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In Exile: Families relate stories of prisoner exiles

by Alistair George

10 December 2011 | International Solidarity Movement, West Bank

Although Palestinian prisoners endure harsh conditions in Israeli prisons, including and physical and psychological torture, their families are also severely punished through the policies of the Israeli authorities.

The prisoner release deal brokered between Hamas and the Israeli authorities saw the release of 477 Palestinian ‘security’ prisoners on 18 October 2011 (with a further 550 to be released in a second phase thought to be in December) in exchange for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in 2006.

The joy experienced by many of the prisoners and their families was tempered by the fact that many prisoners from the West Bank were released but sent into exile.  Of the 477 Palestinian prisoners released, at least 40 were sent abroad toTurkey, Syria or Qatar; 18 were sent toGaza or abroad for a period of three years, whilst 146 were forcibly relocated toGaza on a permanent basis away from their homes.

According to a joint statement by prisoner rights group Addameer and legal rights group Al-Haq, “These terms violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits forcible transfers and deportations of protected persons, a proscription that is part of customary international humanitarian law. Unlawful deportation or transfer also constitutes a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention (GC IV) and qualifies as one of the most serious war crimes. Given the stark asymmetry in power, resulting from the belligerent occupation, between the Palestinian and Israeli parties involved, neither the potential “consent” of the prisoners nor the fact that the deal was negotiated by a Palestinian authority can serve as justification for the deportations as this contravenes the spirit of articles 7, 8 and 47 of the GC IV concerning the inviolability of the protections afforded by the Convention.”

Addameer’s director, Saher Francis, notes that, as Gaza has been hermetically sealed off by Israel, the release of the prisoners “effectively serves as an extension of their previous isolation from their homeland and families and in many cases can be seen as a second prison sentence.”

Families of the prisoners spoke of their mixed feelings about the release and exile of their loved ones and revealed their fears and hopes for their family members.

The Assab family, Hebron

 Ahmad Abu Assab, 18, spoke of his father Ataiah Assab, 47,  who has been released after serving 18 years in prison and sent to Gaza City.

He was a member of the Hamas movement and he participated in three operations to kill Israelis, though he did not directly kill anyone.  I was five months old at the time of his arrest.  For the last two years I couldn’t visit him in prison, before that I visited him maybe around once every 2 months. When I heard he was being released I was very happy but when we heard he was going to be sent to Gaza our happiness was not complete. I was upset.  They didn’t mention for how many years he has been sent to Gaza,  I think they are making an example of him or testing him.

 Ahmad was able to visit his father on his release, travelling through Jordan and Egypt to reach Gaza.

I hadn’t seen him for two years and when I met him I burst into tears.  We hugged and kissed, and my father also cried.  My father was in jail for 18 years and it was the first time I had touched him since I was five months old.  I spent 13 days in Gaza with my father, but in Egypt I was detained for 2 days and they interrogated me – I didn’t tell them why I was going to Gaza.

 Ahmad has two sisters and a brother and described the impact of Ataiah’s imprisonment.

Our family missed the pillar in our lives, someone who used to solve our problems, with whom we could share our problems, or give us advice – no one can replace your father, not even your uncle.  Your father should be sharing your life and supporting the family, so it was hard.  In spite of that we were steady and looked forward to the future. My mother divorced him whilst he was in jail 10 years ago.    We haven’t seen her for 6 years – we don’t know if she is married or where she is.  Our grandparents and uncles looked after me.  But now my father will marry a girl in Gaza– his friends in Gaza have found a girl for him.

Despite being absent for nearly his entire life, Ahmad insists he bears no anger or resentment towards his father.  “I am proud of my father for what he did but for some people, the resistance is not good.  Some Palestinians think the resistance is useless and they don’t care.”

He says that his father will adapt well to life in Gaza. “My father knows some people who used to have a business with him before he was arrested – traders and businessmen.  He is waiting for a job – we will open a branch of this shop [a toyshop in Herbon’s old city] in Gaza!  He has to rest for 4-5 months, and after that he can start work.”

