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The Untold Stories of Palestinian Women Behind the Walls of Israeli Prisons

They endure "a living hell" inside the jails. But in the turmoil of Israeli occupation, they are forgotten.
The Untold Stories of Palestinian Women Behind the Walls of Israeli Prisons
Illustration: Karl Gustafson
By
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March is particularly challenging for the Palestinian women being held in Israeli occupation prisons: International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day for the Arab world both fall during that month. “It was very difficult, because we saw on television the celebration of enrichment of women and stories of the struggles of women. Yet, no one mentioned anything about female prisoners in the Israeli jails. We felt forgotten,” Nisreen Abu Kmail, a former prisoner, told me. “On Mothers’ Day, 22 of us were mothers, so we remembered our children.”

The young girls in the prison planned a surprise celebration in the prison yard to honor the mothers imprisoned alongside them, like Nisreen, with small handicrafts and simple gifts bought from the cantina, but guards seized the gifts and canceled the event. “We try to spread happiness and joy in the cells by any means, despite the deliberately cruel actions we are subject to,” Nisreen said.

In October 2015, Nisreen received a phone call from Israeli occupation intelligence summoning her to a northern Gaza Strip checkpoint to pick up a travel permit for her husband. As soon as she arrived at the checkpoint, she was ambushed by occupation forces, who placed her in an interrogation room. “I was hit with rifle butts directly on my chest. The interrogation was so harsh,” she said. Eventually, the mother of seven was charged with spying for Palestinian resistance groups. “I refused all the charges, and they don’t have evidence.” She was sentenced to six years.

Far from the eye of international media, 32 Palestinian women are currently political prisoners languishing in Israeli occupation prisons, according to Addameer, a Palestinian NGO that monitors the treatment of Palestinian prisoners and offers legal support. Behind the walls of Hasharon and Damon in Israel wait mothers, students, journalists, teachers. Children even grow up in the jails; Addameer says there are some 170 Palestinian children in the Israeli prison system now.

Palestinian and foreign demonstrators raise the Palestinian flag in Bilin opposite the settlements bloc of Modiin Illit in the occupied West Bank on October 4, 2019, during a protest against settlement construction and in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Palestinian and foreign demonstrators raise the Palestinian flag in Bilin opposite the settlements bloc of Modiin Illit in the occupied West Bank on October 4, 2019, during a protest against settlement construction and in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Photo: ABBAS MOMANI / AFP (Getty Images)

The most common stories the West hears about the Israeli occupation of Palestine are headlined by airstrikes and ceasefires, civilian death tolls and peace talks. Though the Democratic Party is fracturing in its stance on the Israeli occupation, with the Progressive left recently comparing the Palestinian cause to racial justice movements in America and denouncing arms sales to Israel, President Biden has only made nominal moves to rebuild the U.S.’s relationship with Palestinians. Rarely are the stories of women like Nisreen, for whom mass detention defines daily life under occupation, recounted as far as the U.S.

As a journalist in the Gaza Strip, I spoke to former prisoners, families of prisoners, and Palestinian NGOs to get a clearer picture of what life is like for these women, whose long, difficult tales demonstrate the quiet heroism of survival. As Nisreen told me, “Being trapped in the draconian Israeli prison quickly overwhelms and ferociously devours our lives.”

Living in Hell: Conditions in the Prisons

Israel has arrested over 16,000 Palestinian women since 1967, according to Addameer, and multiple human rights organizations have documented the cruel, degrading treatment women Palestinian detainees face while in Israeli detention—including torture, sexual degradation, denial of family visits, solitary confinement, poor or nonexistent medical care, and lack of education. Inside Damon, Nisreen endured what she called “a living hell.”

“The walls are very cold, the majority of the rooms poorly ventilated, humid, and infested with insects,” she recalled. “The building is old, many of the doors are rusty from the humidity. There are no chairs in the rooms, and the prison administration prevents the women from covering the floor with blankets.” Each room had a water heater, an electric stove, a TV, a radio, and an open toilet. The beds were bunkbeds, and sometimes women fell from them, sustaining fractures or broken bones that went ignored or under-treated. The water was contaminated, obliging the women to buy mineral water from the prison “canteen.”

