Abuse and torture of women in Israeli occupation prisons

Russia Today ran an important story on April 27, 2012, detailing Palestinian prisoners’ experience with torture, oppression, and humiliation in Israeli occupation prisons, looking at the causes of the hunger strike.

The RT article details women’s experiences, particularly women’s experience with abuse, torture and poor health care during pregnancy and childbirth. This reflects a paradigmatic example of the deep impacts of mass imprisonment on Palestinian health. Sami Kishawi takes up these themes, and in particular the gendered structures of oppression used against Palestinian women in detention and occupation prisons, in an important article at Sixteen Minutes to Palestine.

The Russia Today article follows:

Surviving Israeli jail: Torture, humiliation and giving birth by Nadezhda Kevorkova

Thousands of Palestinians are on hunger strike in Israeli prisons – for over a week, they have been protesting against indefinite detention without charge and alleged ill-treatment. Some of those who got out, told RT about their life behind bars.

Human rights groups in the West Bank say 2,000 Palestinians have been on hunger strike for more than a week, and others are ready to join next week. At the moment there are an estimated 5,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. Each year, 700-800 minors are arrested, and in all, 20 per cent of Palestinians have experienced Israeli prison.

Yahya as-Sinwar was arrested in 1988 and sentenced to 462 years in prison. He served 23 years and is now 50. He is one of the founders of Hamas and the Islamic University of Gaza.

Israel accused him of organizing and leading Hamas internal security unit MAJD and killing Palestinian traitors who spied for Israel. As-Sinwar says that they had no choice, because these people put the resistance movement in jeopardy.

Speaking about his years spent in an Israeli jail, as-Sinwar says different kinds of torture were routine practice.

“They kept me awake for 10 days in a row. Whenever I dozed off, they would pour ice-cold or boiling water on me – depending on their personal preferences. They would tie my arms behind my back, throw me on the floor, a prison guard would sit on my stomach or chest, apply pressure to the groin – the pain was excruciating,” Yahya as-Sinwar recollects.

According to as-Sinwar, the Shabak [Israeli General Security Service] handles torture during the investigation, and the Shabas [Israeli Prison Service] tortures sentenced prisoners. “They have two departments – Nahshon and Metzada – which are responsible for the total psychological destruction of a person. These methods are not used anywhere else in the world.”

He says Israeli prison guards could tie a prisoner to a child’s chair and make him balance on it for days; put a person in an ice box (after this the person’s limbs are usually amputated).

“They have this form of torture when they tie a prisoner’s hands and leave him hanging for 24 hours. Or they suffocate the prisoner, watch him turn blue, let him breathe for a bit, and then repeat this several times,” as-Sinwar told RT. “When they tortured my close friend, they beat him on the back of the head with tightly rolled newspapers. A person has terrible headaches afterwards, becomes hysterical, all the internal organs get damaged.”

According to as-Sinwar, these kinds of torture leave no marks and even a very keen doctor would find it very difficult to discover any signs of abuse.

“They study the prisoners and come up with something especially humiliating for this particular convict. For a Palestinian it is easier to die than suffer humiliation – they know it very well and humiliate our people in a very cruel way.”

As-Sinwar says the prisoners could not get proper medical treatment in custody: “After long hours of waiting in pain, all you get is not a doctor but a nurse without any experience who gives you one cure for all conditions – a painkiller. They don’t care if a prisoner lives or suffers terrible pain.”

As-Sinwar believes hunger strikes are the only way for Palestinian prisoners to express their protest.

“Prisoners in Israel get 10 per cent of the amount of food served in the prisons of other countries. After many days of hunger strikes convicts look like the walking dead. Prison guards have to carry them to interrogation sessions on stretchers, and throw them on the stone floor in their prison cells.”


Cells space of 1.2 by 0.8 m

All the fences in the neighborhood around Ayman Hatem Afif al-Shakhshir’s house in Gaza are covered with citizens’ wishes of health and well-being to him.  He spent 19 years in an Israeli prison out of the 550-year term he was sentenced to, and was released in exchange for Corporal Shalit. Ayman Hatem Afif al-Shakhshir stems from a well-known Palestinian family. He was arrested at the age of 28. His three daughters grew up, and two of them got married and had children without him around.

Ayman was the head of one of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. He was arrested on charges of taking part in assaults on Israeli military personnel deployed in Gaza.