Despite the pain of exile, Ahmad says that his father is bearing up well.

“My father is happy to be released -Gaza is better than jail!  Anything is better than jail.”

Al-Natsheh family, Hebron

Arafat Al-Natsheh, 39, was imprisoned in 1994 for participating in the Palestinian resistance in Hamas.  His brother, Chaban, 37, says  “he participated in three operations in Hebron in which three settlers were killed, but he didn’t directly kill anyone.”

When asked why he thought his brother was exiled to Gaza, Chaban replied, “Hamas wants to send as many prisoners as possible back to their homes but Israel wants to send as many as possible outside.  The Israeli government wants to look better in front of the Israeli people.” Chaban suggested that as Gaza is a closed area, Israeli may think it is safer to send released prisoners there.

There is no time limit [on his exile] he will stay there until something changes” said Chaban, “When they were in prison it was like they were already deported, inside the jail there was really hard punishment.  ButGazais part ofPalestine, they [the released prisoners] will start their lives there again; they will get married and choose to start another life.  I wish they could come home [toHebron] but what can we do?  Nothing.  It’s better than being inside the jail!

Nevertheless, Chaban worries that life in Gaza will be hard for his brother. “For a prisoner who’s spent 18 years in jail it will be very difficult to start his life there, he will be completely confused.  But he will start his life, he will forget politics, he will start looking for work but he will need time first to adjust.  The first thing he will do is look for a wife.  I will visit him if I get the chance.”  Chaban’s mother and some of his siblings (there are five sons and seven daughters in the family) have visited him, travelling through Jordan and Egypt to reach Gaza.

 Chaban said, “When I heard the news [that he would be released] I couldn’t believe it.  I was so happy, but I couldn’t relax until he was actually released. I was always worried that something would change.”

 Chaban was not allowed to visit his brother in prison – he had spent a year in jail himself and was denied visits for “security reasons.” He spoke to his brother once on the phone after their father had died.  “[When he was released] I spoke to him on the phone and I had such strong feelings, but it is nothing like when you can touch someone and hug him,” said Chaban. “My mother is very old and she is ill – she has very high blood pressure.  Whenever she got any news of my brother, like if there was a hunger strike, her health deteriorated. But when he was released, my mother said she felt like she could  climb 1001 stairs!”

Chaban has a high opinion of the exchange deal.

It was great because my brother was also released.  I wished for Shalit to be released and to go to his family because Shalit also had a mother and father waiting for him for 5 years.  We know what it’s like to wait for the release of your son, so we understand Shalit’s family and how they feel.  I wish all the Palestinian prisoners could be released in normal circumstances – without killing, or kidnapping soldiers.  If there is no prisoners I don’t think the resistance would kidnap soldiers.  I hope thatIsraellets the prisoners have a normal life now.  Arafat has been punished – now let him have a normal life.

 The Qafishih family, Hebron

 Ala’a Qafishih was released after serving 8 years of a 30 year sentence.  Ala’a’s family attempted to visit him in Gaza but the Israeli government prevented them from reaching Jordan.  His father Mohammed says,  “We have talked to him by phone– he says he is happy but at the same time he wishes the be in Hebron.  He wants his wife and kids to be with him.”

Mohammad said,  “Gaza’ s government welcomed him, they arranged some place to stay and the Hamas government is going to give each prisoner an apartment.  Ala’a is very sociable and likes to meet people, and he’ll make friends easily there.”

Mohammed continues,

I was upset because I heard he was being released but sent toGaza.  But I feel glad that they released him and I was surprised that he was released at all.  I feel like it is now us who is in jail now he has been released but we can’t see him.  They didn’t give any reason or explanation for why he was sent toGaza.  Maybe because he was arrested many times before, so maybe it was a kind of punishment.

 Ala’a is married and has a 12 year old son and a 7 year old daughter.  His wife, Manal, said that her plan is “to take the children and move to Gaza to be with my husband.  But the Israelis won’t let me go.”

