Occupied West Bank — More than 1500 Palestinian prisoners entered their 14th day of hunger strike on Sunday. They are demanding better conditions within prisons, including more frequent and longer family visits, appropriate medical care, ending “abusive conditions” and stopping the use of solitary confinement and administrative detention — an Israeli policy in which Palestinians can be held without charge or trial, indefinitely.
The hunger strike, launched on April 16, is the first of its size in recent years. Two weeks into the strike, the initiative has gained momentum. Locally, Palestinians scheduled a strike across the occupied West Bank on Thursday, where businesses and schools were closed. On Friday, political leaders called for a Day of Rage, where mass protests across the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel were organized. By Saturday leaders were urging an escalation in solidarity protests.
The Israeli Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan has stated that the strike will not lead to negotiations because “there is no reason to give [Palestinian prisoners] additional conditions in addition to what they already receive.”
Palestinians who have spent time in Israeli prisons however, described to Mondoweiss inhumane treatment, and said the list of demands created by the hunger strikers are basic human rights.
Firas Nasrallah, 32, was 16 years old the first time he went to Israeli prison. He was detained by Israeli forces and accused of throwing stones during clashes and sentenced to four years in prison.
Sitting with two other former prisoners of Israel in a bakery he now owns, Nasrallah said no point on the list of demands is more important than another, but highlighted the importance of healthcare reform within Israeli prisons.
“When I first got arrested I was taken to a one-by-one meter room for interrogation. The room was very hot and humid with no space, no water and no light,” he said. “I developed a very serious rash all over my body from the conditions. For days at a time I wasn’t given water, not to drink or wash or pray, it was a kind of psychological torture.”
Nasrallah’s rash got worse. He could not sleep from the discomfort. Even normal movements caused him pain, but he was not given medicine to treat the condition, he said.
“It kept getting worse, it was so bad, and the nurse — if it was even a real nurse — just told me to drink more water. For everything they told us to drink water, as if that was a cure,” Nasrallah said. “I couldn’t sleep, it was so bad that I was scratching at my body until I bled.”
When asked how long it took for the rash to go away, an incredulous look washed over his face.
“No you don’t understand,” he said. “It didn’t go away. I had that rash for four years.”
The only medicine he was ever given for the condition was sleeping pills to help him pass the night, he said.
Mahmoud Abu Srour, a friend of Nasrallah’s who spent three years in Israeli prison starting in 2004 when he was 15 years old, was shot by Israeli forces in the leg during clashes when he was 12 years old. He was arrested three years later, but his leg had not fully healed and he was still going through rehabilitation treatment at the time.
“I was shot with a large caliber bullet that went straight through my right thigh,” Abu Srour explained. “Three years later, I was still having problems with my leg, there was a lot of pain from the injury, but when I got to the prison I stopped receiving treatment for it because there were so many more serious cases in line. I didn’t want to push the subject and take someone’s place who needed more urgent care than I did.”
Abu Srour explained that it takes months, sometimes even up to a year, for a prisoner to see a real doctor. Less severe cases can be treated at a prison clinic, but according to Abu Srour, prisoners were never sure the people inside the clinic were even medical professionals and treatment generally culminated to sleeping pills, pain medication and advice to drink more water.
“Go compare any other prisons in the world, even the Israeli criminal prisons, to the way Palestinians are treated in Israeli jails — it’s unlike anything else,” he said. “The Palestinians in Israeli prisons are not charged as criminals, but we have less rights.”
Those who do seek and receive treatment at a medical facility go through a long grueling processes of paperwork, long waits and transfers that lead some sick prisoners to choose not to attempt getting medical help at all, Nasrallah said.
Even still, after a prisoner is approved to be transferred for medical care, the process of getting from the prison to the hospital can be painful and humiliating, the three men explained.
“When you’re sick or in pain, going to the hospital means being handcuffed and legcuffed for hours with no protection from the weather. If the weather is freezing, you freeze in the bus, if it’s hot, you sit in the heat.” Nasrallah said. “The seats are another thing, it sounds like something small, but the seats on the bus — which you spend hours in if you’re getting transferred for court or for medical care — are metal grates with holes. You can’t stand, you can’t move and the holes in the seats pressed to your legs and can become very painful, especially if you’re sick, then it can be unbearable to sit there in that bus, so many people choose to skip any kind of transport if they can.”
