Solitary confinement: A common denominator in Jerusalem attacks

Israel held over 3,000 prisoners — in over 5,000 incidents — in solitary confinement over the course of last year. Over 200 minors were sent to solitary. Experts call the practice cruel and inhuman treatment, and agree that it causes severe psychiatric problems. With two attacks in Jerusalem within the span of a week committed by men who spent significant period of time in solitary, it merits a closer look.

By Noam Rotem (translated from Hebrew by Einat Adar)

Illustrative photo of Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli military prison (By ChameleonsEye /
Illustrative photo of Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli military prison (By ChameleonsEye /

On Wednesday night, October 29, a man arrived on a motorcycle to a conference organized by a Jewish right-wing movement to promote the building of a new temple on the Temple Mount and shot three bullets at Yehuda Glick, a central figure in the movement. A few hours later, Shin Bet forces invaded the Abu Tor neighborhood in Jerusalem and shot and killed Muataz Hejazi, a Palestinian recently released from jail, who they claimed was responsible for shooting Glick. But the story is more complicated than that.

Hejazi, a resident of Abu Tor, was sent to prison in December 2000 — during the Second Intifada — after being convicted of an attempt to set fire to an electrical box in a settlers’ house. His acquaintances claim that he was not a member of the Islamic Jihad organization, as claimed by the state, but admitted to being a member after he was tortured by Israeli investigators. During his time in jail – and, according to the same sources, after he and family members visiting him were humiliated in prison — he attacked a prison officer with a razor and beat up an investigator who, according to his family, was among those who tortured him.

In response to these incidents the jail authorities decided to hold him in solitary confinement. According to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, a Palestinian NGO that supports prisoners and their families, Hejazi spent 11 years in Israeli prison, 10 of which were in solitary confinement.

When he was released in June 2012 he suffered severe psychiatric disorders which, according to sources close to him, were caused by his long stretch of solitary confinement. Hejazi was active during the recent Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike, and after his release attempted to raise awareness to the danger of long terms of solitary confinement.

Palestinians attend the night funeral of Moataz Hejazi, outside Jerusalem's old city, October 30, 2014. Police limited the access to funeral to 45 family members, but hundreds of Palestinians managed to enter the premises. Moatez was killed in a raid of the Israeli police on his house in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Abu Tor, as he was a suspect in shooting of Israeli right-wing activist Rabbi Yehuda Glick the day before. (photo: Yotam Ronen/
Palestinians attend the night funeral of Muataz Hejazi, outside Jerusalem’s Old City, October 30, 2014. (Photo: Yotam Ronen/

It would be impossible to assess the impact of solitary confinement on Hejazi’s actions, since he was shot to death by the officers who tried to arrest him. However, there is a wide agreement among mental health professionals that solitary confinement can cause grievous harm to prisoners.

A common denominator

The chairman of the Israel Psychiatric Association published a professional opinion a few years ago stating that holding a prisoner in solitary confinement for a long period can cause severe mental damage, and the Israeli Medical Association forbids its members to approve the holding of a prisoner in solitary confinement as part of its ethical code. Experts even claim that long-term solitary confinement violates international agreements signed by Israel.

This is the second incident in one week in which a former prisoner who spent a long time in solitary confinement is suspected of attacking Israeli citizens. On October 23rd, Abdel Rahman Al-Shaloudi, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, hit eight people with a car close to the Israel Police’s national headquarters in Jerusalem. He was shot dead when trying to escape.

>Read also: Palestinian-Israeli journalist’s incommunicado detention

Shaloudi was first arrested at the age of 18 for “security offenses” and was sentenced to 16 months in prison. At the beginning of 2014 he was arrested for a month, during which he was kept in solitary confinement for at least three weeks, an experience that deeply affected his mental state. His mother says his investigators used humiliations, threats and even tortured.

After he was released he was occasionally summoned for “conversations” with Shin Bet officials who cursed him, humiliated him and made threats that further destabilized him, saying he would never be able to study, find a job or lead a normal life, his family says. Since his release from prison Shaloudi reportedly suffered from delusions and mental stress. He was unable to sleep for three days before the tragic events and on that morning his mother took him to a physician who referred them to a psychiatrist.

That two men who spent significant periods of time in solitary confinement attacked Jews in two separate incidents in a single week merits a deeper look.

