Gaza rallies in support of critically ill prisoner

Umm Muhammad, the mother of critically ill prisoner Ibrahim Bitar, with two of his neices at a weekly sit-in. She hasn’t seen her son in more than three months.

Joe Catron

Sit-ins to support Palestinian prisoners — held every week since 1995 in the courtyard of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Gaza office — have recently been followed by rallies outside for Ibrahim Bitar, a sick detainee in Israel’s Nafha prison.

“We’ve garnered internal support for my brother, and created this popular campaign,” Ibrahim’s brother Mamdouh said last week. “It started within our family. Many of my friends participate in it. It’s a symbol of all the sick detainees.”

Through the Popular Campaign to Save the Life of the Captive Patient Ibrahim Bitar, the family has organized eight of the rallies, he said.

“All the funding is personal,” he added. “It comes from our own pockets.”

Ibrahim Bitar, now 32, was a fighter in Fatah’s Abu al-Arish Brigades. Israeli forces captured him on 7 August 2003.

“He was injured by the Israelis in his right eye during clashes,” Mamdouh said. “He was transferred to Egypt for treatment. The Israelis let him go to Egypt. During his return to Gaza, they detained him at the Rafah border.”

A military court sentenced him to 17 years, although Mamdouh said the prosecution had initially asked for a life sentence.

At the family’s house in Khan Younis, a town in southern Gaza, Mamdouh flicked through folders on his laptop. The campaign’s graphic designer, he showed the logos and posters he has created for it. He also collects photos of rallies for his brother, in both Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

Illness remains a mystery

Despite news reports on Ibrahim’s medical condition, his illness remains a mystery, at least to his family.

“They aren’t giving his family the proper diagnosis,” he said. “We still don’t know the exact disease he has. First, they claimed he was suffering from leukemia. They gave him medication for three years. Then, they found out he didn’t have it and stopped his treatment.

“Finally, they told him he had colon cancer. They gave him cortisone. Now he takes 15 types of medicine per day.”

Mamdouh recited a list of his brother’s ailments: chronic anemia, Crohn’s disease, rheumatism and a tumor on his back which was recently removed by surgery.

“We don’t have any details about the surgery,” Mamdouh said. “We only know that it was conducted. He still bleeds from it.”

Ibrahim’s mother, Umm Muhammad, said Israel’s occupation policies had limited her family’s contact with him.

“I haven’t been allowed to visit him for three months now,” she said. “We have gotten no messages or letters except through the lawyers. When other prisoners are released, they come visit us to tell us about his condition and send his regards.”

Three goals

Their family’s campaign has three goals, according to Mamdouh.

“The aim is for Ibrahim to be released because of his health condition,” he said. “The second is for a health committee to have access, to find out his condition and give him the proper medication. Finally, we want the release of all the sick prisoners.”

By most official accounts, Bitar is one of at least 180 detainees in critical condition — including 25 with cancer — among roughly 1,400 sick prisoners.

“This number is the figure used by Palestinian groups dealing with the issue,” said Osama Wahidi, a spokesman for the Hussam Association, a prisoners’ society in Gaza. “But if you research among prisoners, you will find a higher number. This is the one registered in the files of the Israel Prison Service and humanitarian associations.”

Because of his family’s efforts, Bitar’s detention has emerged as a flashpoint for the families of sick prisoners in general. When crowds gather outside the Red Cross during the weekly rallies, signs depicting other prisoners mix with those Mamdouh has designed for Ibrahim.

“If every Palestinian detainee’s family did like Bitar’s, it would be a turning point for the issue of detainees,” Wahidi said. “There would be no need for the associations. And it would mount great pressure against Israel, more effective than the work of all the Palestinian factions.

“What they are doing is very helpful for everyone. They are trying to highlight him as a symbol of the issue of sick detainees.”

Broad support

The living room of Nahid al-Aqraa’s home in Gaza City’s Sheikh Radwan neighborhood is decorated with posters of his image issued by Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Fatah.

Al-Aqraa, a fighter for the Popular Resistance Committees’ al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades, hails from none of these organizations. But their paraphernalia offers a visible reminder of the broad, strong support he and other sick detainees attract in Palestine.

Like Ibrahim Bitar, Nahid al-Aqraa was captured by Israeli forces while returning to Palestine from medical treatment in Egypt. They detained him on 28 July 2007, at the Allenby Bridge between Jordan and the occupied West Bank, when the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip was closed.

A military court sentenced him to three life sentences.

“I visited him for the first time since his detention very recently,” his wife Jahadir said. “His father and mother live in the West Bank, but his children and I live in Gaza. His parents have been able to visit him. For me and our children, it has been impossible.”

