As Palestinian teens and women were liberated in a groundbreaking prisoner exchange agreement between Hamas and Israel, chilling accounts emerged of dire conditions in Israeli prisons.
Detainees gave testimonies on how Israeli prison authorities subjected them to food deprivation, medical negligence, regular beatings and menacing threats aimed at them and their families.
Despite many of the prisoners being released from different prisons across historic Palestine with no way of communicating with one another prior to their release, their accounts have been consistent.
For seven consecutive days starting 24 November, prisoners were exchanged between Hamas and Israel as part of a temporary truce which was extended twice but collapsed on 1 December as Israel resumed massacring Palestinians in Gaza.
A total of 240 Palestinian prisoners were released by Israel as part of this deal – including 107 children, 65 teens 18 and older and 68 women.
The vast majority of Palestinians released had never been charged with a crime, and most had been in Israeli detention for less than one year, The New York Times reported.
Throughout the seven days of prisoner exchanges, Israel detained more Palestinians than it released amid what the UN human rights office in Palestine called a “dramatic growth in the number of Palestinians arrested and detained by Israeli security forces across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.”
Six Palestinians have died in Israeli custody since 7 October, the UN office said. This is “the highest number of cases reported in such a short time-period in decades,” the office added.
The UN said that testimonies it has collected “appear consistent with numerous pictures and video clips published in recent weeks on social media by Israeli soldiers, depicting abuse and humiliation of Palestinians.”
Palestinian detainees have also reported being “threatened with rape in retaliation for the attacks of 7 October.”
Hamas released 105 captives, which included women, children and citizens of Thailand, the Philippines and Russia. More than 120 captives from Israel are said to remain in Gaza. Salah al-Arouri, the deputy head of Hamas’ politburo, said those remaining are soldiers and former soldiers.
Released Palestinians detailed how Israeli prison guards beat them regularly.
Teenager Muhammad Nazzal was released in the fourth batch of exchanges with broken arms and fingers. He said his Israel jailors provided him with no medical treatment.
Nazzal, from Qabatiya, a town near the northern West Bank city of Jenin, described how Israeli prison guards entered the cell he shared with other Palestinians for a headcount.
Prisoners were ordered to place their hands on their heads but when Israeli jailers didn’t get the response they expected, Nazzal said they started to beat him on his head, back and arms.
“I spent a week suffering, bedridden on the mattress,” he explained, adding that fellow prisoners fed him and helped him drink water.
Nazzal said Israeli prison authorities provided no medical treatment and did not take him to a clinic. He said they returned days later and beat prisoners again, leaving some bleeding from their faces.
“It turned into a battlefield for them against us,” Nazzal asserted. “They entered with the intention to kill, wielding metal batons that they bent on us.”
Nazzal described the conditions in the Naqab prison, where he was held, as dire. He said one of his fellow inmates died, after which beatings lessened, but food remained scarce. He was not staying with other young prisoners but with adult and elderly inmates, he explained.
Israel’s propaganda immediately sprung into action as Nazzal’s testimony gained traction, releasing a video purportedly showing his release from prison to the International Committee of the Red Cross.“CCTV footage shows Muhammad Nazzal leaving prison and boarding the bus with two perfectly working arms,” the official Israel account on Twitter/X stated.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s Arabic spokesperson Ofir Gendelman posted the same video, adding: “another Palestinian lie is debunked” and “Pallywood is busted again.”
He said that Nazzal had told media “that Israeli prison guards broke his arms, but when he boarded the Red Cross’s bus at the prison, they were fine!”
The video only depicts Nazzal providing his information to an Israeli officer and subsequently being handed over to the Red Cross with his arms at his side, not wrapped with bandages. Nothing in the video contradicts Nazzal’s testimony.
One Palestinian prisoner reportedly lost consciousness upon his release due to inadequate care and insufficient food.One of the youngest Palestinians to be released from detention, Saif al-Din Darwish, recounted the appalling conditions imposed on Palestinian boys in Ofer prison in the occupied West Bank. He said they were served dry and uncooked food, such as raw falafel and sausages.
He described how newly-detained Palestinian boys would arrive at the section visibly bruised with swollen faces and eyes, suggesting they had been beaten by their Israeli captors.
Threats to harm family
Ahed Tamimi, who became an iconic figure in 2018 when her arrest and eight-month detention made international headlines at the time, was detained again in November and released as part of the prisoner exchange.
Upon her release, Tamimi talked about the dozens of female detainees still in Israeli prisons who are “getting mistreated every day.”
Ahed talked about the dire conditions that Israeli prison authorities are forcing Palestinians to live under.
“There’s no food, no water, nothing at all, no clothes. They sleep on the floor,” Tamimi said. Her father, Bassem Tamimi, is held under administrative detention.
“As I was leaving [the prison], they threatened me by invoking my father. They said we’ve got your father in prison, and if you say a word, we’ll kill your father in prison.”Tamimi exhibited the defiance and dignity consistent with released Palestinian prisoners in the exchange. “Despite everything, we’re stronger than the [Israeli] occupation, and we will keep going.”
Still a child in 2018, she was accused of shoving and slapping a heavily armed occupation soldier after Israeli forces had shot and severely injured her then 15-year-old cousin Muhammad Fadel Tamimi.