‘Cruel and inhuman treatment’

Israel’s Ketziot Prison on October 16, 2011. At the time, Ketziot held over half of all Palestinians detained in Israel. (Photo by ChameleonsEye /
Israel’s Ketziot Prison on October 16, 2011. At the time, Ketziot held over half of all Palestinians detained in Israel. (Photo by ChameleonsEye /

According to information supplied by the Israeli Prison Service to B’Tselem in response to a query submitted under the freedom of information law, 3,215 prisoners were held in solitary confinement in 5,297 separate incidents between April 29, 2013 and June 30, 2014. (To clarify, this post represents my personal opinions and research and has no connection to B’Tselem beyond referring to the information the Prison Service provided it.)

Prison authorities can hold a prisoner in “single solitary confinement,” meaning they spend at least 23 hours a day in a tiny cell dedicated for this purpose (the size of an average solitary cell ranges between 1.5 meters by 2 meters and 3 meters by 3.5 meters). Another option is “double solitary confinement,” in which two prisoners are locked in a single cell. (Read my previous post in Hebrew for a refresher about the types of damage caused by this type of confinement.)

During the period for which the Prison Service provided data, 2,027 Israeli citizens, 962 Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and 225 foreign nationals were held in solitary confinement. There has been a significant rise in the number of foreign nationals held in solitary confinement. From the start of 2007 through April 2013 only 28 foreign nationals were held in solitary confinement, but in the following period, from April 2013 to June 2014, 225 foreign nationals were held in solitary confinement, a rise of over 700 percent in only 14 months. (Israel began imprisoning African asylum seekers at higher rates during this period due to a new law that authorized their sometimes open-ended imprisonment.)

During the same period minors were sent to solitary confinement 451 times. A total of 212 minors were held in solitary confinement, at least three of them Palestinian children under the age of 16. A UN report found that holding minors in solitary confinement is a form of torture or cruel and inhuman treatment, a claim supported by the public defender’s unit of the Israeli Justice Ministry and many other domestic and international professional authorities. The high number of minors held in solitary confinement must raise difficult questions about the way the Prison Authority in general, and the management of specific prisons in particular, are treating minors in their care.

Ineffectual oversight and loopholes

Israel's Supreme Court sits as the High Court of Justice, April 1, 2014. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills)
Israel’s Supreme Court sits as the High Court of Justice, April 1, 2014. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills)

Clause 19 of Israel’s Prisons Act defines the maximum period permitted for holding a person in solitary confinement. It appears that the legislature considered such confinement as a tool of last resort only, and as measure that should aim to achieve a specific goal. According to the act, a junior jailer can only send a prisoner to solitary confinement for 12 hours. A senior jailer can extend this period for up to 48 hours. If the prison authorities consider that confinement is still necessary, the prison manager can extend solitary confinement from time to time, for periods of no more than 48 hours each, and up to a total of 14 days — either consecutive or non-consecutive — in each period of 30 days.

If this is not sufficient, a high-level prison officer who has undergone special training can send a prisoner to solitary confinement for a period of up to one month. He can renew the use of this extreme measure for a period of up to six months, on condition that he consults with various professionals every month. Double solitary confinement is also limited and such imprisonment for more than six months requires the personal permission of the head of the Prison Service, and even he can only approve such confinement for up to 12 months.

In the worst case, after senior officials from the Prison Service have examined the situation thoroughly, consulted a long list of professional authorities and found there is no other alternative than to extend solitary confinement for more than six months — or double solitary confinement for more than a year — they can request that a court extend the period. The court is also limited to granting an extension of maximum six months for single solitary confinement and one year for double solitary confinement.

However, similar to the practice of administrative detention which allows the imprisonment of people without trial for up to six months — but does not limit how many times such a detention can be renewed — the legislature did not cover all bases in its attempt to restrict the use of solitary confinement. The period of permissible solitary confinement is indeed limited, but there is no limit to how many times the court can renew it consecutively, thus practically annulling all the carefully designed limitations on the usage of this cruel treatment.

>Read more on Israel’s use of administrative detention

According to data reported by the Prison Service, it held 926 Palestinian prisoners in solitary confinement between April 2013 and June 2014. Of them, 862 were held in solitary for a total of less than one month (not necessarily consecutively), 86 were held for a total of between one and six months, and 13 were held for more than six months. Looking at this data, you would expect the court to discuss at least 13 cases of confinement, but according to the same report there were only nine court discussions on extending solitary confinement. This is even more surprising when you look at the accumulative time spent in solitary confinement.

