'We were tortured and starved': Released Palestinian prisoners reveal horrific levels of oppression in Israeli jails

6 min read
02 May, 2024

On the dawn of October 8, Mohamed Sahwil, a resident of Ramallah city in the central West Bank, was restfully lying in his bed next to his wife when Israeli troops unanticipatedly stormed his house and arrested him.

Sahwil spent the six months that ensued behind bars in the Ofer camp — located four kilometres outside the city of Ramallah.

Having been repeatedly held in Israeli prisons over the years, he describes those months of incarceration as unmatched in cruelty.

“I spent a total of 12 years in different Israeli prisons, most of these years were before 2010. As usual, this time I was in administrative detention where you are held without trial and without having committed an offence,” Sahwil, 50, told The New Arab, still reeling from his traumatising detention and barely able to stand up on his own.

"But this time around, it was the most difficult. I have never experienced anything similar to these six months”

“But this time around, it was the most difficult. I have never experienced anything similar to these six months," he revealed. 

Sahwil was released on April 10 after facing no charges. Having been severely beaten during his incarceration period, Sahwil is still visibly scarred, his ears and face bore signs of violence and had deep cuts. 

Released prisoner Mohammed Sahwil before and after detention.
Released prisoner Mohammed Sahwil before and after detention

Since October 7, the Israeli army has launched a massive campaign of arrests in the West Bank, including in the city of East Jerusalem, during which 8,445 Palestinians were arrested, according to a statement by the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, a rights group that keeps a tally of the number of detainees in the occupied West Bank. This number does not include the arrests from the Gaza Strip. 

Sahwil lost 38 kg in six months of Israeli detention. “We were tortured and starved. The food they would give 20 prisoners only suffices for two people and we were never full. This level of oppression is unmatched,” he said, adding that he was denied medicine and treatment for his asthma condition which rapidly exacerbated while in detention because the Naqab prison, where he was later taken to, is a desert prison, leaving him unable to breathe for hours behind bars. 

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‘Every second of detention constituted torture’

The traces of torture are still clearly visible on Fakhr Khalaf’s face, 42, who was arrested on October 21 and then released after four months of administrative detention at the Assioun detention centre near Bethlehem south of Jerusalem in the West Bank.

Khalaf whimpers in pain from his dislocated jaw when he makes an attempt at a faint smile, or when he tries to chew on food. 

“[Israeli soldiers] would handcuff me and start beating me up aggressively. I lost movement in one of my fingers as a result of the indiscriminate beating by the soldiers, they inflicted harm on us on purpose. Every second of detention constituted torture,” he said, his careful choice of words to avoid instigating pain clearly impacting his speech. 

According to Human Rights Watch, the majority of those arrested after October 7 “have never been convicted of a crime. Such detention can be renewed indefinitely based on secret information, which the detainee is not allowed to see. They are held on the presumption that they might commit an offence at some point in the future.”

Rights groups say that detained Palestinians are subject to cruel and sadistic crimes including torture. 

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“Upon my arrest, I was escorted along with other detainees to prison. We were subjected to repeated insults. Israeli soldiers would insult [Prophet Muhammed] which is deeply hurtful and provocative for Muslims, and we were threatened with exile to the Gaza Strip to get bombed,” Khalaf recounted of his detention period. 

Food was inedible, Khalaf said, “We were served a mixture of pasta, eggs, and tomatoes, and we were barred from eating bread. Salt and sugar were also banned from our diets. They ensured that everything would taste quite bland.”

In his four months of detention, Khalaf dropped 8kg of his weight. 

Relesed prisoner Fakhr Khalaf Before and after detention.jp
Released prisoner Fakhr Khalaf says that 'every second of detention constituted torture'

Starvation policy

Khalaf’s account supplements the accusations of rights groups that Israel deliberately starved prisoners. 

In a statement released in March, the Palestinian Prisoners Society — a non-governmental organisation established in 1993 to support political prisoners in Israeli occupation jails — accused Israel of purposefully starving detainees, describing starvation as “the most dangerous policy pursued by the Israeli occupation since October 7, in addition to torture and abuse”.

"Israel deliberately releases prisoners when their health completely deteriorates in an attempt to create a state of deterrence among the Palestinian people to subjugate them"

Amani Sarahneh, the media coordinator for the Prisoners Club, emphasised to The New Arab that the food detainees are offered is of no nutritional value, and its components are meticulously calculated to keep the detainees barely alive. 

“Israel deliberately releases prisoners when their health completely deteriorates in an attempt to create a state of deterrence among the Palestinian people to subjugate them,” Sarahneh stated. 

If the torture was not enough, Sarahneh added that the vast majority of released prisoners forgo the mere thought of sharing the accounts of torture they had suffered in Israeli prisons due to the threats made by Israeli intelligence that constantly contacts them — even after their release. 

Sarahneh also said that Israeli soldiers deliberately beat imprisoned males’ genitals — leaving them in a vulnerable psychological, mental, and physical condition, according to the testimonies of three released detainees she spoke with.

“One of them said: ‘There was not one day that passed where I did not want to die,” she told The New Arab.

The released prisoners were in no shape to speak to the press about the abuse. 

Thus far, figures from the Prisoners Club suggest that at least 16 inmates have died in Israeli prisons since October 7. Sarahneh expects dozens more have died from the Gaza Strip’s detainees. 

Israeli prison authorities deny any wrongdoing, but the Prisoners Club insists that starvation, torture, and systemic policies of abuse behind bars are the cause of death.

A Party’ of abuse

On November 19, Israeli soldiers had what they called “The Party”, according to Khalaf. On that day, with their hands tied behind their backs, detainees were transported from the Assioun detention centre to Ofer Prison in Ramallah north of Jerusalem.  

Khalaf said: “We reached a wide yard where loudspeakers were installed, playing a popular Israeli song called People of Israel are Alive. As the song played in the background, every Palestinian detainee was required to walk between two lines of Israeli soldiers, who each took turns violently beating the detainee up with clubs.

"When the detainee reached an Israeli officer at the end of the line, the officer would physically assault them, and then the detainee would turn around, walk back while also being beaten up by soldiers.”

Throughout their time in prison, Palestinian detainees were further denied visitations from their families on the pretext of “security preventive measures,” according to the Prisoners Club. 

Sahwil told The New Arab that some detainees spent their entire detention periods wearing the same clothes because none of their personal items were allowed into the prison.  

“We would hand-wash our clothes, hang them to dry, including our underwear items,” Sahwil said. 

“Hygiene products were also banned,” Khalaf recounted, saying that detainees were resourceful and creative nevertheless, “Some would shave their heads using nail clippers and others used a potato peeler that they found inside the cell." 

This story was published in collaboration with Egab

Issam Ahmed is a Ramallah-based independent journalist focusing on security and human rights issues