Reham Alhelsi – Palestinian Prisoners: Imprisoned for their Love of Freedom


Reham Alhelsi • Apr 18th, 2009 at 10:34 • Category: Biography, Israel, Newswire, Palestine, Resistance, Somoud: Arab Voices of Resistance, Zionism

Every year, on April 17, Palestinians commemorate the Palestinian Political Prisoners Day. On 17.4.1974 the first Palestinian political prisoner, Mahmoud Baker Hijazi, was released from Israeli prisons in the first prisoner exchange deal with Israel. That same year, the Palestinian National Council declared the 17th of April a day of solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners, to be commemorated every year. In Occupied Palestine prison and imprisonment are as common as sunrise and sunset. There is almost no family that had not been subjected to Israeli imprisonment one way or the other. Palestinians are being detained on a daily basis, making them the most imprisoned people on earth. It is difficult to estimate their number, but several sources put the number of Palestinians detained or imprisoned by Israel since 1967 at over 750,000 Palestinians, making 20% of the total Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories, and approximately 40% of the total Palestinian male population. With the outbreak of the 2nd Intifada in September 2000 until September 2008 some 65,000 men, 750 women and 7,500 children were arrested by Israel. According to the ICRC, in October 2008 there were 10,500 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Addammeer puts the number at 9,493, 750 of which are administrative detainees, 349 aged 18 and under, and 75 are females. Among those detained are political figures and some 47 Palestinians parliamentarians.

The IOF can arrest anyone and anywhere, without giving a reason. Palestinians are arrested at home, on the way to school or work, at universities, in hospitals, at checkpoints. Mass arrests, as form of collective punishment, are also very common. Curfews would be imposed on villages, towns or refugees camps, houses would be raided and Palestinians arrested. I have witnesses a number of these mass arrests, but never did the IOF bother to tell the residents why they were forced to leave their homes in the middle of the night and stand in the cold and the darkness for long hours. Under the cover of darkness and the curfew, the IOF would demand with loudspeakers that all men, usually those between 16 and 45, gather in the school yard or on the main street. We used to sit in the darkness at the windows and try and recognize the men standing in line and questioned by the IOF; relatives, friends and neighbours. Sometimes the men are blindfolded and handcuffed. They would wait for this to end, while being harassed, shouted at and kicked by the Israeli soldiers. We would wait with them, behind windows, hoping that they would all be released soon and come home safe. Sometimes, they are all sent back home after a night of harassment, but often this ends with mass arrest for no given reason.
Another form of collective punishment is house arrests. I have witnessed so many house arrests, and all were accompanied by violence and harassment and the wilful destruction of property by the IOF. They would turn the house over, destroying the furniture and even the food, as if the person they are searching for would be hiding in the wheat or the sugar, and if there was any money or valuables in the house, it was sure they would never be found again after the IOF had left the house. Family members trying to protect their home or their children are beaten. We would tell them that the person they are looking for is not in the house, we would try and reason with them, but it is all useless. They come on a mission to harass, destroy and arrest. Often I thought they knew they wouldn’t find what or who they are looking for, and that the whole operation of house raid is purely to punish the family and pressure it to hand over their son. During such house searches, the IOF would push us against the wall, kick us with their boots and beat us with the butts of their rifles. They didn’t care that they were beating children and elderly.