Ala’a was imprisoned for participating in a group which was foiled in its attempt to carry out a bombing inIsrael.  Despite this, the family insists they are proud of Ala’a.

“I only feel proud about what my son did,” said Mohammed. “I feel proud of anyone that resists the Israeli occupation, no matter what their political party.  As Palestinians, we live in an unjust situation and we are supposed to fight the occupation in any way.  We never thought he would be released, but thanks be to God he was.  I wish the same for the other prisoners.”

 The Wazwaz family, Hebron

 Moussa Wazwaz, 29, was in prison for 8 years.  He has three brothers and three sisters and is not married.

His mother Khowla describes her feelings at the circumstances of her son’s release. “Something hurt in my heart when I heard he would be sent to Gaza.”

Moussa had been serving a 792 year sentence (8 life sentences) as he was charged for his role in killing Israelis, a charge that he and his family has always denied.  “I expected that all the family would die and he would stay in the jail” said Khowla.

The family says they have not attempted to visit him yet but they will try soon.  Moussa’s brother Mohammed said, “There are two ways to get to Gaza– the first is to get permission and go through Israel to get to Gaza.  The second is to go through Jordan,Egypt and Rafah to Gaza.  We worry that they will stop us – there are a lot of families who have been prevented from going.”  Kowla added,  “When I met him [in prison] my son was like a lost person.  So imagine how I will feel when I see him in front of me and feel him in my arms.”

Khowla worries what life will be like for him in Gaza. “He doesn’t know anyone there, there is no family, no friends.  Our family doesn’t know anything about Gaza.  It’s in God’s hands.  We want him to have a normal life, a good life.  We don’t know why he was sent there, Israel will fight to send all prisoners toGaza, it’s a kind of punishment.”

When Moussa’s father died he was 10 years old, so he had to start work, to sell products in the city centre.  Mohammed went to Ramallah to study and “Moussa just kept working and studying” said Khowla. “He brought money to the whole family.  He was everything in this house.”

Moussa’s younger brother Iyad, 22, is keen to talk about Moussa’s character.

“There are 8 years between me and Moussa.  When I was a little boy he treated me in a very gentle way and as a friend, even when I was going to work with him.  My brother had a very special character, he is a really unique guy.”

Iyad  does consider the change in his brother after a prison sentence.  “Sure he’s changed but I think he has changed for the better.  He was jailed when he was 19 for 14 months – he could study in jail,and he came out better educated.”

His brother Mohammed is angry about the way the exchange deal was covered in the media. “When Gilad Shalit was arrested all the world knew about him.  My brother has been released but there are still a lot of prisoners inside and a lot of people will be arrested in the future.  Nothing will change.  Always there is hope, but Shalit is one person and there are thousands of Palestinian prisoners.  This family was suffering a lot and we don’t want another family just to keep suffering.  Where is the world?  The world started to talk about Gilad Shalit – when will they start to talk about our prisoners?”

Circumstances of arrest

 The manner in which Palestinian suspects are arrested by the Israeli security forces is often a terrifying ordeal for the prisoner and their family.

Khowla Wazwaz recounts the night when her son Moussa was arrested.

 It was around 6pm, it was raining.  The soldiers surrounded the house and started to throw sounds bombs.  When Moussa went outside – every gun has a laser – it was like there were hundreds of laser dots on his body.  They asked him to remove all his clothes.  They threw him this [a jumpsuit]. He took it and after that they arrested him.  After that they told me to go inside and turn all the lights on and open all the windows.  They entered the house and they started to check it.

They took my other sons and put them in another shop and Moussa in a different shop.  After that they started to interrogate me – he asked me ‘Where does Moussa go, when does he come back.’ All these questions.  I told him everything I knew but he told me ‘Look, the soldiers are beating him, so tell me where the gun is.’  I said ‘He doesn’t have any gun.’  I was interrogated for 3 or 4 hours. I heard someone screaming ‘Mother, mother!’  from the next room.  I don’t know if they were beating Moussa or not, I think that perhaps it was someone acting.”