Marah Bakir, who was also released in the exchange, spoke of the importance of focusing efforts on including female prisoners with life sentences in the prisoner exchange.Bakir was a schoolgirl when she was arrested in October 2015, accused of intending to stab an Israeli soldier near her school in occupied East Jerusalem. She was shot multiple times by Israeli forces.
Though Bakir has insisted that she had no intention to carry out such an attack, she was sentenced to more than eight years in prison.
Iman Nafi, the wife of Nael Barghouti, the longest-serving prisoner in Israeli detention, told Al Jazeera she came out to thank the resistance for their sacrifices and welcome the released prisoners.
She said her sister was released as part of the exchange and she had been hopeful that her husband would have been included as part of the deal.
“Graveyard for the living”
One released Palestinian told media how food was scarce and that the only medical treatment they were afforded by Israeli prisoner authorities were painkillers.
“There are a lot of prisoners with broken ribs. A while ago a prisoner died in detention. They beat him on the head and he kept bleeding and no one asked about him.”Another who was held at the Nafha prison in southern Israel described the “catastrophe” of the prison conditions.
He said that he had been beaten before his release for refusing to sign documents presented to him by Israeli prison authorities shortly before his release, adding that he had been feeling unwell on the bus.Freed prisoner Ramzi al-Absi vividly recounted the harrowing conditions endured by Palestinians at the Naqab prison, also in the south, dubbing it the “graveyard for the living.”
Al-Absi said prisoners were getting beaten and sexually assaulted by prison authorities.
“The detainees are being sexually assaulted, to the extent of rape. I’m not exaggerating. To the extent of rape,” he said.“For 60 days, we did not see the sun. For 60 days, we had three servings of beatings: mornings, afternoons and evenings. In a manner beyond imagination, with beatings on all parts of the body.”
Al-Absi detailed how Israeli prison authorities routinely cursed prisoners and desecrated the Quran to demean them.
He explained how detainees were forced to sleep on bare mattresses in the cold without a blanket. Israeli prison authorities confiscated everything from the prisoners, even the windows to the cells, despite chilly desert weather in the southern Naqab area.
Israeli prison authorities also restricted water to one hour per day, making basic hygiene impossible for prisoners. Al-Absi said that he couldn’t even take a shower for 15 days.
Al-Absi implored lawyers and the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the prisons and note the deplorable conditions.
Another recently released child, Ahmad Salaymeh, recounted how Israeli prison authorities sealed off sections of Damon prison after 7 October. He said they heard the sounds of women detainees getting beaten. He also described how prisoners were deprived of sufficient food.Lama Khater, a released Palestinian woman, described being threatened with rape by her Israeli interrogators.
“I was treated with great brutality and excessive cruelty at the beginning of my detention,” Khater said, adding that she was tied up, blindfolded and taken to interrogation without knowing “who was talking to me or who was investigating me. They made threats of rape against me,” Khater told the reporter.
When the reporter asked for elaboration, she said, “I was honestly threatened with rape” in retaliation for the events of 7 October.
She said that her Israeli interrogator told her, “I have about twenty soldiers present now,” suggesting they could assault her.
“Of course, it was clear that the goal was intimidation, meaning it was a psychological intimidation session.”
She added that her Israeli interrogator threatened to burn her children.
“They told me we will go to the house and burn your children, we will lock the door on them and burn the little children,” Khater said.
Khater said that her Israeli captors told her they were treating her as they would a prisoner of war.
“They told me from the first moment that you are now a prisoner of war. I was previously a prisoner, and today this applies to you. You are all prisoners of war, and therefore there are no laws,” she said.
The prisoners are living in “near starvation,” Khater said.
“Prisoners, in general, can be said to have returned to square one, with restrictions in all respects,” Khater said. Palestinian prisoners acquired many of their rights inside Israeli detention through hunger strikes, resistance and organizing.
“The occupation is taking advantage of the preoccupation with war,” she said, and withdrawing “all the achievements that the prisoners have gained through their blood, struggles and sacrifices.”
Khater explained that there was no way to get news and communicate with family.
Israeli authorities have arrested around 3,400 Palestinians since 7 October, including dozens across the occupied West Bank even as the prisoner exchange was underway.
Many Palestinians said they weren’t told they were being released until just before they were sent home.
A Palestinian prisoner who left detention barefoot and wearing only prison attire, recounted how on the day of his release, Israeli prison authorities told him he was being taken for an interrogation.
“He said don’t dream about leaving here,” he told Al Jazeera
He described how Israeli prison authorities threatened to rearrest him if there were celebrations over his release.
His mother, visibly distraught beside him, cried as she remarked how her son had lost weight and looked unwell.Israel’s far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir ordered police to suppress any celebrations, including a ban on distributing candy.
Israeli forces “enacted a media ban preventing journalists from gathering at the site of the release and shooting sound grenades and tear gas into crowds of awaiting people,” prisoners rights group Addameer reported.
Palestinian prisoners were threatened with rearrest if they celebrated publicly.
Many spoke about how their joy at being released was incomplete given the ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza and the fact that they left comrades behind in Israel’s chambers of horror.