Saturday, November 12, 2011

Free at Last: Profiles of Courage


On 18 October 2011, the first 477 of an eventual 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails were released in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured five years previously. Of the Palestinians who have or will be freed, 280 were serving life sentences and 27 were women. Most had been deprived of family visits for years, and had suffered repeated torture, sentences to solitary confinement and refused access to education. The release came as more than 6,000 Palestinian prisoners staged a hunger strike to protest the harsh conditions.

While the release is good news welcomed throughout the occupied territories, some families will still be separated. Of the first 477 prisoners released, 110 were returned to their homes in the West Bank and 203 were deported to Jordan, Turkey, Qatar and Syria, which agreed to take prisoners who Israel insisted, must not be allowed to return home. The rest (131) were freed in Gaza -- even if they were not originally from there.
The agreement is the highest “price” Israel has ever paid for a single soldier. Israel places a high value on Israeli life and freedom, and assigns little worth to Palestinians. Thus, captures and exchanges are the only way to win their release. Approximately 5,300 Palestinian prisoners remain in Israeli jails, waiting to be freed.

Here are the stories of just two of the released Palestinians:

Ayman Kafishah; jailed since April 1997:

On April 5, 1997, Ayman was arrested by Israeli security forces and immediately transported to Ha Shikmah Prison in Israel. According to testimony he later delivered to the UN Commission on Human Rights and publicized by B’tselem, an Israeli human rights agency, Ayman was then interrogated nonstop for 36 hours. Tactics used to coerce him to talk included:

  • Violent shaking.
  • Forced squatting and sitting in painful, contorted positions for prolonged periods.
  • Wrist cuffs tightened until blood flow was cut off.
  • Sleep deprivation.
  • Refusal of permission to use the toilet.
  • Threats to arrest and torture his family members.

Ayman was denied the right to consult with his lawyer for a full month, and was not allowed any family visits for the entire 14 years he was jailed. His daughter, Sarah, knew of her father only through photographs.

Although Ayman was freed in the prisoner exchange for Shalit, his forced separation from his wife and daughter continues. He was immediately exiled to the Gaza Strip, and his family was denied permission to travel there to see him from the West Bank. They have seen him only on TV, waving to the crowds in Gaza.

“I was awakened (on Oct. 18, 2011) to the sound of my mother calling me,” recalls Sarah Kafishah. “I got up and rushed towards my mother, who was sitting in front of the TV. My mother knelt on the ground and thanked God.”

Sarah and her mother said in a statement that they thank the Palestinian negotiators and the Egyptian mediators for making the exchange happen. They also called on the international community to put pressure on Israel to allow Ayman’s family to leave the West Bank to visit him in Gaza. A 14-year separation is long enough.

Obada Saeed Bilal; jailed since April 2002:

A native of Nablus in the West Bank, Obada is the son of Saeed Bilal. Obada was studying journalism at Najah University when he was seized, during the Israeli military campaign on the West Bank codenamed "Defensive Shield." He was charged with being a supporter military activities, It was just two weeks after his marriage to Nelly AlSafadi.

Obada was sentenced to 11 years in jail and subjected to intensive torture, along with a number of stays in solitary confinement -- one time longer than six months. Says Obada: “I endured many rounds of continuous interrogation, during which the physical and psychological torture was so harsh my body became exhausted and I lost consciousness many times.”
Obada had always struggled with poor eyesight, but he went totally blind by the time he was released from prison.

His family has paid a heavy price to the Israeli occupying force. Obada’s wife, Nelly and three brothers also served time in Israeli prisons. Nelly, who was released several months before Obada, was arrested at a roadblock while trying to enter Ramallah. Although Obada was later moved to the same prison in which she was being held, they were never allowed to be together. 

Although Obada was freed in the prisoner exchange for Shalit, he was immediately exiled to the Gaza Strip and his wife Nelly was denied permission to travel there to see him.

Both families are urging the international community and all human rights groups to put pressure on Israel to strop its daily integration to Palestinians on check points and crossing borders and it must immediately allow those families access through crossing borders.