Upon arrest, detainees are often blindfolded and handcuffed. Not only is the detainee physically abused and humiliated, but other members of the family as well. Also, it is common practice by the IOF to use family members as human shields during such raids. The detainee is taken without informing the family about where he is taken to. Usually it takes days, if not more, before the family finds out where a detainee is. There are many incidents where families realized that their sons were in a certain prison months after they were arrested, and only after another detainee was released and informed that family about their son. One summer afternoon, my uncle and I were playing football in the garden. He was on the IOF list of wanted persons and was staying in our house. Nearby, there was a huge fruit tree, and when I was a child my father told me as way of a joke that a soldier was buried under that tree. At nights, when the leaves of the tree would move with the wind, I used to imagine the sound they made the murmuring of that soldier, and with all the Russian books we had in our library, I gave that imaginary soldier the name Yuri. My uncle and I made bets as to who would win the football game, we joked and laughed and I remember telling my uncle that Yuri would come and take him. After I explained to him what I was talking about, he said: I think you mean Uri and not Yuri, meaning that if any soldier came to take him away, it would be an Israeli soldier, not a Russian. That night at 2 in the morning, I was awakened by hurrying footsteps outside the window. The minute I fully woke up and stood, there was loud knocking on the front door. My father asked who it was, and removed the side of the curtain to see who stood outside. Standing near him, I could see the face of my grandfather and behind him nothing but darkness, complete darkness. The minute my grandfather said it was him, my father opened the door immediately, only to see grandfather practically thrown inside the house. In a matter of seconds, the house was full of IOF soldiers, some in army uniform, others in civil uniform. They had finally figured out were my uncle was hiding and had come to arrest him. They brought my grandfather, an old man, in the middle of the night as a human shield, in case anything happened. My uncle was still in bed, and the minute the Bethlehem area commander saw him, he jumped on the bed and held his throat in his arms, wanting to strangle him, shouting repeatedly: you were here the whole time. My mother tried to get them off my uncle, but the commander pushed her away. And while my uncle was putting on his clothes and shoes, the commander was slapping him and kicking him. The other area commander, responsible for Sawahreh and the surroundings, told his colleague not to do any beating in his area, meaning that since the prisoner was from the Bethlehem area, the beating was okay once they reached that area. I remember we had a huge poster on the wall, one of “Guevara Gaza”, and the commander asked my sister if she knew who it was. The name was written on the poster for all to see, so when she replied yes, he ordered her to remove the poster. When they left, we realized that they had surrounded the whole area around our house. IOF vehicles had blocked the way in case anyone thought of escaping, and I am sure that if an ant moved in the darkness that night, it would have been shot dead immediately. My uncle was taken to interrogation and tortured to confess to things he never did, and when they failed to get a confession from him, he was held in administrative detention, which is a detention without trial or charge, often used by Israel. When he was finally released, he told us that they couldn’t wait for the interrogation to start the torture, and that he was beaten by the soldiers all the way from Sawahreh till they reached the Israeli detention facility.

Sometimes, injured or sick prisoners are taken from their homes, from hospitals, or after being wounded in a demonstration. They rarely get the needed medical help, and often get Aspirin as treatment for everything. Health examinations are conducted through a fence and additional medical treatment or hospital transfers are often postponed for long periods of time. Withholding medical treatment is one method used to pressure detainees into collaboration. There are more than 800 Palestinian detainees who suffer from bad health conditions, much of which as a result of the arrest or the interrogation. According to Palestinian researcher Abdul-Naser Farawna, 196 Palestinian detainees have died in Israeli prisons since 1967 due to medical negligence and torture, 49 of whom died due to medical negligence. Alone last year, 2 detainees died because they were not given the needed medical assistance. During the 2nd Intifada 72 Palestinian detainees have died in detention, 17 due to medical negligence, 3 as a result of torture, 51 were executed by the IOF after being arrested and 1 prisoner was killed during prison protests.

Often Palestinians are arrested for breaking one of the over 2,000 military orders governing the Occupied Palestinian Territories, some of which they have never heard of before their arrest. Women and children are often arrested to pressure detained family members into confessing or pressure other family members wanted by Israel to hand themselves in. The Palestinian Prisoners Society reports that between September 2000 and September 2008 some 750 women and 7,500 Palestinian children were arrested by Israel. In September 2008 there were 69 Palestinian female political prisoners held in Israeli prisons, 2 of them in solitary confinement and 5 in administrative detention. There are 6 female child prisoners and 4 detainees imprisoned as well as their husbands. One detainee has her baby with her who was born in prison. Palestinian female prisoners are placed in 2 Israeli prisons: Hasharon-Telmond and Neve Tertza prison, where they are detained in the same section as Israeli female criminals accused of murder, drug use and prostitution. Like Palestinian male prisoners, Palestinian female prisoners face torture and humiliation. Strip search, brutal body searches and sexual harassment are frequent.

Contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines a child as being under 18, Israeli military orders consider a child over 16 an adult, to be treated, tried and sentenced as such. In practice, Palestinian children as young as 12 may be arrested, charged and sentenced in Israeli military courts, since there are no juvenile courts. According to several reports, there are over 400 Palestinian children in Israeli prisons today, including 7 girls and 6 administrative detainees. These child detainees are aged between 13 and 18, more than 54 of whom are not older than 16. They are detained in Israeli prisons together with adults. 50 of these child prisoners are held in Ofer, 100 in Magiddo, 7 in Atzion, 22 in the Negev, 105 in Hasharon-Telmond and the rest in other prison facilities. Today, more than 450 Palestinian adult prisoners were children upon arrest and turned 18 in Israeli prisons. Like adult prisoners, Palestinian child prisoners are subjected to physical and psychological torture to extract confessions from them. During interrogation, they are not allowed to have any family member or a lawyer attending. Although I was practically a child when arrested, I was placed in a small empty room. I had been separated from my sister, and didn’t know where they had taken her. I stood waiting for a life sign from anyone, and I didn’t know how long I stood there, but I remember well how tired I was of standing and how thirsty I was. After some time, I could hear the cries of a boy in the room next to where I was. I thought, they were either torturing him or someone was making these noises to make me scared before it was my turn to be interrogated. I kept thinking of everything I ever heard, of how to keep still, stay brave and remember that they are only playing games with us to scare us into confessing to things we didn’t do. When I was finally led into a room with a number of IOF soldiers, all males, the soldier in charge checked my school bag and found my biology textbook. He looked through the book and saw a drawing of the anatomy of a human tooth. He showed it to me and asked smirking in a disgusting way if I knew what it was. I knew what it was and knew what he thought it was and what his plan was by asking me about it. At that moment I didn’t feel scared anymore, because I realized how stupid they are. Not only didn’t he know it was a tooth, the textbook was in English and it was written below the drawing what it was, but most probably he didn’t know a word of English and was acting so superior. I looked at him and said: yes, this is a tooth. My suspicions were confirmed when, upon not believing me, he asked one of the other soldiers in the room and the other confirmed what I said.

Child prisoners are held up in overcrowded cells, face torture and solitary confinement and don’t receive the needed medical treatment. In the last couple of months there has been an increase in the number of Palestinian children arrested. They are either arrested at home, at checkpoints or in streets, and are often accused of throwing stones without any proof. DCI-Palestine reports that the number of children brought before Israeli military courts in pre-trial hearing in the first two weeks of January was twice as high as in 2008. It added that its legal department receives a monthly average of 10 to 15 new cases of children for legal representation in Military courts, and that alone for the first two weeks of January 2009 it received 10 new cases. In one incident, 7 children were arrested in Toura Al Gharbieh in Jenin on 20.1.2009 and were detained at the Salim detention and interrogation centre. Two of the children were 12, two 13, two were 15 and the last 17 years old. Under pressure and with no lawyer present, the children confessed they had thrown stones at the Apartheid Wall. In another incident, during an invasion of Hares in the West Bank on the night of 12/13.3.2009, the IOF arrested a 17 year old boy suffering from kidney malfunction.

Palestinians prisoners are held in facilities run by the Israeli Prison Services (IPS) or the IDF. There are 30 detention centres that include 21 prisons and military camps, 5 detention and holding centres and 4 interrogation centres. Also, there is at least one known secret prison, Facility 1391, which is renowned for its severe torture methods. The exact location of this prison is unknown and lawyers and the ICRC have no access to it. The majority of these facilities are located outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and transferring Palestinian prisoners to these facilities constitutes a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention, and making family visits almost impossible. Some of these facilities are buildings while others are tents within military camps like the Ketzion Military prison camp in the Negev, exposing detainees to harsh weather conditions. They are all overcrowded, with little hygiene, prisoners have to sleep on wooden planks and covers are often provided by the families or human rights organizations. The food provided is insufficient and of poor quality. Palestinian detainees have to live in appalling conditions in these facilities, are humiliated and subjected to inhuman treatment. In some cases, detainees are deported, either abroad or to the Gaza Strip. After the siege of the Nativity Church in 2003, Israel deported 13 Palestinian detainees to Europe and 26 to the Gaza Strip. During the Gaza war, hundreds of Palestinian civilians were arrested, including minors. They were handcuffed and blindfolded, and had nothing to shelter them from the harsh weather. Many held for days in pits dug in the ground. Reports added that some of the detainees were held near tanks and in combat area, making them human shields for the IOF.

