Protest for the hunger strikers, Berlin, Germany, 26 April. Photo by Afif el-Ali.
On Palestinian Prisoners Day detainees and their relatives tell horror stories of torture and abuse in Israeli jails.
By Farah Najjar, Al Jazeera and Shatha Hammad
April 17, 2017
Since 1974, when the first Palestinian prisoner was released in an exchange deal, Palestinians have been commemorating April 17 as the Palestinian Prisoners Day to shed light on the plight of prisoners in Israeli jails.
Currently, there are 6,500 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails. The number includes 300 children and 53 women, according to the Jerusalem-based Palestinian prisoners support and human rights association, Addameer. Laith Abu Zeyad, Addameer’s international advocacy officer told Al Jazeera that between 500 and 700 arrests of children are made each year in the Israeli-occupied West Bank .
Upon arrest, Palestinian civilians residing in the West Bank are sent to be tried in Israeli military courts, where conviction rates are as high as 99.7 percent, according to Abu Zeyad. Being tried in a military tribunal is a violation of international law, and means that civilians’ due process rights are routinely disrespected.
Meanwhile, administrative detainees are arrested based on Israeli military intelligence data, to which the detainee has no access. Administrative detainees can be held without charge or trial for six months at a time, and their detention can be indefinitely renewed.
A joint report issued by several Palestinian non-governmental organisations ( NGOs ) indicated that 509 arrests were made in March 2017 alone, including 75 children. “The most common accusation made against children is throwing stones,” said Zeyad.
Last year marked the worst on record for child prisoners. A change in Israeli laws allowed Palestinian minors under the age of 14 to be sent straight to prison, instead of receiving custodian sentences. In 2016, 21 minors were under administrative detention. In the same year, a wave of Palestinian children received lengthy sentences, some amounting to more than 10 years of imprisonment.
According to Addameer, the youngest Palestinian prisoner today is a 12-year-old boy, who has been charged with throwing stones.
One million arrests made against Palestinians since 1948.
The eldest prisoner is 76-year-old Fouad al-Shobaki, who has been serving a 20-year sentence since 2006 for providing Palestinian armed groups with weapons. Among women prisoners, Zeyad said, are 19 mothers, some without visitation rights implemented as a punitive measure. “To us, all of the arrests are arbitrary,” he said. “The laws are arbitrary, detainees are denied access to lawyers, and are often kept in interrogation periods that last for up to two months.”
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there have been approximately one million arrests made against Palestinians since 1948.
Below, two ex-prisoners share their experiences in detention, and a mother shares her experience of being away from her incarcerated sons.
Natalie Shoukha, 15, Ramallah, Occupied West Bank
Teenager Natalie Shoukha, above, was shot by Israeli soldiers and detained for one year. Photo by Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera
On April 29, 2016, Natalie and her friend Tasneem were walking past a military checkpoint in Beit Ur al-Tahta village, west of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. Caught off guard, Natalie was surprised to be surrounded suddenly by a number of Israeli occupation soldiers, just before she was beaten by the soldiers to the ground.
No one listened to their cries for help as they continued to be beaten unconscious, and eventually, Natalie was shot by one of the soldiers, she recalled.
“I was shot with a bullet in my shoulder and it started bleeding uncontrollably. I didn’t lose consciousness until they beat me to the ground and kicked me with their feet. I couldn’t handle the pain and, in that moment, I wished for everything to stop,” she told Al Jazeera.
Natalie was transferred to an Israeli hospital in Jerusalem , where she fell into a coma for three full days. Right after she underwent surgery to remove the bullet from inside her body, Natalie said she was awakened by the shouting of an Israeli interrogation officer.
“The interrogator stormed into the hospital room and started shouting and slamming his hands hard on the table in front of me. I wanted to rest for a minute and I couldn’t talk much, but he wouldn’t stop interrogating me for a long time,” she said.
“I couldn’t process or register what was going on around me, why they shot me and why I was arrested. How was I going to jail now and what was I going to see there? I was terrified and all I wanted was to go back home,” Natalie added.
Days passed and the Israeli authorities would not allow Natalie to see her parents, she said. Eventually, her mother was able to visit her, after several attempts of trying to obtain a permit to get into Jerusalem from the West Bank.
Palestinians residing in the occupied West Bank are prohibited from entering Israeli territory and occupied East Jerusalem without being issued a permit.
More often than not, according to Addameer, these permit requests needed for families to make regular visits to Israeli prisons are rejected by Israeli authorities.
“Seeing my mother gave me the strength to recover and instilled a sense of peace in me,” said Natalie, adding that she was not given sufficient time to heal, and was quickly transported to HaSharon prison in Israel.
“I was transported on a prisoner’s vehicle, which is divided into little dark cells surrounded with iron bars. I was in a lot of pain and frightened like never before,” said Natalie. “I wondered how long was I going to be locked up for, and if I was ever going to go home.”
Natalie was convicted of attempting to carry out a stabbing attack. Twelve court sessions later, she was sentenced to a year and a half in prison.
“I was in total shock from the prison’s atmosphere and for being denied the right to see my family. I thought about them all the time and longed for my mother’s warm hugs.”
Throughout her detention, Natalie’s family were not permitted to visit her in prison.
“Whenever they would reject my mother’s request to visit, I would cry uncontrollably. I would dream of being with her, holding her hand and kissing her. But eventually, I’d wake up, and realise that she isn’t next to me,” said Natalie.
One year later, she was released on bail for a total sum of 4,000 Israeli shekels ($2,000). A day after her release, Natalie picked up her schoolbag and rushed to school. She had missed her friends, and was determined to be among the top of her class.
“In prison, I used to study very hard and managed to get good grades. I now want to continue my education and be with my friends, I can now finally go back to school,” she said.
