Since Israel began its military occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in 1967, it has imprisoned more than 800,000 Palestinians. It is, thus, no surprise that Palestinians have an annual day dedicated to Palestinian prisoners – 17 April.
Today, more than 6,000 Palestinians are being held in Israeli prisons, 356 of whom are children, 62 females and 427 administrative detainees held without charge or trial, according to Palestinian prisoner rights group Addameer.
MEMO spoke to Palestinian lawyer and human rights defender Shireen Issawi, who had worked with Palestinian prisoners providing legal assistance, and who has been imprisoned herself several times.
A Human Rights Defender
Issawi started working with prisoners in 2003, representing prisoners who had been sentenced to solitary confinement. “Some of these prisoners were sentenced to 10-12 years in solitary confinement and lacked adequate legal assistance,” Issawi told MEMO.
“I have wanted to become a lawyer and human rights defender since I was a child,” she said. Describing her motivations, she continued: “I enjoyed school scouts and camping as a child, but I was always aware of the political reality around me because it was my everyday life.”
“I witnessed the brutality of the occupation, the arrests, and night home raids when they would force us out in the cold without even our shoes on,” she added.
When I was a child, about five or seven years old, Israeli soldiers would often raid our home at night, putting a gun to my brothers’ heads and arresting them
she explained. “They would take them away when they were just 13 or 14 without informing us of their whereabouts, without giving us any information about what they were going to do with them, and without allowing my parents go with them.”
“All of this motivated me to work with prisoners and defend their rights, because I believed that they were the ones who resisted this brutal military occupation but at the same time had very little legal attention.”
Issawi had a special interest in working with female prisoners, particularly female minors and mothers, as she saw them as the most vulnerable and most in need of legal support. Working with Defence for Children International (DCI), Issawi was able to visit prisoners and file complaints on their behalf at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
“I would gather their testimonies about the abuse they face and all the violations of their rights and file formal complaints,” she said.
“My work is important and has made a difference,” she continued. “From what the prisoners told me, their day-to-day treatment by the prison administration and prison guards has improved.”
“When the Israeli authorities see that someone is paying attention and is working hard to stand up for the prisoners, it acts as a deterrent to their violations,” she added. “Of course I am unable to end all violations of their rights, but I worked to limit them.”
Issawi says that she has been criminalised because of her work representing Palestinian prisoners.
Accused of transferring messages to families, passing information and transferring funds between prisoners and political organisations, Issawi was sentenced to four years in Israeli jail in 2016, and was released early following an appeal in October last year after spending 43 months in prison.
The lawyer spent the majority of her sentence in solitary confinement as punishment. “I would be isolated in a cell which has nothing except a mattress to sleep on,” she told MEMO. “They would sometimes even take away the mattress from me to punish me.”
The cell has cameras installed everywhere, including over the toilet, she added. “I once went for two months without a shower because of the cameras,” she said. “I had no access to medication either, especially when I had just been beaten up by prison guards and suffered from a concussion.”
Issawi said that humiliation and medical neglect were very common in Israeli prisons, citing cases of other female prisoners who had suffered due to the lack of medical care. “Israa Ja’abis, Helwa Hamamra and Abla Al-Adam are some of those prisoners who are not receiving the necessary medical care that they need and I witnessed their health deteriorate very badly.”
Issawi was also denied family visits for the majority of her sentence as a form of punishment. While prisoners are normally entitled to 45-minute long family visits once every two weeks, many of the prisoners are denied these, either as punishment or for “security reasons”.
“When visitation is allowed, they would still give the families coming to visit their relatives in prison a hard time,” she continued. “The family must head out for the prison at 5:00am and then they let them wait outside in the cold for long periods of time before eventually allowing them in.”
“They humiliate them and their search is very invasive and provocative,” she added.
Describing the prisoner transfers to and from court as a form of torture, Issawi said they sometimes had to spend around 24 hours in a vehicle with blacked-out windows, sitting on extremely uncomfortable metal seats and without access to a toilet.
“The same goes for the waiting room in court,” she continued. “There are no toilets or windows in the waiting room.”
Issawi is not the only one in her family who has become acquainted with the inside of a prison cell. She is the sister of fellow prisoners Medhat, who is also a lawyer working with Palestinian prisoners, and Samer Issawi. She often served as the spokesperson for her brother Samer’s campaign during his lengthy hunger strike.
“We are a strong unified family,” Issawi said. “We love each other and take care of each other, and all these measures against my family make us even more committed to the cause because we know that every Palestinian is subject to arrest.”
“We are all a target,” she asserted.