[Pnews] Palestinian women haunted by abuse in Israeli jails

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Feb 7 18:54:45 EST 2018


  Palestinian women haunted by abuse in Israeli jails

Chloé Benoist - February 2, 2018

*BETHLEHEM, West Bank* – “I remember he brought his chair closer, opened 
his legs and sat very close to me. It was something ugly for me. It made 
me feel that he was trying to attack my body,” Khawla al-Azraq said, as 
she recalled the physical intimidation tactics and sexual harassment 
used by Israeli interrogators when she was only a teenager.

Decades later, al-Azraq, who is now 54, still shudders at the memory of 
Israeli interrogators brushing their hands across her legs to sexually 
intimidate her.

“They would sit in a way to be very close to us, to touch our bodies. I 
remember it was terrible for me at that age,” she said.

Al-Azraq is a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council. Since the age 
of 14, she has been arrested by Israeli forces four times for her 
involvement with Fatah and taking part in protests against the Israeli 
occupation. When she was only 18, she was sentenced to three years in 

    He brought his chair closer, opened his legs and sat very close to
    me. It was something ugly for me. It made me feel that he was trying
    to attack my body//

    /- Khawla al-Azraq, //Fatah Revolutionary Council/

“The torture, ill treatment, and degrading treatment start from the 
first moment of the arrest,” said Sahar Francis, director of Addameer 
<http://www.addameer.org/>, a Palestinian prisoners’ rights group.

She added that women who wear the hijab would often get into heated 
arguments with soldiers to let them put their headscarves on, before 
being detained from their homes.

Periods of interrogation are largely described as the most violent part 
of the detention process, in which women are not only subjected to 
physical and psychological torture 
- such as being tied in stress positions, sleep deprivation and beatings 
- but to methods targeting them specifically because of their gender.

“The interrogator will shout in their faces, try to intimidate them with 
some sexual words and insults, or start teasing them if they’re married, 
asking her what her husband is doing while she is imprisoned,” Francis 
told Middle East Eye.

While Israeli forces are mandated to have a female officer present 
during the interrogation of women, the former prisoners said that these 
officers did little to ensure their safety, often even serving as cover 
for the verbal and physical abuse that took place during interrogations.

“Sometimes the interrogator will talk to us in a sexual way, and they 
will use her (the female soldier) to say that we are lying when we say 
they beat us,” said Shireen Issawi, a prominent lawyer who spent five 
years in prison, including four years for transferring money to 
Palestinian prisoners. Issawi was released in October 
<http://imemc.org/article/israel-releases-lawyer-shireen-al-issawi-after-holding-her-captive-for-43-months/> 2017.

According to the former prisoners, female officers were rarely present 
during the long trips back and forth from Israeli courts. They would 
spend up to 12 hours in transit handcuffed to iron seats in the back of 
prison vans, sometimes subjected to lewd comments by the Israeli guards 
transporting them.

Khitam Saafin, the leader of the Union of Palestinian Women's 
Committees, said that Israeli soldiers mostly target younger women and 
sexually harass them during these long journeys.

“They are exhausted; they suffer a lot; they are alone without any older 
people to take care of them and they are the ones mostly targeted with 
sexual harassment,” she said.


Saafin spent three months in administrative detention without being 
charged and accused Israeli soldiers of taking naked photos of her on 
their phones while being strip-searched following her arrest.

While some Palestinian women have spoken up about being raped 
<https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/03/palestinian-female-prisoners.html> in 
Israeli custody, for many it is a difficult topic to address because of 
social taboos.

    They will use her (the female soldier) to say that we are lying when
    we say they beat us//

    /- Shireen Issawi, lawyer /

Additionally, authoritative data on the prevalence of sexual assault on 
Palestinians in Israeli prisons is not available.

However, a 2016 report 
<https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0968808015000968> by 
the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), an Israeli human 
rights organisation, estimated that some four percent of male 
respondents had been subjected to some form of sexual torture.

