Israel trumpets fair treatment in prisons
Ofer Prison, West Bank—The long strings of blue and white Israeli flags, set up for Israel’s upcoming Independence Day, flap incongruously against the background of barbed wire and tall gray watchtowers. Inside, some 710 Palestinian prisoners, including 100 minors, wait for their transfer to other prisons or for their release.
Mohammed Jamal Al-Natshe, 55, a Hamas legislator from Hebron with a trim white beard, says that he was arrested most recently last month and placed under administrative detention, meaning that no charges have been filed against him.
“I spent eight years in jail, from 2002 to 2012, and then another 23 months, and then just three months after being released I was arrested again,” he tells The Media Line. “There is no charge or no accusation against me. I’m here just because they (the Israelis) don’t want me outside.”
Al-Natsche says he has been experiencing pain behind his ear and has asked several times to see a doctor, but said his requests have been refused. The complaint comes after the death of Maysara Abu Hamdieh, 63, earlier this month from esophageal cancer in a different Israeli prison. Palestinian officials insits he did not receive adequate medical care, and blamed Israel for his death, which sparked demonstrations throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“Abu Hamdieh complained for months and he did not get treatment for cancer,” Gavan Kelly of the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association told The Media Line. “Would this happen to an Israeli citizen? I very much doubt it.”
Israeli Prisons Service officials insisted Abu Hamdieh, who died in an Israeli hospital three days after he was transferred there and began receiving chemotherapy, was given appropriate medical care.
“Palestinian prisoners’ access to medical care is better than what I can get as a citizen,” Ofer Prison Warden Yakov Shalom told a group of visiting journalists. “There are some complaints about long waits for certain operations in hospitals. But in truth, hospitals aren’t really happy to get our detainees so they often bump them up on the lists (even before Israeli citizens).”
Canadian-born Naftali Smulowitz, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Prison Service, told the visitors that the prison service takes its obligation to provide medical care seriously.
“I’ve seen people who never saw a dentist in their lives and then they come here and get excellent treatment,” he said. “We take all complaints about lack of access to medical care very seriously.”
Chief Warden Shalom said that the death of any prisoner in Israeli custody is investigated both internally and independently. Prison spokeswoman Sivan Weizman denied claims of medical negligence.
But Amany Dayif of Physicians for Human Rights said their investigation shows that the doctors at Ofer Prison diagnosed Maysara’s cancer only in February.
“By that point it seems that his cancer was very much advanced—on his lungs, internal organs, spine and arms,” she told The Media Line. “So he should have been examined. His position is that he had been complaining for years. And he was first checked by a specialist—a mouth specialist—but from then his situation got more complicated. They did more tests, it seems. It doesn’t seem logical that a person of his age, with the complaints that he’d given for years, was only diagnosed then.”
Dayif says that the Prisons Service often believes that prisoners are making themselves look sick in order to get out of prison. Addameer says that since 1967, 207 Palestinian prisoners have died while in Israeli custody, 52 of them due to medical neglect. They charge that in addition to Abu Hamdieh, another prisoner, Ashraf Abu Dhra’, 29, who suffered from muscular dystrophy and other medical problems, died soon after he was released from an Israeli jail. He was diagnosed with lung failure, immunodeficiency and a brain virus that eventually led to his death.
Israeli prison officials were not available to comment on this case. Another prisoner, Arafat Jaradat, 30, died in Israeli custody in March. Israeli officials said he had a heart attack; Palestinians claimed he was tortured.
On a tour of the Ofer Prison sponsored by the Israel Government Press Office, journalists saw clean, well-kept cells and a recreation yard with a ping-pong table. There a total of 4,998 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails today. Ofer Prison is the only one built on land Israel acquired in the 1967 war, and most of its detainees are there for short stints of up to a few months prior to and during their trials. Gavan Kelly of Addameer says conditions at Ofer are significantly better than at other places.
In the youth wing, an adult Palestinian prisoner was teaching a group of teenagers basic math. In a cell with five neatly-made bunk beds, the detainees seemed eager to talk.
“I was just walking down the street when they grabbed me and arrested me,” Salama Indidoon, 16, wearing a brown Puma T-shirt told The Media Line. “They took me to court and said I threw stones and gave me a month in jail. I just want to go home and see my family.”
The minors have a small recreation room where they can watch DVDs. Their main complaint is that they are not allowed to have cell phones and do not see their families enough.
Yakov Shalom of the Prisons Service says each Palestinian prisoner is allowed a family visit of 45 minutes once every two weeks. For the last 10 minutes, children under age 8 are allowed direct physical contact with the prisoner.
At the Ofer Prison, the kitchen is run by the detainees themselves. They can supplement the prison food with food from the canteen. The Palestinian Authority provides $110 each month per prisoner for their use at the canteen; families can deposit up to $360 each month in addition.
The prisoners are segregated according to political affiliation, with 30 percent of them from Fatah, 30 percent from Hamas, 15 percent from Islamic Jihad, and 15 percent from other organizations.
“We try to preserve respect for prisoners and all of their rights,” Shalom said. “But they also know that they have obligations as well as rights. They are punished for every transgression, usually by being locked in their cells.”