The al-Aqraas have three daughters and a son. Israeli forces have not allowed two of his daughters, aged 12 and 15, to visit him since his detention. “I send him voice messages through a radio station, and written messages through the ICRC,” 15-year-old Nisma said in June last year.

Under the current occupation policy, their son Raed, who turned ten in December, has not been able to see his father since the family’s first visit either.

Visits blocked

For more than five years between June 2007 and August 2012, Israeli forces had blocked all visits to detainees by family members in the Gaza Strip.

Israel ended this comprehensive ban as part of an agreement to settle the mass Karameh (“Dignity”) hunger strike in April 2012, but continues to bar categories of relatives, including children who have reached the age of ten, from traveling through the Erez checkpoint to its prisons.

“Before I was allowed to visit my husband, both the older girls started crying,” Jahadir said. “I threatened them that if they kept crying, I wouldn’t go. They said no, I should go, even if they couldn’t.”

“My daughter Nada was very upset that she couldn’t hug her father, since she is over the age of eight,” she added. “It was the first time she had ever seen him.”

Another occupation policy bans physical contact between detainees and their children who, like Nada, have turned eight.

“When we saw him, Nada started crying and asking to stay with her father,” Jahadir said. “I told her it was up to the Israelis, not me.”

Now 44, al-Aqraa is one of 18 sick detainees held permanently in the Ramle prison clinic. In June, he and another Ramle detainee, Mansour Muqada of Salfit in the West Bank, undertook a dramatic protest in June when they swallowed potentially lethal quantities of pills.

A letter they sent to Mahmoud Abbas, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority’s leader, protested their exclusion from prisoner releases negotiated with Israel by both the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas.

“Death has become easier”

“We were ignored in the Shalit deal [a prisoner exchange agreement in 2011], and we don’t want current talks to ignore us too,” they wrote. “Death has become easier than living with sickness aggravated in our bodies” (“Ministry: Two sick prisoners attempt suicide,” Ma’an News Agency, 6 August 2013).

Their attempt, along with a subsequent hunger strike by Ramle prison clinic detainees, led to slightly improved medical treatment, Wahidi said.

Ramle prisoners have threatened additional hunger strikes, most recently in November (“Ailing Palestinian prisoners threaten hunger strike over lack of treatment,” Al-Akhbar, 25 November 2013).

Sick detainees in other prisons have done so as well (“Sick prisoners in Israeli jails threaten to start hunger strike,” Ma’an News Agency, 28 December 2013).

Health deteriorates

Meanwhile, Nahid al-Aqraa’s condition has continued to deteriorate.

“He has inflammation in his legs,” his wife said. “Parts of both were amputated. The first was in Gaza, before his detention. The second was inside the Israeli jails. The Egyptians did some surgery on it, but it didn’t succeed.”

“While I visited him, he didn’t want me to know he had problems. He just said he had a little inflammation and tried to hide his second amputated leg. But his lawyer told me the truth.”

Both families said that Ibrahim Bitar and Nahid al-Aqraa were not receiving proper treatment.

“Many lawyers have met Ibrahim,” Mamdouh Bitar said. “They have told us his condition is in the terminal stages.

“The bleeding from his surgery still has not been treated. Many times, they have taken him to the Ramle prison clinic or Assaf Harofeh hospital, then sent him back to the prison the same day under the pretext that there are not enough beds in the hospital.”

“The Israelis delayed his medical treatment,” Jahadir said about her husband Nahid. “They could have cured him if he had the proper medication. But he didn’t.”

“We don’t trust Israel”

Last year claims of Israeli medical negligence that followed the deaths two sick Palestinian detainees, Maysara Abuhamdia and Hassan al-Turabi, sparked protests across the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Addameer, an advocacy organization for Palestinian prisoners, argued that al-Turabi’s death on 5 November was “the direct result of the Israel Prison Service policy of medical negligence which is being practiced against all Palestinian political prisoners and detainees.”

The organization’s statement also said that, “Since 1967, 52 Palestinian political prisoners have died as a result of medical negligence, with al-Turabi being the third prisoner to die in 2013 alone” (“Occupation is solely responsible for the death of Palestinian political prisoner,” 5 November 2013).

“We’re not asking the Israelis to only give them the proper medication,” Wahidi said. “They need their freedom. We don’t trust the Israel Prison Service to give them the right treatment.”

Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He co-edited The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag, an anthology of accounts by detainees freed in the 2011 prisoner exchange. Follow him on Twitter @jncatron.