Francis emphasised that these practices are not lone acts committed by 
individual members of the Israeli armed forces.

“It’s not something that’s done by an individual soldier who decided to 
humiliate or mistreat [the prisoners],” she said. “It’s part of the 
process, part of the policy, in order to affect the entire society and 
put it under pressure... because they are aware that [gender] is a 
sensitive subject in Palestinian society.”

      *‘This made me stronger’*

According to Addameer, there arecurrently 58 
<http://addameer.org/statistics/20171231> women being held in Israeli 

While this figure is far less than around6,000 Palestinian 
<https://www.btselem.org/statistics/detainees_and_prisoners> male 
prisoners, women detainees have faced more difficult incarceration 
conditions in some areas.

According to Francis, women suffer from the same restrictions as men do 
when it pertains to family visits. However, the fact that all women are 
detained inside Israel makes it more challenging for relatives to see 
them, as they must first obtain permits.

According to Addameer, Palestinian female prisoners are mainly held 
in two prisons located inside Israel, HaSharon and Damon, in violation 
of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention 
<https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/ihl/385ec082b509e76c41256739003e636d/6756482d86146898c125641e004aa3c5> regulating 
the detention of prisoners.

    Imagine that they tie you to the bed right until you’re about to
    give birth, and, immediately after giving birth, they will handcuff
    one hand and one leg back to the bed

    /- Sahar Francis, director of Addameer/

“When I was a mother, it was so difficult. I can’t express in words how 
I was feeling at the time,” al-Azraq said of her 25-day interrogation in 
1991 for her participation in protests during the First Intifada 

At the time, her first son Khaled was only two and a half years old.

It was a difficult period for her whole family, as her husband Issa 
Qarage, who is currently the head of the Palestinian Committee of 
Prisoners’ Affairs, was also in prison.

According to al-Azraq, during the same period her sister-in-law was 
killed by Israeli forces.

"This made me stronger,” she said. “I didn’t say anything because I 
wanted to go back to my son.” Al-Azraq was released after 25 days.

Israel classifies all Palestinians detained in its custody as “security 
prisoners”, whether they are accused of throwing stones, posting what is 
deemed “incitement” on social media or killing an officer. But 
Palestinians insist that they are “political prisoners” who are detained 
either for trumped-up charges or in violation of their right to resist 
occupation as enshrined in international law.

      *Inadequate medical care*

One of the main issues that advocates have repeatedly brought up has 
been inadequate medical care, especially following the recent campaign 
<http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/israa-jaabis-palestinian-prisoner-release-neglected-israeli-prison-933213260> surrounding 
Israa Jaabis’s dire need for medical treatment after 65 percent of her 
body was burned and eight of her fingers needed to be amputated.

“The prison system says it offers the basic medical service, but 
honestly we think not, because the main treatment they offer for 
anything is a painkiller, unless you reach a really serious condition,” 
Francis said.

Francis also highlighted rarer cases of imprisoned pregnant women, 
saying that at least two Palestinians had given birth while in Israeli 
custody, under extremely difficult circumstances.

“It is a very humiliating process. Imagine that they tie you to the bed 
right until you’re about to give birth and immediately after giving 
birth, they will handcuff one hand and one leg back to the bed,” she 
said. “They won’t allow a family member to be present. Imagine a 
stranger, a policewoman, is standing beside your bed while you’re giving 

Francis added that children under the age of two can accompany their 
mothers in prison, yet there are few arrangements made for the 
children's well-being 

    It’s related to our perception of prisoners as heroes. We put them
    in a space where we as a society are not allowing them to feel weak

    /- Sahar Francis, director of Addameer/

Meanwhile, more mundane aspects of women’s health also become a 
struggle, particularly when women are in interrogation centres.

“When I had my period, they just gave me paper tissues,” Issawi said.

“They didn’t take into consideration that we have special needs, that 
our bodies are not like men’s. I didn’t have any rights as a woman.”

