Newly released female Palestinian prisoner, Sanaa el-Hafi, was welcomed with a celebratory parade upon her arrival at the Erez crossing into the Gaza Strip, after experiencing severe hardship and trauma at several notorious Israeli prisons.
Israeli authorities released Sanaa last week after serving a one-year term in Israeli prisons, and being sentenced to three months of house arrest. Israeli forces arrested the 44-year-old woman in early May of last year on her way back to Gaza after paying a visit to her family in Ramallah.
“I am overwhelmed with happiness to be back among my family members, relatives, and friends. The Israeli occupation has separated me from my family and exposed me to horror without ever accusing me of reasonable charges,” Sanaa revealed. “It is unjust that we are left vulnerable in the face of Israeli superiority while the world twiddles its thumbs.”
The Israeli military court has accused Sanaa of smuggling financial aid to “terror organizations” like the Islamic movement of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Sanaa, who was leaving the Strip for the first time in many years, said the charges were unfounded, implicating her in issues she said she never had connections with. The Israeli Prison Service recently released Sanaa after listening to her lawyer’s appeal. However, she still had to pay fines before her release.
Sanaa’s eldest son, Abdullah, could not express his happiness and relief upon seeing his mother free again. He explained how difficult their life was while Sanaa was detained. “It was the first time we had to spend so much time without our mother. I finally understood the adversities families of prisoners face when my family experienced it firsthand,” he shared.
Following her release, Sanaa shared some of the ghastly conditions and systemic ordeals female prisoners face around the clock in Israeli prisons.
Sanaa was transferred back and forth between two prisons, and was able to infer some information regarding the nature of Israeli detention centers.
Sanaa said the gravest practice female Palestinian prisoners experience while held at Israeli prisons are arbitrary strip searches. Prisoners are expected to be fully exposed during transfer implementations and other arbitrary subjections. “The dignity of female prisoners is not respected. We constantly suffer from strip searches at any time of the day,” Sanaa added.
Regardless of the length of jail sentences, female Palestinian prisoners are not permitted to receive visits from their families in a regulated manner. The visitation process at Israeli prisons is conditioned to be complicated, and the procedure bureaucratically long and weary. So much so that a single visit could take up to two months of preparations. In addition, visits are limited to immediate relatives: only parents, spouses, and children are entitled to register to visit prisoners. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the sole organization that has authorization to coordinate such visitations between the families of prisoners and Israeli authorities.
Sanaa said that prisoners from Gaza can only expect familial visits to take place every three months, instead of biweekly, which is how often visits were held in the past. “They estranged us from our families, relatives, and friends. Female prisoners wait impatiently for their relatives’ visits, and the restless waiting tremendously exhausts their emotional and psychological states.” Sanaa added.
Sanaa also noted that the Israeli Prison Service has no respect for the privacy of its female prisoners. Night raids and arbitrary inspections are the norm and to be expected at any point while the prisoners are asleep. “It happened many times while I was there. They stormed into our rooms and searched them for no ostensible reasons in late hours of the night. No one can stop them and it was terrifying for us,” Sanaa recalled.
Lack of internal stability
Prisoners also constantly complain about the lack of essential toiletries and other basic personal utilities available in their cells. Sanaa accounted that prisoners receive very little of what they request of personal equipment, and are not allowed to purchase what they might need.
Israeli authorities implement a harsh system of compulsory transfer to all Palestinian prisoners, male and female, and so prisoners are not expected to remain at the same prison throughout their detention period. Sanaa expressed that the transfer system causes worry and instability for female prisoners. “Every time we adjust ourselves to a new prison, we receive a new transfer order to move to a new environment where we do not know anything or anyone,” Sanaa added.
Shortcomings in public support
There are several public campaigns and regular protests that are held from time to time to voice the prisoners’ ordeals, though Sanaa asserted that they do not exert enough pressure to help the prisoners. Sanaa called for more support from the local and international communities to put pressure on Israel and magnify the subdued voices of Palestinian prisoners.
“The issue of Palestinian prisoners in Israel needs more attention. Those courageous men and women have sacrificed their freedom for their homeland. They deserve a better response from the Palestinian masses and from political factions,” Sanaa commented.
The silence of international organizations is particularly disappointing. Sanaa sees that those organizations could have done more to pressure Israeli forces to improve and accelerate the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Recently, a group of Palestinian political leaders have held a protest in front of the ICRC’s headquarter in Gaza City to shed light on the ongoing struggle of Palestinian political prisoners, particularly those who decided to go on hunger strikes. The political party’s delegation called on the ICRC and the United Nations to intervene and put a stop to the relentless Israeli atrocities toward Palestinian prisoners.
Khader Habib, a notable political leader of the Islamic movement of al-Jihad mentioned in his speech at the ICRC protest that all female prisoners must be freed from Israeli jails, and that the practice of administrative detention must be halted as it constitutes a grave violation of International Law, to which Israel is legally bound.
“It is totally unacceptable that our prisoners continue to languish under arbitrary administrative detentions. They are being held without trial or charges, all illegal under International Law,” Habib declared.