OPN 190917 Palestinian prisoner-1568724892997
Palestinian prisoners wait in line before their release from Ofer prison, outside the West Bank city of Ramallah, on December 15, 2008 Image Credit: Reuters

Bassam Al Sayeh was the latest victim of medical negligence in Israeli prisons. The 47-year-old Palestinian from Nablus died on September 8.

The last of such tragic cases is that of Faris Baroud who passed away in Nafha prison on February 6.

In 2011, Al Sayeh was diagnosed with bone and blood cancer, according to Palestinian Prisoners Solidarity Network, Samidoun. A few years later, he was arrested by Israeli occupation soldiers. In 2015, an Israeli military court sentenced him to life in prison for his alleged role in the killing of an Israeli officer in the West Bank.

Organisations and rights activists who have been following the case had repeatedly warned that Al Sayeh’s life was in jeopardy, as the cancer patient was held under extremely harsh conditions in Ramleh prison with little medical attention, before being transferred to Afuleh hospital. By that time, Al Sayeh’s condition had irreparably deteriorated. Little could have been done to save his life.

In a statement issued on September 9, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) held Israel responsible for Al Sayeh’s death. Other groups highlighted the fact that medical negligence is a tool used by Israeli prison authorities to further punish Palestinians who resist the Israeli occupation, even after their arrest and sentencing.

According to the prisoners’ rights group, Samidoun, “Al Sayeh is the 221st Palestinian prisoner to lose his life in Israeli prisons, and medical neglect and abuse has been a consistent factor in the illness and death of Palestinian prisoners, along with torture and mistreatment under occupation.”

Al Sayeh is the 221st Palestinian prisoner to lose his life in Israeli prisons, and medical neglect and abuse has been a consistent factor in the illness and death of Palestinian prisoners, along with torture and mistreatment under occupation

- Ramzy Baroud

The Ramallah-based prisoners support group, Addameer, concurs. The Israeli Prison Service (IPS) “has adopted a policy of deliberate medical neglect against prisoners and detainees”. Between the start of the Second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in 2000 and 2008, 18 prisoners have perished that way; they died while being denied serious medical attention.

Those who don’t die cope with protracted illnesses that often accompany them for the rest of their lives. According to Addameer, “the number of ill persons among the prisoners and detainees increased to over 1000, an increase compared with 800 sick cases in 2013”. 200 of these sick prisoners are coping with chronic diseases, including cancer, and 85 are permanently disabled.

Faris Baroud was once among those chronically ill Palestinians, and, like Bassam Al Sayeh, he died in prison due to medical negligence.

Baroud was arrested on March 23, 1991. An Israeli military court sentenced him to 134 years in prison, accusing him of killing an armed Israeli Jewish settler who was taking part in the military occupation of Gaza.

Ria, Faris’ mother, was forbidden to visit her son in the Nafha Prison for the last 15 years. The 70-year-old mother was told that the decision was motivated by “security concerns”.

Faris was Ria’s only son. He was born in 1968, two years after the start of the Israeli military occupation of Gaza. His father, Ahmad Mohammad Baroud, died when Faris was still a child. Ria, who remained unmarried after the death of her husband, dedicated her life to raising Faris. They lived together in a small home in the Shati’ Refugee Camp in Gaza.

Faris was reportedly tortured and held for nearly 10 years in solitary confinement. He was also denied family visitation for more than half of his time in prison. Before his arrest, he suffered from asthma, a condition that worsened with time.

Years after his imprisonment, Faris developed kidney disease, which worsened through medical negligence, further compounded by his participation in various hunger strikes in solidarity with other prisoners.

Time and again, Faris was denied early release, starting immediately after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 and following a prisoner exchange in 2011. Along with 29 other prisoners, he was scheduled to be set free in 2013 or 2014, in a special arrangement that was also thwarted by the Israeli government.

Starting in 2002, Ria was denied visits with her son. Despite her deteriorating health and the gradual loss of her vision due to glaucoma, she was known for never missing a single vigil that was held by families of Palestinian prisoners in front of the Red Cross office, every Monday in Gaza City’s famous Jala’ Street.

At times, she would be the only one there, always holding the same framed picture of her son, Faris, close to her heart. Ria Baroud died on May 18, 2017, at the age of 85.

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Soon after his mother’s death, Faris’ health took a turn for the worse. He developed an aggressive form of glaucoma as well, and had reportedly lost 80 per cent of his vision. Faris died on February 6, 2019 at the Nafha Prison in the Naqab Desert. He was 51 years old.

These are but glimpses of only two stories, in seemingly endless episodes of suffering inflicted on thousands of Palestinians and their families.

Israel should not be permitted to continue this moral travesty unchallenged. International groups and organisations that purport to champion human rights should speak out for Bassam, Faris and thousands of Palestinian prisoners, who are suffering, and often dying alone in Israeli prisons.

— Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. His last book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London) and his forthcoming book is ‘These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons’ (Clarity Press, Atlanta). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.