Natalie’s mother, Roqayah, said that she was in a constant state of worry when her daughter was in detention. “Being apart was devastating, I used to look at her picture and talk to it all the time,” said Roqayah.
“I’ll do whatever Natalie wants. I’ll make sure she gets everything she was deprived of in prison,” she added. “I’ll never let her out of my sight.”
Nedal Samarah, 44, Qalandiya refugee camp, Occupied West Bank
Nedal Samarah experienced both physical and psychological torture while undergoing 120 days of interrogation, he recalls. Photo by Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera
In just a few months, 44-year-old Nedal Samarah from northern Jerusalem’s Qalandiya refugee camp, is expecting a newborn. He plans to name his son Wassim, to honour his late brother who died while Samarah was detained in Israeli prisons.
Since 1986, Samarah has been detained seven times. His last arrest was made in 2001, bringing his total number of years in detention to 19.
Samarah was arrested four times in different years, each time on May 17. The last arrest was made 15 years ago, when he served as a presidential guard to one of the Palestinian Authorities’ security service units. The unit would regularly receive orders from the president, which included direct confrontation with Israeli military.
During his last arrest, Samarah remained in interrogation for 120 days. According to Samarah, prisoners with him at the time dubbed him “Sheikh (leader) of the Palestinian prisoners”.
“I was psychologically tortured for 30 days, before prison investigators started escalating their torture methods,” Samarah told Al Jazeera. “Soon after, they started torturing me physically,” he added.
Samarah explained that they would sit him on a chair on his knees, with his hands tied behind his back. In addition, he was tied and left hanging on a ladder for prolonged hours as part of a night interrogation session.
While speaking to Al Jazeera, Samarah experienced coughing fits from a respiratory illness, which he says is a result of the torture he experienced years ago. According to Samarah, Israeli interrogating officers would strip him naked and place him in front of an air conditioner, blasting cold air directly towards him.
“One day, they forced me into a cell with signs all over the wall that read ‘my son Bassel is gone’, ‘my wife is gone’, ‘my mother Haleemah is gone’, and ‘my brother is gone,” he said, reflecting the voices of previous detainees who would not “confess” in interrogation.
“The officer would momentarily step out of the cell, and suddenly, the lights would go off and I would hear footsteps around me,” Samarah added. “The footsteps would come closer and closer, and they [guards] would start beating me and yelling in my ear, which would last for 30 minutes at a time.”
According to Samarah, after 70 days of interrogation, an Israeli officer pretended to be a lawyer in order to trick him into confessing to various accusations.
Israeli courts, he said, convicted him for carrying out numerous shooting attacks against Israeli soldiers, for attempting to kidnap them, and for establishing Fatah’s armed faction, known as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
“Throughout the interrogation period, I thought I would only be detained for six months or so, thinking that the Palestinian Authority would work on releasing me and the others that were detained with me,” Samarah said, pointing out that shortly after his conviction, 23 Palestinian prisoners were freed as part of several release deals.
On March 23, 2012, Samarah learned that his eldest son, 16, was arrested after being accused of throwing stones towards Israeli soldiers.
“I wasn’t surprised or sad,” he said. “I knew my children would somehow resemble me.” Samarah said that he refused to visit his son at first, fearing that he would quickly grow attached to him. “He was convicted for 15 months based on his father’s history,” he said.
Anaam Hamed, 55, Silwad, Occupied West Bank
Abdullah, Anaam Hamed’s son, was detained after Israeli soldiers raided his home in Silwad. Photo by Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera
Sitting on her balcony in west Ramallah’s town of Silwad, Anaam Hamed flipped through her son’s pictures. Abdullah, 26, who was detained two years ago.
“He was such a beautiful child, and now he grew up and has become the most handsome of young men,” Hamed told Al Jazeera.
Hamed is hopeful and is counting down the days until she is reunited with her son who was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted by Israeli courts of carrying out a shooting attack near an Israeli settlement in Nablus back in June 2015.
A month later, Abdullah was detained after Israeli soldiers raided his home in Silwad and Hamed watched her son walk away with his hands tied behind his back for the second time.
According to Hamed, Abdullah was detained for 13 months, five years ago. “After the last arrest, Abdullah was kept in interrogation for two months. I waited for his return home, but the Israeli courts issued a verdict calling for life imprisonment,” she said.
“They wouldn’t let me attend the court hearings; the only time I saw him was when the verdict was being read out. I didn’t show him my weakness, that I was upset. I held back my tears. I was strong in front of him and told him he’d get his right; he’d get his freedom.”
Until this very day, Hamed is in shock. She says she still cannot believe the verdict that is going to keep her son away from her for many years to come.
“I have a feeling Abdullah will come back to me and will be home from detention soon,” she said.
Hamed’s husband passed away when Abdullah was five years old, she explained. Hamed was forced to raise Abdullah on her own, being both a mother and a father to her son.
“Abdullah has flourished into a great man, he’s well-mannered and lovable. Whenever a prisoner who had crossed paths with him is freed, they’d telephone me to congratulate me on my son’s behaviour,” she proudly said.
Although it has been two years since Abdullah’s arrest, Hamed said she only managed to visit him three times, as her request for a permit is usually denied on the grounds of security.
“After a long and painful process of obtaining a permit, I sometimes discover upon arrival that Abdullah has been transferred to another prison, and most times, I am not allowed past Israeli military checkpoints,” she explained.
But whenever she did manage to visit, Hamed said she would quietly sit behind a glass window and contemplate, looking at her son’s face, unable to utter a word.
“I lose my ability to speak when I see Abdullah. I forget all the conversations I had mentally prepared for on my way over to see him as I become overwhelmed with happiness when I lay eyes on him,” she said.
Farah Najjar is an online producer at Al Jazeera English.