The Crisis for Palestinian Political Prisoners
The US-led political and economic blockade continues, yet contrary to popular belief, it is not only affecting Palestinian Authority employees and the merchants they buy from. Palestinian organizations are unable to bring money in through banks fearful of American threats against them if they facilitate any transfers. This includes human rights organizations, NGOS in general, and the Palestinian Prisoner Society.
On Thursday I sat down with Basim Sbeih, the Palestinian Prisoner Society’s General Director of Media, in the West Bank.
"I’ll begin with the general situation in the Palestinian Prisoner Society and the situation of the prisoners as well. The Palestinian Prisoner Society, as any other Palestinian organization, is involved in the matters of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. We have 30 lawyers working on representing the prisoners in Israeli jails. However, the funding stopped, including the payroll for the lawyers working with us. This has created a strangulating crisis in their work. The lawyers are threatening to strike from representing prisoners in Israeli military courts as they need to be paid. This will create a major problem for Palestinian prisoners and their families."
Sbeih continued, "It is necessary to point out that the lawyers are the only link between the prisoners and their families and human rights organizations, and in particular the Palestinian Prisoner Society, which represents 4,000 prisoners yearly in Israeli military courts."
There are currently approximate 9,400 Palestinians languishing in Israeli prisoners, many without charge or trial under the Israeli policy of Administrative Detention.
Regarding the affects of the blockade, Sbeih pointed out that no Palestinian is immune: "In general the financial situation in our organization, which has been strangulated for the past several months due to the blockade against monies slated for the Prisoners Society from the PA Ministry of Detainees and Ex Detainees Affairs, is bleak. It of course also pertains to all of the employees of the Palestinian Prisoner Society."
For instance, the Israeli Court has set today as the date for Manal Ghanam to have her young son Nour taken away from her. The baby knows nothing other than prison life with his mother.
"From Tulkarem, 30-year-old Manal Ghanam gave birth to her son Nour at the end of September 2003. The Israeli court ruled to separate them on the 11 May, today. Ghanam who had her baby with her and is now slated to lose him, met with her husband and three other children in an open room in the prison. The point was for baby Nour to become acquainted with his siblings and his father who he has never known."
Nour had only seen his siblings through plate glass-windowed visiting stations, or through bars. He was never allowed to touch them, according to earlier reports when the original story broke regarding the Israeli court’s decision to separate mother and child.
Sbeih continued, "Relating to other female prisoners, Sumar Sbeih, who gave birth in the prison hospital on 30 April via caesarean section, gave birth in handcuffs and shackles. After the caesarian, she was transferred to another room were she remained in shackles for three days. Three prison guards took shifts imposing strict measures upon her. After three or four days of having given birth, she was transferred to Ramle Prison where she now lives with her newborn."
Not wanting to leave anyone out, the PPS Media Director added, "I want to note that three female prisoners have given birth in Israeli prisons during this Intifada. The now freed woman, Merva Taha, gave birth to her son in prison on February 8th, 2002 and she was finally released with her baby at the beginning of 2005.
"There is a daughter of a prisoner; she is 3 years and 3 months old. She’s been in prison for three months. The mother conducted a two-week hunger strike to have her baby returned to her and the Israeli Prison Administration ceded her demand and mother and child were reunited."
Sbeih also addressed Wednesday’s prison-wide open hunger strike.
Hunger strikes are a common form of resistance in Israeli prisons going back to before the first Intifada. Of the most recent, Sbeih said, "Relating to the hunger strike undertaken yesterday in Israeli jails by approximately 9,000 political prisoners in solidarity with those in solitary confinement, it was a one-day open hunger strike for the 15 Palestinians in solitary. One of them has been in solitary confinement for five to six years, not allowed to leave his cell at all or socialize with any aspect of society."
The economic blockade is wreaking havoc on Palestinians who rely on prison stores and canteens to supplement the paltry food provided by prison authorities. Palestinians also buy necessities such as soap and toothpaste in the canteens. The Israelis have closed several of the accounts.
"Again relating to the financial situation, there has been no money for four months due to the cut in aid; none for the lawyers or the staff. We, as an organization for prisoners, take our funding from the Palestinian National Authority. The Israeli Prison Administration closed the canteen accounts for several prisoners throughout many of the prisons. This has led to it being impossible to receive any money, which has created another big problem in the prisons and the prisoners are suffering from hunger due to the closure of those accounts."
A mother in the West Bank city of Bethlehem asked yesterday, "Is there no end?" The answer from Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and President Abbas made her laugh. They told reporters after a meeting earlier this week that hopefully by August money will arrive for salaries. She cursed the Israelis, and for the first time, the Americans before them.