'Insults, strip searches, beatings and rape threats': Palestinian women in Israeli prisons pay a heavy price for freedom
The recent prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas that saw more than 200 Palestinian minors and women freed from Israeli jails brings to light the inhuman, degrading treatment Palestinian female detainees face.
Under the hostage-prisoner swap deal that went into effect on November 24 and ended on December 1, 71 women among 240 Palestinians were released from Israeli prisons in exchange for 105 Israeli hostages. The largest majority of the Palestinians on the release list had not been formally charged.
The exchange agreement was part of a week-long truce in Israel’s otherwise incessant offensive on the Gaza Strip in response to Hamas’ October 7 attack that has since killed about 18,000 people, most of them women and children.
"Since 1967, Israel has held more than 17,000 Palestinian women prisoners"
Among the Palestinians released in the series of exchanges, one prisoner named Rouba Assi, a 23-year-old activist, told reporters that Israeli prison authorities "took everything away" from Palestinian detainees.
Before being arrested after the start of the current war, Assi had been jailed in 2020 for 21 months on charges of stone-throwing and belonging to an “illegal organisation”.
Ever since October 7, Israeli prison officials have reportedly tightened detention measures for Palestinians, forbidding them to leave their cells, and buy food from the canteen, further depriving them of food, water, electricity, sunlight and medical care, and conducting more frequent surprise searches.
Several freed female detainees have talked to the media describing a stark deterioration in conditions inside Israeli jails following the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel.
“The circumstance in the prison is very difficult, with daily abuse against female prisoners,” high-profile activist Ahed Tamimi who had been held for alleged incitement on social media said after her release. Like other former Palestinian detainees, she was threatened by Israeli authorities not to speak out about her treatment in detention.
Formerly imprisoned women have provided horrifying accounts of deprivation, and psychological and physical abuse, including threats aimed at them and their families, beatings, torture and sexual violence.
Marah Bakeer, who was in the first batch of Palestinian women released, had been placed in solitary confinement after October 7. “It was a very difficult time because they kept me away from the rest, and it was during the war,” she said to Al Jazeera.
Israeli forces also randomly abducted at least 10 Palestinian females as they were fleeing from north to south Gaza, using the so-called “safe corridor” on Salah al-Din Street, two days before the Israel-Hamas truce. Journalist and writer Lama Khater, who was free as part of the sixth group of detained Palestinians, recounted how Israeli officers treated the abductees: “They had their scarves removed, and were given ‘war prisoner’ clothing…they were blindfolded and they were confined and isolated from the rest of the prisoners.”
Talking about her treatment, Khater said she was handcuffed, blindfolded, threatened with rape and burning of her children. “There are no laws. Everything is permitted,” she told the media.
“They brutally assaulted me and shouted profanities at me. Let alone the strict bodily search,” Mariam Salhab, 22, a final-year university student spoke about the cruel treatment by jailers during her imprisonment.
“They also imprisoned another 72-year-old woman. They assaulted and beat her without her doing anything,” a released teenage female prisoner reported.
But well before October, Israel was already detaining dozens of women in its prisons.
Khalida Jarrar, 60, a leading Palestinian feminist, has a special insight into the experience of Palestinians in Israeli custody, in particular female captives, after being in and out of jail in the past years.
“My experience of imprisonment is part of the experience of all Palestinians in Israeli jails,” Khalida asserted in an interview with The New Arab, adding that “Israel uses detention to punish people who are seeking their freedom.”
As a Palestinian political and civil society leader, parliamentarian, and human rights advocate speaking up against the occupation, Jarrar has been a frequent target of Israel.
She was arrested for the first time on March 8, 1989, for joining a demonstration on International Women’s Day.
Eight months after her release, she was re-arrested in 2019 and held administratively until an Israeli military court sentenced her to two years in March 2021 for being a member of an outlawed group. In July of the same year, she was rejected a humanitarian release to attend the funeral of her youngest daughter Suha who died after health complications. She was finally freed in September 2021.
Bringing back hard memories from the time of her last arrest, in late October 2019, when some 70 Israeli soldiers raided her home in Ramallah at 3 am, Jarrar explained how detention affects Palestinian women in a physically and psychologically abusive way from its early stages.
“The way they invade your house en masse, holding weapons, the way they search you, the way they curse at you, and make you wait hours to use the toilet,” the prominent leftist lawmaker said remembering how she was taken to Ofer military base, interrogated there, then to to Hasharon prison before being transferred to Damon prison.
