Saturday, January 16, 2021

A story of every prisoner

By Sarah Bedson - February 22, 2017
Section: [Main News] [Features] [Behind Bars]
Tags: [prisoners]

Tulkarem, occupied West Bank - Abed Dalbah, 58, lives in the city of Tulkarem in the northwest of the West Bank with his wife of 26 years, Bassma. Sitting in an armchair in his living room with cigarette smoke billowing around his face, he recounted their unlikely love story, that took place against the backdrop of the first intifada.

In the early 1980’s Abed was studying Mechanical Engineering at university in Turkey and used to travel back to Palestine regularly for family visits. It was on one of these trips home, on the 29th of July 1984 to be precise, that he was arrested at the Allenby Bridge crossing between Jordan and Palestine.
Following a lengthy interrogation and trial, he was sentenced to five years in prison for purportedly participating in the Lebanese war and engaging in political activities. Though he denied all charges, two witnesses had named him under tortured interrogation, which was enough for him to be sentenced.
Following his release in the summer of 1989, the First Intifada was nearing its second year and Abed, like all former prisoners, was given a green card ID rendering it impossible for him to pass through checkpoints to leave the city of Tulkarem. Newly released from prison, he was unemployed and unable to complete his studies because there was no university in his city.
He recalls that on the 8th of August his sister, who worked as a lab technician in Tulkarem, told him to go to her office at 9am to use the telephone there and speak to his other sister in Jordan. Meanwhile, Bassma’s boss also told her to collect materials from Abed’s sister’s office at 9am. Abed, grinning, admits that in all probability, no such materials existed.
“After Bassma left, my sister asked me “So, how is she?” I said to her “Why are you asking? What are you up to?””
Abed’s family held a party for him to celebrate his being released from prison and Bassma attended. “From then, we started meeting and fell in love.”
Abed admits that it was not easy to gain the respect of Bassma’s family. An ex-prisoner, he had no job or degree. “It is not normal here,” Abed said. “I had a friend in a media office so I told Bassma to tell her family that I work as a journalist. I rang my friend and said, from now on I am your employee, and I began training in media.”
Abed and Bassma’s engagement party was on the 25th January 1990. About a month later, Abed was visiting Bassma at her family’s home one day. “It was the First Intifada, there was always a curfew and soldiers in the street. Usually I would try and stay at Bassma’s house until sunset as an excuse to not go home.”
On that day, Abed’s friends were coming to visit him so he did not stay at Bassma’s house. That very night, soldiers broke into his house at 2am, waking him up. “They told me to get my clothes and they handcuffed me. If I’d have stayed at Bassma’s house, I wouldn’t have been arrested.” Abed spent the next five months in administrative detention for, he presumes, “being an activist or a journalist.”
Abed was moved from Tulkarem prison to Naqab prison where visits were prohibited.
Abed remembers how hard it was to not be able to communicate properly with Bassma. The Red Cross would transfer postcard-like letters between prisoners and their families but the letter was restricted to 10 lines and was moderated by the Israeli authorities. “It could take 3-4 months to arrive, if at all, depending on what you write. I sent the official postcard once. Only small-talk is allowed.”
However, he discovered another way of writing to her. Abed retrieved a photo album from a cupboard and opened it to reveal dozens of letters. “In Naqab there were around 4,000 prisoners so every day prisoners were arriving and some were released.” Released prisoners could be used to smuggle letters and trinkets.
“You choose very thin paper, sometimes cigarette paper stuck together.” The paper would be folded and wrapped within a drug-like capsule, which is then swallowed by the prisoner and later recovered from excreted faeces. Removing the outer covers of the capsule would reveal the name and telephone of the intended recipient to avoid confusion; oftentimes more than one letter would be swallowed. “Sometimes the person being released would have to say sorry, I’m full! I swallowed 16 – sometimes people can only manage 5 – it depends on their bodies.”
In the first letter to Bassma, Abed wrote about what was happening and the situation in prison. After that his letters were “mostly about feelings”, in his efforts to “keep her waiting for me,” he said, sheepishly.
In one of the letters from his time spent in Naqab prison, Abed wrote: “My love Bassma, greetings, I am thinking to write a letter, even though I know there is no possibility to send it now. The life here is very hard, empty. But because you are in my life I can manage.”
Abed also sent Bassma necklaces, with chains made by plaiting bedding material. He would pick a stone from the ground and shape it with water and inscribe it with a needle. On a backgammon checker he wrote a line from a Palestinian poem, “The night must fade and the chain must break.”
Due to be released on the 28th of July, Abed and Bassma maintained their plan to marry in August. However, less than a month before his supposed release, Israeli soldiers raided Abed’s family home once again with the intention of arresting him. “They didn’t find me at home, they found me in prison. They arrested me from prison.”
“I was happy and unhappy,” Abed claims. “Fortunately the interrogation was in Tulkarem, next to Bassma’s house. Unfortunately the interrogation was very hard.”
Another Palestinian, likely himself a victim of torture, had told officers that Abed was an activist and visited his house in April, even though he was in prison at this time. “I was afraid to be charged for another five years, but they discovered that he was lying.” Following 55 days of interrogation, Abed’s detention was extended for another six months and he was moved to Megiddo prison, where Bassma and Abed’s family were able to visit only twice in the next four months.
While Abed was in Megiddo, a new lawyer spoke to the judge and sped up his proceedings. “On the 11th of November, I was lying in my tent. A prisoner who had been in the court came and told me I was going to be released and I told him he was lying. He asked me to give him two cigarettes if he was telling the truth; I said I will give you five. At 8pm they announced who would be released and they said my name! I couldn’t believe it. Immediately I went to shave and the man came asking for my cigarettes – I gave him all of them!”
Despite the cold weather, Abed gave his jacket and warm clothes to the other prisoners and left in thin undergarments. His father and cousin came to pick him up in the middle of the night and bought a car so as to get home as quickly as possible. “In the early morning on the 12th of November I went to straight to Bassma’s house.”
Abed and Bassma married swiftly on the 21st of December 1990 “before something else happened.” They now have five children together, the eldest being 25.
Abed said his story “is a normal story for every prisoner.”
In the six years of the first intifada, 1,489 Palestinians were killed, 120,000 wounded and 600,000 jailed. 185 Israelis were killed.
A 1991 report on the treatment of Palestinian prisoners concluded “beyond reasonable doubt that practices definable as ill-treatment or torture have been used against Palestinian detainees.” Common interrogation methods included “verbal abuse, humiliation and threats of injury; sleep and food deprivation; hooding for prolonged periods; enforced standing for long periods, sometimes in a enclosed space, hands bound behind the back and legs tied; being bound in other painful ways prolonged periods of painful confinement in small, specially constructed cells and severe and prolonged beating on all parts of the body, (resulting sometimes in injuries requiring medical treatment).”
B’Tselem states that the highest number of administrative detainees was documented during the first intifada. B’Tselem condemns the ongoing breaches of international law involved in administrative detention: in transferring detainees outside of occupied territory; violating the right to freedom of expression by detaining Palestinians for their political opinions and non-violent political activity; not providing meaningful information on the reasons for detention; not providing opportunity to refute the suspicions against them and using administrative detention as a routine practice, rather than an exceptional measure.
At the end of August 2016, there were 646 Palestinians being held in administrative detention.

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