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HomeFocusPrisoner No. 39: A Palestinian Woman’s Sufferings in Israeli Detention

Prisoner No. 39: A Palestinian Woman’s Sufferings in Israeli Detention

– Yusra Firdaus

Hanady Halawani, a 44-year-old Jerusalemite activist, recently released from an Israeli prison, provides a firsthand account of the worsening conditions that over 7000 Palestinians are compelled to endure.

Two days after Hamas rebels launched an unprecedented cross-border assault against Israel, Israeli troops on October 9 broke into her home in occupied East Jerusalem and took the mother of four into custody.

After 53 days of detention, Halawani and 14 other Palestinian women awaited release in the sixth round of a tense hostage-exchange deal between Israel and Hamas. On November 28, she was transferred from Damon Prison to Al Moscobiyeh in preparation for her release, grappling with doubt and hope as she awaited freedom for another 12 hours.

This is not just Halawani’s story but that of all Palestinian women detained by Israel. It narrates the resilience of Palestinian women in Gaza and the West Bank, who steadfastly fought for justice and freedom.

Halawani notes a heightened level of Israeli cruelty during the ongoing conflict. During her recent arrest in occupied East Jerusalem, she emphasizes that the situation differed significantly as it occurred during a state of war. Accompanied by her two children, 15-year-old son Hamza and 12-day-old daughter Alaa, Israeli forces invaded her home.

As a member of the Mourabitoun of Al Aqsa Mosque, Halawani has witnessed numerous Israeli atrocities. This group of Palestinian women is dedicated to protecting the holy grounds from violence by settlers and soldiers.

“(But) the search resembled more of vandalism than a lawful procedure, involving breaking and destroying everything in the house,” she claims.

“I was not allowed to wear my hijab, neither was my daughter. They spat on my face and cursed Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. They assaulted my daughter, targeting the site of her c-section. Her days-old infant was subjected to a thorough inspection. My son was also beaten.”

“Male officers used electric batons to beat, choke, and kick me. They even threatened me with rape. A female Israeli soldier ripped my Hijab off.”

After two intense days of interrogation in a different prison, Halawani was transferred to Damon jail. There, she anticipated being detained for a year and a day before a court decision was reached, following a challenging initial day at the interrogation centre. She remembers that there were 38 female inmates at Damon “when I arrived. I was designated the number 39 prisoner.”

Originally designed for 51 inmates, Damon Prison became a stark example of harsh reality. Halawani describes her overcrowded cell meant for eleven women but equipped with only six mattresses and thin blankets, forcing five of them to sleep on the floor.

Among the detainees were older and pregnant women, some in their 60s. Halawani notes, “But deciding who among us would sleep on the floor was not easy.” Already dealing with health issues like anemia, low blood pressure, and stiffness, the harsh conditions of confinement worsened Halawani’s condition.

The impact of detention is both psychological and physical, she says. “Anxiety is a result of being afraid of what the occupier can do to us and of potential threats. This anxiety manifests in our bodies and causes stomach pain and IBS.”

Halawani’s appeals for medication and medical attention were consistently turned down. “I was receiving treatment before, but they did not give me the medicine at all, under the pretext that my medication has a high percentage of anaesthetics and, therefore, not allowed in prison,” she explains.

Halawani’s story is just one illustration of the widespread medical negligence that occurs in Israeli jails.

“Until I got home, I still couldn’t believe I was free.”

“I was not even provided with clean water and sufficient or healthy food, let alone medication,” Halawani says.

Halawani asserts that the jail’s food was of extremely poor quality and nearly rotten. The prison authorities strictly regulated the food supply, bringing in meager amounts that were egregiously insufficient for the total number of inmates.

“Even though I had the right to at least a toothbrush, a small towel, and clothing, the prison administration didn’t give me anything,” Halawani recounts.

With no alternatives, Halawani sought help from fellow female inmates for cleaning supplies and clothing. Once prison officials discovered this, they forcefully confiscated everything from her cell, including food, cleaning supplies, clothes, and shoes.

The raids involved physical force, including tear gas, pepper spray, and fists. Subsequently, the government subjected the prisoners to solitary confinement as an additional form of punishment.

“Even though I was in the same pain as the other women, in those moments I felt like the strong one who could help them,” Halawani remembers. “Despite not being the oldest, I felt like a mother figure to others. My desire is to help the sick and scared, both the oldest and youngest among us.

“This collective feeling that our distress is one, that the oppression is one under an unjust prison keeper, made us feel like a family inside the prison cell, even though the occupation tried to isolate us from our families. This is the only beautiful thing I remember.”

In her 53-day detention, Halwani endured three instances of solitary confinement in cramped, unsanitary rooms reminiscent of a toilet. Palestinians in Israeli prisons regularly face systematic ill-treatment, daily humiliation, and both physical and psychological assault, coupled with the complete denial of basic necessities.

She discloses that she took comfort in her faith during this period of extreme seclusion.

“I spent my time in worship, engaging in daily and nightly prayers and fasting. I turned to God a lot.”

Despite the challenging circumstances, Halawani took on the role of teacher in prison. “One of the positive things I felt I accomplished is waking the girls up for prayers, especially the dawn prayer, since there are no clocks in prison. With my background as a Quran teacher, I taught a 64-year-old woman to read the Quran, guided other inmates in reciting its verses, and aided another woman in memorising passages.”

When asked what she anticipated most about freedom, Halawani responds unequivocally, “My family.”

During her lengthy detention, Halwani had no communication with her family. Judicial proceedings used video conferencing, and visits were prohibited. Her reunion with family, eagerly awaited, occurred in a peculiar setting.

Upon her release, Israeli troops cordoned off her occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood, surrounding her home. They kept family members at a distance, closed surrounding stores to suppress any welcome signs, and drove away reporters.

“I was surprised that a car from the occupation intelligence was waiting for me at the prison door. A policewoman in civilian clothes handcuffed me, even after my release,” Halawani recalls.

Upon arriving home, the Israeli policewoman climbed the stairs, rang the doorbell, and her children eagerly opened the door. “But I wasn’t allowed to hug them,” Halawani says.

Making sure no one was filming the event, the Israeli forces threatened to send her back to prison should she show happiness at her newfound freedom. “They led me from one intelligence officer to another, with threats not to appear in the media, not to make a statement, not to carry flags, or even to celebrate, whether small or large, in my home.”

“Released convicts and their families were subjected to a number of severe restrictions by the Israeli government, including being forbidden from giving interviews to the media, entertaining guests at home, and giving out candy on special occasions. These moments in which they tried to kill our family’s joy, the loneliness in the moment of being reunited with my family. These are also among the moments in which you are oppressed, forced not to express your happiness, even for a moment, when you meet your close family,” Halawani says.

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