Prisoners of occupation

Palestinians continue to be brutalized in Israeli jails, despite international criticism. Kasturi Chakraborty speaks to prisoners’ families about their struggles.

Solidarity from the street: a march takes place in Ramallah, West Bank in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike against their administrative detention by Israel.

Dareen Tatour has spent several years in prison, or under house arrest, since October 2015. The Palestinian poet, who is a citizen of Israel, was arrested for posts she made on social media, including a poem titled ‘Qawem ya sha’abi, qawemhum’ (‘Resist, my people, resist them’). She was convicted of incitement to violence and support for terrorist organizations in 2018 and released from prison later that year.

Now living in Sweden, Tatour’s heart aches for others still stuck behind bars. ‘They [the Israeli authorities] deliberately cut us [Palestinian prisoners] off from our families and the outside world,’ she says.

Human rights groups have documented Israel’s arbitrary detention of Palestinians, as well as torture and violence towards prisoners carried out with impunity. Tatour describes forced nudity, abusive interrogations, unhygienic conditions and attempted rape. The brutal treatment of Palestinian prisoners has continued for decades, enabled by international appeasement of Israel’s settler colonialism.

According to prisoner support organization Addameer, as of September 2021 there were 4,600 Palestinians in Israel’s prisons, including in occupied territory – 200 of these are children. Hundreds of people are kept in administrative detention, a mechanism frequently used by Israel to hold Palestinians for lengthy periods of time, without trial or charge, with no time limit and without the detainee or their lawyer being able to access any evidence against them.

New Internationalist spoke to the families and friends of three Palestinian prisoners about their experiences.

‘Please don’t let him die in prison’

Eyad Hrebat’s health teeters on the brink of collapse due to years of gross medical negligence in Nitzan prison, Ramla, Israel.

In Hebron, in the West Bank, his mother Yosra Taha yearns for a glimpse of her son and for him to come home. ‘For almost two years after his arrest, I thought my son was dead,’ says Taha, explaining that Hrebat’s whereabouts were kept from his family and they were also misled about his health conditions.

Hrebat, who is now 39 years old, has been serving a life sentence since 2002. He was accused of inciting violence and was tried in a closed military court in 2004.

His family says that Hrebat has suffered years of abuse within prison facilities, including being injected with an unknown substance that paralyzed him and caused memory loss. ‘Whatever they gave him caused some kind of bacterial infection that rapidly spread across his body and affected his lungs. He suffered from a neurological disorder that led to speech impairment and involuntary muscle contraction. I could not recognize him when I saw him at the prison. They brought him in a wheelchair,’ says Hrebat’s sister-in-law Doha Mohamed Youssef Mostafa, adding that he now needs constant care and supervision and has multiple tubes attached to his organs.

The prison authorities cancelled family visits to Palestinian prisoners after six people escaped from the Gilboa prison in northern Israel in September 2021. It’s the same for Hrebat’s family and, at the time of writing, they had still not been allowed to visit.

Rana Bishara, an artist and long-time prisoners’ rights activist from Tarshiha in northern Israel, says that the impact of stopping visitation has been devastating. ‘Since the administrative detention orders were frozen, not a single physician has come to see the prisoners. We are being bullied every time we ask for an update,’ she says.

Youssef Hrebat last saw his brother five years ago. ‘I miss him so much. I was just five when my brother was taken away,’ he says. Previously a lawyer from the Commission of Detainees’ Affairs visited his brother and gave the family updates about his condition, but for some time now even the lawyer has not been allowed to see Hrebat.

Now there has been a worrying new development. On 23 September 2021, Hrebat’s family says he was taken to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, Israel but they were never told why. In fact, they only found out because one of Hrebat’s fellow inmates telephoned the family to let them know, instead of calling his own. ‘We don’t know what kind of operation Eyad underwent but his friend told us that he entered the operating room at 10.00am and came out at 5.00pm,’ said Youssef.

These Israeli soldiers undergo intensive training to blend in and infiltrate Palestinian communities, which sometimes goes on for years

According to his lawyer, extreme medical negligence caused Hrebat’s body to develop acute urinary retention due to chronic prostatitis. A ruptured prostatic stent caused a laceration in his bladder and prostate.

