By Johnny Barber
‘While you are in Gaza, please visit Gilad Shalit. He is the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped from outside Gaza 5 years ago, and has been held by Hamas without visits by anyone, including the Red Cross or Red Crescent, in violation of international law. I trust you are committed to human rights for all, and this small gesture should be quite easy to do as compared with the magnitude of arranging your flotilla. I look forward to seeing your video or photos or voice recording evidencing that Gilad is being treated well and is in good health.’
I thought about Shalit quite often as I traveled around Gaza. Though the writer of the email assumed I was unaware of the prisoner or his circumstance, it was not true. I knew he was just a teenager when captured. I knew he was a combatant- a gunner in a tank on the border of Gaza. I knew he was taken prisoner, not kidnapped.
I thought about the fear he faced as he was dragged from his tank 5 years ago, and his uncertain days imprisoned since then, days spent without family, without friends, without any contact with outside agencies. I tried to imagine the yearly landmarks; the birthdays, the anniversaries, the myriad dates and shared memories that mark our movement through life, passing without acknowledgement. I tried to imagine what his parents were going through, not knowing his condition or circumstance.
Even in Gaza, Shalit’s name comes up often. I attended the weekly demonstration of prisoners families held outside the ICRC every Monday. Mothers, fathers, wives, and children hold photos or posters of loved ones imprisoned in Israel for months, years, some for decades. A gentleman, recognizing I was from the U.S., said sarcastically, “Don’t these people know there is only one prisoner? His name is Shalit.”
Since 1967, 700,000 Palestinians have been “detained” by Israel. Currently 7000 people are imprisoned. 37 of them are women; over 300 of them are children.
When I visited the Ministry of Detainees in Gaza City I was challenged by the minister to name another region of the world where such a ministry was needed. The minister explained that this was an issue particular to Palestine because Israel imprisons so many people without charges and through military courts where evidence is hidden and trials are rigged. Many are convicted on coerced confessions. The minister’s position was that all prisoners, including Shalit, be treated with respect and dignity.
I was introduced to Umm Ahmed through Doa’a, a Ministry official who coordinates the weekly demonstrations at the ICRC. Umm Ahmed’s 19-year-old son, a university student, is imprisoned in Israel for just over a year. His story is not unique.
Ahmed was seriously injured during Operation Cast Lead in January 2009. Families near the buffer zone were given permission by the Israelis to leave their homes to get supplies. Umm Ahmed and her family were returning to their home. Half of the family members had come inside. Ahmed, and 3 cousins remained in the doorway when the drones were heard overhead, followed quickly by 2 missile strikes. Ahmed and one cousin were gravely injured, blasted into the alcove of the home. Ahmed’s abdomen was eviscerated, he had lost an eye and several fingers, and he was bleeding profusely from shrapnel wounds all over his body. No ambulances were in the area. Family members scooped up the broken bodies and rushed them to the hospital. On arrival, Umm Ahmed was told her son was dead.
Ahmed, despite his injuries, managed to cling to life. After emergency surgery he was transferred to the hospital in Al-Arish, Egypt where he underwent 10 surgeries in 10 months, including the removal of his pancreas, leaving him diabetic and dependant on insulin injections for the remainder of his life. On his return to Gaza, suffering from life threatening infections to his wounded arm and hand, the family sought additional treatment outside Gaza. It proved impossible to have him transferred to Europe, but after several attempts he received permission from Israel to travel to Jerusalem for the needed treatment.
On the day of his departure, November 25, 2009, his mother prepared food for him, adhering to a new diet specifically for diabetics. When he departed with his brother and father for Erez crossing, she followed him out the door, hugging him tightly. When she let go, she sensed something terrible was about to happen.
Shortly after 4pm when Ahmed, his brother and father reached Erez, Umm Ahmed received a call from her son, asking for Mohammed, the eldest brother. Umm Ahmed asked, “What is it? Is something wrong with Ahmed?” Her son hesitated then told her Ahmed had been taken at the crossing and was in Israeli custody.
The soldiers demanded that Ahmed and his father both strip naked. Ahmed, in his wheelchair, needed his father’s assistance to comply. Ahmed, though missing fingers on one hand and suffering from infections to his hand and elbow, was handcuffed and taken away. His father would not see him again. Ahmed’s father demanded Ahmed be released and allowed to return to Gaza. He was literally thrown out of the crossing and told to return to Gaza without his son. Without recourse, Ahmed’s father returned home.
Unlike Shalit who was taken by Palestinian fighters while on active duty in a tank on the Gaza border, the Israeli’s took Ahmed as he attempted to get treatment for wounds incurred at Israeli hands. Many Palestinians are ‘detained’, or perhaps my email writer’s term is more appropriate, ‘kidnapped’, by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, from their cars, or from their beds in the middle of the night, and taken to Israel. Although the transfer of detainees to locations within the occupying power’s territory is illegal under international law, all Palestinian prisoners are currently held in Israel.
Ahmed was held under investigation for 38 days as the Israeli’s tried to elicit a confession. Regardless of his injuries, he was blindfolded, handcuffed, and routinely denied his medications. He suffered through diabetic comas throughout the 38 days. He did not confess. He was found guilty of monitoring Israeli activities in the buffer zone and sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison.
Since Hamas won an electoral decision in 2006, family visitation rules were tightened. Since 2007 all Gaza families have been denied visitation. In December 2009, the Israeli Court ruled that the right to family visits in prison is not within the “Framework of the basic humanitarian needs of the residents of the Strip, which Israel is obligated to enable” and that there was no need for family visits since prisoners could obtain basic supplies through the prison canteen. So like gunner Shalit, 700 other families have been denied visitation with their sons, daughters and children.
Umm Ahmed is concerned that her son is receiving inadequate treatment for his diabetes. It has been regularly reported that security prisoners receive inadequate food- both in quality and quantity. Regarding medical care, the Israeli prison authority has adopted a policy of systemic negligence in all its facilities. Prisons are extremely understaffed by medical personnel and visits to a doctor can take weeks, with actual treatment taking months. For a prisoner suffering from diabetes this can be deadly. Ahmed also needs constant care to treat infections resulting from all the shrapnel wounds to his body. Upon his detention, Ahmed spent 3 months in the hospital as a result of his mistreatment. While hospitalized it was determined he needs an operation to control his diabetes. In order to get an operation, Ahmed must wait. Ar-Ramleh prison hospital has a limited number of beds. Because of his inadequate diet and medication regime (most ill and injured prisoners live on aspirin, painkillers, and tranquilizers), his health continues to deteriorate. Though the operation has not yet been scheduled, the family has already been notified that Ahmed will not be released from prison until the fees for the operation are paid in full.
When Ban Ki-Moon visited Gaza in March of 2010, Umm Ahmed and her husband met with him and explained the situation of their son. Because of this meeting and the negative publicity it triggered for Israel, the family has received only sporadic news of their son. For the last 5 months they have heard nothing. The parents are anxiously awaiting word of their son.
I left Gaza without managing a visit with Shalit. But I left with the knowledge of thousands of Gilad Shalits in Israeli prisons. Many, like Ahmed, have no involvement in military operations. They were not dragged from their tanks, but were dragged from their cars, dragged from their beds, even dragged from their wheelchairs. Hundreds are children. They too, deserve basic humanitarian considerations. They too, deserve to be treated with decency and their health maintained. Their families also deserve answers and consideration. Shalit may be the only prisoner Americans have heard of, but he is not alone.
– Johnny Barber has traveled to Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria & Gaza to bear witness and document the suffering of people who are affected by war. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit: www.oneBrightpearl-jb.blogspot.com.