|Of 1,027 freed Palestinian prisoners, 40 were deported and forced to start their lives all over again [REUTERS]|
Hazem Asili, from the West Bank, was 25 years old when he was jailed by Israel in 1986. Abdelhakim Hnaini, also from the West Bank, was 27 years old when he was incarcerated in 1993. On October 11, a deal was brokered exchanging 1,027 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured in 2006 by Hamas. Asili and Hnaini are among the 15 of these prisoners who were deported to Qatar as part of the swap deal.
In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, the two men talk about their treatment in Israeli prisons, and what it feels like to finally be free.
Al Jazeera: Can I ask what you were charged with?
Asili: I was charged with being a member of a cell that blew up a bus in 1983, and with cooperating with another cell that attacked troops from Israel’s Givati Brigade in 1986.
Hnaini: My charge was that I was a member of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and [participated in] some military activity.
AJ: And your sentences?
Hnaini: Both of us were sentenced to life in prison.
AJ: Can you tell us a bit about the difficulties you faced in prison?
Asili: The worst is when you feel that the jailer wants to break you, to remove your own sense of humanity, to relegate you to a mere object. That’s the life we were living, fighting that battle 24 hours a day. For me personally, the most demeaning were the repeated strip searches. The security excuse is false and we all know it. Searching us while we are forced to be naked has nothing to do with security. It’s all about breaking our will. That is the worst form of torment.
The suffering was compounded by the severe limits on who could visit me, [only] my closest relatives. It is so hard to live for so many years without ever meeting my nieces or nephews. These are my basic family members, people very dear to me, but they were not allowed to visit me. Obviously these restrictions have nothing to do with security. My 10-year-old niece visiting me in jail does not pose a security risk to anyone.
On top of all that, the Israeli still portrays himself as the humanist. They come, take over our land, control every aspect of our lives, our movement, what we build, what we learn … and then insist that they have this right. That mindset is recreated exactly in prison.
” Imagine living in a cell with 16 prisoners, where they can barely stand next to each other to pray. After a while, this becomes normal. It just becomes part of our life.. “
– Abdelhakim Hnaini
Hnaini: I want to add that there are some details, for people like me and Abu Jaber [Asili], abuses after all these years just become a part of our daily routine. We almost forget that this stuff is not normal. When we tell people on the outside, it shocks them.
For example, imagine living in a cell with 16 prisoners, where they can barely stand next to each other to pray. After a while, this becomes normal. It just becomes part of our life.
My brother, I’ve seen him twice in the last 15 years for “security considerations”. He’s never been arrested for anything. My mother is 75. She’s not allowed to visit me for security reasons. My father is 80. He’s not allowed to visit me for security reasons.
There is another aspect; the lack of healthcare. One of our brothers who was freed, Ahmad al-Najjar, has cancer of the throat. He’d go to the prison clinic, over and over again, and the prison doctor would always tell him he just has an infection.
One of our brothers spent 10 years in prison suffering from cancer until he was in the final stages. They sent him home to die, and he is dying in a hospital in Bethlehem now.
Of course, we’re all cramped together in cells, so skin diseases can spread easily. They won’t treat us until someone is close to dying. Imagine living in a cell with your cellmate dying in front of your eyes every day because of the lack of healthcare. That by itself is such severe suffering. But this is something we’ve gotten used to. Yet when I tell people on the outside, they barely believe us.
Let me tell you about solitary confinement. I’ve been in the solitary cell. It is exactly 1.8 metres long, with a bench to sleep on, right next to a small toilet. The area was so small that we could barely kneel in prayer. And sometimes they’d put two of us in that cell.
So these details, these are things we almost forget are not normal.
You’ve spent 19 and 25 years in these conditions, continuously confined to these small spaces. How does it feel to be suddenly free?
Hnaini: So my brother called me, asked me where I am. I told him I’m lost! I’m lost in this big Centre City thing [City Centre Mall, in Doha, Qatar]. It’s like going from hell to a heaven. If you haven’t experienced prison, you can’t imagine what it’s like. Prison is a grave. It feels like a proper grave and being released really feels like being born again.
