Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Sept/Oct 2009, Pages 16-17
Gaza on the Ground
Only Israel Knows Why Yousef and His Mother Are in Jail
By Mohammed Omer
As morning dawns, 17-month-old Yousef Al Zeq slowly opens his eyes, tentative slits gradually expanding to reveal beautiful brown irises as the child emerges from sleep. Rather than seeing a dangling mobile, bright colors and an assortment of stuffed animals ringing his crib, however, Yousef sees gray walls, darkness and despair. From the day he was born this is the only world he’s known. Yousef is special. He’s likely the youngest prisoner in an Israeli prison—Hasharon to be exact. His crime? He was born to a Palestinian woman. Her crime? Nobody seems to know.
Yousef’s mother, Fatima Al Zeq, 42, was arrested May 20, 2007 while accompanying her niece from Gaza to a hospital in Ramallah for treatment. She was charged with intending to carry out an attack in Israel. Yet her family claims that such charges are far-fetched. One legal source suggests that Mrs. Al Zeq was arrested because Israeli authorities simply suspected she would carry out an attack against Israel. Yet no explosives were found on her, nor was any other evidence produced to support this assertion. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) declined to comment on Al Zeq’s incarceration. Nor were any Israeli legal organizations contacted by the Washington Report able to provide an explanation.
Another source suggested that the charges against her are based on guilt by association, noting that “one of her relatives is a leader within Islamic Jihad.” According to Al Zeq and her immediate family members, however, they don’t work with or engage with that organization.
Unfortunately for those living under occupation, Al Zeq’s plight is not unusual. Most Palestinians have very large families, with numerous relatives. It is hardly surprising that among hundreds of distant aunts, uncles and cousins one would find doctors, government workers, farmers, entrepreneurs—and resistance fighters.
Moreover, Israel’s two-tiered legal system consists of one set of laws—and due process—for Jewish residents, with a different set of laws—and no due process—for non-Jewish residents, regardless of whether they live in Israel or the areas under its military occupation. Israel’s policy of “administrative detention” means that a ChrisÂ tian or Muslim individual can be imprisoned without charges being filed—or even a crime having been committed—and held indefinitely in Israeli jails.
According to Israeli human rights groups and Palestinian sources, 9,600 Palestinian prisoners currently are being held in Israeli prisons. Among the inmates are 58 women, 440 children, 535 “administrative” prisoners, and 39 elected members of parliament and official government ministers. These statistics fluctuate, however, depending on the (increasing) number of arrests at Israeli checkpoints, and various release rates.
The vast majority of female Palestinian prisoners are young. Approximately 13 percent of those arrested in 2007 and 2008 were under the age of 18, and 56 percent were between 20 and 30 years old, according to human rights groups in Gaza. Many are jailed because they’ve been involved in nonviolent protests against the occupation and other human rights activities. Very few have been involved in any type of criminal activity.
“Since her arrest,” said Mohammed Al Zeq, Fatima’s husband, “we haven’t seen her. We thought it was a matter of confusing her name with another and that in a matter of days she would be released. But this was not the case.”
Legal sources in Israel and family members in Gaza confirm that, since her arrest, Fatima has been allowed just three phone calls to her family. Nor was her husband permitted to be with her during the birth of their youngest son. Mohammed learned from his wife’s fellow inmates that “Fatima gave birth in a tough situation. She was finally allowed into an Israeli hospital. It was only in the last moment during the delivery that her hands were not handcuffed.”
The Addameer Report
The Palestinian human rights group Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association recently released a report focusing on Israeli accountability for its treatment of female Palestinian prisoners. According to the U.N.-sponsored report, women prisoners are held in “Israeli prisons and detention centers which were designed for men [and] do not respond to female needs.”
At the time of their arrest, the report stated, the majority of the women were “subjected to some form of mental pressure and torture,” including beatings, insults, threats, sexual harassment and other humiliations. The report found that pregnant detainees “do not enjoy preferential treatment in terms of diet, living space or transfer to hospitals.”
These women are particularly susceptible to the poor treatment accorded them, the report noted:“the unbalanced diet, insufficient amounts of protein-rich foods, lack of natural sunlight and movement, poor ventilation and moisture all contribute to the exacerbation and the development of health problems such as skin diseases, anemia, asthma, prolonged stomach aches, joint and back pains.”
