As the war rages in Gaza, more than 1,700 Palestinians living in the West Bank have disappeared into Israeli custody since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, with no access to lawyers or their families until the past few days, Palestinian officials say.
That figure includes some who are known members of Hamas, but also a high-school principal, a 75-year-old Marxist and teenagers, all of whom have no apparent affiliation with militant groups.
And the 1,700 are just the prisoners that Israel has advised the Palestinian Authority (PA) about. Qadura Fares, the PA’s commissioner for prisoners’ affairs, told The Globe and Mail that as many as 4,000 Gazans – who had either been working inside Israel or had crossed the de facto border during the chaos of Oct. 7 – had been separately caught up in the Israeli security crackdown, though the PA has not received any official information about their whereabouts.
Israeli security services say they have arrested 1,070 “wanted persons” in the West Bank since Oct. 7 – a very different figure from that collected by Palestinian authorities – many of them associated with Hamas or other militant groups. On Monday, the Israeli army said it had seized weapons and explosives in raids that resulted in 51 arrests.
It’s unlikely that many of those arrested will receive an open trial. Mr. Fares said 70 per cent of the new West Bank detainees were likely to be placed in “administrative detention,” a tool Israeli security forces use to hold people indefinitely without making public allegations against them. The 1,700 new prisoners – a number Mr. Fares said includes 27 women and more than 120 minors – are in addition to the 5,300 Palestinians who were being held in Israeli jails before Oct. 7.
Figures published by the Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem show the use of administrative detention – both in the number of arrests and the duration of custody – has spiked dramatically over the past two years, surpassing even the heights of the last Palestinian intifada, or uprising, two decades ago. The figures reveal it has become increasingly common for Israel to hold Palestinians in detention for six months to two years without charging them.
Mr. Fares said that while “many” of those arrested were affiliated with the Islamist movement, others were members of rival political movements who appear to have been targeted for showing “solidarity” with Hamas on social media.
“The main basis for the Israeli strategy is revenge. That is their plan,” Mr. Fares said in an interview at his office in Ramallah. “They think that what happened on Oct. 7 released them from respecting international law, including Israel’s own legal principles. The Israelis feel free to kill, to arrest, to do anything.”
Hamas, which has been holding some 240 Israelis hostage in the Gaza Strip since Oct. 7, has proposed an all-for-all prisoner swap that would see it release all the hostages it is holding if Israel frees all Palestinian prisoners. Israel, which pounded and laid siege to Gaza for three weeks after the attacks and is now gradually pushing troops and tanks deeper into the strip, has thus far rejected the offer, calling it a political ploy.
More than 8,300 Gazans have been killed since Oct. 7, according to the the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its figures. In the West Bank, which is under Israeli military occupation, with the PA having limited governance powers, 123 Palestinians have been killed over the same period in clashes with Israeli troops and settlers.
Jamil Saadi, the head lawyer at the PA’s Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs, said his team of 50 lawyers has seen evidence that Palestinian prisoners arrested since Oct. 7 were being systematically beaten.
“One hundred per cent of those who were arrested in the past few weeks were badly beaten,” Mr. Saadi said. Palestinian lawyers are able to attend administrative detention hearings, where they can see suspects via video link, offering a glimpse of everything from bruised faces to broken limbs. Neither suspects nor their lawyers are provided access to evidence in those hearings.
Detainees have also been barred from the prison canteen and are receiving reduced food rations. Mr. Fares said prisoners have been kept from leaving their cells, prevented from seeing family, restricted from meeting with lawyers and stripped of comforts such as radios, kettles and clothing.
At least two Palestinians – 25-year-old Arafat Hamdan and 65-year-old Omar Daragmeh – have died in detention since Oct. 7, Mr. Fares said. The Israeli military did not immediately reply to questions from The Globe about the deaths of the two men.
On Oct. 22, Israeli soldiers entered the home of Mr. Hamdan, a house painter who was known to have diabetes and heart problems. A few months earlier, he had been in intensive care. It’s not clear why he was arrested, but the soldiers hooded him and took him away.
He died 48 hours later. He never received the medication he required, said Mahmoud al-Hajj, a friend from his village of Beit Sirra. A forensic investigation has not been completed.
“We don’t know the exact cause of death,” Mr. al-Hajj said. “But in general, it was medical negligence.”
His brother, Ahmed al-Hajj, who works for the PA’s lightly armed police force, has also been arrested. “They say he was in possession of weapons,” said Mr. al-Hajj. But carrying a gun is part of his job, and “when he leaves work, he doesn’t take his weapon with him.”
Those arrested since Oct. 7 include senior Hamas figures such as Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the movement’s founders, and Aziz Dweik, who briefly served as the speaker of the Palestinian legislature. The rationale behind other arrests, however, is a mystery to Palestinian officials.
“Yesterday they arrested a school principal, and we don’t know why,” Mr. Saadi said. “Sometimes it’s just because of a Facebook like or a Facebook comment. For others, the Israelis confiscate their phones and arrest them if, for example, there is some picture or a quote from Abu Obeida.”
Abu Obeida is the main spokesperson in Gaza for the military wing of Hamas, the al-Qassam Brigades.
Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian politician, said some of those who were arrested in recent weeks had simply been outspoken in their opposition to the Israeli assault in Gaza.
Among them, he said, was a 75-year-old friend of his, a Marxist “who was arrested just because he is active in public affairs and media.”
Mr. Barghouti’s main account on X was suspended Monday after a post in which he described how a one-day-old Palestinian child who died in Gaza had been “issued a death certificate before receiving a birth certificate.”
A doctor by profession, Mr. Barghouti has long advocated non-violent resistance to Israel’s military rule over the West Bank. His followers on X had grown five-fold since Oct. 7, he said, with some posts reaching a million views. He suspects the account suspension was a deliberate effort to silence him.
“It’s a kind of witch-hunting, I call it, where they go after every Palestinian voice,” he said.