Prison experience as a normal part of life

An interview with an inhabitant of the Balata Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Nablus

According to the International Red Cross (ICRC), approximately 8,500 inhabitants of the occupied Palestinian territories — among them more than a hundred women and almost 500 children — sit for “security reasons” in Israeli jails. ICRC found in a 1999 survey that almost half of all men below 40 years have been in Israeli prisons, many of them several times. Prison experience is no exception out here, it’s the norm. Many detainees are charged with throwing stones, intentions undermining the security of the Israeli state, armed resistance and other excuses made up by the Israeli regime. In the following interview, a recently released prisoner from Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus — the largest camp in the occupied West Bank — talks about his experiences and the difficulties that one faces during and after imprisonment.

Ray Smith: You’ve been in several Israeli prisons, Mohammad. What did you do before you were taken there?

Mohammad: I was supposed to have a good job in Ramallah at the Tourism Ministry. I have a certificate in tourism and hotel management from Jordan. The day I got arrested at Huwara checkpoint, I was supposed to go to Ramallah for the first day of work, but ended up in jail for 19 months.

Ray Smith: At this time, your family lived as well in Palestine, in Balata Refugee Camp. What did they do after you were arrested?

Mohammad: I was the only one who had a job and could earn money for the family. My brothers are small, so after I was arrested there was no one who could pay the rent for the home. Because of that they went back to Jordan, where we came from after Oslo.

Ray Smith: What about your parents? Where do they come from?

Mohammad: They now live again in Jordan, in Hittin Camp. My father comes from here [Balata Camp], but was imprisoned in 1971. The Israeli authorities kicked him out of the country to Jordan, not allowing him to come back. After he recovered from all the diseases he got in jail, he married my mother, who is from here.

We lived in a refugee camp in Jordan. Every time my mother gave birth she came with the baby to Palestine to get them an identity card. She always returned, because my father was not allowed to come here. In the year 2000, the Israeli authorities allowed my father (in the framework of family reunion) to come here and finally issued him with an identity card. The same day he returned after 30 years, my hips were injured. A serious case - it cut my nerves. My father couldn’t live here and went back to Jordan after a few months.

Ray Smith: Where is your family originally from?

Mohammad: There’s a region called “’48” [also called “Israel”]. We come from Jaffa.

Ray Smith: You were talking about your injury. What exactly happened?

Mohammad: There was a demonstration in Al-Quds Street [above Balata Camp]. A tank started shooting at the marchers without reason. The demonstration was not violent. I was walking with them and was injured in my hips.

Ray Smith: You had serious problems afterwards. What did you do?

Mohammad: The Health Ministry here sent me to Jordan to get medical aid there. After that I came back here. The treatment was useless. I tried physiotherapy, without any use too. There was a doctor from Germany, who came here and told me that I had to urgently — within two months — have surgery on my leg. They put some plastic in my leg, but my foot wasn’t moving. The doctor wrote a report about my case and I gave it to the Ministry of Health here. They sent the report to Austria, which let me have the operation there. They have good medical aid, hospitals and doctors there. So I had the surgery there and my leg got better. But I still needed physiotherapy and perhaps another operation here. I didn’t know, since there is no specialist for nerve injuries here.

Ray Smith: How long where you in prison? When and why did they release you?

Mohammad: I stayed in jail for about 19 months. That was in Askelan (Ashkelon), Megiddo and in Al-Nakab (Ketziot). They sent me there because I had a friend who was wanted. He came to my flat and stayed in my home - because he was my friend. They [the Israelis] said that I gave him shelter, because he was sleeping in my home for one or two nights. Actually he was my neighbor too, he lived in the neighborhood. Because of that, they sentenced me to about 30 months. But because of an agreement between Egypt and Israel [the “Azzam Azzam case”], they released me earlier.

Ray Smith: What are you planning to do after your time in prison? How is your life now and how is it going to be?