She also discussed how female captives experience various violations of privacy in Israeli detention, namely being watched by cameras while they walk, talk to others, do physical exercise or play sports, as well as being forced to ask prison guards for access to showers outside cells.
“As women, Israelis think they can perpetrate all kinds of abuse to put more pressure on them and keep them silent,” the Palestinian politician opined.
Referring to the harsh conditions under which Palestinian women prisoners are held after the October events, Jarrar pointed out that guards routinely storm their cells, even more than once a day, they are regularly beaten, strip-searched in a “very abusive” manner, insulted with bad sexual terms, and many of them are threatened with rape.
She said the situation of the 10 female inmates kidnapped in Gaza is “very, very, very bad”, stressing their particular state of isolation with some of them forcibly separated from their children.
Since 1967, Israel has held more than 17,000 Palestinian women prisoners.
According to the Palestinian Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs and the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society (PPS), 142 female Palestinians, including infants and elderly women, are currently held in Israeli jails after they were detained by Israeli forces as part of their aggression on the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, 33 women are being held without trial or charge under Israel’s notorious policy of administrative detention.
"As women, Israelis think they can perpetrate all kinds of abuse to put more pressure on them, and keep them silent"
During their detention, Palestinian female prisoners are subjected to inhumane treatment throughout their arrest and detention. Most of them suffer some form of psychological torture and ill-treatment throughout the process of their arrest and detention, including sexual violence and harassment.
When 23-year-old Elyaa Abu Hijleh was arrested by the Israeli army in July 2020, she was in her final year of law studies at Birzeit University. Her detention occurred amid a mass arrest campaign of students in the West Bank, especially Birzeit’s students, that began the year before.
Like many others, Hijleh was targeted by the Israeli military because of her membership in a student group. At that time, 30 to 40 soldiers broke into her house in Ramallah at 5 am, the officer informed her that she would be detained for belonging to an organisation, the Democratic Progressive Student Pole (DPSP), deemed “unlawful” under Israeli military orders.
She was handcuffed, blindfolded with a medical mask, and transported in a military jeep to Ofer prison where she was left on the floor under the sun for a long period.
“It was very hot, I was forced to stay on my knees, and when I asked for water I was told there wasn’t any,” the former student recalled while speaking to The New Arab. “I could hear laughs around me.”
After being searched, she was transferred to interrogation, and placed in a small room with no windows or bathroom. Her feet were tied so tightly that they were bleeding. She was interrogated in two phases about her student and union work. Later, she was moved to Hasharon prison ending a journey of ordeal that lasted for hours.
“The ride by the ‘bosta’ was the worst part,” Hijleh described the prisoner transfer vehicle with blacked-out windows and tightly divided cells with metal seats.
“I was sitting for a very long time inside a narrow metal box, with no light except three very small holes. I felt I was going to die,” she added. “It’s one of the most horrifying things Palestinians can go through.”
At Hasharon prison, where the 23-year-old spent two weeks, conditions were particularly miserable from her experience. Food was very poor with half-cooked rice given to prisoners, and chicken so unproperly cleaned that it still had feathers.
There was no fresh air through the window. Jailers refused to give her and other female inmates sanitary pads for their period, so she had to cut a pad in two halves to share with her friend. She was not allowed any change of clothes.
The young woman was sentenced to 11 months. At Damon prison, where she was held, Hijleh underlined how women detainees struggled to get “any privacy”. They were forced to use showers located outside their cells, with wardens often heard near the shower rooms, and only during an allocated time, preventing them from using washing facilities when needed.
Surveillance cameras were operating at all times, even in the yards where captives would go out for a short daily break, which would significantly restrict their movement and freedom altogether and deprive them of enough exposure to sunlight.
“Many were not able to take their headscarves off for long periods, which caused them health problems like joint pain, anaemia, and hair loss,” the former prisoner added.
Sexual harassment was common practice, as she witnessed with her fellow inmates until her release in June 2021, from insults to strip searches, beatings, and threats of rape.
Since the beginning of Israel’s war on Gaza, the prison service has imposed stricter conditions for Palestinian detainees, as testimonies given by several released prisoners recently illustrated.
Female prisoners have denounced food, and water while facing sleep deprivation, denial of medicines, a ban on family visits, and restricted access to lawyers, in addition to their abusive treatment under detention.
“After October 7, Israeli prison authorities have taken away from Palestinians the freedoms they won with their blood throughout their detention,” Hijleh maintained blaming the occupation for the oppression of all Palestinians, men and women.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec