“It is as if you have been buried under the earth.” Palestinians in Israeli Prisons

Dr. Yousef looks down as he tells the story of a young Palestinian boy who ran to his lap crying during their shared time in Israeli prison.  “I asked him, ‘Why do you cry?'”  The boy recounts for the 68 year old economics professor and lawyer what must have been terrifying moments for a young child, “The soldier opened my cell in the middle of the night and said he would rape me if I didn’t confess in the morning.”

Dr Yousef, Cultural Coordinator of the Nablus, Palestine based Tanweer Center

Dr Yousef, Cultural Coordinator of the Nablus, Palestine based Tanweer Center

Palestinians inside Israeli prisons and administrative detention.

In the Palestinian territories, whether you look for them or not, stories of agonizing moments of either physical torture, psychological torment, late night raids, kidnappings and brutal- sometimes months long- interrogations in Israeli prisons, all without either legal access or familial communication, are all around you.  They are written on the faces of the mothers whose children are either currently or were previously imprisoned.  They are spoken in the words of conversations that last for longer than just a friendly ‘marhaba.’  They hang in the air like phantoms outside the Ofer Prison where clashes occur weekly, and at times daily, in the rain- in the snow- in the blazing sun, as young Palestinians fight passionately for the 1,000 plus prisoners inside of Ofer for endless hours as Israeli occupation forces open fire on them with numerous projectiles, tear gas grenades and live ammunition.

Their stories are haunting.  They are disturbing.  And many more are being formed day by agonizing day,  even as this article is written, inside of Israeli dungeons.  DCI reports that, “Since the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in 1967, more than 800,000 Palestinians have been detained under Israeli military orders in the occupied Palestinian territory. This number constitutes approximately 20 percent of the total Palestinian population in the occupied territory and as much as 40 percent of the total male Palestinian population. It also includes approximately 10,000 women jailed since 1967, as well as 8,000 Palestinian children arrested since 2000. ”

Inside Nablus’ active and colorful community space, The Tanweer Center, Dr Yousef, who is Cultural Coordinator for the center, sits behind a desk and recounts for international IWPS and ISM volunteers the horrific tale of his three arrests and subsequent imprisonments, just outside the door of the office is a large campaign poster calling for Yousef’s release during his 6 month imprisonment which ended just months ago.  “All three times the charges against me were that I was a ‘danger’ and that I was giving lectures.  As a professor, lecturing is not uncommon for me.  The second two arrests happened in my home at 1:30 in the morning, terrifying my family.”

Psychological abuse followed whether the elderly Palestinian man was being told by Israeli soldiers that he was eating dog food or by refusing his hour long cries during transport to use the bathroom, to which the soldier replied, “Gilad Shalit.”  Shalit is an Israeli occupation soldier who, in 2006, was held for five years by Hamas before being released through a prisoner exchange which saw the release of 1,027 Palestinians in exchange for his own;  a testimony to how cheap Palestinian life is to those who have stolen their land, their livelihoods, their families, et al.  This scenario also exhibits the signature collective punishments Israeli forces perpetrate against Palestinians from every angle they can find- hence a weeping elderly man who has been charged with committing no crime against any person is denied usage of the bathroom because nearly a decade earlier an IOF soldier was imprisoned by Hamas.  He also endured sleep deprivation tactics when being held in a chair for hours, he would nod off only to have an Israeli soldier smash his fist on a desk to startle him awake- all while playing on a computer beside him.

Another way that the Israeli prison establishment has found to antagonize and take advantage of detainees is by giving them very little food, “One unit of tomato, one unit of potato, some beans and perhaps an orange or an apple per week,” Yousef informs.  They then have a ‘shop’ inside of the prison where, to properly nourish themselves and to provide personal comforts like cigarettes and chocolate, Palestinian prisoners pay outrageous prices.  “It is a very profitable business for them.”

Yousef describes the living conditions as ten prisoners to a room that is ten square meters in size- with a small bathroom and make shift kitchen absorbing a third of the living space.  “In this room we were confined from 5 in the evening until 7 the following morning.”  It was also very cold.  “One time in transport I was attacked, strangled and threatened that I would be killed by an Israeli soldier because I cried for a blanket, a jacket- anything, I was so cold.”  To his cries, Yousef was told to “shut up.”  His response to his torturers in prison echoes his passion for Palestinian liberation, “I told him, ‘To you this is not an honor.  But is is an honor for me as I am calling for freedom.'”

