|Talal Shreim reunited with his mother after serving 10 years in Israeli prisons [Mohammad Alsaafin/ Al Jazeera]|
Talal Shreim could not stop beaming as he sat in his new living room in Doha, Qatar, finally surrounded by his family after having spent 10 years in an Israeli jail.
Less than 24 hours before, he was able to hug Tasneem, his 10-year-old daughter, for the first time since his incarceration, having only been able to watch her grow up through a glass window during sporadic and arbitrary 45 minute visitation periods.
Two months ago, 477 Palestinians were released from Israeli jails as part of a prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel, whereby a total of 1,027 Palestinians would be exchanged for one Israeli soldier who has been held in Gaza since 2006. On Sunday, Israel is expected to release the remaining 550 Palestinians in order to complete the deal.
Shreim was one of the 40 prisoners deported from the occupied territories in the first swap; a condition set by Israel for those they considered to be a security threat. He had been charged with being a member of Hamas’ political wing, and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Israel continues to violate basic human rights and international conventions by preventing family members from visiting the prisoners.
According to a 2006 publication by rights group, B’Tselem, “Israel’s arbitrary and disproportionate policy not only infringes the right to family visits, it also results in violation of other rights and principles of international humanitarian and human rights law, as well as domestic Israeli law.”
Addameer, a human rights organisation focused on the issue of Palestinian prisoners, states that Israel “practices collective punishment against the Palestinian families who visit their sons and daughters in Israeli jails”, especially through the transferal of prisoners from the occupied territories, to jails inside Israel.
“Due to internal and external closure imposed over the [Occupied Palestinian Territories], Palestinian families must get permits in order to visit prisons inside Israel. Such permits are cancelled during political crises. Many people cannot get such permits under security threats,” the organisation stated.
“[Talal’s] absence leaves the mother with such a huge responsibility; raising the kids, finding money for them, and so forth,” Um Motasim, Shreim’s wife explained to Al Jazeera. “I was banned from visiting my husband for security reasons. I was only allowed to see him once, twice a year maximum.”
As Shreim explained, visits are technically speaking, allowed every two weeks. The reality however, is drastically different. “My daughters were allowed to visit every two weeks as long as they were under 16,” he said. “After 16, it was much more difficult. The wives, not just my wife but most wives, had a very difficult time getting permissions to visit.”
The journey the family had to take was exhausting. It would not be unusual for a round trip from their home in the West Bank to take 15 hours, which would include Israeli check points, security checks, searches, and delays.
Visiting their family members became a lifestyle for the girls. At one point, every weekend would be spent trying to visit someone, as all three of their brothers were in prison, as well as their father.
“We would visit our father once, then our brothers next. So we would have to choose who we to visit. Other times we’d split up; some of us would visit our brothers, and the others would visit our dad,” said Shreim’s 19-year-old daughter Duaa. “Travelling [to visit] was very difficult; so many searches, so many stops, interrogations.”
“I was accused of being a member of Hamas, but it was because of whom my dad was,” his son, 25-year-old Mohammad told Al Jazeera with a resigned shrug, when asked why he was arrested. “We always knew that because of who our father was and because we were religious, we’d be arrested.”
For Duaa, one of the harsher repercussions was that the girls were forced to fend for themselves. “The hardest part of my dad being in prison was that my mom was alone and had to provide for us alone and take care of us alone,” she said. “With my brothers also in prison, we had to find ways to pay our bills, to pay for school. As girls, it was really hard because we had nobody to protect us or stand up for us. It was lonely.”
‘They terrify me, those dogs’
Shreim’s mother, Um Talal, a small, frail woman, told Al Jazeera about a particularly frightening incident she was forced to endure when visiting her son.
As they were nearing the prison, the prison officers forced her to enter a room. “I went in, scared,” she said, shuffling the worry beads between her fingers.
“They terrify me, those dogs,” she said of the Israelis, adding that fear always kept her awake the night before a prison visit.
She sat in the room for a long time, but nobody would come and talk to her. Eventually everyone left, leaving her on her own. “I began calling and screaming, asking them what they wanted from me,” she recalled. Eventually a female prison guard came to the window and ordered her into another room. “Then she made me strip, asking me if I had a bomb. They made me take off all my clothes.”
The prison officer ordered her to put her clothes back on and let her go. “At the entrance to the prison, they searched us again,” Um Talal said.
“They terrify me so much, but I would never stop going.”
That ordeal had consequences, not just on Um Talal, but on her son too. Once he found out what happened to his mother, Shreim, enraged, told the other prisoners, who in turn vocalised their anger.
“I was accused of instigating trouble, and send to the solitary wing for six years,” he said.
The solitary wing consists of a room measuring three metres by 1.5 metres, shared with one other prisoner. It also meant no interaction whatsoever with other inmates apart from those also in solitary confinement during the daily exercise period.
The solitary wing is designed to cut off these particular prisoners from the rest of the prison population, so for most of the day, every day it was just Shreim and his cellmate.
“There is barely room to stand. In the solitary wing you can’t see your children,” said Shreim. “All because I was upset at the way they had treated my elderly mother.”
Life on the run
Prior to his arrest, Shreim was forced to go into hiding. Between 1988 and 2001, he was never out of detention for more than a few months, and even when he was released, he was forced to “live on the run”. For his family, the period he was on the run was more difficult to live with than when he was in prison.
“When he was on the run, [the Israelis] would come to our house all the time,” said Um Talal. “The soldiers would come in, turn the place upside down, smash things, round up everyone in the building. It was so scary.”
“The soldiers would come in, turn the place upside down, smash things, round up everyone in the building. It was so scary.“
– Um Talal
“Let me tell you, prison was easier on us than him being on the run,” she insisted.
“When he was on the run, it was hard on us, as the brothers, the men of the house,” said Mohammad, explaining that they had to adopt the role and duties of their father. “If something happened at home that he needed to know about, as a son, the instinct is to find your dad and let him know. That was impossible.”
There was no way of getting in touch with their father either, as they never knew where he was. The reasoning behind this was that the less they knew of his whereabouts, the less they would be forced to reveal.
“Of course when the Israeli army would raid the house, they would try to get information from us on him, but because we had no information we couldn’t be of any use for them,” Mohammad said. “Even when we were younger and scared, and they would beat us, I couldn’t tell them where my dad was, because I had no idea.”
“Especially when we were younger, any information at all could have been useful to them without us realising.”
For Shreim, the hardship he and his family have had to endure is not unusual in the occupied territories. “Our lives are just a microcosm of the suffering of the entire Palestinian people,” he said.