No To Preventive Detention: From Palestine, to Guantánamo, to U.S. Jails!

Photograph Source: Neil Ward – CC BY 2.0

Under the banner, Our decision is freedom … no to administrative detention,” five hundred Palestinian administrative detainees collectively declared their boycott of Israeli military courts at the beginning of January 2022.  The boycott was also taken up by their legal counsel who will no longer attend or participate in court procedures on their behalf.  This courageous stance was provoked by the drastic increase of Israeli administrative detention orders against Palestinians which escalated during and after the Palestinian Unity Uprising/Intifada of April 2021.  During 2021, the Israeli military commander in the West Bank region issued 1595 administrative detention orders, including the renewal of previous orders and issuing new ones.

According to Milena Ansari, International Advocacy Officer of Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, “In military courts, where the judges and the prosecutors are all military officers and where the laws adopted are Israeli military orders, there is no hope of any kind of justice for Palestinians. Hence their boycott of military courts and refusal to participate in its procedures highlights the lack of trust in any judicial process.”

Administrative detention is an official Israeli policy, codified into law, whereby Palestinians can be arrested without a charge for so-called “security reasons.”  Detainees are held without trial and without being told about the evidence against them.  In most cases, they are simply informed that there is ‘secret evidence’ which neither they nor their lawyer can see. They are often interrogated and tortured after arrest. There is no clear or defined sentence, and all administrative detention orders are renewable indefinitely every six months. The periodic review of administrative detention orders takes place at closed hearings that do not allow the public or family members of the detainee to be present.  Often an administrative detainee is released and on their way home when an order renewing the detention is issued and they are cruelly returned to prison

United Nations experts and Special Rapporteurs have repeatedly issued statements, most recently on 21 October 2021, strongly condemning Israeli practices of administrative detention which are in clear violation of international law.  However, the Israeli apartheid state has consistently ignored these denunciations.  Political support and astronomical funding from the U.S. government gives Israel license to continue these practices regardless of international denunciations.

According to a statement from the detainees regarding their decision to boycott, administrative detention is “an arbitrary and oppressive medium to humiliate and torture Palestinian detainees and their families, undermine their morale, break their will, and disrupt legitimate Palestinian social and political activities under international law.”  They describe the military courts as a “barbaric, racist tool that has consumed hundreds of years from the lives of our people.”

Over the years, administrative detainees have employed various forms of resistance to bring about change.  Hunger strikes have been one of the most common methods undertaken at great risk to the health and lives of the detainees.  In 2021, sixty Palestinian detainees undertook hunger strikes, but nothing has altered the current situation.  As the detainees explained, “Our only option now is to begin our mass united resistance movement against the administrative detention policy after reaching a dead-end.”

The boycott exposes administrative detention as one of the lynchpins of carceral control over Palestinians. The action comes at a moment when a major new report by Amnesty International is denouncing the entire violent system of apartheid which Israel has established to maintain its settler colonial regime since 1948.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. imperialist state also utilizes preventive detention methods, having generated its repressive “security” strategies in conjunction with Israel over the past several decades. 2022 marks the shameful twentieth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo prison which has become synonymous with prolonged detention without evidence, trial or pretense of due process. The Patriot Act, passed shortly after September 11, 2001, legalized the indefinite detention of people without charging them with a specific crime.

The U.S. cynically outsourced this violation of due process, along with the routine implementation of interrogation and torture, to the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay Cuba.  The Guantánamo military base itself is an illegal occupation of Cuba’s sovereign territory.  At its height, Guantánamo held over seven hundred, mostly Muslim detainees under the justification of fighting terrorism and protecting the U.S. against threats to its security. This is the same justification that Israel uses to hold Palestinian administrative detainees.

Twenty years after it was opened, thirty-nine prisoners are still being held at Guantánamo without ever having been charged or tried.  A UN panel of experts released a scathing report in January 2022 stating, “Twenty years of practicing arbitrary detention without trial accompanied by torture or ill treatment is simply unacceptable for any government, particularly a government which has a stated claim to protecting human rights.”  Like Israel, the U.S. disregards international law as it pleases.

Another more masked form of preventive detention in the United States is pre-trial detention.   Nearly half a million people in the U.S. are currently in jail, awaiting trial while they are still legally innocent.  Nearly 7 in 10 (69%) of these pre-trial detainees are people of color, with Black (43%) and Hispanic (19.6%) defendants especially overrepresented compared to their share of the total U.S. population.

Since the 1980’s, pretrial populations have more than doubled in size, and unconvicted defendants now make up about two-thirds (65%) of jail populations nationally.   Many are jailed pretrial simply because they can’t afford cash bail, others because a probation, parole, or ICE office has placed a “hold” on their release.  Holding people pre-trial is also a means of coercing them into guilty pleas thus eliminating trials and due process all together. Still others are held without bail because they are deemed a “threat to public safety.” Again, this is the same “security threat” language and logic that justifies endless imprisonment at Guantánamo and the repeated administrative detention of Palestinians.

There is a growing movement across the U.S. to challenge pre-trial detention. Ending money bail is one prong of this effort but it also includes challenging the use of racist risk assessment tools which “predict” criminality in order to detain people before trial.  The movement also contests the promotion of pre-trial electronic monitoring as a “humane” alternative to being detained in a brick and mortar prison. Electronic monitoring expands the reach of the carceral system into people’s homes and is disproportionately applied to BIPOC people, with multiple negative physical, psychological and economic impacts.

In California, the statewide Care First Coalition has adopted a framework called “Preserving the Presumption of Innocence” (PPI) that calls for an end to money bail and a rejection of risk assessment tools that apply racist algorithms to determine qualification for release.  Instead, PPI calls for community based pretrial services, completely independent of law enforcement, that can adequately ensure people’s participation in the legal process while preserving the presumption of their innocence.

Israel and the U.S. have worked hand-in-hand to accelerate the use of preventive detention as an ongoing means of social control in the face of the unmanageable contradictions of the settler colonial/imperialist project.  The U.S. backs Israel with billions of dollars of security funding while Israel, via such companies as SuperCom, plays an ever-increasing role in perfecting sophisticated forms of electronic monitoring and other forms of enveloping surveillance technology.

Addameer and other Palestinian prisoner support organizations have issued a call for solidarity with the detainees’ boycott. They demand that local and international human rights institutions and State parties call on the Israeli occupation/apartheid regime to end its policy of administrative detention and release all administrative detainees currently held in Israeli occupation prisons. According to Ansari, “Inside Israeli occupation prisons, the detainees in Ofer, Naqab, and Megiddo are using every means possible to denounce Israeli military courts, escalating their boycott, increasingly taking collective organized actions like refusing meals or medicine for a day or a week. Now it’s our time from the outside to do the same. “

By standing with Palestinian prisoners against administrative detention, we anchor the struggle against preventive detention in the U.S. within a global movement that raises the banner of freedom across bars and borders.

Diana Block works with the Bay Area Cuba Saving Lives Committee. She is a founding and active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners , an abolitionist organization that celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020. She is the author of a memoir, Arm the Spirit – A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back (AKPress 2009), and a novel, Clandestine Occupations – An Imaginary History (PM Press 2015). She writes for various online journals.