Family of jailed Palestinian recounts hardship and misery

Family of jailed hunger striker have not heard any news of Mohammad’s condition since April 17

Ramallah: For the 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, 1,700 of whom started a hunger strike on April 17, suffering does not end behind the prison walls. For the spouses, parents and children of Palestinian prisoners, the incarceration of a family member comes at an incredible emotional price.

Mohammad Zawahreh, from Al Ma’asra village just south of Bethlehem, is one of the prisoners leading the mass hunger strike along with six others including prominent Fatah figure Marwan Barghouti.

His family knows nothing about his condition or whereabouts since April 17, but last they knew he was in Eshel prison.

Zawahreh was only 27 when he was arrested by the Israeli authorities in 2002.

The former police officer led a fairly routine life until Israeli authorities assassinated his close friend during the Second Palestinian Intifada (uprising).

Infuriated and hurt, Zawahreh, joined the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah, and carried out an attack to avenge his friend’s death.

Speaking to Gulf News, his family members detailed their fears, plight and experiences of having a loved one behind Israeli bars.

Israel, in response to the hunger strike, punitively banned all of their family members from visiting Zawahreh.

“I am worried sick that he will die any minute,” his mother Laila told Gulf News.

But, her visits have always been rare and difficult, but during his trial, which lasted seven years, she was allowed to attend the proceedings.

She jumped at any opportunity to see her son, even though she wasn’t allowed to touch or talk to him.

“I had to leave my house at 4:30am to travel 100 kilometres to reach the court,” she said, explaining that the actual distance was only 60 kilometres but she wasn’t allowed to pass through Occupied Jerusalem because she is not an Israeli citizen.

Two hours and several checkpoints later, she used to reach the Ofer jail where the trial was taking place, where she had to undergo invasive security checks, which could take up to several hours depending on the officers’ particular mood on that day.

When Zawahreh trial finished and he was shifted to Eshel prison, she had to endure another gruelling journey to visit her son.

This time, International Red Cross buses picked her up from the Dahriyeh checkpoint 50 kilometres south of Hebron to take her and only one child to visit Zawahreh.

The buses were not allowed to stop during the 120 kilometres journey and she said it was difficult when travelling with a small child who needed to use the rest room.

She was entitled to see him once a month but visits were often revoked to punish specific prisoners.

Today, despite her weak health, Laila travels 20 kilometres everyday to sit in the Bethlehem protest tent, with family members of other striking prisoners. During the protest she holds Zawahreh picture from 8am to 4pm.

As for his three children, growing up without a father has left a serious void in their life.

Zawahreh eldest daughter, Biessan, says she is worried sick about her father and cannot concentrate on her high school final exams.

Her father couldn’t even attend her engagement party last year and she will need her father’s official approval in person before being allowed to marry — something she isn’t sure will ever happen.

But, she insists she remains hopeful, that one day her father will be a free man.

“The boys, Obaida and Abdul Karim, are exceptional students,” Zawahreh’s wife Jailan told Gulf News.

“But it breaks my heart every time they come home excited to show me their grades, they wish they could proudly show them to their father.”

She says she does her best to meet her children’s needs but no matter what she does, their father’s absence creates a void in their life that she cannot fill.

Jailan was only 21, and pregnant with her third child, Abdul Karim, when Mohammad was arrested.

The family receives monthly payments of $500 from the Palestinian Authority, as is the case with all families of jailed Palestinians, which is only half an average Palestinian household makes.

Zawahreh’s father died in 2015 without seeing his son for one last time to say goodbye.

While all Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation go through their own unique struggle — those who have family members in prison share a unique bond.

“We share long bus rides together and attend our husbands’ or sons’ trials together — we console each other because no one else can properly understand what we are going through,” Jailan told Gulf News.

There are around 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, across 28 Israeli jails, most of them in 1948 areas.

1,700 prisoners started a hunger strike on April 17, calling to improve conditions within Israeli prisons to meet international standards.

June 2017 marks 50 years of Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Since then, 800,000 Palestinians have been arrested — many have never been let out having been handed multiple life sentences.