Gaza rallies for critically ill prisoner

February 14, 2014
Umm Muhammad, the mother of critically ill prisoner Ibrahim Bitar, with two of his neices at a weekly sit-in. She hasn’t seen

Sit-ins to support Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have been held every week since 1995 in the courtyard of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s Gaza office. Recently, they have been followed by rallies outside the office for Ibrahim Bitar, a sick detainee in Israel’s Nafha prison.

Ibrahim’s brother Mamdouh said: “We’ve garnered internal support for my brother, and created this popular campaign. It started within our family. It’s a symbol of all the sick detainees.”

Through the Popular Campaign to Save the Life of the Captive Patient Ibrahim Bitar, the family has organised eight rallies, he said. “All the funding is personal. It comes from our own pockets.”

Ibrahim Bitar, now 32, was a fighter in Fatah’s Abu al-Arish Brigades. Israeli forces captured him on August 7, 2003. A military court sentenced him to 17 years jail.

Despite news reports on Ibrahim’s medical condition, his illness remains a mystery, at least to his family.

“They aren’t giving his family the proper diagnosis,” Mamdouh said. “We still don’t know the exact disease he has.

“First, they claimed he was suffering from leukemia. They gave him medication for three years. Then, they found out he didn’t have it and stopped his treatment.

“Finally, they told him he had colon cancer. They gave him cortisone. Now he takes 15 types of medicine per day.”

Ibrahim’s mother, Umm Muhammad, said Israel’s occupation policies had limited her family’s contact with him. “I haven’t been allowed to visit him for three months now,” she said. “We have gotten no messages or letters except through the lawyers. When other prisoners are released, they come visit us to tell us about his condition and send his regards.”

By most official accounts, Bitar is one of at least 180 detainees in critical conditions ― including 25 with cancer ― among about 1400 sick prisoners.

Osama Wahidi, a spokesman for the Hussam Association, a prisoners’ society in Gaza, said, “if you research among prisoners, you will find a higher number”.

Because of his family’s efforts, Ibrahim’s detention has emerged as a flashpoint for the families of sick prisoners in general. When crowds gather outside the Red Cross during the weekly rallies, signs depicting other prisoners also feature.

Broad support

The living room of Nahid al-Aqraa’s home in Gaza City’s Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood is decorated with posters of his image issued by Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Fatah.

Al-Aqraa, a fighter for the Popular Resistance Committees’ al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades, hails from none of these groups. But their material offers a visible reminder of the broad support he and other sick detainees attract in Palestine.

Nahid al-Aqraa was captured in 2007 by Israeli forces while returning to Palestine from medical treatment in Egypt. A military court sentenced him to three life sentences.

His wife Jahadir said: “I visited him for the first time since his detention very recently. His father and mother live in the West Bank, but his children and I live in Gaza. His parents have been able to visit him. For me and our children, it has been impossible.”

The al-Aqraas have three daughters and a son. Israeli forces have not allowed two of his daughters, aged 12 and 15, to visit him since his detention. “I send him voice messages through a radio station, and written messages through the ICRC,” 15-year-old Nisma said in June last year.

Under the occupation policy, their son Raed, who turned 10 in December, has not been able to see his father since the family’s first visit.

For more than five years between June 2007 and August 2012, Israeli forces blocked all visits to detainees by family members in the Gaza Strip.

Israel ended this comprehensive ban as part of an agreement to settle the mass Karameh (“Dignity”) hunger strike in April 2012. But it continues to bar categories of relatives, including children aged 10 or over, from traveling through the Erez checkpoint to its prisons.

“Before I was allowed to visit my husband, both the older girls started crying,” Jahadir said. “My daughter Nada was very upset that she couldn’t hug her father.”

Another occupation policy bans physical contact between detainees and their children who, like Nada, have turned eight.

Now 44, al-Aqraa is one of 18 sick detainees held permanently in the Ramle prison clinic. In June, he and another Ramle detainee, Mansour Muqada of Salfit in the West Bank, undertook a dramatic protest in June when they swallowed potentially lethal quantities of pills.

Health deteriorates

Meanwhile, Nahid al-Aqraa’s condition has continued to deteriorate. Both families said that Ibrahim Bitar and Nahid al-Aqraa were not receiving proper treatment.

“Many lawyers have met Ibrahim,” Mamdouh Bitar said. “They have told us his condition is in the terminal stages.”

“The Israelis delayed his medical treatment,” Jahadir said about her husband. “They could have cured him if he had the proper medication. But he didn’t.”

Last year, claims of Israeli medical negligence after the deaths two sick Palestinian detainees, Maysara Abuhamdia and Hassan al-Turabi, sparked protests across the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Addameer, an advocacy group for Palestinian prisoners, said al-Turabi’s death on November 5 was “the direct result of the Israel Prison Service policy of medical negligence which is being practised against all Palestinian political prisoners and detainees”.

The group said: “Since 1967, 52 Palestinian political prisoners have died as a result of medical negligence, with al-Turabi being the third prisoner to die in 2013 alone.”

Wahidi said: “They need their freedom. We don’t trust the Israel Prison Service to give them the right treatment.”

[Abridged from Electronic Intifada.]

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