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The Coronavirus Outbreak is Revealing the Appalling Conditions Faced by Palestinians in Israeli Prisons

The Coronavirus Outbreak is Revealing the Appalling Conditions Faced by Palestinians in Israeli Prisons

The Coronavirus Outbreak is Revealing the Appalling Conditions Faced by Palestinians in Israeli Prisons
March 17
14:29 2020

Ramallah, West Bank — Palestinian political prisoner Muwaffaq Arouq, 77, is now in critical condition. He has lost weight, has a fever and can only eat through a feeding tube inserted into his abdomen, according to the Committee of Prisoners and Former Prisoners’ Affairs. Doctors discovered Arouq had cancer in July, but the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) delayed his treatment until November — worsening his condition. And yet, amid the rapid spread of the coronavirus, Israel continues its policy of medical neglect against Palestinian prisoners.

As activists demand for the release of Arouq and other sick prisoners, Qaddoura Fares, president of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, says the coronavirus pandemic has increased concerns for prisoners whose health is deteriorating.


‘Punishing Palestinian prisoners’ with new procedures

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh called on the Israeli government to release all prisoners, especially children and those suffering from diseases last week but Fares doesn’t have hope that drastic measures like this will be taken.

“We are calling on the Israeli government to clean the rooms and the spaces prisoners are moving in to be sure that they will not be attacked by this virus,” Fares said. “But the prisoners tell me that the Israeli administration did nothing.” Fares mentioned that the IPS is “acting as usual” except for adding new procedures like denying family visits to prisoners.

Palestinian prisoner rights organization, Addameer, detailed Israel’s so-called preventive procedures in a new report. In addition to canceling family visits, Israeli authorities suspended lawyers’ visits and changed instructions regarding civil court procedures. Trials for security prisoners at Israeli civil courts will now be held without the detainee present. These sessions will be attended by the prisoner’s lawyer and detainees will be permitted to be in contact through visual or audio means from prison.

Charlotte Kates, international coordinator for Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, said it is already incredibly difficult for families to receive reliable information about their loved ones in jail, even when there’s not a health crisis happening.

“There’s been this constant push to prevent family visits so it doesn’t seem like a real attempt to protect people from the disease and comes across instead as another way of punishing Palestinian prisoners,” Kates said.

According to news reports, 19 Palestinian prisoners and 15 Israeli officers were held in quarantine at Asqalan Prison after an Israeli doctor interacted with a Palestinian prisoner seeking treatment. The physician tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus five days before meeting with the prisoner. And in Al-Maskobiya prison in Jerusalem, 100 prisoners were isolated after an officer was suspected of having the virus. Both quarantines have officially ended. However, the IPS is preparing to house prisoners diagnosed with the deadly virus at Sahranem Prison in the Negev desert along the Egyptian border.


A systematic policy of medical neglect

More than 5,000 Palestinians — including women and children ­— are currently held in Israeli prisons with 700 suffering from poor health and nearly 300 in critical condition, according to 2019 statistics from Palestinian non-governmental organization The Center for Defense of Liberties and Civil Rights “Hurryyat.” Four prisoners are suffering from dangerous cancers, 10 have tumors, 68 have been shot or injured, 11 are paralyzed and 17 suffer from mental illnesses. Palestinian prisoners also suffer from heart disease, kidney failures, blood pressure problems and diabetes. In 2019, five Palestinian prisoners died in Israeli jails, with three dying as a direct result of medical negligence.

Eighteen prisoners are now permanently hospitalized at the infamous Ramleh Prison Hospital. This facility is where prisoners with the most debilitating health problems go for treatment. Sick inmates may wait for days at the hospital to see a doctor, but the trip there can be equally as long. Fares details how ailing prisoners traveled three days in a metal van tied to metal chairs with feet and hands cuffed. They don’t have access to food or a toilet as they spend hours picking up other sick prisoners. Most sick inmates won’t even go to Ramleh because they know how excruciating the journey can be. “A lot of prisoners refuse to get out [of the jail] because they understand what is waiting for them,” Fares said.

Lana Ramadan, International Advocacy Officer for Addameer, said that prisoners dying from medical negligence ranges from two to four every year on average. “Usually these things happen, the prisoner would be in a really harsh situation, he may or may not get treatment, maybe he dies, people would speak about it and then things would calm down until it happens again,” Ramadan said. “So it keeps on happening. It is systematic. It’s a policy the IPS has. They don’t give medical treatment to prisoners.”


Israel’s prison conditions worsening inmates’ health

As described in Addameer’s report, prisons are overcrowded, with small cells lacking proper ventilation. Resources like medications, adequate nutrition and water are scarce. Prisons lack sterilizers and cleaning materials, although Addameer noted that some prisoners were given cleaning equipment recently.

“These people who are suffering from severe health conditions are spending their days in conditions that are not sanitary, not cared for properly and they are not receiving the reliable health care treatment that they need,” Kates said. She pointed out that often more than six to ten inmates are stuffed together in tiny, dirty cells crawling with insects and vermin. Prisoners have to purchase hygiene products from the canteen but may be banned from purchasing items if they participate in protests like hunger strikes. In these instances, prisoners may share these hygiene products with each other — only further reducing cleanliness and sanitation.

“There’s no system here that’s making sure these folks’ health is being protected,” Kates said. “Instead they’re being subjected to even more dangers to their health beyond the threat of COVID-19.”

As the prison conditions exacerbate inmates’ health, medical staff is not trained to handle the severe illnesses prisoners experience. Doctors in Israeli jails are not specialized. In most cases, they just prescribe water and painkillers. This was the exact outcome for Palestinian prisoner Sami Abu Diak, who, in 2015, was merely given painkillers instead of a proper diagnosis. Without a legitimate diagnosis, Abu Diak suffered for weeks and his condition worsened before he finally began treatment for cancer. Abu Diak lost his battle to cancer in November inside Ramleh prison clinic.

For Helmi Al-Araj, Executive Director of Hurryyat and a former prisoner, the poor medical treatment isn’t just because these physicians are unqualified. “These doctors deal with ailing prisoners with irresponsibility and no respect to prisoners because they deal with their enemies,” Al-Araj said. “They don’t take this as a humanitarian case. They deal with prisoners as enemies who are terrorists and did something against their government.”

Fares, who spent 14 years in prison for armed activism, agreed Palestinians are seen as “the other.” “Israel is developing a mentality that there is a difference between the soldier and the prisoner,” Fares said. “In their mind, they think we are not human enough.”

Yet while Fares does believe medical negligence stems from the growing far-right ideology of the Israeli government, he thinks reform is possible if Palestine presents a united front. “Today Hamas is acting alone. Fatah is acting alone. And the Israeli administration knows how deep the Palestinian crisis goes, so they use it.”

Feature photo | Rasila Zahran holds a photograph of her son Ahmed Zahran, who has been on a partial hunger strike for nearly three months, outside Israel’s Ofer military prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Dec. 19, 2019. Majdi Mohammed | AP

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