“None of the detainees had a single visitor for five years since 2006. My father died without seeing me once in the last 10 years of his life. It was only through the Red Cross that I occasionally received letters – it was the only way to keep in touch with the family, while my children were growing up without me,” says Ayman.

He says his cell was not fit to hold people.

“It was a tiny cell measuring 1.2 by 0.8 m where one person could not lie down, or stand up or stretch his legs, it had no furniture, and food was given once a day, and it’s so bad you couldn’t eat it. I know three prisoners who spent 25 years each in such cells.”

“Israeli propaganda is advertising their prisons to the world as if they were five-star hotels – but this is all lies. And what they say about prisoners having the opportunity to complete their education in Israeli schools is also a lie.” 

Ayman himself got his Bachelor’s degree in Social Defense through the remote education program from Gaza University. “Now prisoners are denied any education opportunities whatsoever. A whole system to break the prisoners’ will is in place, they get denied everything a person needs to feel connected with the outside world,” he says.

Ayman is convinced that meaningless imprisonment terms of many times a lifetime are given with the sole purpose of breaking the prisoner’s will.

“They want a person to sit in this stone well and know that this is where he is to die. But they are hugely mistaken. Each Palestinian has a hope for help from God, and there is no taking this away.”

Yahya as-Sinwar with his wife (Photo: Nadezhda Kevorkova, RT)

Giving birth with hands and feet tied

Samar Isbeh was arrested when she was 22 following a student protest. She was sentenced to 2.5-year term in prison. She is now 28, and lives in Gaza, while her own and her husband’s families live in the West Bank.

“I was arrested three months after my wedding. I was the head of the student council at the Islamic University. We organized a protest against occupation. I was arrested in my husband’s home in Tulkarm. Two days later my husband was arrested too and sentenced to 9 months in prison, although they had nothing to charge him with whatsoever,”says Samar.

Samar Isbeh (Photo: Nadezhda Kevorkova, RT)

She has now been deported to the Gaza Strip and is denied entry to Tulkarm, so she can see neither her husband nor her children.

“I was in my fist weeks of pregnancy when I got arrested. I went through every kind of torture. They tortured me in an underground cell for 66 days. They made me balance on a children’s chair, they kept me in a freezing cold disciplinary cell,” says Samar.

“My hands and feet were tied when I was going through labor. They C-sectioned me, not because I required it but simply out of hatred. They let me have the child but treated him as a prisoner, too. They gave us no milk or diapers, or only expired ones. I was kept in terrible conditions during and after I gave birth. I wasn’t allowed to go out for fresh air. The only medicine they ever gave me and my child for any condition was Paracetamol.” 


Pregnant on Hunger Strike

Patima Zakka is 42. She was released from an Israeli prison in exchange for a video tape featuring Gilad Shalit during his captivity. The video was passed by Shalit’s captors just before Patima was due to stand trial, and she was released one day short of the hearing. That is why she never received a sentence.

Patima Zakka with her son (Photo: Nadezhda Kevorkova, RT)

Patima had been charged with conspiring to suicide-bomb a bus full of Israeli military personnel. The prosecution had demanded a 12-year prison sentence for the mother of eight.

“I did not know I was pregnant before I got arrested,” says Patima. “A nurse found that out while I was in detention. My eight children were left without me at home. No one had instructed me to blow up anybody. It is true that they [Israelis] had killed my brother and a number of relatives – but that is the case with most people in Palestine.”

Patima says she was put through the full sequence of interrogation techniques.

“They tortured me while I was pregnant,” she says. “They kept me in an ice-cold cell, relocating me from one cell to another time and again. They wanted me to have a miscarriage. This mistreatment got me to the point of bleeding.”

This prompted Patima to go on hunger strike. She lasted 21 days.

“They did not leave me a choice,” she explains. “Allah be praised, I did not have a miscarriage. My son was born in jail. His name is Yusef.”

“The obstetrician yelled at me and treated me like I was an animal,” says Patima. “She refused to put me on an IV, and she denied me anesthesia. She was calling down terrible curses upon me. But you know, a punishment ensued for her right away: she hit her head real bad right in my cell. Allah helped me. She told me, “You are a terrorist, and your child will be a terrorist.” But I delivered my beautiful Yusef. And the real terrorists are those medics in Israeli prisons.” 

Nadezhda Kevorkova, RT