Mohammad: Of course my injury and the prison took a lot of time away from my life. I’m 26 now. I was supposed to continue my studies when I was 21. But now I’m 26, but without… I’m homeless now! I don’t have a home. I will stay in my grandfather’s house until I can manage myself.

Of course I’m planning to study, but you know, it needs money. I need a home, I need everything. Because I’m new, I just got released a month ago. And the reality is very, very hard. There’s more poverty here, more than in many places of this world. So, I’m planning to study, but I have many problems.

Ray Smith: I heard you recently had difficulties when you were trying to register for the next semester at university. What exactly was the problem?

Mohammad: There’s a rehabilitation system in the Ministry of Prisoners in the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority told me that I had to get a paper from the Red Cross [ICRC] saying that I’m released from the jail. I went there, but they told me that they had to wait for the lists coming from the Israeli authorities, the administration for the jails, and therefore I would have to wait maybe one or two months. But the university required me to register within a few days. I told the Red Cross that I’m here, that I got released… they said they can’t deal with this stuff, that they’re only dealing with papers, documents and things like that. Without the required paper, I would have to pay a lot of money, but having the paper gives me a discount of 50 per cent on what I have to pay to the university.

Ray Smith: In general, what experiences did you have with the Red Cross while you where in prison? What experiences did your family have?

Mohammad: The Red Cross is… The people in the world think that the Red Cross is working well. But… the Red Cross came to the prison every 1 or 2 months. They’re sitting in the prisoner’s section, talking to the people. That’s okay, but there are many sick people in the jail. They didn’t provide them with the medicine they needed. I know many such cases.

Talking about me, I had the problem in my leg. They couldn’t help in any way to benefit my leg. I needed physiotherapy. They had the power, but didn’t use it with the administration of the jail.

There were many accidents happening in the jail. They didn’t talk with the administration about these things or do anything to prevent such accidents happening in the jail. I know people who had a stroke, and some of them died because the doctor came too late. One of them — he was young, 28 — had to wait for one hour or half an hour, but died in the meantime.

Ray Smith: What do you think the role of the Red Cross should be concerning prisoners? What do you expect from them when you’re in prison?

Mohammad: At least the Red Cross should put the prisoners’ case into the media and discuss what the prisoners need. You know, in the central prisons, the guards hit the prisoners, search and strip them. It’s a problem. In Megiddo and Ketziot there are many sick people. The food, especially the meat, is very little, too. It’s a problem. There are not enough blankets there as well. They need more blankets because they live in tents. Concerning the visitors, many visitors are forbidden to be visited by their families - because of “security reasons”. It’s a problem.

Ray Smith: How do you think about the experiences you made in prison?

Mohammad: The situation is very difficult, but we have books there. It’s good that you can think and read. You are suffering there. Because you are suffering there, you feel like many humans in the world, all the prisoners. So it’s good. Of course it’s a very difficult situation for any human being, especially for patients like me or for old people. There are even children in prison. But we improved ourselves by reading and analysing politics. It’s an organized life in prison. You can organize yourself, wake up early, read, eat, watch television and do everything alone.

Ray Smith: Do you think things in your life change now through these experiences?

Mohammad: I don’t blame myself because I gave shelter to my friend - because he’s my friend. And my home is in Palestinian Authority area. So, nobody can tell me who I can accept or refuse as a guest in my home. This is my home, this is my method. I don’t blame myself. The things that changed? Nothing changed! But I once more realized that the Israeli authorities are unfair.

Ray Smith: How do you think that the Palestinian society in general is affected by the prison experience?

Mohammad: You know, the prisoner’s issue is not a humanitarian case. It’s a political case. We have our rights, and all the countries in the world and the United Nations agree that we have rights. There were decisions about that, about the refugees, about the right to decide about our destiny, about our state, about everything. So, it’s a political case, not a humanitarian. We are not criminals! We are political prisoners! And we ask the world for justice.

Ray Smith is a pseudonym.