Dying prisoner treated cruelly by Israeli doctors over many years

Fatah supporters in the West Bank city of Hebron carry a poster of Maysara Abuhamdia during a protest calling for the release of Palestinian political prisoners, 26 March 2013. Mamoun Wazwaz APA images

On 28 March, Palestinians in the Israeli jail of Eshel released a statement informing the world that 64-year-old prisoner Maysara Abuhamdia had lost his ability to move his body, and is expected to die at any moment.

The statement was made public on the website Facebook by a prisoner support group called Kasr al-Qeid, or Breaking the Chains. The prisoners stated that the next statement that they would release would not be another call for help, but a letter of condolences to Abuhamdia’s family. The day before, the prisoners sent out another statement titled “Maysara is not alone” and called on Palestinians to do anything they can to secure his release.

Abuhamdia began complaining of sickness in his throat and swelling of his neck in August 2012. According to his lawyer Rami al-Alami, from August to December, Abuhamdia was only admitted to hospital a couple of times, where doctors ran biopsy tests on him and but refused to say what he was suffering from.

“Instead of providing him with the correct treatment, the doctors gave him flu shots that caused severe pain in his chest, which he could hardly sleep after,” said al-Alami.

Two months later — after Abuhamdia lost his voice completely and 15 kilograms in weight — the doctors examined his swollen neck and told him that he only had a few days to live.

Abuhamdia’s sister Itidal last visited him in January, and confirmed that his voice was almost entirely gone.

“It’s hard to understand him,” she told The Electronic Intifada by phone. “I was supposed to see him in March but Eshel prison is under collective punishment and there are no family visits until we are further notified.”

Itidal said that her brother does not stay in a hospital, and is transferred from the Eshel prison in Bir al-Saba (Beersheva) — a city in the Negev (Naqab) region of southern Israel — to the Saroka hospital for treatment.

“The doctors knew it was cancer but did not tell Maysara this,” said al-Alami. “It was only in March when they finally told him about his cancer and it was during this month when he finally began to receive chemotherapy sessions at the Saroka hospital.” The sessions have temporarily stopped because of the Jewish holidays.

“I can’t imagine the pain he goes through just to get to the hospital,” Itidal, Maysara’s sister, said. “Transferring prisoners in the bosta [a prison vehicle with no windows and a corrugated metal interior with no seats] is already hard, but for a cancer patient it must be hell.”

Resistance and exile

Maysara’s oldest son, 30-year-old Tariq Abuhamdia, is completing his PhD in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech in the United States and administers the Facebook page Freedom for Maysara Abuhamdia, which provides information about Maysara’s biography and publishes updates on his condition in both Arabic and English.

Born in Hebron in 1948, Abuhamdia joined the revolutionary ranks fighting the Israeli occupation when he was 20 years old.

Abuhamdia’s first arrest came in 1969, when he was accused of belonging to the Union of Palestinian Students. He later studied electronics in Cairo and received a diploma from there. Afterwards, he moved to Lebanon and then Syria, where he joined Fatah’s military camps.

He tried to obtain a degree in law at the University of Beirut between 1970 and 1975 but due to his constant arrests and pursuit by Israeli intelligence and Arab collaborators, he couldn’t finish his studies, and instead worked in Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait and Jordan. Whenever Abuhamdia would come home back to the West Bank, he would be arrested during that time period. He was held as part of the Israeli policy of administrative detention, a form of internment that holds prisoners indefinitely without charge or trial.

In Lebanon he was a resistance fighter and a member of the Jurmuq Brigade, a Fatah resistance group that was mostly made up of students under the leader Muin Taher. The group included the fighter Dalal al-Mughrabi, who carried out an operation in Tel Aviv in 1978 during which she was killed along with several other militants and 38 civilians. In 1976, Abuhamdia was arrested by Israeli forces and spent two years held under administrative detention, after which he was exiled to Jordan.

In Jordan, Abuhamdia worked in the offices of Abu Jihad al-Wazir, the commander of Fatah’s armed wing al-Assifa, who was also expelled from Lebanon along with fighters from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) after Israel’s invasion in 1982. (Abu Jihad was later exiled from Jordan to Tunisia in 1986, and was assassinated by agents with Israel’s spy agency Mossad on 16 April 1988 in his home in Tunis.)

After the signing of the Oslo accords between PLO officials and Israel in 1993, the Israeli authorities refused to include Abuhamdia as one of the “returnees” to Palestine. It wasn’t until 1998 that Abuhamdia finally returned to Palestine, after Yasser Arafat’s intervention.

Abuhamdia settled into life in the West Bank once again, and worked in the newly-formed Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Force. He was arrested during the second intifada on 28 May 2002 with a long list of charges issued against him, some of which dated back to 1991.

“My father spent 105 days at the Moskobiyeh detention center under interrogation,” Abuhamdia’s son Tariq said, referring to the notorious Jerusalem interrogation facility known in English as the Russian Compound. “He never gave the interrogator any information. Israel found great difficulty in determining which faction he belonged to. In the seventies, they thought he was working with the PFLP [the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine]. Now they are accusing him of being affiliated with Hamas while at the same time cooperating with Fatah.”

