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Israel is ‘Disappearing’ Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza – and Their Families May Never Get Answers

Palestinians are vanishing without a trace into secret prisons and detention centres, and authorities are stonewalling their families

Palestinians line up to receive free meals during the Muslim’s holy fasting month of Ramadan, at Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Photo: DPA Picture Alliance / Alamy

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In December 2023, grim photographs began emerging from the rubble-strewn streets of the city of Beit Lahi in the Gaza Strip. In them were Palestinian men and boys surrounded by Israeli soldiers, stripped and kneeling beneath bombed-out buildings, some blindfolded and others bound, ready to be taken away.

During the winter, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) claimed they were detaining only “Hamas-affiliated” Palestinians. Many of the people in these images, along with thousands of others detained in raids across Gaza, have vanished into Israeli detention centres with their families unable to find them.

Those who have disappeared include human rights defenders, Gazan workers with Israeli work permits, medical personnel, and journalists. “We haven’t seen this before in terms of the scale and numbers,” says Budour Hassan, a Palestinian writer and researcher at Amnesty International. “The disappearances are systemic and unprecedented.”

Cases of enforced disappearances in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not new but they were never this widespread. Throughout its decades-long occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, the Israel Defence Forces and Israeli Prison Services (IPS) have held onto bodies of Palestinian militants and activists, burying many in the infamous ‘cemetery of numbers’ with families lacking the means to exhume, locate and identify their loved ones. Palestinian militants have practiced enforced disappearances with the Palestinian Authority disappearing six Palestinian men in 2002 and Hamas using it to intimidate and repress political rivals.

However, since Hamas launched its attack on 7 October 2023, enforced disappearances have become state policy in Israel and are soaring. On 18 December, the Israeli government quietly introduced a temporary provision for four months to the Incarceration of Unlawful Combatants Law. Among these amendments included the extension of the number of days required by military commanders to issue a detention order for a person defined as an illegal combatant from 96 hours to 45 days.

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The amendments were partly practical as the IDF initially struggled to respond to Hamas’s atrocities and the sudden influx of Palestinian prisoners captured in the chaotic aftermath. “Israel did not announce under which legal framework it would adjudicate suspected Hamas combatants captured on October 7 and afterward,” Tal Steiner, the executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), told Byline Times. “In response, the amendment may be ‘buying the state time’ to hold detainees in custody without proceeding to trial.”

But it has been systematically abused by IDF commanders across the occupied territories, disregarding the basic human rights of Palestinian prisoners. “45 days is not a short-term enforced disappearance,” said Dr Grażyna Baranowska, an international legal scholar at the UN Working Group on Involuntary and Enforced Disappearances. “Even if those who disappeared for weeks or months reappear, it still constitutes an enforced disappearance.”

In the 45 days of initial detention, thousands of prisoners often seized at random, whether or not they are affiliated with Hamas, technically do not exist. In the absence of accountability, prisoners are held in secret facilities in grim conditions described by Israeli human rights groups as “tantamount to torture”.

“In Gaza, everyone is considered a target for enforced disappearance,” said Ms Hassan. “The abductions are random, meant to instil fear and intimidate the population. Even those who disappear and then reemerge carry stories of terror and scars from the ordeal.”

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Dozens have already died in detention with several fatalities at locations where disappeared people are being held. Families trying to locate loved ones have been systematically obstructed by the IDF and IPS and the law upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court which has dismissed several petitions to reveal the whereabouts of the disappeared, dead or alive. “Given the blanket refusal of the IDF to give out any information on the number, identity, and location of the detainees they are holding, the situation of detainees is a form of enforced disappearance,” said Mr Steiner.

The abuses of the amendment has sowed terror but had little impact on negotiations to release Israeli hostages still held by Hamas who are trying to secure both a ceasefire and the release of valuable prisoners held by Israel. “For the Israelis, it is not much the number of Palestinian prisoners they will have to release to get back their hostages but mainly the ‘quality’ of the released prisoners,” Dr. Ahron Bregman, a senior teaching fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, explained. “It will be difficult for the Israeli government to release prisoners with ‘blood on their hands’, but they will have to, meaning that Israel’s attempt to uproot Hamas is unlikely to happen.”

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Under international law, the IDF’s systemic use of enforced disappearance could constitute war crimes and a crime against humanity, adding to the mounting evidence of alleged atrocities committed. Questions surrounding the fate of the disappeared will not go away and for the families of the missing, the fight for answers is only beginning.

Most will learn about the fate of their missing loved ones, at best, only after the end of the war – a process that could play out for years after a ceasefire. But for some, stonewalled by IDF’s bureaucracy and trapped in a hellish personal and legal limbo, answers may never arrive.


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