The Administrative Detentions of Wasfi Kabha

Originally published in The Daily Beast on June 18, 2013.

On June 6, the Israeli military dropped off a Palestinian man at Jubara checkpoint, near the West Bank city of Nablus. Wasfi Kabha, who’d been imprisoned for the past two years, then reportedly collapsed, sustained severe bruising, and went to a hospital in Tulkarem to be treated. The release marked the end of a seven-year ordeal that saw Kabha go in and out of Israeli custody, all without ever being charged with any crime. Kabha, who like all West Bank Palestinians is subject to Israeli martial law, was held under administrative detention orders issued by the Israeli Defense Forces.

Most administrative detention orders come with six-month expirations, but can be renewed indefinitely. The orders usually don’t serve as punishment for past acts, but rather to prevent future violations of the law. Subjects of the orders are guilty until proven innocent, but proving innocence will be elusive for them because they lack judicial rights. Officials frequently justify the practice by arguing that an open court could reveal sensitive intelligence collection methods that threaten national security. And so detainees languish without a trial, or without even knowing why they’re being held. As of April, 155 Palestinians were being held by the Israel Prison Service in administrative detention, according to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem.

“Administrative detention exists in other countries,” wrote the Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf last year, “but is considered a unique and exceptional measure, and its implementation usually leads to a vigorous public debate. In the West Bank, it’s routine.” 

The case of Wasfi Kabha goes a long way toward demonstrating just how routine. But who is Kabha? The short version is: a Hamas politician. The long version winds through university in the West, a technocratic municipal job that propelled him to the top of Hamas’s short-lived Palestinian Authority government, and four rounds of detention that have kept him behind bars 61 of the past 84 months.

Kabha was born in a village near Jenin, in the West Bank, in 1959. After earning a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. and a master’s in Ireland, he took up a job in the civil engineering department for the Jenin municipality. In 2006, Kabha served as the Minister of Prisoner Affairs for the Hamas government. Controversy erupted around Kabha when he joined other senior Hamas officials in endorsing a Tel Aviv suicide bombing attack in April 2006. Kabha told reporters that such attacks occur within “the framework of legitimate right of resistance against Israeli violations and crimes”—making clear that he supported the views that have gotten Hamas labeled terrorists by Israel, the U.S. and others.

Two months later, the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured near the borders of the Gaza Strip. In response, Israeli forces launched Operation Summer Rain on June 29, launching air strikes and capturing over 60 senior Hamas officials, including Kabha. When Kabha was released nearly five weeks later, he told the Associated Press that he was kept in terrible conditions, subject to long interrogations and ultimately released because they lacked proof he belonged to a terrorist organization. “The only rest I got was during the siren when Hezbollah launched rockets at Israel,” he provocatively added. “They would take me down into a cell underground and they would leave to take shelter somewhere in the jail.” The public remarks were something Kabha would keep up; he’s become one of the most vocal critics of Israeli detention policies—and the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority’s complicity.

On March 17, 2007, Hamas and their rivals in the Fatah party finalized a landmark agreement yielding a unity government. Wasfi Kabha took up a post as Palestinian Minister of State. A little over two months later, Israeli forces arrested 33 members of Hamas’s political wing in the West Bank, and then entered Kabha’s home, captured him and took his computer. Kabha remained in administrative detention for three years.

In November 2010, seven months after Kabha was released from detention, the Israeli press reported that low-ranking members of the Shin Bet had taken meetings with select senior Hamas officials, Kabha included, in the West Bank. The meetings, held over coffee, came days before a Damascus meeting between Hamas and Fatah officials to discuss reconciliation. According to the account in Haaretz by unnamed sources, Shin Bet officers visited Hamas officials in their homes late at night seeking to merely discuss their opinions regarding peace talks. Hamas officials said the meeting was less a consultation and more a series of home raids and interrogations. Kabha, whose house was searched, was among them: “It was rather a raid on our homes by Israeli forces and intelligence officers which terrified our children.”

A month later, Kabha was detained again without charges, this time only for a week. An Israeli military court said he was released due to declining health. The Director of the Ahrar Center for Prisoner Studies, Fuad Khuffash, said the judge made the decision following a review of Kabha’s medical records, which detailed the worsening state of his diabetes and high blood pressure. By June, Kabha was again taken from his home in Jenin and placed in administrative detention. Hamas issued a statement urging Kabha’s release, citing the same health problems that got him sprung from detention the year before. A year later, with a hearing coming up, Kabha denounced his imprisonment as part of a “new wave of the extensions of the administrative detention” against top Hamas officials in an attempt to quash reconciliation.

Earlier this month, after his most recent stint behind bars, this time for two years, Kabha was released and taken to the hospital in Tulkarem.

To be sure, Israel must be vigilant about protecting its citizens, and Wasfi Kabha’s condemnable record of defending suicide bombings means he should certainly be monitored for future threatening acts. But that doesn’t justify detaining an individual for years on end without ever charging him for a crime, particularly in a democracy that seeks to respect the rule of law.