Hrebat’s family are concerned that he might die in prison and that his body won’t be returned. Israel has constantly violated its obligations as an occupying power under international law by holding on to the bodies of the dead just to use them as pawns in political bargaining.

‘Please don’t let him die in prison,’ says Yosra, urging the international community to get behind a campaign to make sure her son is kept at a medical centre and not transferred back to prison.

Youssef breaks down: ‘I would do anything for my brother.’

‘Veil of secrecy’

Bassam Jaber was arrested from a supermarket where he worked as an accountant in Qatanna, Jerusalem. CCTV footage shows his abduction by undercover Israeli forces on 27 May 2021.

‘Such undercover missions are quite common,’ says a source closely associated with Bassam’s case who wants to remain anonymous. ‘These Israeli soldiers undergo intensive training to blend in and infiltrate Palestinian communities, which sometimes goes on for years.’

Initially, Jaber was placed under a six-month administrative detention order but the Israeli authorities kept delaying his court dates without pressing any charges.

‘Bassam was initially accused of throwing stones. But when we submitted a request to the Supreme Court to consider his case, it was refused on the pretext of some undisclosed allegations against him,’ says Abdallah Hoshyah, Bassam’s lawyer.

In June 2021, Jaber went on a hunger strike for 18 days to protest against his detention. Hoshyah says that the prison authorities told Jaber he would be released if he ended his hunger strike and signed some documents. ‘He was tricked into signing documents written in Hebrew in my absence,’ Hoshyah explains. Jaber was then transferred to Naqab prison without any consultation with his lawyer. Since then, the Israeli court has maintained a ‘veil of secrecy’ over the matter and Hoshyah says he has had no updates on Jaber’s welfare or any details of court dates.

Dareen Tatour, photographed in 2017 at home in Nazareth. She was on trial at this time and eventually returned to prison in 2018.

‘Will my son recognize me anymore?’

Having spent the last six years in prison, 35-year-old Israa Jaabis from Jabal Al-Mukaber has been provided only with relatively weak painkillers for her severe burns and amputation of eight fingers. Her family says she needs immediate facial reconstruction and multiple surgeries.

It all started in 2015 when Israa’s car caught fire near Al-Zayyim checkpoint in East Jerusalem and she screamed ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is the greatest). She was accused of planning a terror attack. Mona says that Israa was moving to a new apartment in East Jerusalem and so was carrying a gas canister in her car.

When she tried to get out of her burning car Israa says that the Israeli police did not help her, which resulted in first, second and third-degree burns. Now she says, ‘I feel scared when I look at my face in the mirror’.

‘Israa repeatedly tried to explain to the Israeli authorities why she was carrying a gas canister with her but they falsely implicated her in an attempt-to-murder case,’ says Israa’s sister Mona Jaabis. Israa was sentenced to 11 years in prison and given a fine of around $5,000.

‘My sister was tortured inside the prison. She could barely drink water,’ says Mona. ‘She was kept in Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital for just three months before transferring to Ramla prison clinic, which already has a criminal history of medical negligence.’

Her family says Israa is known for her generosity and kindness. ‘Israa was involved in schools and charities. She also worked at a nursing home and used to voluntarily dress up as a clown to cheer up children at hospitals.’

Mona explains that the family is exhausted: ‘The ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] has not been helpful at all. They have not updated us on her health conditions for a long time and we don’t think anybody even visited her.

Israa was detained when her child was just seven years old. Trapped in prison, she misses her son intensely. ‘The prison visits last only 30-35 minutes. Motasem keeps asking me about his mother but Israel has barred him from visiting her,’ says Mona.

‘Will my son recognize me anymore?’ Israa asks her sister.

In most struggles the solution does not come from above; it is the push from below that forces real change. The treatment of Palestinian prisoners is inseparable from the wider international solidarity movement against Israel’s occupation, and for the protection of human rights. Palestinians and solidarity groups continue to fight on all these fronts – as long as the injustice continues, so will the struggle against it.

Kasturi Chakraborty is an Indian journalist, feminist and writer who covers Palestinian affairs and a range of other topics, with a focus on elevating the voices of the unheard. She is the organizing director of Core Middle East, a news organization based in Kitchener, Canada and has worked for a number of media houses in India.