Because of insufficient medical care, women have had to step in to take 
care of their sick or disabled fellow prisoners, despite most not having 
any nursing experience.

“We took the role of the nurse, the doctor, the social worker,” Issawi said.

The Israel Prison Service did not respond to MEE on allegations of 
sexual assault, harassment, and medical neglect by the time of publication.

      Women's library

While there is a limit to the number of books available at any given 
time to both Palestinian men and women detained by Israel, the smaller 
number of female prisoners means there are fewer books for them. This 
restricts their access to education and knowledge.

Saafin described how an NGO representative visiting HaSharon while she 
was being held there was shocked by the number of books available.

“The library of [imprisoned Fatah leader] Marwan Barghouti is bigger 
than these women’s library,” he reportedly said.

      *‘They called us mamma’*

In spite - or sometimes, because of - the harsh incarceration 
conditions, female Palestinian prisoners develop a strong sense of 
solidarity, relying on each other for support.

“It was the best community I’ve experienced, because we all were equal. 
We shared everything. Nothing belonged to you except your underwear,” 
al-Azraq said of her time in prison in the 1980s.

“You feel this very strong connection,” Saafin said. “If the prisoners 
don’t have solidarity, then they don’t survive.”

Older female prisoners, many of whom have been detained several times 
since their youth, have taken the younger detainees under their wings.

According to Francis, this number has increased since 2015, with nine 
girls under the age of 18 currently imprisoned.

    We shared everything. Nothing belonged to you except your underwear

    /- Khawla al-Azraq, //Fatah Revolutionary Council/

“When the children came to prison, we took care of them, we gave them 
clothes,” Issawi said. “Sometimes they called us ‘mamma’.”

A teacher by profession, Saafin and other adult prisoners said they did 
their best to complement the classes provided to them by prison 
authorities, where a teacher visits three times a week and covers only 
the subjects of Arabic, English, and mathematics.

Saafin said the attitude of the younger girls inspired her, as they 
persisted in continuing their studies in spite of the minimal access to 
instruction and restricted number of books.

“Most of the young female prisoners were hopeful,” she said. “I’m happy 
that I met them, because they also gave me hope.”

The former prisoners empathised with Ahed Tamimi, who on 31 January 
turned 17 in Israeli custody.

“In the case of Ahed Tamimi, I saw myself,” said Issawi, whose family 
has long been targeted by Israeli forces 
“This was my childhood.”

“As a mother, I know exactly how difficult it is for children like 
Ahed,” al-Azraq said. “I know it will be hard for them and it will 
affect them their whole life.”

      *Life after prison*

The effects of imprisonment continue long after these women are 
released. Decades later, al-Azraq said she experiences shortness of 
breath in enclosed spaces and feels claustrophobic even in the shower.

      In the case of Ahed Tamimi, I saw myself

    /- Shireen Issawi, lawyer/

According to Issawi, she still suffers from back and arm pain after 
having been handcuffed to an iron chair during a month-long 
interrogation period.

On top of her health issues, since being released she has been unable to 
resume her work as a lawyer due to efforts to disbar her because of her 
previous conviction.//

Francis believes that the main issue for former prisoners remains 
insufficient psychological support.

“It’s related to our perception of prisoners as heroes. We put them in a 
space where we as a society are not allowing them to feel weak, to feel 
that they need such support.”

Al-Azraq said that some women she knows, who had been raped in Israeli 
custody in the early 1970s, still struggle to talk about their experiences.

    They believe they have the same role as men and they can do things
    in the same way or better than men

    /- Khawla al-Azraq, //Fatah Revolutionary Council/

“Sometimes they feel shame, even though we know that they are our enemy 
and they do this to break us,” she said in a trembling voice.

Al-Azraq expressed pride in the small but persistent number of 
Palestinian women who in spite of the risks have taken an active role in 
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“They believe they have the same role as men and they can do things in 
the same way or better than men. They are fighters against the 
occupation and it’s their right.”

/This article is available in French onMiddle East Eye French edition. 

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863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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