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Israel-Palestine war: In war, words matter. Palestinian 'prisoners' are hostages, too

The thousands of Palestinians, many of them children, arbitrarily held in 'administrative detention' by Israel are every bit as much hostages as those seized by Hamas on 7 October
Freed activist Ahed Tamimi (R) is greeted by relatives following the release of Palestinians in exchange for Israeli hostages held in Gaza by Hamas, Ramallah, occupied West Bank, 30 November 2023 (AFP)

In parallel to Israel’s military offensive on Gaza, another lopsided fight is taking place - 0ne that is not lethal, but nevertheless insidious, as it shapes perceptions informing policy.

The Israeli government and its surrogates have been consistently chasing the use of language they deem detrimental to Israel and its occupation narrative. It’s part of diplomacy, one could argue.

Assuredly, but in these times of war, Israel’s war on words has become just like its offensive on Gaza: all-out. When it comes to its war on words, it resembles the silliness of schoolyard bullying.

Take the recent example of Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen castigating Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, by posting: “It seems you have lost your moral compass and… are trying to legitimise and normalise terror. Shame on you!”

It was rather an uncouth attack on the prime minister of an EU country for daring to use the words of a biblical passage from the New Testament  - “an innocent child who was lost has now been found” - in his gracious 360-word 25 November post on X to mark the release by Hamas of Emily, a nine-year-old Irish-Israeli girl held hostage since 7 October.

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Tel Aviv even summoned Ireland’s ambassador to Israel over the post.

Held by the military

Contrast this storm in a teacup with the widespread use of the misnomer “prisoner” to define Palestinians, including hundreds of children, some as young as Emily, arbitrarily arrested and languishing in Israeli military prisons for months, years or decades.

According to the United Nations, Israel has detained one million Palestinians in the occupied territory, including tens of thousands of children, for various lengths of time, since 1967.

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In her July 2023 report on arbitrary deprivation of liberty to the UN Human Rights Council, Francesca Albanese, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, estimated that 5,000 Palestinians were at the time held by Israeli authorities.

Under Israeli law, however, a Palestinian child can be sentenced to 20 years for hurling a stone

Of those detained, the majority were held by the military, which exercises jurisdiction over the West Bank, whereas the police and civilian courts have jurisdiction over occupied East Jerusalem because it was formally annexed by Israel.

Governed by the Hague Regulations, the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I, as well as customary international humanitarian law, the detention of individuals in situations of belligerent occupation is only permissible if “absolutely necessary” for the security of the occupying power or “imperative reasons of security” and after a fair and impartial trial of such “protected persons”.

Under Israeli law, however, a Palestinian child can be sentenced to 20 years for hurling a stone. Conviction rates by military courts of Palestinian children and adults tell the tale: in 2011, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported internal military data showing that 99.74 percent of so-called trials resulted in convictions - 9,542 against 25 acquittals.

'Administrative detention'

According to Hamas, its 7 October incursion inside Israel, which killed 1200 people, was primarily undertaken to abduct Israelis to be exchanged for Palestinian “prisoners” held by Israel. As such, all captives held by Hamas are by definition hostages.

Even captured Israeli military personnel, nominally prisoners of war, are also hostages since, according to Hamas, their capture in the commando-style attack was expressly done in order to exact the release of Palestinian detainees. This too befits the textbook definition of a hostage.

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For the most part, Palestinian captives arrested, or rather captured by the Israeli army in the West Bank or police in occupied East Jerusalem, are hostages. Under Israeli law, any Palestinian of any age can be seized at any time of the day or night with no warrant, no charges, and held for days, months or years under “administrative detention”.

If eventually charged, the charge is typically a broad threat to state security or remains secret, according to many attorneys of apprehended Palestinians.

These practices amount in and of themselves to state-sponsored terrorism.

Testimonies of Palestinian mothers, terrified by a military 3am raid on their home to take away their children, husbands, or themselves, are chilling. The not-so-subliminal message is clear: don’t resist occupation and you’ll be fine. Or else.

Amnesty International “found that Israel has systematically used administrative detention as a tool to persecute Palestinians, rather than as an extraordinary and selectively used preventative measure”.

Breaking Palestinian will

According to Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations, over 3,000 Palestinians, including children, women and journalists, have been arrested in the West Bank by the Israeli military since 7 October alone, placed under administrative detention and many held incommunicado.

More than 300 have been killed, including youngsters such as nine-year-old Adam Samer al-Ghoul, shot dead on 29 November in cold blood by the Israeli military on the street in Jenin.

Of the 240 released Palestinians during the seven-day truce in Gaza, 173 were 18 years old or younger. They and their families were ordered by Israeli authorities not to celebrate their release, whether outdoors or indoors.

This pernicious modus operandi serves one purpose: instil fear in every single family, terrorise entire Palestinian communities to compel their submissiveness

Meanwhile, in a revolving-door fashion, a similar number of Palestinians were arrested in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem during the truce.

This pernicious modus operandi serves one purpose: instil fear in every single family, and terrorise entire Palestinian communities to compel their submissiveness to, and acquiescence in, the occupation.

In this regard, it is evident that arbitrarily detained Palestinians, young and old, boys and girls just like Emily, are also hostages. Not merely prisoners, political prisoners or arbitrarily detained persons under international law, but hostages. Their price: breaking the Palestinian will to resist occupation.

From the Nuremberg military tribunal statute to the statute of the International Criminal Court, the taking of hostages in an international or internal conflict is a war crime, prosecutable in national court under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

And that is why Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen will come after you, to bully and silence you, with another “shame on you”, should you suffer the misfortune of calling a Palestinian hostage, a hostage.

Because in war, words matter.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Moncef Khane is a former United Nations official. He worked in human rights, political affairs, peacekeeping operations and in the Executive Office of Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He was a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, and holds masters degrees from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and from the Kennedy School of Government.
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