Mother still restricted from visiting son after his release from prison

Rawda Odeh carries a photograph of her son, who is being released from prison — not back home to his family in Jerusalem, but to Gaza, “a big jail,” she said. 

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours IPS

SHEIKH JARRAH, East Jerusalem (IPS) - Rawda Odeh had mixed feelings when she heard the news that her son, 33-year-old Loai Mohammad Ahmed Odeh, was going to be released from prison as a result of the recently brokered prisoner exchange agreement between Israel and Hamas.

“I was hoping that I would hug my son when he will be released and I was waiting for this ten years. But when I heard that he would be released to Gaza, I was disappointed. I found out that he would be deported to Gaza forever. He will not return back home,” Odeh, whose son was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to 28 years in prison, said.

Sitting in the East Jerusalem compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross, where she and two others were on hunger strike in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners who remain in Israeli jails, Odeh explained that she doesn’t know if she will be able to travel to Gaza or elsewhere to see her son.

“Up until now, I don’t know when I will see my son. Maybe the United States is closer [for us to meet] than Gaza,” Odeh said. “It was mixed, my feelings, because freedom is the most beautiful thing in the world. I think that my son got his freedom, even if Gaza is a big jail. I was disappointed a little bit but I’m happy that he gets his freedom.”

Mediated by Egyptian security authorities, Hamas and Israel reached a deal on 11 October for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The Palestinian prisoners will be released in two waves: a first group of 477 were released beginning on Tuesday, and another 550 will be freed in about two months time.

According to a list provided by Israel Prison Service on 15 October, of the 477 Palestinian prisoners to be released first, 41 prisoners will be deported to countries abroad, 146 — including Odeh’s son — will be sent to Gaza permanently, and 18 will be sent to Gaza for three years.

Thousands continue to suffer

“Prisoners are protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention and cannot be deported from their homes or their homeland. By emphasizing deportations, Israel is continuing its policy to deport Palestinians,” said Shawan Jabarin, director general of Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization based in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

“Because of the deportations, the transfer of the prisoners, many people can’t be unified with their family members because of the Israeli restrictions on movement,” he added.

Jabarin said that while he welcomed the release of Gilad Shalit and the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, thousands more Palestinians remain in Israeli jails and continue to suffer from difficult and inhumane conditions.

“If more than 1,000 Palestinians were released — which is a good thing for their families, their society and for themselves as human beings — the problems still continue [in the prisons]. You have around 5,000 prisoners who will stay in the prison and suffer without fundamental rights,” he said.

Thousands of prisoners from across all major Palestinian political factions have been participating in an open-ended hunger strike, which began on 27 September in protest against deteriorating prison conditions and a lack of basic rights in Israeli jails.

However, on Tuesday, prisoners announced that they had temporarily suspended their hunger strikes for three days after the Israeli Prison Service agreed to end solitary confinement policies.

Hunger strikers’ demands so far unrealized

In June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he was imposing harsher restrictions on Palestinian prisoners, due to the fact that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was still being held by Hamas in Gaza. It remains to be seen if these conditions will remain in place following Shalit’s release.

Now into their third week without food, the hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners are not only demanding an end to Israel’s use of solitary confinement, including that of Ahmad Saadat, general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), but also an end to acts of collective punishment, such as restrictions on access to education, family and lawyer visits, and healthcare.

“The Israeli authorities are dealing with them not as prisoners, but as people without rights, and they are using their situation for political reasons. After this exchange, I hope that things will improve in a good way, even if I have doubts because the Israelis have used this policy for so long; it’s not just in relation to Shalit,” Jabarin said.

In a statement released on 9 October, the Israeli Prison Service described the condition of the Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike as “satisfactory” and said that they are under daily medical supervision and have received visits by members of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Palestinian human rights groups, however, have reported that prisoners have been regularly denied lawyer visits and water, and that the Israeli prison authorities have beaten and attacked prisoners in an effort to stop the hunger strike.

“It’s a dangerous moment. There’s a danger to the prisoners’ lives. I think that if the Israelis continue to ignore their demands and their requests, the situation will maybe deteriorate not just in the prisons, but outside the prisons also. If someone dies, then the situation may deteriorate outside and the Israelis should be aware of that,” Jabarin said.

Back in East Jerusalem, Rawda Odeh said that despite the release of her son and the more than 1,000 other Palestinian prisoners, continuing to apply pressure on the Israeli authorities to improve prison conditions and to respect international law is crucial.

“I’m not on hunger strike for only my son; all the prisoners are my sons,” Odeh said.

“All the world knows the name of Shalit but they don’t know any names of our prisoners who are in jail, so I’m on hunger strike. I have two cancers, one in my breast and one in my liver. I have diabetes. I have many health problems but I decided to be with the prisoners. I’m supporting them because it’s my duty to be with them. We are in the same struggle and we’ll be together always.”

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