On TV in prison once, on one of the Israeli channels, we watched a programme about prisons in Scandinavia, a documentary of sorts. We, the prisoners in Israeli jails, were watching and laughing. Viewers were supposed to feel sorry for the prisoners in Scandinavian jails. They should come see how we live in their jails.
Asili: That’s another form of psychological abuse, it could be intentional. Again to show us that we are not worthy of being compared to humans.
Hnaini: Before you move on, there’s one thing I want to tell you about, sort of an institution of Israeli prisons. It’s called the “bosta”, the trip from jail to jail or jail to hospital. Well, it’s a stretch to call it a hospital, it’s a prison with the most basic medical facilities.
Asili: They put so many obstacles on the way to getting treatment that in the end, you prefer to stay ill in prison rather than go to this “hospital”.
Hnaini: Let me tell you how we suffer. They put us in a van, basically a metal box, with metal chairs. There’s a small fan in the ceiling for circulation, just enough to ensure we don’t suffocate. There will be 25 people cramped in the back. Sick people, with their hands and legs chained. Imagine – in a metal box with our limbs chained. It has got nothing to do with security. It’s racism. They just want us to suffer. The distance would usually take one or two hours. But they make us stay in this box for 15 hours. I am not exaggerating. The point is that when you’re sick the next time and go to the prison doctor and he says he’ll transfer you to this hospital, you end up saying no, I’d rather stay where I am. And he makes you sign a document to that effect, so that if you die, he is not liable. Because I would die 20 times on that journey.
You’ve been in jail since the mid-80s and early 90s.
Asili: Yes. Before the internet [laughs].
Hnaini: We only know how to use call and end on mobile phones [laughs].
Were you ever able to use phones inside?
Asili: No, no of course not.
Hnaini: A few of the prisoners managed to smuggle in a phone. They need to break the rules to overcome their racist rules that ban prisoners from contact with their families. Imagine, since Shalit was captured, all the Gaza prisoners have not been allowed to have any contact with their families. This is contrary to international law. It’s also punishing the families.
So they’re banned from even calling their families?
Hnaini: Of course. Here’s a story for you. The prisoners in the Naqab prison were able to smuggle in a few mobile phones. Using one of the phones, they took a picture of five or six prisoners in their cell, preparing a stuffed chicken for dinner. One of the guys used his phone to upload the picture online. Imagine this: the phones were confiscated, the image published in Israeli media, the prisoner who uploaded the picture was charged with “incitement” and sent to solitary confinement for four months, a new rule was introduced that we would not be allowed to buy a whole chicken to cook. Imagine the absurdity.
What pushed you to do what you did?
Asili: To me, it’s natural. Nobody comes and takes away all your rights and you sit and accept that, unless you also believe that he is better than you. And in their ideology, they do believe that they are better than us, and we have to accept that. But nobody told me, and that is why I rebelled against them. They take my land and believe they are better than me, they don’t even see us as equals.
I challenge Israelis to treat us as equals. To give us the same social and political benefits they give Jews. To give me, someone who belongs to this land, the same treatment they give someone from Russia or from somewhere else with absolutely no connection to this land.
“Treat me as an equal, give me what you give yourselves, and I’ll be more than happy to coexist and stop fighting. Give me the right to elect and be elected, and we’ll all give up arms. I challenge them.. “
– Hazim Asili
Treat me as an equal, give me what you give yourselves, and I’ll be more than happy to coexist and stop fighting. Give me the right to elect and be elected, and we’ll all give up arms. I challenge them.
Hnaini: I want to add something very important. We do not hate Jews. We do not hate Jews for their religion. We hate the occupier. Why are Qataris here walking around in security and safety without carrying guns? They aren’t occupied. Why do the French walk around without arms? They aren’t occupied.
Asili: But the French did carry arms. When they were occupied, they resisted. But for us, it’s even worse. When the French were occupied, the world stood with them and their fight. But we’re occupied and the world stands with our occupier. Not only are we occupied, but they want to take away our dignity. They want to label my right to fight oppression as terror, and to label his occupation as law and ethics.
Hnaini: If we were not occupied, we would never fight. We want peace and safety, but the occupier won’t give it to us. We don’t dream of fighting. We dream of living at home, in peace.