Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails launched a mass hunger strike on April 7. Already horrific conditions in these jails deteriorated further in recent months, especially since the announcement by Israel’s Public Security Minister, Gilad Erdan, that the “party is over”.
On January 2, Erdan promised to “worsen” the conditions under which nearly 6,000 Palestinian prisoners are held, hundreds of them in “administrative detention” — meaning without legal representation or trial.
On March 24 violent clashes broke out between prisoners and Israeli guards, leading to the violent raids by Israeli forces of the prisons of Ramon, Naqab, Nafha, Eshel and Gilboa. Many prisoners were wounded, some critically.
Since violent raids and hunger strikes are frequent occurrences in Israeli prisons, news reports often fail to explain what it actually means to be a Palestinian prisoner held in Israel, quite often in conditions that violate the minimum requirements of international and humanitarian laws.
I spoke to Sana’a Mohammad Hussain Al Hafi to better understand the human dimension to that harrowing experience. Sana’a was born in the West Bank. She moved to the Gaza Strip after meeting her future husband. She spent 10 months in an Israeli prison and a further five months under house arrest.
This is what she had to say:
“In May 2015, I wanted to visit my family living in the West Bank. I hadn’t seen them for years. But as soon as I arrived at the Beit Hanoun (Eretz) Crossing, I was detained by Israeli soldiers.
“My ordeal on that day started at about 7:30 in the morning. Soldiers searched me in such a humiliating way. They probed every part of my body. They forced me to undress completely. I stayed in that condition until midnight.
“In the end, they chained my hands and feet and blindfolded me. They threw me in the back of a large military truck. I felt the presence of many dogs and men surrounding me.
“I was taken to the Ashqelon military compound, where I was searched again in the exact degrading manner, and placed in a very small cell with a dim light. It smelled terrible. It was very cold although it was early summer.
“I couldn’t sleep as I was interrogated every few hours. I would sit on a wooden chair for long periods of time to be subjected to the same routine, filled with shouting, insults and dirty language. I was kept in the Ashqelon compound for seven days. They allowed me to shower once, with very cold water.
“At night, I heard voices of men and women being tortured, angry shouts in Hebrew and broken Arabic and doors slamming in a most disturbing manner.
“At the end of that week, I was transferred to HaSharon prison, where I was relieved to be with other Palestinian female prisoners, some minors, some mothers like me, and some old ladies.
“Every two or three days, I was taken out of my cell for more interrogation. I would leave at dawn and return around midnight. Occasionally, I was put in a large military truck with other women and taken to military court. We were either chained individually or to each other. We would wait for hours only to be told that the court session had been postponed to a later date.
“In our cells, we struggled to survive under harsh conditions and medical neglect. Once an old woman prisoner collapsed. She had diabetes and was receiving no medical attention. We all started screaming and crying. Somehow, she survived.
“I was in prison for ten months. I missed my family. I thought about them every hour of every day. No words can describe how harrowing that experience was, to have your freedom taken away, to live without dignity and without rights.”
There are literally tens of thousands of such stories that have permeated the collective psyche of the Palestinian people. In fact, according to the Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association Addameer, more than 800,000 Palestinians were imprisoned by Israel since 1967.
While Palestinians continue to resist, Israel still subscribes to the illusion that more force, more restrictions and more violation of human rights would eventually teach Palestinians to quit their resistance. In truth, the Netanyahu-Erdan war on Palestinian prisoners is foolish and unwinnable. It has been launched with the assumption that a war of this nature will have limited risks, since prisoners are, by definition, isolated and unable to fight back. To the contrary, Palestinian prisoners have, without question, demonstrated their tenacity and ability to devise ways to resist the Israeli occupier throughout the years.
Considering the direct impact of the situation in Israeli prisons on all Palestinians, any more reckless steps by Netanyahu could result in greater collective resistance, a struggle that Israel cannot easily suppress.
Ramzy Baroud is a noted journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London).