Israel uses numerous tools to control and abuse Palestinian prisoners. One of the lesser-known instruments of repression is a seemingly innocuous means of transportation: a bus.
BY GHADA HANIA
AN ISRAELI “BOSTA” OR DETAINEE TRANSPORTATION VEHICLE, USED TO TRANSPORT PALESTINIAN PRISONERS IN CRUEL AND INHUMANE CONDITIONS. (PHOTO: PALESTINIAN MINISTRY OF DETAINEES’ AFFAIRS)
The Israeli regime uses numerous tools to control and abuse Palestinian prisoners. Most of them constitute severe violations of their rights, including their rights under international humanitarian law. These violations are tacitly supported by the silence of the international community, which fails to hold the Israeli state to account.
One of the lesser-known instruments of repression is a seemingly innocuous means of transportation: a bus. Palestinian prisoners call it al-bosta. In it, Palestinian prisoners are transferred from one prison to another, or from a prison to a military court date, or a hospital when a prisoner needs advanced medical treatment. Prisoners have another way to describe the bus: a moving grave.
The moving grave
A bosta is the name for a public bus in Egypt and parts of the Levant that transports passengers between urban and rural areas. But for Palestinian prisoners, the word evokes dread.
The bosta is divided into three sections. The first section resembles the familiar layout of a commercial passenger bus, comprised of 24 seats. An iron partition separates the section from the next, which contains two large rows of seats to the left and the right, with a narrow aisle in the middle. A dog patrols the aisle at all times, even when the bus is moving, intimidating the prisoners. The corridor continues all the way to the back of the bus. The last section contains cells in which Palestinian prisoners are placed while their hands and feet are cuffed.
The freed prisoner Amal Taqatqa tells Mondoweiss that “due to its thick tin walls, iron seats, and lack of ventilation, the bosta gets extremely hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Palestinian prisoners often experience difficulty breathing due to the abundance of cigarette smoke, the putrid smell, the suffocating crowding, and lack of fresh air.”
“Right before I was first arrested by Zionist forces, they fired six bullets at my feet and left me injured for months after. I was not able to move at the beginning. My foot was fitted with platinum, and throughout my prison sentence, I had to go through the experience of traveling in the bosta several times. Being transported as an injured prisoner, the Israeli forces didn’t show any mercy to me or consideration for my health. The air conditioner was deliberately set to a colder temperature during the winter months, and the opposite was done during the summer. In both instances, I experienced great discomfort because of wounds that had not yet healed throughout my imprisonment.”
The jailers tasked with transporting prisoners through the bosta are called the “Nahshon,” an Israeli special forces unit in charge of prisoner transport. More importantly, the Nahshon is a punitive body.
The freed prisoner Bushra al-Tawil recounts her experience with this infamous unit to Mondoweiss:
“The Nahshon unit masters the darkest of humiliations — like, for example, searching prisoners naked without even any socks — and the procedure of transferring prisoners in the bosta includes a torrent of insults. Occasionally it escalates into severe beatings, with no distinctions made between the sick and the healthy, the old and the young. Members of this unit treat prisoners with utter disdain, and the practices they employ against them do not belong to mankind or humanity.”
Engineered for humiliation
In the bosta, Palestinian prisoners can’t sit in a position that offers any degree of physical comfort. Coupled with the hard metal seats, long hours spent restrained in a single position, and the deliberately harsh climate conditions, the journey in the bus becomes a protracted agony.
Dareen Tatour, a freed prisoner, explains that “handcuffs are placed on our hands and feet before we board the bosta, and they are not removed during the entire journey.”
“Palestinian prisoners are forced to sit in this vehicle alongside hardened criminals who openly blaspheme, yell, and smoke despite the poor ventilation, to torment and inflict suffering on the prisoners,” she told Mondoweiss. “The driver slams on the brakes whenever he wants, causing our bodies to smash against the iron, and exacerbating the conditions of any wounded prisoner who is on the bus. Some of us would fall to the ground.”
Prisoners with serious illnesses such as diabetes face the worst hardships in the bosta, including restricted access to water, medication, and food, as well as the inability to use the restroom when needed.
The freed prisoner Haifa Abu Sbaih illustrates this in her testimony:
“It takes at least 8 hours, and sometimes several days, to travel from one prison to another. In the bitter cold, we wait for our turn on iron benches. The blood in our veins constricts and our muscles freeze. I was imprisoned in December, and when I asked for heating, they turned on the AC instead. One of the injured prisoners, Lama al-Bakri, accompanied me where she was supposed to be taken to the hospital because of her injury. She had an 80% disability in her foot. Her body was shivering and her lips had turned blue from the cold. In the winter, the occupation forces turn air conditioning on, making the bosta a breeding ground for rheumatism, heart disease, joint illness, nerves, and migraines.”
“Some prisoners’ medical conditions are life-threatening,” Abu Sbaih told Mondoweiss. “Yet instead of being sent to the hospital in an ambulance, they are forced to spend many hours in the bosta.”
Prisoners who have an illness are subsequently afraid of complaining, for fear of being sent to the bosta.
Islam Abdu, the media manager at the Ministry of Detainees and Ex-Detainees’ Affairs, told Mondoweiss that the Israel Prison Service (IPS) often exploits this fact:
“The occupation prison authority presents some of these prisoners’ choices [not to receive treatment] as evidence that there is no medical negligence [on the part of the IPS]. For example, some prisoners who are suffering from certain diseases believe that they will not benefit from going to the clinic, and that they will return sick and remain bedridden, and so they refuse to go out in the bosta,” which would be yet another source of suffering.
“When a prisoner refuses to go to a clinic,” he continues. “The administration signs a letter saying that they don’t want to go to the clinic or hospital. Dozens of prisoners fell into this trap, as the Prison Service gathers these signed papers and puts them in reports claiming it schedules appointments for prisoners to see doctors and receive treatment, and that they decline.”
A violation of international humanitarian law
To protect the lives of prisoners, human rights officials demand that officers of the Israeli Prison Service be held accountable for these violations of international law.
The Head of the Arab Center for Criminal Sciences in Palestine, Judge Dr. Abdel Qader Saber Jarada, told Mondoweiss that “according to Article 7 and Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court issued in Rome in 1998, the transportation of prisoners through al-Bosta is considered a crime against humanity and a war crime.”
He added: “There is no statute of limitations on these offenses. Therefore all those involved in the Israeli occupation — leaders, officers, and soldiers — must face justice. Because this is a covert crime, it needs to be brought up in the public eye at all levels, including the national and international levels and through the media.”
He also demanded that a separate complaint be filed “with the ICC Prosecutor regarding the treatment of prisoners.” Saber notes that “an urgent request must be obtained from the International Criminal Court to stop the transfers in this humiliating manner. This issue should also be raised before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.”
It is worth noting that the latest statistics of the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association shows that the number of Palestinian prisoners and detainees in the Israeli occupation prisons reached about 4,700 as of the beginning of December 2022, including 34 female prisoners, about 150 children, and 835 administrative detainees.
Testimonies for this piece were given to the author via social media.