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‘They Tried to Freeze Me to Death’: Torture and Resistance in Israeli Prisons

October 29, 2020 at 10:00 am

Mohammad Ibrahim Ali al-Deirawi and his wife Ghadeer

Mohammad Ibrahim Ali al-Deirawi was born on January 30, 1978 in Nuseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. His family is originally from Bir Al-Saba’, an ethnically cleansed Palestinian town located in the southern Naqab desert. Mohammad was arrested by the Israeli army at a military checkpoint in central Gaza on March 1, 2001. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his role in the armed Palestinian resistance, and was freed on October 18, 2011 in a prisoner exchange between the Palestinian resistance and Israel.

Mohammad’s interrogation commenced as soon as he arrived at the Central Asqalan (Ashkelon) Prison in southern Israel, where he experienced physical and psychological torture for nearly two and a half months. He was handed his sentence by an Israeli military court on March 20, 2003.

As soon as he was released from the Nafha Prison, 100 kilometers north of Bir Al-Saba’, he married Ghadeer, the beautiful and only daughter of his prison-mate, Majdi Hammad. Ghadeer and Mohammad have two children.

Majdi Hammad was born on March 20, 1965 in the Jabaliya refugee camp, the most crowded and dilapidated of all of Gaza’s refugee camps, and the birthplace of the First Palestinian Intifada, the popular uprising of 1987. Hammad’s family originated from the ethnically cleansed village of Barbara, in southern Palestine.

Majdi was the youngest of two brothers and one sister, Fathi, Akram and Fayza. Majdi was raised mostly by his mother, Farida, known for her strong religious principles, strong character and leadership in the community.

Majdi was arrested several times, the last and longest of his prison terms being in 1991. Then, he was sentenced to 624 years in prison for his leadership role in the armed resistance and, particularly, in the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Hamas organization. When he was arrested and imprisoned, his wife, Nahla, was still pregnant with his daughter, Ghadeer.

Majdi was released alongside Mohammad and hundreds of other prisoners in October 2011, but died soon after, on March 18, 2014, from heart disease that was left untreated for years while in Israeli prisons.

Ghadeer means small stream.

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I have never imagined that Ghadeer could ever be my wife. She was a teenage girl when I first saw her, as she accompanied her mother to the Nafha Prison to visit her father, Majdi Hamad. That was in 2002. Her dad is one the toughest men you will ever meet, solid as a rock against his enemies, but so gentle and kind to his comrades.

I was in solitary confinement when I first met him. I saw him through the small flap door of my cell. He was being dragged into his cell in the underground dungeon of Nafha by a number of armed guards. They were hitting and kicking him everywhere and, despite his shackles, he fought back like the lion he was. His face was covered in blood. I did not know what to think of him at the time.

Majdi looked familiar, although I did not recognize him immediately. In fact, at the time, I thought he could have been in prison for one criminal offense or another, and sentenced to isolation for violent behavior against other criminals. But, later that evening, I heard him make the call for prayer. His voice was shaken and tired, but still confident and warm. “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar”—“God is Great, God is Great” —he announced the evening prayer. I stood up, washed and prayed in my cell. For days after that, I kept hearing his voice reading Quranic verses from memory. It was uplifting to hear a familiar voice, to be reminded that everything happens for a reason, and that, in the end, it will all make sense, since every trial and challenge in this life is the will of God.

Luckily for me, Majdi’s cell was adjacent to mine. A few days after his arrival, I gathered my courage, drew as close as I could to the shared wall and asked him: “What is your name and why are you here?” He replied: “What is yours and why are you here?”

I told him. “I am Mohammad Ibrahim Ali al-Deirawi and I am from Gaza, and I am imprisoned for joining the armed resistance.” He said that he, too, was from Gaza and that he was imprisoned for being a member of the resistance. But it was only when he said his name that I knew that he was no ordinary fighter. Majdi was a legend in Gaza for years, since he had formed the first martyrs’ underground cell in the late 1980s, then become one of the leaders of the Qassam Brigades in the early ‘90s. He was sentenced to hundreds of years in prison, but he never gave up hope that he would, one day, be free. Despite the horrific physical torture he endured, he admitted to nothing. He did not concede a single name or any useful information, thus giving other fighters the chance to take necessary measures to avoid arrest or assassination.

As for myself, I spent nearly 11 years in prison, nine of them in the same section in Nafha with Majdi. Over the years, he grew from being a friend to an older brother, even a father figure to me. I loved him dearly. If it were not for Majdi, I do not know how I would have coped with my life in my underground dungeon.

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Before I was brought to Nafha, I endured several long bouts of torture, each extending for 55 hours at a time. They had me stand blindfolded in the same position for 12 hours at a time. They placed me in a refrigerator-like room and kept lowering the temperature until I thought I was going to die from cold. They took shifts beating me. They tied me to an intentionally unstable chair for many hours. They placed a filthy bag on my head for long hours, leaving me gasping for breath, thinking that I would suffocate at any moment.

