Forgotten Behind Bars: COVID-19 and Palestinian Prisoners Detained in Israel

Yazid Barhoush

On March 25th, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic escalated, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called for governments to “not forget those behind bars” and “act quickly to reduce the number of people in detention”.[1] She urged governments and authorities to reduce the number of people in detention and explicitly called on governments to release individuals detained without sufficient legal basis. In April, the Center for Constitutional Rights sent a letter to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), endorsed by 74 organizations, highlighting the need for an urgent intervention to safeguard Palestinian prisoners and detainees in Israeli prisons from COVID-19 exposure.[2] The letter was in support of an urgent appeal by the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association and Al-Haq, and emphasized that Israel arresting Palestinians and holding them in Israel violates international humanitarian law, including the prohibition against an occupying power transferring protected individuals outside of an occupied territory.[3]

Despite these calls, Israel has done little to protect the approximately 4,500 Palestinian detainees and prisoners held in Israeli facilities, including 700 detainees with pre-existing medical conditions.[4] While Israeli authorities authorized the release of high-risk Israeli citizens, the same protections were not provided to Palestinians—a move that UN experts, including Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory, on the right to physical and mental health, on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and members of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention—labelled a violation of international law.[5]

Between April 2020 and December 2020 at least 140 Palestinian prisoners were infected with COVID-19.[6] Further advocacy by ICRC and other human rights groups, and a petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice in January 2021, succeeded in pressuring Israeli authorities to provide COVID-19 vaccines for prisoners.[7]

Yet, even as the Omicron variant has led to record numbers of cases and Israel has vaccinated its own population with third and fourth booster doses, delivering nearly 18 million vaccines overall, Palestinian prisoners have not received booster shots, regardless of their age or underlying health status.[8]

During the week of January 3rd, 2022, 15 million new cases were recorded worldwide.[9] In addition to the new variant, this surge in cases is due to decreased social distancing practices. The ability to practice social distancing is a privilege, not available to many people in the world. Since the pandemic, detention centers, including jails, prisons, and immigration detention facilities, have been places of significant transmission because of the limitations of social distancing practices, unhygienic conditions, and the lack of adequate health care.[10]

On January 23rd, 2022, new reports were posted on the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society (PPS) Facebook page concerning COVID-19 cases in Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The report stated that more than 100 cases of COVID-19 had been detected among detainees at the Israeli Negev prison and the Ofer detention center. According to PPS, these cases resulted in a total of 530 cases in Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails since the start of the pandemic.[11]

Given the failure to fully vaccinate Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, two prisoner populations should be released immediately, as urged by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: 355 Palestinians in administrative detention based on undisclosed evidence without trial and 153 children.[12]

Administrative detention in Israel has no time limit and this measure has been used routinely to hold Palestinians for lengthy periods.[13] To date, the Israeli government has taken no action to release administrative detainees. In the past, some administrative detainees achieved freedom through extended hunger strikes, including that by Miqdad al-Qawasmi which lasted 113 days.[14] Another prisoner, Hisham Abu Hawash, ended his 141-day hunger strike after reaching a release agreement with the Israeli government, and after admission to hospital was found to have COVID-19.[15] Hunger strikes should not be the only tool that Palestinian prisoners can use to combat unjust detention and abusive Israeli policies. Hunger strikes negatively impact prisoners’ health and leave them more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection and complications.

The second population, child detainees, have often not been convicted of any offences and are being held in pre-trial detention, or if convicted, are detained for minor offences as stone-throwing. COVID-19 restrictions have limited their opportunities to connect with their families and lawyers, which creates a psychological burden and can lead to prolonged detention. UNICEF has called for their immediate release but again the Israeli government has not done so.[16]

With the increase of COVID-19 cases worldwide and within Israeli jails, Israel has human rights obligations to release Palestinian prisoners and thereby fulfil the demands of Michelle Bachelet. Moreover, all Palestinian prisoners have equal rights to receive booster vaccinations to be better protected against COVID-19.

Yazid Barhoush is a Dornsife International Research Fellow and a Master of Public Health student at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health.


[1] OHCHR. ‘Urgent action needed to prevent COVID-19 “rampaging through places of detention” – Bachelet,’ March 25, 2020. Available at:

[2] Center for Constitutional Rights. ICRC: Urgent Intervention Needed to Protect Palestinian Prisoners and Detainees in Israeli Prisons from COVID-19 Exposure. April 16, 2020. Available at:

[3] Ibid.

[4] NPR. Israel To Start Vaccinating Palestinian Prisoners Next Week. January 14, 2021. Available at:

[5] OHCHR. COVID-19: Israel must release Palestinian prisoners in vulnerable situation, say UN experts. April 24, 2020. Available at:

[6] Al Jazeera. “Israel shuts down Ramon prison due to COVID infections”. December 29, 2020. Available at:

[7] See note 4.

[8] COVID-19 Tracker: Israel. January 23, 2022. Reuters. Available at Accessed January 23, 2022; “Covid-19: Israel plans to give fourth dose of vaccine to over-60s,” BBC, December 22, 2021. Available at

[9] World Health Organization. Weekly epidemiological update on COVID-19. January 11, 2021. Available at—11-january-2022.

[10] J. J. Amon. “COVID-19 and Detention: Respecting Human Rights,” Health and Human Rights Journal. 22/1, (2020), pp 367-370.

[11] Palestinian Prisoner’s Society Facebook page. تصاعد انتشار فايروس “كورونا” بين صفوف الأسرى في سجون الاحتلال  (COVID-19 Cases Spike between Palestinian Prisoners in Israeli Prisons). January 23, 2022. Available at Accessed January 25, 2022.

[12] Human Rights Watch. Israel and Palestine Events of 2020. Available at Accessed January 12, 2022.

[13] B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in Occupied Territories. Administrative Detention. Available at

[14] “Palestinian ends 113-day hunger strike – officials, Reuters. November 11, 2021. Available at

[15] “Palestinian Prisoner Hisham Abu Hawash Ends Hunger Strike After Deal With Israel”. The Times of Israel. January 4, 2022. Available at ; “Palestinian prisoner, Hisham Abu Hawash, infected with COVID-19 while in Israeli hospital,” Middle East Monitor, January 14, 2022. Available at

[16] UNICEF. In light of COVID-19 crisis, UN officials call for immediate release of all children in detention, including Palestinian children. May 11, 2020. Available at