A Palestinian talks about prison life
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A Palestinian talks about prison life

Vast difference between his treatment and how Gilad Shalit fared

OFER, west bank ““ Israel recently released 550 Palestinian prisoners in the second phase of the Gilad Shalit exchange deal, but thousands of Palestinians remain in Israeli jails.

According to the Israeli Prison Service, there are 6,640 Palestinian prisoners in Israel: 4,816 security prisoners and 1,824 being held for criminal offenses.

Unlike the conditions in which Shalit was held for more than five years – largely incommunicado, with no visits, little direct sunlight, and no knowledge of when, or if, he would be freed – Israel says it carefully regulates its treatment of Palestinian prisoners.

“The Palestinian prisoners are held in accordance with the law’s regulations, and their basic rights – such as food, conditions of imprisonment, and medical treatment – are upheld,” Prison Service spokeswoman Sivan Weizmann said.

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Samer al-Issawi spent time in five Israeli prisons for shooting at Israeli soldiers before he was released in the first phase of the swap for Gilad Shalit. Linda Gradstein

Some Palestinians are in jail for relatively minor infractions, such as entering Israel without a permit. Others are incarcerated for terrorism-related crimes, including murder.

Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian prisoners is closely watched and sometimes criticized by Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, but Israel supporters argue that the treatment reflects well on Israel. They also says that it contrasts sharply with how Israeli captives have been treated by Palestinians.

While the Israeli Prison Service declined to allow a tour of the prison, one Palestinian prisoner who was released in the first phase of the Shalit deal – Samer al-Issawi, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine – talked with JTA in detail about conditions under which he was held.

In 2001, Issawi was sentenced to a 30-year term for shooting at Israeli soldiers entering his village of Isawiya, in eastern Jerusalem. He spent time in five Israeli prisons, including eight months in isolation in the Hadarim prison following an altercation with prison guards.

Speaking in his family home, Issawi said most prisoners are held eight to a cell that is approximately 25 feet by 15 feet. Each cell has its own shower, bathroom, kitchenette and a television set that receives 12 channels, including Israeli channels and several Arabic-language ones, among them Palestinian TV.

The prisoners are provided with ready-made meals, but Issawi said that most of the time prisoners cooked for themselves because they did not like the prison food.

“There was a lot of oil in it and the rice was undercooked,” he said.

Issawi’s parents deposited money in an account that he could use to buy food and cigarettes at the prison canteen. One of the punishments for misbehavior is loss of canteen privileges.

The daily schedule in prison is rigorously followed. At 7 a.m., prisoners are allowed into a courtyard to exercise for an hour. For two hours each morning and each afternoon, prisoners may leave their cells to visit prisoners in other cellblocks.

Security prisoners are housed separately from criminal prisoners, and Palestinians are separated from Israelis, both Jews and Arabs.

On Fridays, Muslim prisoners may pray together in the prison courtyard. A prisoner serves as the prayer leader.

Issawi said he had no complaints about the medical care. The prisoners have doctors at the prison and, when necessary, are treated at Israeli hospitals.

Human rights groups complain that many prisoners do not receive family visits. All but the security prison at Ofer are in Israel rather than in the west bank, so Palestinian family members must obtain permits to enter Israel in order to visit.

Since 2007, prisoners who come from Gaza do not receive family visits because Israel does not allow anyone from Gaza to enter Israel except for humanitarian concerns, such as medical treatment.

Only parents are allowed to visit, and for only 45 minutes every two weeks. No direct contact is allowed between the prisoners and their families, who talk by phone with a glass wall between them.

“My brothers and sisters got married, and I couldn’t see them or their children,” Issawi said.

During Shalit’s captivity in Gaza, he was not allowed any visits from the outside, including the Red Cross. He was held underground most of the time, and was suffering from a vitamin deficiency due to inadequate sunlight when he was released. Shalit lost more than 20 pounds due to inadequate nutrition. He also was not given eyeglasses during his captivity.

Shalit’s father, Noam, told Israeli media that his son was “mistreated” during the first months after his capture, although his conditions later improved and he was allowed access to radio and television.

Until Shalit was taken captive in 2006, Palestinian prisoners in Israel were able to take courses to obtain high school degrees and even enroll in college courses. After Shalit was seized, however, Israel rescinded the privilege. It has not been reinstated.

Many prisoners learn Hebrew from speaking with prison guards. Issawi said other prisoners presented lectures and classes in Hebrew and English. At the prison library, Issawi said he read mostly books about politics and Marxism.

His main complaint was that some prison guards were abusive. “Some just did their job, but others would curse at prisoners, or even hit them,” he said.

Issawi said guards often responded to minor infractions by firing tear gas into individual cells. In 10 years in prison, he was never beaten, he said, but he did see others being beaten. Israeli law prohibits any physical punishment of prisoners, except in cases where a guard’s life or those of other prisoners are in danger.

Issawi’s sister, Shireen, a lawyer who was released several months ago after a year in jail, said that she was arrested for membership in the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and spent four months in solitary confinement. Her cell only had a bed, shower, and toilet, and she was limited to one hour per day outside in a small courtyard.

The spokeswoman for the Prison Service said she could not comment on individual cases.

Issawi says he is happy to be home and looks forward to beginning his post-prison life. He says Israel should release all of the Palestinian security prisoners. “Either release the prisoners or there will be more captured Israeli soldiers,” he said. “People can’t just sit in jail forever.”

JTA Wire Service

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