The Palestine Entries: 99-year prison term for being Palestinian

// Entry #23

His mother remembers the exact date: April 28, 2002. He was only 20 years old when Israel’s armed forces captured and arrested him, then sent him to an Israeli prison where to this day, he has yet to be formally indicted with a crime.

Hussain Mustafa Al-Loh missed out on his prime teenage years. His father was getting too old and too ill to work so in 1997, Hussain left school and joined the Palestinian Authority at age 15. According to his mother and youngest brother, he joined it for the paycheck, not to fight. For the next five years, he fed his family from his own hands. His other brothers were not yet ready for work.

Hussain’s work ethic propelled him up the ranks and by 1999, he was serving as one of Yasser Arafat’s personal body guards. Stationed in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Hussain was forced to travel through multiple Israeli checkpoints to reach Gaza City whenever he was able to visit family. He had been through the crossings and checkpoints multiple times over the years but in 2002, Israeli soldiers captured him in a seemingly arbitrary operation at the Erez Crossing and transported him to the maximum security Nafha Prison, notorious for having among the worst conditions in the Israeli prison system.

Although Hussain has not yet been formally indicted with any criminal charges, he was handed a 99-year jail sentence — effectively a life sentence — for, according to his family, being affiliated with a Palestinian government. I later discovered that he was one of over thirty people arrested for being inside a building housing a captive Israeli soldier who was later killed. He was reportedly standing alone near a window. The Israeli government has been unable to charge him with any conclusive criminal or illegal conduct.

Hussain’s family visited him at the Nafha jail for the first four years of his prison term. Through a thick glass window and a series of speakerphones, Hussain received updates on his brother’s progress in school, his father’s health, his best friends’ weddings, and the overall condition of life in Gaza City. Whenever she could, his mother brought him homemade foods in small containers to remind him of the home that he might soon be returning to.

The preparation for these visits were always very tedious. Only three people are allowed to visit at a time: the mother, the father, and one of the children. The family woke at dawn, immediately traveled to the Gaza-Israel border, endured hours of interrogation, searches, and general harassment, and finally reached Nafha for a 45-minute session with Hussain. The return process involved the same laborious hassles and the family typically arrived home at 1 AM.

One time, the Israeli soldiers positioned at the checkpoint demanded the mother be strip searched. She refused and was consequently unable to see her son that month.

These stressful visitations lasted four years until just before the capture of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier being held in the Gaza Strip. The year 2006 was the last time she ever saw her son in the flesh or heard his voice. Phone calls are forbidden in this jail and all visitation rights have been revoked.

Now the family is forced to keep up with Hussain through slow but dependable mail services offered by the Red Cross as well as daily radio programs broadcast in Israeli prisons. The Red Cross offers a form to be sent to Palestinian prisoners in Israel’s prison system. The sender, a family member or friend, writes a message and submits the completed form to the Red Cross headquarters in Gaza City. Four weeks later, the form reaches the prisoner. He detaches the message and fills out the remaining portion of the form which also leaves space for a message. Again, after four weeks, this portion of the form reaches the family in Gaza. It is the Al-Loh family’s primary method of communication Hussain.

The radio program is another interesting service helping update prisoners on the wellbeing of their families. Every day, between 6:30 pm and 8:00 pm, family members call a radio show and direct an open message to their loved ones. The prisoners listen and hope to hear a call from their families. Although the prisoners cannot respond, Hussain’s mother, like others, makes it a habit to call the radio program as often as possible even if it means exposing private family matters to the thousands of other prisoners listening for their mothers’ voices as well.

Nafha jail, where Hussain is currently being held, is regularly criticized for its poor conditions and treatment of its detainees. Hussain shares a cell with nine other prisoners, each occupying a bunk bed and having access to a community kitchen. The ten detainees are given a total of three potatoes to prepare a meal with. Already-prepared meals are oftentimes spoiled or undercooked, particularly the meats, and Hussain is among many inmates who experience severe digestive illnesses as a result of the food.

Hussain’s misfortune is not limited to his current illness. In the past, he has been strip searched repeatedly in the dead of night. He has been attacked by watch dogs set on him from within the cell. Other inmates have had hot gas poured on them. Torture, according to Hussain’s mother which she learned from one of his letters, is a common method of treatment at Nafha.

Hussain will be turning 30 in almost one month. Already, his mother is preparing a Happy Birthday letter to send with the Red Cross in the hopes that it will reach him in time. He has just under ninety more years to serve for being Palestinian. He missed out on his father’s funeral, on his brother’s funeral, killed in action as a firefighter, and on the graduation of his youngest brother.

He gets two opportunities a year to take a photograph, which he must pay for, and send it through the Red Cross. All his mother can do is stare at her growing son and hope to one day be able to touch, see, or even hear him.

Hussain’s mother left me with these last few words. “We just want our sons back.”

Sami Kishawi

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