When Nasrallah finished explaining about the problems in being transported, he said there was something else he wanted to talk about, but wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to say.
“It’s just, some prisoners refuse medical treatment or any kind of transport because — it’s very embarrassing to speak about — but before you’re allowed to be moved from one point to another, and I mean even within the same prison, from one section to another, you are stripped naked and they make you bend over and expose yourself and do inspections. That happens for every prisoner before any movement from any one point to another — the only feeling you have during that inspection is that you want to explode.”
Mohammed Fathy, 26, the quietest of the three, spent ten years in prison. Arrested when he was 16, he was just released in October.
Fathy said that Israeli security has some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, and that he believes there is no practical reason the prison administrations couldn’t use scanning machines on prisoners before transfers instead of manual physical checks.
“This process is just to humiliate us,” Fathy said. “Israel has all the technology, they can use machines to see everything without making prisoners humiliate themselves like that.”
Abu Srour chimed in, adding that he refused family visitations for the entire three years of his imprisonment because of the physical strip searches.
“I couldn’t go through that optionally, no way. I told my family not to visit me because I did not respect that I would have to go through that to see them,” Abu Srour said.
For the ten years Fathy was in prison, from the age of 16 to 26, his father was never allowed to visit him, because the Israeli government said he was a security threat.
Under International Law and the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power is forbidden to hold prisoners from an occupied territory outside of the occupied land, however the vast majority of Palestinian prisoners from the occupied West Bank and Gaza are held in prisons inside Israel. In fact there is only one prison, Ofer, which is generally only used for short-term cases, within the occupied West Bank. Due to this system, loved ones of prisoners are required to apply for permits to enter Israel, which are generally hard to obtain.
In addition, the trip from the occupied West Bank to prisons inside Israel, many of which are located in the far north or south, is time consuming and difficult. The only way loved ones are allowed to visit prisoners is through a bus service with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which only offers its service once a month.
“Even my brothers and sisters were only allowed to visit me a handful of times in the ten years I was imprisoned,” Fathy said. “When anyone did get permission to visit, they would wake up at four in the morning, and travel there for hours, go through interrogations and security to get there by two in the afternoon, see me for allotted 45 minutes we were granted and take hours to get back home, the whole process could take them 24 hours sometimes.”
Fathy said another problem was during the visitation itself. In most of the prisons Fathy served time in, prisoners spoke to their family members through a phone behind a glass window, and the phones were often broken and difficult to hear through.
Nasrallah told Mondoweiss that he prefered not to have his mother visit him because seeing her and not being able to communicate was unbearable.
“It would leave me so frustrated and angry because the phones were always broken so I just prefered not to go through it all,” Nasrallah said.
“Don’t forget, all of us were children when we were detained,” Abu Srour added. “We didn’t know how to deal with any of this stuff.”
Because so many Palestinian prisoners are youth when detained, all three stressed the importance of being allowed to study — one of the demands of the hunger strike.
Fathy told Mondoweiss that he watched many young people begin their studies inside the prison during his ten year stint, only for the programs to be halted after a year.
“They let you study sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to finish your degree or your program,” he explained. “They give you a year or so, and then that’s enough for them. You don’t get to pick the books you read or whether you get to study, there is no choice.”
For Nasrallah, Abu Srour and Fathy, watching the news of the latest hunger strike come through is difficult because they feel powerless.
“When you start a hunger strike, the Israelis start a war on the prisoners,” Fathy said. “It’s the art of torture, the way they play with them.”
According to reports from local media, the Israeli Prison Service has started to search for and confiscated the salt prisoners hid away to make salt water, the only nutrients hunger strikers are consuming. They have also isolated hunger strikers from the rest of the inmates, required them to wear special uniforms and have reportedly taken away all glasses and bottles, which means prisoners, in their weak state, have to get out of bed to drink water from the taps.
“As former prisoners we can’t risk going to protests in solidarity with them, so that is hard. I feel like speaking to the media is the best I can do,” Nasrallah said. “We know what they are going through. The prison is like a graveyard for the living.”