Prison visits usually take the whole day, although the visit itself lasts less than an hour. We would set off in the very early morning, when it was dark outside and everyone else was still sleeping. The bus of the ICRC would be full with Palestinians from everywhere, mostly elderly women and children, all anxious to see their relatives. And before we would finally be able to see our loved ones, we would undergo one checkpoint after the other and one search after the other. I remember during one visit, when we were finally allowed into the visit room, I walked quickly looking for my uncle. I hadn’t seen him in years, and after I finally sat opposite him, we started talking through the barbed wire. We were both so happy. It was after a few minutes that someone from my family came and told me to come and say hello to my uncle. I was talking to the wrong person, and I was so embarrassed I didn’t even say goodbye or look back to see if that prisoner had any visitors that day. Later, I thought he too might have not seen his family since so long that he too mistook me for a relative, or maybe he was just anxious to speak to someone. During another visit, I remember sitting and talking to my uncle and at the same time trying to ignore the rain drops that were seeping through the roof and hitting me on the head and running down my face. My uncle must have found it amusing, because every time a raindrop would hit me in the face he would smile, but I would ignore it and continue talking, and by the end of the visit my hair was totally soaked and I was freezing. There was no possibility of kissing or hugging a relative, and the only thing we could do in way of shaking hands was to stretch our fingers through the barbed net separating us. Saying goodbye was always difficult, because we knew we were going back to our homes, to the relatively bigger prison, while leaving them behind in the small overcrowded cells. And when we finally reached home, it would be dark again and most people would be sleeping, a day spent between checkpoints and searches for a 45 minute visit of loved ones.

One time, on the way to my aunt’s house in Dheisheh, a friend of mine and I passed a young man, who was walking up and down one narrow alley of the refugee camp. The man was most probably mid twenty and was good looking. He was walking that alley and was arguing with someone. I looked around and saw no one in the whole area. I looked up to see if he was addressing someone sitting at a window or on the roof, but could see no one. I pointed the man to my friend, who told me not to worry. She said the young man had been recently released from an Israeli prison, where he was tortured. Since then he had been roaming the streets of Dheisheh, arguing with an invisible friend. As I listened closer, I realized he was talking politics with himself, discussing the occupation and life in prison. They had not released him, for he was still in that Israeli cell, being tortured every minute. Last winter when I was in Palestine, I wanted to take some photos of old UNRWA rooms, built for the Palestinians in 1949. Most old UNRWA rooms were being destroyed to build new houses, and I wanted to keep a record of the last remaining rooms that are a synonym to the Nakba and refugee camps. The wife of one of my uncles accompanied me in my search since she was born and grew up in Dheisheh and knew where to find a few old rooms. Most of these tiny rooms are deserted now, standing empty near larger family houses. I would take photos from the outside and if the room had no door or the door was open, I would take photos from the inside. As we came to inspect one room, we were surprised to find an old man lying on the ground, wrapped in a torn out winter coat. The old man opened his eyes as he saw us, he made a move as if to stand up, but my uncle’s wife told him not to leave and apologized for disturbing him, since we thought the room was deserted. A few minutes later, my mother’s aunt saw us invited us for some tea. Inside, we told her about the old man, and as she and my uncle’s wife talked about the old man and giving him something to eat and warm himself, since they knew who he was, I realized it must be the young man I saw long time ago. He was still imprisoned in that cell, a whole life wasted, and all I could do was to shake my head at the injustice of it all.

Under international humanitarian law, torture is strictly forbidden. The world was shocked when the torture in Abu Ghreib came to light, there were condemnations from everywhere and demands were made to close that prison. But the Zionist state, which conducts one war crime after the other, never hesitates in using torture. The forms of torture used in Abu Ghreib were not new to Palestinians, because they have been used since decades by the IPS against Palestinians. Was it not revealed that Israeli IOF and Shin Bet interrogators were hired by the Pentagon to brutally interrogate prisoners in Abu Ghreib? Was it not revealed that the American interrogates implicated in the torture had attended an “anti terror” training camp in Israel, and that many of the torture methods used in Abu Ghreib resembled those applied by Israel against Palestinian detainees? Much is documented about torture in Israeli prisons, but we rarely hear of any condemnation or demand to close these torture facilities. According to B’Tselem, 85% of the Palestinian detainees have been subjected to torture, adding that “Since 1987, the GSS (Israeli General Security Service) interrogated at least 850 Palestinians a year by means of torture …. (a)ll governmental authorities – from the Israeli army to the Supreme court – take part in approving torture, in developing new methods, and in supervising them.” In 1999 the Israeli High Court superficially outlawed the use of arbitrary torture as an interrogation method, but in reality it did not ban it and till today torture is still used by Israel. Physical ill treatment combined with humiliation begins with the arrest, whether at home or in the street. Palestinian detainees can be interrogated for 180 days, and can be denied a lawyer for a period of 60 days. During interrogation, torture is used and has led to the death of the detainee in some cases and confessions extracted under torture are admissible in Israeli courts.