After that he told me, ‘You have been a widow since 1993, and you built this house. But now we are going to demolish it.’  They destroyed the inside of the house.  We have a library in the house – they started to open fire [with live ammunition] at the books, they destroyed the computer and took the hard drive.”

Khowla has kept the spent bullet casings and a white jumpsuit thrown on the ground as mementoes; “We keep these just to remember that time.”

Amer Ahmad Al-Qwasmah, 45, was released as part of the exchange deal on 18 October 2011, after serving 23 years in prison for his part in a PFLP operation to kill an Israeli man in Jerusalem in 1987.  He says, “I used to live in Jerusalem and came back to Hebron once a week to visit my parents.  One day I was visiting my parents and the Israelis came to the home and they arrested me.  They demolished the house, and they prevented my parents from building a new house until the PA [Palestinian Authority] was established here in 1997.  This was common at the time.”

Mohammed Qafishih recalls that after his son Ala’a was arrested,

The Israeli army tried to demolish the home but it was almost like a miracle prevented it from happening.  They arranged the dynamite but something happened and the Israeli army had to leave – [in that time] we got a lawyer to represent us and they managed to stop the demolition.”  Mohammed says that the arrest was a traumatic experience for the family; “The Israeli army and intelligence arrived around 3am in the morning,  they tried to destroy the main door – they gathered all of us and they started searching the house.  They turned everything upside down, it took a long time to clean it up.

In a speech given in Jerusalem last month, newly released prisoner Ibrahim Mish’al recounted his arrest.

I was captured on the 28 March 1990.  The Israelis entered my house with explosives and dogs; they didn’t care about the fact that there were children in the house.  My son was two years old then and my daughter was one years old.  My wife was three months pregnant.  It was really horrifying for them and my daughter couldn’t speak for one year afterwards.  I will never forget those moments or the look on my family’s faces when the whole house, the walls, everything, was demolished.

At the same event, Nasser Abed Rabbo said,

I was arrested from my house and they destroyed everything in the house.  I was handcuffed and blindfolded.  My arrest was not usual, I was not taken straight from my house to the police car; they took me through several neighbourhoods in my village, a very long distance, almost 2km, in order for the people in the village to see.  I was hit repeatedly on the head and everyone saw me bleeding.  I think the purpose of this was to make me an example for any other person who tries to resist occupation.

Denial of family visiting rights

The restrictions in place on Palestinians attempting to visit family members in Israeli jails often constitutes a form of psychological abuse and punishment for the families.

Chaban Al-Natsheh spoke of his frustration at being denied visits to see his brother, Arafat, in prison

Normally, the family should be able to visit every 15 days but there are problems with getting permission.  My mother would get permission sometimes every 2 months, sometimes every 5 or 6 months.  My other brothers would often get permission to visit only once a year.  I couldn’t visit my brother at all in jail – I spent one year in jail – I was denied permission for ‘security reasons’.  It was a really hard but this was destiny and I had to face it.

Chaban claimed that it was also extremely difficult to communicate with his brother by phone;

When people are given long sentences the military is very worried about them and they are not allowed phones.  For people sentenced to 2, 3, or 5 years it is different; they have phones and they call their families all the time.  But my brother could hardly ever call, I spoke to him just once – he was allowed one call when our father died.  My brother started to talk but I couldn’t answer, I was so shocked, it was such a long time since I’d spoken to him.

Manal Qafishih was often denied visits to see her husband Ala’a,

There weren’t regular times to visit   Sometimes it used to be every four months, sometimes every six months.  They often refused to allow me and the family to visit my husband for ‘security reasons’ – this is all they would say.  Family visits with the Red Crescent should be every 18 days.  When we could visit, we were supposed to have 45 minutes but sometimes it was only for 30 minutes. It’s difficult to find the words to express how hard it is. During the visiting itself, you lose your dignity – they search you naked, they make you wait a long time – all this is routine.”