Freed Palestinian prisoner Nisreen Abu Kmail awaits permission to enter the Gaza Strip on October 18, 2021.
Freed Palestinian prisoner Nisreen Abu Kmail awaits permission to enter the Gaza Strip on October 18, 2021.
Photo: Anadolu Agency (Getty Images)

Nisreen and other released prisoners I spoke to recalled how female prisoners gathered in a courtyard during breaks, where they were monitored by two guards and cameras. Under such supervision, they couldn’t exercise freely or get exposure to the sun; many of the imprisoned women are Muslims who wear hijab, so the monitoring by male prison guards was an invasion of privacy. The courtyard was uncovered, so when it rained or the weather was too hot, the women were deprived of even those few hours of fresh air. Prisoners were prevented from sitting in groups, practicing handcrafts, and having educational materials.

“We feel freezing during winter, yet they don’t allow us to have further blanket or cover the ground with carpets,” former prisoner Fatima Azziq told me. “They sometimes don’t allow books and pens to enter.”

Newly released detainees often cite strong intimidation by the prison guards and administration toward the women prisoners. Because of their isolation and lack of available advocacy organizations to challenge prison management practices, the women’s ability to respond to ongoing injustices in the prison was strongly suppressed. In the event that they did stage a protest inside the walls of the prison, they faced immediate repressions from the guards.

These women have access to lawyers. They can appeal their sentences. But Israeli authorities drag their feet on legal matters, and even if cases reach courtrooms, the women do not trust the Israeli occupation court proceedings.

In any case, Nisreen said, sometimes the women felt relief when the Israeli authority refused a request to go to court, “because this means at least we don’t have to experience the nightmare of the Bosta.” The Israeli prison transport vehicle, known as the Bosta, is notorious for its blacked-out shades, tightly divided cells with metal chairs to which prisoners are chained, and the humiliation and bullying detainees face from guards and Israeli prisoners en route. These rides can take 12 hours or more, handcuffed, with no rest stops, food, or toilet breaks. “Some prisoners would prefer to endure pain than going through Bosta to the prison hospital,” Nisreen said.

Medical Neglect in the Prisons

Just recently, in May of 2022, Palestinian detainee Israa Jaabis was again refused a surgery she urgently needs to help her breathe through her nose. On October 11, 2015, Israa was transporting some household items to her new home near her place of work in Jerusalem. On that fateful day, she was carrying a gas cylinder in the car, according to her sister Mona Jaabis. As she headed down the road towards an Israeli checkpoint, the gas canister burst into flames. The car’s airbag activated, causing an explosion. Israa ran out of the car, calling for help from the Israeli police manning the checkpoint. But the police summoned more security, and asked Israa to enter the burning car, causing her to suffer severe burns that have greatly affected her mobility. She was arrested and given an 11-year sentence for attempted murder; Israeli authorities claimed she intended to explode the car. No evidence was presented, and she vehemently denied the charges. She needs eight emergency surgeries for the burns, but was refused supplemental treatment within the prison as she carried out her sentence.

Israa Jaabis arrives for her sentencing hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on November 7, 2016.
Israa Jaabis arrives for her sentencing hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on November 7, 2016.
Photo: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP (Getty Images)

“She has only been breathing through her mouth since 2015, and Israeli authorities continue to refuse to treat her,” Mona said. A mother to a son who was 6 years old at the time of her arrest, Israa was also a student and worked with the elderly. She is now 37 years old. “She can’t go to the bathroom alone or brush her hair or even feed herself,” Nisreen said of Israa, who was imprisoned with her, after they were arrested in the same month of the same year. “We feel so despondent for her, and we can’t do anything to help her except assist her in doing her own stuff.”

For seven years now, Israa’s family has continued to appeal to Israeli authorities. She was left badly disfigured by the accident, and when her son visited her in prison a year after her arrest, he did not recognize her. “She cried, and she was heartbroken because she couldn’t use her hand to hold or touch him to comfort him,” Mona said. The Israeli authorities continue to refuse her surgery, and will not allow her family or any outside organization to intervene with medical assistance.

