Israel’s Defense Chief Wants Gazans Jailed as Bargaining Chips in Potential Prisoner Exchange Deal

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has recently informed defense establishment officials that he intends to treat Gazans who cross into Israel as “illegal combatants,” and thereby increase the number of Gazans incarcerated in Israel. Bennett seeks to use them in the event of future negotiations over the return of Israeli prisoners or dead soldiers.

If the defense establishment accepts Bennett’s demand, such infiltrators will be held under the same procedures that apply to administrative detainees – those detained without charges – who are arrested in exceptional circumstances. However, in contrast to these, Gazan detainees held as illegal combatants can be imprisoned indefinitely.

Officials in the defense establishment were shocked by Bennett’s demand, arguing that such a decision would have major significance, not just in terms of international law. They said that most Gazans come into Israel out of economic distress, wishing to find work in the country. They carry knives, axes or old grenades knowing that only that way will they be arrested, rather than returned to Gaza through the hole in the fence through which they entered.

The Defense Minister’s Office refused to comment on the plan.

Many of these Gazans are minors, other are desperate, weakened people just waiting to be arrested. Large numbers of detainees will become a burden on the forces along the border, requiring much effort in transporting them to detention facilities.

Defense officials say that many such Gazans have mental problems, and try to enter in search of work and food. Some want to spend time in jail, where they can sleep and eat. Others are worried because of their sexual orientation or after being involved in some dispute. A recent case involved charges against four young infiltrators: The indictment stated they came here intending to be arrested without being returned to Gaza.

An illegal combatant in Israeli law is defined as a person who participates in hostile acts against the state, directly or indirectly, or as a person who identifies with a unit committing hostile acts, one that is not affiliated with any state or organization. Such affiliation gives a detainee the status of a prisoner of war under international law, as detailed in the Geneva Convention. The new status would apply to a Gazan, unaffiliated with any organization, who crosses into Israel carrying a knife.