And, of course, the prisoner’s unborn child is deprived of the healthy environment necessary for optimum development.
“Pregnant prisoners about to give birth are frequently shackled on their way to the hospital, where they are also chained to their beds until they enter delivery rooms and shackled once again after giving birth,” the report added.
Such revelations are not new to the Al Zeq family. “We were all worried,” Mohammed confided. “We knew Fatima was pregnant. She gave birth on Jan. 18, 2008 to a child we learned she called Yousef. She was subjected to all types of mental and physical pressure.”
According to her husband, Fatima and her newborn child were transferred from Maier Hospital in Israel back to Hasharon prison on the same day she gave birth.
While “the treatment female prisoners receive in Israeli jail is relatively appropriate,” said Taghrid Jahshan, a legal adviser for the Women’s Organization for Political Prisoners (WOFPP), an Israeli organization which supports female political prisoners and advocates for the release of all political prisoners, the amount of food rations they receive doesn’t count Yousef. So, Jahshan explained, “the women give their meals to Yousef.”
Meanwhile, Iris Meierhans, head of the ICRC’s communications department, has confirmed that they have visited Yousef and his mother in the past and will visit the child again soon.
Lack of Attorney Access
Jahshan was scheduled to visit Fatima Al Zeq and her son in the middle of last July. However, she explained, “due to the fact that she is not allowed to take her child with her to see lawyers, Al Zeq prefers not to leave her son alone, without his mother. Therefore she stays with him.”
Additional efforts on behalf of prisoners have been made by the Israeli groups Yesh Din and the Movement for Freedom of Information. In the West Bank, military law allows GSS interrogators to prevent detainees from meeting with their lawyers for up to 30 days. In October 2007 Yesh Din approached the Office of the Prime Minister, requesting data showing how often interrogators invoke this authority. The Office of the Prime Minister replied on behalf of the GSS to Yesh Din that Freedom of Information Law “is not applicable to the GSS [General Security Service].” The two Israeli organizations have appealed that decision to the country’s High Court of Justice.
A Melancholy Homecoming
The ICRC has called on Israel to allow the families of Gaza prisoners to visit their relatives. “I’ve yet to see my own child,” Mohammed Al Zeq lamented. “Israel is not allowing Palestinian families to get out of Gaza to visit their relatives in Israeli jails.”
According to Israeli law, Yousef will be released from prison once he reaches two years of age, at which time he will be transferred to his father’s care. Fatima, however, will remain in jail indefinitely. As Taghrid Jahshan put it, “For her it is a nightmare that never ends.”
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Undiagnosed Illness Spreading Among Palestinian Prisoners
According to Gaza-based Abdel Nasser Ferwana, a Palestinian researcher on prisoner affairs, a new, undiagnosed disease apparently is spreading among detainees at Israel’s Ofar prison. So far, he said, 29 prisoners have the disease, the symptoms of which include “high temperature or fever, coughing, nausea and vomiting, weakness of limbs, and difficulty standing and walking.”
The prisoners could be suffering from swine flu, Ferwana said. In early August Israel’s best-selling daily, Yediot Ahronot, reported that swine flu had been diagnosed among inmates in the prison housing Israeli soldiers. Israeli officials denied this, however, maintaining that “everything is under control.”
The Israeli prison administration has quarantined the Ofar prisoners who exhibit symptoms and, Ferwana said, forced them to wear masks. Not surprisingly, the situation is exacerbated by the prison’s confined spaces and limited hygienic facilities, and the Palestinian Ministry of Prisoners and Ex-Detainees notes that “the clinic inside the Israeli jail is just one room with minimal to no equipment.”
Ferwana has appealed to international organizations to intervene, and the ministry in Ramallah has issued an urgent call for the Arab League and human rights groups to investigate the situation and ensure medical treatment for the prisoners.
Ofar prison, which holds around 1,200 prisoners, has a history of frequent attacks on prisoners by prison guards, according to Israeli human rights groups. The most recent incident was eight months ago, when soldiers shot rubber bullets and threw tear gas at the prisoners. Eight prisoners were injured, and many had respiratory problems as a result of the gas attack.—M.O.