17 April 2011

Narratives Behind Locked Doors (2)

Thana Herez holding a picture of her husband Nafez, one of the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Next to her, her grandson, who was named after his grandfather.

The Transformation of Palestinian Prisoners' Visitation Rights over the Years

Thana Herez is a 48-year old mother of six who lives in the Al Manshaiya area of Gaza City. Her two sons, who are married now, live in the apartments adjacent to hers. Thana's husband, Nafez, is one of the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Affiliated with the Fatah movement, Nafez had been ordered to report to the police station multiple times but refused to appear. According to his wife, "One night the Israelis came to our house, we were living the al-Rimal area back then. They came after midnight and searched every corner of the house, the rooms, the kitchen, the cupboards, even inside the flour. They did this for 2 hours, then they arrested Nafez. This was on 25 November 1985. When he was arrested, our oldest daughter was 7 years old, the youngest only 1 month – now she is married and has children!"

For six months, the family was unable to see Nafez Herez. It was not until the trial began in Gaza City they could see him. "He received a life sentence for allegedly killing Israelis. There was no possibility to appeal – the lawyer told us it would be hopeless and we should just accept the sentence." After the verdict, Thana was able to see her husband at Ashkelon prison on a regular basis: "At the time, there were no movement restrictions and we were able to visit every 15 days. The Red Cross organized trips to the prison every month, but we could go in our own car every two weeks if we wanted. At that time, everyone was allowed to visit, not just the closest family members: friends, cousins, nephews, neighbors. The visits lasted half an hour. Usually it was his mother, me and three children. On special occasions like the 'Eid, all six of the children were allowed to visit at once. The visits were very nice. Back then, the children were always allowed to touch Nafez and play with him."

In 1996, a new law was enforced by the Israeli Prison Service, so that only the closest relatives of the prisoner could visit, often meaning the spouse, the parents, as well as children and siblings under the age of 18. "Beginning at that time, Nafez's mother and I were still allowed to visit every two weeks, but sometimes we were denied visits for 'security reasons'. His father stopped being able to visit 12 years ago, his mother 7 years ago. These security reasons are fabricated - the parents are over 70 years old." Next to the possible visitors, the items that were allowed to be given to the prisoners were also subject to increasing restrictions over the years: "In the old days, we were allowed to bring anything into the prison, food, drink, clothes, anything. Since about 1998 or 1999, we have not been allowed to bring in anything at all. If a prisoner wants to receive any clothes now, he has to register his name with the prison administration. The administration then specified what type of clothes or blankets would be allowed – even the color. Nowadays, we deposit money in Nafez's canteen account, but they treat prisoners from Gaza especially badly, and sometimes the prisoner cannot access the money that has been put in the account."

Thana recalls that her husband has been moved to different prisons many times, perhaps he has even been to every one of the Israeli prisons. The constant change is not just straining on the prisoner himself, but also on his relatives: "Two of my daughters did not want to make the long journey to a far away prison anymore when they were 12 and 13. They always got very sick from the bus ride, so for four years they did not visit their father. When I made them come along again after 4 years, he did not recognize them. He asked them 'whose daughters are you?' They were both very upset and cried. He only realized when I joined them that they were his own children."

"In the beginning, we saw my husband every two weeks, so it was not necessary to write letters. Now we write letters – phone calls are not allowed – but they take a long time to arrive. When someone proposed to one of my daughters, we wrote to my husband to get his blessing. It took six months until we received a response. We waited the whole time for his decision. Nafez was not even allowed to call us for important occasions, neither sad nor happy. On the day of our son's wedding he was not allowed to make a phone call. Someone who was in prison with him told us he had kept talking to himself all day: 'Now my son is getting prepared, now she is wearing the dress, now they are driving to the party, ...' things like this. After that day, he spent three years in al-Ramle prison hospital. He was so badly affected on a psychological level because he missed his son's wedding that he was sick for three years. On another occasion, when Nafez's brother died, the prison administration told him he would be able to receive eight visitors. "But they did not tell us, his family. So when I arrived alone to visit him, he was very surprised that I was all by myself. But because it was a special visit, I was allowed to stay for one and a half hours instead."

Nafez was not able to write much about the conditions of his incarceration in his letters, but his wife explains: "During his sixth or seventh year in prison, there was a problem in the Nafha prison, so they put him in solitary confinement for one year." In her opinion, the medical observation in prison is not done for the sake of the prisoner. "They do these medical check-ups not to help the person, but to know better how they can make them suffer. For instance, Nafez had a problem with his hand and he had gotten surgery on it. After the medical check they targeted his hand specifically, to inflict additional pain by beating his hand."

Having to raise six children without a father was often taxing for Thana Herez, but she is proud that she did it all on her own. "Thank god I was able to raise them well even though I was alone. Two of my girls went to university, one for English, the other for Social Work. All of my children are married now, and I have 21 grandchildren." With the financial support of Nafez's family and different organizations, the single mother was able to support her children. "All the children have their own lives now and can take care of themselves. I have raised my children, now all I hope for is that my husband will be released soon. I was 24 when he was arrested, now I am 49. I pray all the time that they will release him."

Source: Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), 17 April 2011

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