42 Days Water and Salt

In Qaqiliya, an economically and militarily embattled Palestinian town bordering  stolen land and the infamous Eyal checkpoint into Israel, ‘M’ speaks softly from a couch in the warehouse where he works, a poster of his currently imprisoned brother hangs on a wall nearby.  “They came to our family home with 5 or 6 jeeps at 3 in the morning.  60 or 70 soldiers opened fire on our house with no warning.  “They took my father and my two brothers.”  M’s brother was held for 3 months before being released, re arrested and held for another 6 months.  His father was released after 48 hours.  His brother sits in prison still, ten years later.  He is accused of killing an Israeli soldier with no evidence against him whatsoever.

During the 2011 Palestinian prisoner hunger strike, M’s brother’s heart stopped beating after 42 days of consuming nothing but water and salt.  He was revived and in the Israeli prison medical facility, but that didn’t stop the Israeli government from informing the family that their son and brother was dead.  “We couldn’t tell my mother.  She had no idea.”  After a devastating week of NGO assistance coming to the family to broker deals with the Israeli government to procure the body, they were finally informed that he was still alive.  This begs the question if throughout a week of what must have been a living hell, did any Israeli officer, whether military or political, think twice about the fact that a family was grieving the death of a man they knew was very much alive.

M’s brother is set to be released in another four years.  This is to say nothing of the prison that will continue to exist in his mind after his body ceases to exist within one.

Prisoner of War

Sitting beside M is a former fighter in the Lebanese army who was taken prisoner by the Israeli government during clashes in 1983.  He recounts a horrific tale of torture and abuse which included being brought naked and shackled to other prisoners before Israeli guards and their children- who hurled insults… and rocks at them.  His cell was a unique type of metal, just large enough for a human body to fit inside of and at the bottom of the cell, a nail.  “When the guards passed by, they would smash their fists on the metal- it was a tremendous sound.  You would get frightened but try not to be cut by the nail.”

Through this staggering inhumanity, his skin literally began folding off of his body.  “Twice this happened.  My skin was discolored from the beatings.”  He was also hooded for forty days straight- the hood moved slightly over his mouth only to intake food and water.  Aside from enduring physical torture themselves, like Dr Yousef’s recounting of the boy’s psychological and possibly subsequent sexual abuse (he was with the boy only three days and does not know if the sexual threats came to fruition) there is the witnessing of the torture of fellow Palestinian prisoners.  “A prisoner I know had an accident previously which left him with a screw in his arm, the soldiers broke his arm and manipulated the screw to torture him.  The wound was covered in ants.  Other prisoners would clean it for him.”

The former member of the Lebanese army was released through prisoner exchange; 1300 Palestinian lives for 8 Israeli soldiers.

If I Had Anything Laying Around to Kill Myself With I Would Have Done it.  

Standing in front of a metal fryer of hot oil, flowered with still-hot felafals is a father and former prisoner.  His other job is with the Palestinian Authority.  His description of his time in prison mirrors the horrors of the others though his face carries a welcoming smile.  His young son sits beside him as he relives his time in Israeli prison.  A time that included his arms being cuffed behind his back and agonizingly lifted up high on his back, isolation, psychological torment and beatings- one which left him bleeding from the ear.

After five years in prison, he couldn’t recognize his own brother.  He emerged into a different world.  “I felt just born.  I didn’t know anyone.”  He exhibits the psychological aftermath of the ordeal, “Never will I forget the number 1137.  This was my prison number.  The suffering number.  In the prison they used to wake us up every morning at 5am and we would have to call out our numbers.  For three months after I was released… every morning at 5am I would wake automatically and call out my number.”

He has gained strength despite every effort of the Israeli government and prison establishment to beat it out of him and indeed every Palestinian they hold hostage; many with no charges, no evidence of committing a single crime and with no access to legal representation.  Many of them just children.  “If every Israeli soldier, every tank, every gun, every weapon stood before me this minute.  I would not be scared.  I teach this to my children as well.  …If I have rights, I am not afraid.”

As of last month, 5,609 Palestinian detainees and prisoners were being held in Israeli prisons, hundreds of them children.