Palestinians may be held for days without being brought before a judge or informed of the reason for the arrest, during which they are interrogated, which can last up to 180 days, or are administratively detained. Administrative detention is a detention without trial or charge or the continuation of imprisonment after the completion of a sentence. It is often used by Israel and is authorized by an administrative order of the IOF rather than by a judicial decree. Israeli Military Order 1229 of 1988 empowers IOF military commanders to detain Palestinians for up to 6 months, which can be extended indefinitely. Over the years, thousands of Palestinians, men and women and of all ages, have been held in administrative detention for periods ranging from 6 months to over 8 years, without being tried or charged. Families of detainees are not informed of a person’s arrest or the arrest location. Theoretically, detainees can appeal, but in reality neither they nor their lawyers are informed of the reason for the detention or examine the evidence, which makes defending their clients very difficult. The Orders governing administrative detention were also modified in 1999. MO 1466 – Temporary Order, Modification 13 states that a detainee must be brought before a military judge within 10 days of his arrest, and authorizing the military judge to approve, cancel or decrease the time of administrative detention order. This modification is also superficial, since the judges are military personnel who give legal legitimacy to the illegal actions of the IOF and the IPS. In reality, Palestinians are tried by Israeli military courts consisting of a panel of 3 judges appointed by the IOF. These judges often have no legal background and thus don’t fulfil international standards of a fair trial. Since the beginning of the 2nd intifada in September 2000 some 20,000 Palestinians were held in administrative detention. By April 2009 there were more than 560 Palestinian administrative detainees, held in Israeli prisons without trial. 372 of these detainees have been held without trial or charge for at least two consecutive periods, 47 of them for over two years, and 23 for over two and a half years including two who have been imprisoned for over four and a half years.

While a Palestinian may be held in custody for 18 days before being brought to a judge, an Israeli can be held in custody for a maximum of 48 hours before being brought before a judge. While a Palestinian can be held for 30 days without charges which can be extended indefinitely, an Israeli can be held for 15 days without a charge which can be extended for only another 15 days. Palestinians brought to court on accusation of murder are always convicted, even without evidence, and are always sentenced to life imprisonment. Most cases against Israeli soldiers or illegal Jewish settlers accused of murdering Palestinians are closed without any charges, even with the existence of evidence or witnesses. The few who do get sentenced are imprisoned for short periods ranging from 6 months to 7 and a half years or to community service. Palestinian Prisoners have been used by Israel at politically convenient moments, whereby Palestinians who had already served out their sentences with only a few days remaining would be released as “gestures of good will”. At the same time hundreds others would be arrested. For example, on 25.8.2008 Israel released 198 prisoners as a “gesture of good will”, however statistics for August 2008 show that another 338 Palestinians were arrested. Today there are some 81 “old detainees” i.e., detainees who are in continuous imprisonment since over 20 years, 2 of whom since over 30 years, and some 290 prisoners who have been in prison since over 15 years.

Although they have modern deadly weapons, are top recipients of military assistance, have their war crimes justified by a biased western media, and their interests protected by Zionist lobbies all over the world, the Zionists still fear us because they know we are the rightful owners of the land and that alone by existing we are defying them and their power and countering the myths and lies on which their state is built. Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman said on the release of Palestinian prisoners: “It would be better to drown these prisoners, in the Dead Sea if possible, since that’s the lowest point in the world.” They not only deny us our rights and our freedom, they want to kill our spirit and see us dead. What they haven’t understood by now is that the more they humiliate us, harass us, imprison us, take away our freedom from us, the more we value that freedom and the stronger becomes our belief in our just cause and our will to be free.


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Reham Alhelsi is a Jerusalem-born Palestinian. She has worked extensively in the Palestinian Broadcasting Company and since 2000, when she moved to Germany, has trained at various radio and TV networks including Deutsche Welle, SWR and WDR. She is currently writing her PhD in Regional Planning with a focus on Palestinian Land Management and local government.

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