The Israeli authorities only allowed Ala’a’s brothers to visit him once during his eight-year incarceration, although his sisters were granted permission more freely.  Manal says that “When they refuse someone to visit, they start with someone very close – if the prisoner is married they refuse the wife permission to visit, like they did with me.  If they are not married, they refuse his mother permission.  So it was easier for his sisters to visit than it was for me.”

 In the first year of his sentence, no one was able to visit him – only the lawyer.  We couldn’t even talk to him on the phone.  There are many radio stations here inHebronand there are special programs, like ‘A Message for the Prisoners by the Families’ so we can say hello and pass messages, this was one of the ways to keep in touch, if prisoners are able to listen to the radio station.  Another way to keep in touch is by the Red Crescent post but it is limited.  You have to only write a few words, without an envelope.  Ala’a used to send some letters from the jail but it used to take a long time.They put Ala’a in isolation two or three times – the last time he was in isolation for more than 100 days.  Our only connection with him was through the lawyer, who only visited him once in 100 days.  The problem is to visit him now he is in Gaza.

Khowla Wazwaz was often denied permission to see her son Moussa in prison and the family was frequently subjected to ill treatment during attempts to visit him.

I couldn’t get permission to see him [in prison] for the first year; I wasn’t even allowed to call him.  After he was sentenced I could visit him and talk to him.  To visit him we were leaving Hebron at 5AM to the Red Crescent, from there we take a bus and go to the prison checkpoint.  In that time we were checked in a very bad way – if the soldiers feel like you have something strange then they check you in a closed room and often do strip searches.  If you have food with you and it is not Israeli they will throw it away.  If you take water and it’s frozen, they will throw it away.  Once I brought stuffed olive leaves and they just smashed them.  During the winter they don’t care about old men or women, many times women had jackets on during the winter and they told them to remove it outside.

We had 45 minute visits.  Sometimes every 2 weeks, sometimes once a month, sometimes longer.  Once I went to visit my son and I reached the prison they said that he was in a special truck in the prison waiting to be transferred, so I asked to see him.  They refused and told me to leave.  The Red Crescent sends the names to the Israelis and after that they give permission, so the Israelis knew that I was coming to visit.

We could send clothes and books but under really strict conditions.  It was not permitted to send trousers with pockets, so I removed the pockets but they still refused!”  Khowla has a suitcase full of clothes and books that she wanted to give to Moussa – “I tried many times to send these things.  The authorities always lied and tried to confuse us – if you take black clothes they say ‘no – clothes have to be grey’.  They wanted to make us suffer as much as we could.    Now, if prisoners want clothes they have to buy them from the prison and they are very expensive.  If you want to send a book they will check it and if you’ve directly written anything yourself in the book they will not accept it.  I tried for three years to send some books but I couldn’t, they kept returning them.  They’re religious books not political – how you should pray.  I managed to send him just two or three books when he was in prison.

 Mohammed added that, “It’s forbidden to send cologne to prisoners, so we sprayed it on books or clothes and tried to send it that way!”

Moussa’s brother Mohammed says that, “All the brothers and sisters were refused permission at first by the Israelis to visit our brother because of ‘security reasons.’ There is no real reason but they say ‘security reasons’ and that’s it.  If we knew some prisoners visiting the same jail then we asked them to ask about him –if he needed clothes or anything like that.”

Eventually the restrictions were slightly relaxed; in six years Mohammed visited twice, his brother Iyad visited once and Fahed, another brother couldn’t visit at all.  Moussa’s sisters were able to visit three or four times.

 Mohammed is angry at the family’s treatment by the Israeli authorities.  “If Moussa did something wrong, he got punished in the jail.  But why punish all the family?  Why did we not get permission to visit him?  They don’t just punish the prisoner they punish all the family with him.”

Alistair George is a volunteer with International Solidarity Movement (name has been changed).