical care

This week more than 1,100 Palestinian prisoners announced the start of a mass hunger strike in protest against the conditions inside Israeli prisons. Their demands include better access to medical care, improved family visitation rights, and better treatment when being transferred to courts, prisons or medical centres.

Meanwhile, this week Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) supported a delegation of Palestinian and Israeli human rights defenders to London, where they talked to parliamentarians, government officials and the public about issues of accountability for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, and shrinking civil society space for NGOs. The delegates came from human rights organisations Al Haq, Adalah, and Public Committee Against Torture – Israel (PCATI), all members of the EuroMed Rights Network along with MAP.

We took the opportunity of their visit to speak to Dr Rachel Stroumsa, Executive Director of PCATI, about the hunger strike and the issue of access to medical care for Palestinian prisoners:

"Of the demands raised by hunger strikers, the issue of access to medical care is prominent, which is not surprising to anyone familiar with the state of health in Israeli prisons. At the moment, prisoners are treated by prison medics and physicians, who are employed directly by the Israel Prison Service and under their complete authority.  Prison physicians are not members of the Israel Medical Association; they receive no training in identifying and documenting torture and ill-treatment; and the vast majority of them do not speak Arabic.

The result, of course, is that they are not independent: that our vision of doctors standing beside the sick, advocating for those under their care, trusted by their patients, is not borne out by reality here. In Israel prisons, the health professionals stand beside the prison system, colluding with abuses. This is why access to independent physicians and experts, not bound to the prison system, is so crucial. Such access has been denied by the Prison Authorities, most recently as of February 2017, in spite of several Court decisions. 

Another systemic problem in the access to health care raised by the hunger strikers is the issues of transfer between facilities. When a prisoner is referred to a specialist – e.g. for a diagnostic scan, for chemotherapy, for consultation on a neurological problem – he/she is transported using the notorious "Posta" system.

Posta vans make the rounds of the various prisons and detention centers, taking hours and sometimes days to reach the hospital. During transit prisoners are routinely shackled, and access to food, water and toilets is limited and erratic.

In addition, the day before a Posta transfer is spent in an isolation unit. The result is that prisoners reach the specialized medical care they need in a state of exhaustion, after up to three days spend in freezing cold or blistering hot vans: indeed, even the Israeli High Court of Justice has called these conditions tantamount to torture. Small wonder that many prisoners prefer not to apply for treatment, given the extremely high cost of reaching it. 

These are issues that affect all prisoners - as does the absolute lack of any non-medicational mental health treatment. It is the norm that Palestinians detained by Israel will suffer some form of violence or ill treatment. In this sense, the struggle of the security prisoners is highlighting problems within the entire system."

You can read more about PCATI's work here.