When Kamal Abu Waar received confirmation that he had Covid-19, early last month, he had already been struggling with throat cancer for two years. The 46-year-old Palestinian from the town of Qabatia, near Jenin, is behind the occupation bars since 2003, spending his six life-sentences, and facing two deadly diseases, in the middle of what human rights organizations describe as systematic medical neglect.
Abu Waar is the latest in a long series of Palestinians having to experience the consequences of falling sick inside occupation prisons. Exactly a month ago, another Palestinian, Saadi Gharabli, a 74-year-old Palestinian from Gaza, died of cancer in Israelí prisons. He had been arrested in 1994 and spent 12 years in solitary confinement. Last November, the 37-year-old Sami Abu Dyak fell to cancer too. In the previous months, he had entered the deadly phase of his disease, which sparked a popular and legal campaign demanding his release for humanitarian reasons. His last wish was to die in the arms of his mother, which he was denied.
Pandemic, neglect and contradictory orders
According to Palestinian prisoner support and human rights group, Addameer, near 70 Palestinians have died in Israelí prisons since 1967 as a result of medical neglect. Kamal Abu Waar could be next on the list, and more could follow. Especially after the Israeli supreme court ruled, last July 23 that Palestinian prisoners had no right to physical distancing protection against Covid-19. The court ruling came four months after the occupation began to ban family and lawyer visits, last March, supposedly as a Covid-19 precaution. Then, a month later, the same occupation authorities issued a military order, allowing the military court to extend the detention of Palestinians despite having a barrier against that, for pandemic reasons.
Nisreen Abu Waar, Kamal’s sister, states that “we were informed that my brother had Covid-19, by his lawyer”, adding that “we knew his condition deteriorated lately and that he was submitted to medical exams, but we thought it was due to his previous cancer condition or to stomach problems”. Abu Waar’s lawyer was only capable of visiting him last week, almost a full month after he tested positive. His family hasn’t been allowed to visit him yet.
Old policy, new form
Ehteram Ghazawneh, head of the legal documentation unit at Addameer explains that “Medical neglect is a systematic policy for the Israelí occupation. Not only it causes health deterioration to prisoners who are already sick, but it often causes healthy prisoners to fall sick because of unhealthy detention conditions”.
These conditions include old and improper detention facilities, like the Damon prison that was built back in the 1930s as a stable for horses. They also include dirty clothes and mattresses and poor quality food. But under the pandemic, this neglect has taken new forms, with new risks for Palestinian detainees. “The Israelí court decision to reject physical distancing of prisoners is in itself a new form of medical neglect”, says Ehteram Ghazawneh, adding that “cells were sterilized only a few times, and now guards continue to search them without wearing masks or taking any preventive measures. The quantities of masks and alcohol given to each cell are not enough either”.
Make it cheaper
Palestinian prisoners and human rights groups have been battling against medical neglect for years. More than particular practices, it is the health system of the occupation prisons itself that has been the main point of this struggle. Ex-prisoner Waleed Sharaf gives witness to this system; “When I was arrested in June 2018, I had a chronic skin disease. I needed a special medicine for my condition, but the only thing the prison clinic gave me for months was pain killers. Then I started to have severe pain in the stomach, so they gave me more pain killers. When I finally couldn’t hold the pain anymore they transferred me to the Ramleh clinic, which they call ‘hospital’”.
The Ramleh prison clinic is a medical facility for Palestinian prisoners with chronic and serious health conditions. Ehteram Ghazawneh clarifies that “In each prison, there is a clinic with nurses. The Ramleh prison clinic, on the contrary, has some 14 to 15 doctors, but without specialized equipment, That is why when a prisoner’s condition becomes very critical or needs surgery, they are taken to a regular, civil Israelí hospital”.
It is the case of Kamal Abu Waar, who received all his specialized treatment in Israelí civil hospitals; “he received his 50 radiation sessions for his cancer in the Israelí Rambam hospital”, explains his sister Nisreen, “when he was diagnosed with Covid-19 they transferred him to Ramleh, but then they took him to the Afuleh civil hospital, then to the Assaf Harofeh civil hospital, then back to Ramleh”.
Waleed Sharaf remembers that “in Ramleh, I was handcuffed to my bed all the time. They never told me what I had and I didn’t receive any treatment. Later they took me to a civil hospital, where I received no treatment either. Until one day, in the middle of an argument about the point of keeping me in the hospital, the doctor told me that had a liver dysfunction”. According to Ehteram Ghazawneh, “The entire logic of the occupation prison health system is to make it as cheap as possible to the occupation state. This is why in every case there is a delay in diagnosing health problems, delay in transferring sick prisoners, and delay in treatment, which often comes too late”.
The impact of medical neglect includes prisoners’ families. Nisreen Abu Waar recalls that “The occupation authorities never gave us any information on my brother’s situation. Even when he was diagnosed with cancer. We knew when he told me personally, during a visit”, after holding her breath for few seconds, like avoiding to get emotional, she adds; “that moment was the hardest for me. I had been preparing for the visit for months, not thinking of the hours-long security check, anxious of seeing him for 45 minutes, to find out he had throat cancer”. After another brief silence, she concludes; “I could only pray and trust my brother’s life in God’s hands”. For Ehteram Ghazawneh, “the occupation uses the prisoners’ health conditions as a tool to torture them and their families psychologically. It’s a means of revenge, and as a collective punishment, it’s a war crime too”.
A collective punishment increased under the pandemic. “Since we knew that Kamal had Covid-19, our lives have practically stopped,” says Nisreen Abu Waar, “we didn’t even celebrate my son’s high school graduation. It’s constant anguish, especially that we aren’t allowed to visit him and his lawyer can only get very little information”.
“Holding our breath”
As the pandemic continues to spread, Palestinian prisoners become more vulnerable to medical neglect. “The occupation conducts around 20 arrests every night in the West Bank”, explains Ehterma Ghazawneh. “Although detainees are held in quarantine for 14 days”, she adds, “they are later exposed to interrogators without preventive measures. We know at least about three prisoners who tested positive after direct contact with infected Israelí interrogators”.
Meanwhile, thousands of families across Palestine continue to live through the pandemic expecting news from their beloved ones behind the occupation bars. Or as Nisreen abu Waar puts it; “holding our breath, and praying”.