Like Israa, former prisoner Samar Sobeih, 37, said Israeli authorities refused to provide her with necessary medical care. Throughout her pregnancy in the jails and after she gave birth, she recalls the prison guards saying to her, “You are a terrorist, and soon you will put a new terrorist into the world.”

Samar was one-month pregnant with her first child when she was arrested by the Israeli military at her home in 2005. She gave birth under Israeli detention, a “very harsh and inhumane” experience amplified by the fact that it was her first child and she was separated from her family. Her son Baraa was delivered by C-section, while Samar’s hands and feet were handcuffed to a bed in an Israeli hospital. “Baraa left my womb, entered another tomb,” she told me.

There are seven severely injured female prisoners and several more with chronic medical conditions in the Israeli occupation custody, all of whom suffer medical neglect, according to Palestinian Prisoners Club. Some are in need of urgent surgeries and special medical care. Sick detainees inside Israeli prisons live on painkillers and tranquilizers, according to Addameer and the Human Rights Association, as the prison administration denies access to medicines from outside the prison, whether from the prisoners’ families or from Palestinian aid organizations. And prisoners frequently fall ill during their detention as a result of the conditions inside the cells.

Nisreen describes several wounded prisoners whose suffering was also magnified by the fact that approval for simple treatment transfers took months. In one case, a woman Nisreen knew in prison endured the pain of her bad molar for a whole year before being transferred on the dreaded Bosta for treatment.

Often, after months of waiting for treatment approval, prisoners learn that their treatment has been set on the same date as scheduled family visits, which themselves are often difficult to secure. Naturally, a prisoner feels compelled to choose to stay to see her family, at which point a note is added to her file that she is “refusing treatment.” These delays, sadistic in their unnecessary nature, confirm again that the prison administration uses every available channel to brutalize the prisoners, either physically or psychologically.

Nisreen’s husband Hazem speaks as he and the couple’s children wait to be reunited with Nisreen at a border crossing in Gaza on October 18, 2021.
Nisreen’s husband Hazem speaks as he and the couple’s children wait to be reunited with Nisreen at a border crossing in Gaza on October 18, 2021.
Photo: Anadolu Agency (Getty Images)

Coming Home After Imprisonment

When Nisreen was released from occupation prison in October 2021, she headed to the Erez military checkpoint to cross into Gaza, her home, but Israeli authorities would not permit her to pass. She waited for several days for a permit to be approved, sleeping on the Israeli side of the checkpoint at night while her husband and children slept on the Gaza side, waiting to be reunited after six years apart. At the time of her arrest in 2015, Nisreen’s youngest child had been only 8 months old, her eldest 11. In all her years imprisoned, Nisreen’s children had been repeatedly prevented by Israeli authorities from visiting her. “When I was released, my children could barely recognize me. And my 6-year-old son didn’t hug me; he felt I am a stranger,” she said. “I cried. It felt like the occupation stole not only my freedom but my entire life.”

Samar’s son Baraa was a stranger to the world outside the prison, and he felt afraid of all that he was seeing for the first time upon their release. News cameras captured the child’s crying. “Baraa was afraid of birds and sparrows that would come close to him, as this wasn’t common in prisons,” Samar said, her voice sad. Samar and Baraa spent two years imprisoned together. Today, Baraa is 16 years old, in the tenth grade. Last year he achieved an average of 98 percent in school. Samar is now the mother of three.

For these women, the acts of celebrating, learning, protesting, and simply maintaining within the jails represented resolute rejection of and resistance to the oppressive conditions they were forced to live under. The trauma of Nisreen’s time in prison left a lasting mark. She says she still wakes up in the night thinking a guard is coming to count the prisoners. She now lives in Gaza with her family, where she says every day she works to rebuild her life, but she carries with her the still-imprisoned women who she left behind.

Wafa Aludaini is a Gaza-based journalist and activist.