Writer and teacher

On 2 June 2005, Abuhamdia was sentenced to prison for 25 years. Two years later — on 22 April 2007 — the Israeli military prosecutors appealed his sentencing and his was sentence extended to 99 years in prison.

Abuhamdia is looked to as a leader by the other prisoners due to his older age and sentence, and spent the years in Eshel prison. He was studying history in Gaza’s Al-Aqsa University via correspondence before his health took a turn for the worse.

“My father loved literature. In addition to Arabic, he could read Hebrew and English,” said Tariq. “In prison, he was basically a writer and a teacher. He wrote about life in prison, political analysis and other topics and was published in many journals. He loved Russian literature, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and gave daily lectures to prisoners about the modern history of Palestine and geopolitics to raise their level of knowledge and awareness. The younger prisoners consider him as a father for them.”

Intentional negligence

In 2007, Abuhamdia became another victim of the Ramleh “slaughterhouse” after he was admitted to that prison clinic because of a painful stomach ulcer. He wrote a letter describing the deliberate medical negligence of the Israeli Prison Service and the cruel behavior of doctors toward the sick prisoners, who he said were subjected to medical experimentation without their consent. In an excerpt translated and posted by Tariq and found on the Facebook support page, Maysara Abuhamdia states:

“The intentional negligence starts during the treatment, when the doctors receive orders to not cure the patient but to give him painkillers without any restoration of the damaged parts.”

He adds, “These instructions come from the Israeli security apparatus, and the goal is to keep the prisoners alive but not cured to be a lesson to others.”

In his letter Abuhamdia refers to the ill-treatment afforded to other sick prisoners at Ramleh, such as Alaa Hassouneh, who is described as suffering from heart disease but is only given painkillers. Another prisoner, Mansour Maqoudeh, was shot in the spine during his arrest by the occupation forces in 2002, which left him paralyzed. He was given injections in his abdomen by the Israeli Prison Service that caused him intestinal damage. Maqoudeh suffers from bouts of convulsions and unconsciousness, and can only urinate through a plastic bag, as Maqoudeh’s lawyer told the Arabic-language outlet Donia Alwatan last month.

It is no secret that the sick prisoners in Ramleh are cruelly mistreated. Former hunger striker Khader Adnan once described to this author the inhumane way these prisoners were treated by Israeli authorities, as they lay helpless and in pain on their hospital beds.

“Some were beaten occasionally, others were chained by their arms and legs to their hospital beds, still others were placed in some sort of cages and totally ignored,” Adnan said. “It’s simply a horrifying place.”

Deaths in custody

Since 1967, 51 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have died from medical negligence. There are currently 700 prisoners in need of medical attention, and 18 in the Ramleh prison hospital, according to the Palestine News Network. The Israeli authorities are careful not to let Palestinian prisoners die in the hospital, and send them home once they know that the prisoner is on his deathbed, such as the case with Zuhair Lubada, from Nablus, and Ashraf Abu Thrae, from Hebron, who died on 21 January this year.

Lubada died on 31 May 2012 — one week after his release from Ramleh. In a coma when he was released, Lubada was transferred directly to the National Government Hospital in Nablus. He had spent a total of 14 years behind bars and reportedly suffered from kidney failure, sclerosis of the liver, a lung tumor and Hepatitis B.

Speaking at that the time of Lubada’s death, researcher Ahmad al-Beetawi, who works for the International Solidarity Foundation, stated, “Israel makes sure that seriously ill detainees die shortly after their release. This way Israel avoids confrontation with the detainees and tries to excuse itself from blame” (“Ailing detainee, released one week ago, dies in hospital,” IMEMC, 31 May 2012).

For Tariq Abuhamdia, living thousand of miles away and dealing with his father’s cancer and impending death is incredibly tough. Tariq wishes his two young daughters, who Maysara has never seen except through photographs, and whom he asks about in all his letters, would have the chance to sit on their grandfather’s lap.

“I feel heartbroken that I cannot take care of him,” Tariq said. “I last saw him three years ago and his morale was very high. I imagine him sitting on his bed breathing with difficulty, [while he] cannot eat, cannot change his clothes and I cannot do anything about it. Your dreams and wishes narrow.”

“We did appeal to everyone you can think of to secure the release of my father,” he added. “I think that these organizations are waste of time. It’s also a big disgrace that my father has the rank of Major General in the PA [Palestinian Authority], but the PA is not able to release him while at the same time continues its security coordination with Israel. It’s not even coordination, they are following orders like slaves.”

Rami al-Alami, Abuhamdia’s lawyer, believes that the Israeli Prison Service will stick to their policy of releasing sick prisoners only when they are on their deathbeds.

“I’ve presented the court with Maysara’s case and I have yet to hear back from them in terms of whether a date has been set for his appeal,” he said. “Unfortunately, just like the case of Zuheir Lubada and Ashraf Abu Thrae, I fear that Israel will release Maysara when they are sure that he is dying.”

Linah Alsaafin is a graduate of Birzeit University and a writer based in Ramallah, West Bank.