I was 23 at the time of my arrest. True, I was young, but I was mentally prepared for any eventuality. I had seen enough pain and suffering in my life that would have prepared me for a lot worse. I lost nearly 20 kilograms (approximately 45 pounds) during the initial torture stage, which lasted for 71 days, straight. Not only did they fail to break me; I reached a point where I simply decided not to acknowledge the existence of my interrogators. I told the officers who questioned me under constant duress: “I don’t see you”. They were baffled and kept yelling in my face to answer their questions, but I kept repeating: “I don’t see you”. All of their beating could not make me stop.

My interrogation commenced the day I was detained, on March 1, 2001. After that, I spent two years waiting for the verdict, which was handed down by an Israeli military court on March 20, 2003. I was sentenced to 30 years in prison. After announcing his decision, the judge asked me: “Do you wish to apologize for what you have done?”

“I have nothing to apologize for,” I replied, with my head held high. “I will never apologize for resisting the occupation, defending my people, fighting for my stolen rights. But you need to apologize, and those who demolish homes while their owners are still inside are the ones who must apologize. Those who kill children, occupy land and commit crimes against unarmed, innocent people, are the ones who need to apologize.” He did not like my answer and shouted at me to stop, but I would not.

I spent most of my time in prison in Nafha and much of it in isolation. Most of those who were with me in the same section were from Gaza. There were about 30 of us. As soon as Majdi joined us, he became our leader and protector. He helped organize our efforts, allowing us to speak with one voice. He was funny when he needed to be, and tough when the situation called for it. He was a true leader.

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Prisoners from Gaza received their visitations on the same day. It was then that I met Majdi’s family. When Majdi was first detained, his wife was still pregnant with Ghadeer, their firstborn and only child at the time. He watched her grow up slowly from behind thick glass, while handcuffed to a wall, unable to hold or kiss her. He spoke so much about Ghadeer, of the life he wished for her. He said that he would hold on just to be united with her some day. Majdi always wished to have a big family. It reminded him of life in Palestine before the entire Hammad clan was ethnically cleansed from their village, Barbara. Life was good back then, for all of our people, and Majdi was determined to, someday, return to his original village.

In the last few years of his stay at Nafha, Majdi was continually falling ill.  He collapsed more than once while gripping his chest, but the prison administration kept telling him that he suffered from acid reflux. They kept feeding him pills to treat his stomach acid, but his situation worsened with time. It hardly helped that he was severely beaten whenever he stood up for himself or for one of us.

When we learned that we were about to be released as part of a prisoner exchange between the resistance in Gaza and Israel, we were elated. We hugged each other but tried to contain our joy, as we were also deeply saddened for our comrades that we were leaving behind. Majdi had spent more time in prison than I had, nearly 20 years.

When we left prison, we went to Mecca together to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. I wanted to get married and start a family, and he wanted to expand his. But, months later, Majdi realized that his ailment was more serious than previously thought. He was diagnosed with heart disease, a condition that he had endured unknowingly for years in prison. Medical negligence of Palestinian prisoners is all too common in Israeli prisons. By the time doctors in Jordan informed Majdi that he would not survive surgery, and that he should spend the remaining days with his family, he had another child, Mu’tasim, and his wife was pregnant with a third. He had resolved to call him Mohammad.

During that time, a mutual friend suggested that I ask Majdi for his daughter’s hand in marriage. I chuckled. I told him Ghadeer was still a teenager. “A teenager in 2002,” he said. “Ten years have passed since then, Mohammad.”

For us prisoners, time stands still.

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It took me a while to imagine that the young teenage girl was all grown up and could possibly be the mother of my children. Later, I sent my mother and sister to ask Majdi and his wife for Ghadeer’s hand. Majdi called me the same day. “I could not ask for someone better than you to marry my daughter,” he said. When I went to their home in the northern town of Beit Lahia, Ghadeer had broken her leg just two days earlier. She was limping, with a large cast on her leg. I told myself: “I better avoid looking at the cast so as not to make her nervous and just keep looking at her face”. She was beautiful and had a kind face. She told me, months after we were married, that, when she first saw my face, she was afraid of me. Maybe it was because of my bushy beard or rough demeanor. But, then, she said, when she saw me conversing with her dad softly, as if I were his younger brother, she immediately decided to accept my proposal.

On the day we agreed to the marriage terms, Majdi hugged me and cried. Then, I cried. I asked him: “What is it about us, Majdi? We cry when we are sad and we cry when we are happy; we cry when we are in prison and when we are free.” Then, we all laughed. Soon after my marriage to Ghadeer, Majdi died. I watched him in his last moments hugging his son and Ghadeer. I kissed his forehead and told him not to worry, that his family was now mine and that I would do my best to carry on with his proud legacy for as long as I live.

Now that Majdi is gone, I love Ghadeer ten times more. I feel a great sense of responsibility towards his family, which is now my family. His son, Mohammad, is now like my own son. I called one of my two boys Majdi, after my best friend. I draw strength from Majdi’s memory. He helped me cope with the harshness of prison life and his legacy helps me cope with life outside.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.