Twenty-five Palestinian prisoners were held in solitary confinement for accumulated periods of more than six months. Eight prisoners have been held in solitary for more than three years, and three prisoners spent more than seven years in solitary confinement. These numbers mean that in our prisons there are dozens of Palestinians who are isolated from human society for many years, in addition to Israeli prisoners who were not included in this report.

Violating the spirit of the law

This is how you create monsters. People cut off from his fellow humans and society lose their sense of identity — they simply go crazy.

For example, Hertzel Avitan (a high-profile Israeli criminal) was held in solitary confinement for 13 years. With time he began talking to cats which he fed using a stick.

The family of Asi Abutbul (head of a crime organization) says that during his solitary confinement, which lasted for more than seven consecutive years, he developed a series of severe psychiatric disorders and he currently relies on high doses of medication to treat them.

Ben Zygier, Prisoner X, took his own life after seven months of solitary confinement.

Israel’s Shikma Prison, where many Palestinian prisoners are held, March 12, 2008. ((Photo by ChameleonsEye /
Israel’s Shikma Prison, where many Palestinian prisoners are held, March 12, 2008. ((Photo by ChameleonsEye /

The relatively short period of one month was enough to completely change Abdel Rahman al-Shaloudi, according to his family, and created acute psychiatric problems that may have contributed to his decision to attack civilians following his release. They are now joined by the family of Muataz Hejazi, who spent 10 years of his life in an isolated cell, a period which created irreversible damage, according to people close to him.

I do not have enough data to determine whether the Prison Service has violated the letter of the law, but it definitely violated — and continues to violate — the spirit of the law. An extreme measure given to prison officers for short-term use when all other solutions fail is used frequently and sometimes for such long periods that you must ask yourself how a judge, who should be the individual’s last line of defense against the state, can keep on renewing the confinement of people he is supposed to be protecting every six months.

A judge had to sign 20 different extensions in order to keep Hejazi, who was arrested as a youth of 17 and held in solitary confinement for 10 years, in complete isolation from the world. The judge reviewed psychiatric, social, medical and other professional opinions and 20 separate times made a decision to betray the spirit of the law and enable this lengthy isolation.

A zero-percent chance

Hejazi is just one of dozens. Professional clerks of the Prison Service and the Shin Bet and the professional authorities in various government ministries are all aware of the damage caused by solitary confinement. Appeals made by lawyers on behalf of their clients pining away in solitary confinement cells sometimes elicit approving remarks from judges in court, but in the absence of systematic action and an effective control mechanism, if would be impossible to stop the routine in which people whose freedom was taken away by law, or military order, are tortured for years at the whim of some officer, usually on the basis of secret files and without a real chance of defending themselves.

According to a public defender’s office report, the court accepts the state’s request to extend the period of solitary confinement in 97 percent of the cases. A prisoner not represented by a lawyer has zero-percent chance of getting out of solitary confinement. Zero percent.

And there’s more. Israeli prisoners who are released from prison receive help from the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority that includes professional care and in some cases, even intensive inpatient treatment and occupational services to help them build new lives. Recidivism rates for prisoners who have gone through rehabilitation is 10 percent; compare that to the 62 percent of all released Israeli prisoners nationwide who end up back in prison.

>Detained: Testimonies from Palestinian children imprisoned by Israel

Released Palestinian prisoners, jailed on either criminal or security charges, are thrown out into the street. The Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority has no mandate to help Palestinian prisoners, who must rely on the support of their families and communities. The situation is even worse for security prisoners. In many cases they continue to be persecuted by the Israeli secret services, which makes their rehabilitation impossible — and as we saw in the case of Shaloudi, this can help push them into very dark corners.

One last piece of information that should be mentioned in this context is the ethnic composition of the prisoner population. According to the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority (Hebrew), just over a quarter of those imprisoned in Israel are Jewish. Another 10 percent are foreign nationals awaiting deportation and the rest are Palestinians from either Israel or the occupied territories. The precise data reported every month by the Prison Authority differs a little from that provided by the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority but the ratio is similar: the Jewish state imprisons non-Jews disproportionately to their share in the population. Equality before the law, you know.

Noam Rotem is an Israeli activist, high-tech executive and author of the blog, subtitled “Godwin doesn’t live here any more.” This piece was first published in Hebrew.

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Detained: Testimonies from Palestinian children imprisoned by Israel
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