‘Threatened with rape’: Lama Khater recalls horrors while in Israeli jails

The 47-year-old writer says verbal, physical abuse prominent against prisoners in Israeli jails following October 7.

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Ex-prisoner Lama Khater [Mosab Shawer/Al Jazeera]

Hebron, occupied West Bank – Lama Khater sits quietly, ready to talk but seemingly exhausted. The mother of five’s face is pale and her lips dry, but an air of relief hangs around her.

The 47-year-old had just been released from prison at the end of November, part of the sixth batch of Palestinian prisoners Israel released in exchange for Israeli captives released from Gaza by Hamas.

Khater had been in prison for about a month, an exceptionally painful one, it seemed. She was one of hundreds of Palestinians who had been arrested after the October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas and the ensuing Israeli assault on Gaza that has killed more than 23,000 Palestinians there to date.

After Israeli forces stormed her home in Hebron and arrested her, she was shuttled from one detention centre to the other, unsure of what she was charged with or what would happen to her next.

Dirty and cramped

A writer and journalist who has covered crimes and violations committed by the Israeli occupation – and who has been in Israeli jails herself – Khater found herself subjected to pain and indignities all over again.

She had been detained in the past for 13 months but said her detention after October 7 was “incomparable” to the previous jail time.

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Writer Lama Khater with four of her children, clockwise from left, Yaman, Osama, Bissan and Yahya [Mosab Shawer/Al Jazeera]

“Handcuffed” with plastic zip ties that dug painfully into her wrists, Khater was thrown on the floor of the army jeep and taken to the Kiryat Arba settlement camp.

She could not see the face of her husband Hazem al-Fakhouri or her five terrified children – Osama, 26, Bissan, 23, Yaman, 18, Izz al-Din, 15, and Yahya, 7 – as she was driven away.

Her interrogation began in Kiryat Arba, and during the first session, the Israeli officers threatened her with rape, among other things, she said.

“They threatened to kill me, my family, burn my house down,” Khater recalled.

They also, she added, threatened to deport her to Gaza and more, telling her that she was a prisoner of war and they could do whatever they wanted.

From there, Khater was moved for four days to Hasharon Prison, where she was held with five other Palestinian women in a tiny cell built for one prisoner and “extremely dirty”, she said.

They did not have access to water to clean the cell either, she added, explaining that their water supply was cut off for eight hours a day.

There was so little room that the six women had to take turns to sit and sleep.

After Hasharon, she was moved to Damon Prison in northern Israel, where she was strip-searched and insulted. She also saw other prisoners being “badly beaten”.

Missing her family, suffering in prison

Sentenced to six months of administrative detention – which allows Israeli authorities to hold people indefinitely without charge – Khater resigned herself to her fate and wondered how her children and husband were doing without her.

But then she met a woman from Hebron who had just been rounded up in the Israeli dragnets and the woman told her that her husband had also been arrested, taken from their home on November 8 two weeks after she had been taken and also held under administrative detention since.

That meant that their five children were alone, probably even more worried and scared now that both their parents had been taken.

Khater couldn’t help but wonder if the raid into their home frightened her children, especially seven-year-old Yahya.

“A Shabak officer came to gloat at me, smiling and saying: ‘Your kids are now alone’,” Khater said.

Twenty-three-year-old Bissan told Al Jazeera that she had to leave her job and become “both a mother and father” to her siblings because the three youngest are in school and need constant care and attention.

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Khater did not worry much about the Israeli officers’ threats; she was too happy to be going home [Mosab Shawer/Al Jazeera]

She would take care of their food and clothing and tend to their emotional needs, she added.

“Yahya used to ask me and my father about my mother – whether she was eating, if she was okay, and when she’s coming home,” Bissan said.

The questions became even harder to answer when al-Fakhouri was also arrested, she said.

During that time, Khater was shocked at the level of inhumane treatment the Damon guards meted out to the women.

Sometimes they would use pepper spray point-blank against the women for any perceived slight.

They would also put prisoners in solitary confinement, severely limit their access to food and canteens to buy necessities, and deny them sanitary pads, she said.

Finally, she was moved to Ofer Prison at the end of November, to wait in a cold cell for hours with neither food nor water until she was freed at dawn.

Up to the very last minute, the officers and guards were threatening her.

“They told me that any celebration is prohibited and that I was forbidden from receiving any well-wishers upon my release,” she said, adding that the Israeli officers also warned her not to publish on social media.

Bissan, 23, had to leave her job and become ‘mother and father’ to her siblings [Mosab Shawer/Al Jazeera]

“They said they would re-arrest me if their ‘rules’ were broken,” she said.

But she was not so concerned, as she was filled with “joy and happiness” at the thought of seeing her children.

“Everyone knows that the most difficult thing for a mother is being away from her children.”

Like all the other prisoners freed in the deal, Khater felt happiness overshadowed by the massacres being committed against Palestinians in Gaza, she said.

Since October 7, Israeli authorities have arrested nearly 6,000 people in the occupied West Bank while Israeli forces or settlers have killed more than 270 Palestinians during that time in individual attacks and near-nightly raids, which have also escalated since the outbreak of war.

Several Palestinian prisoners, who like Khater were released as part of the exchange deal, have spoken out about mistreatment in Israeli jails.

Some reported physical abuse, some recalled being kept in isolation for prolonged periods, while others said Israeli prison guards harassed or assaulted them.

Guards also confiscated personal possessions, including radios, and barred prisoners from gaining access to any news.

Source: Al Jazeera