On October 18, 2011 international news headlines read that Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas since a cross-border raid near the Israel-Gaza border in 2006, had been released. The condition under which Shalit was released is known as the “prisoner swap“ between Israel and Hamas that mandated the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit’s return.
Despite the recent deal, countless Palestinian refugees continue to be abducted and detained in Israeli prisons on a weekly basis. Throughout the interrogation process and sentence, they are placed in the same, or in numerous cases more severe, conditions that Shalit was.
Shalit was nineteen years old when abducted by Hamas militants. Yunus Mahmoud, a Palestinian refugee, was also nineteen when taken from his home at 2 AM by Israeli soldiers.
Since Yunus was a little boy, he had witnessed people in his neighborhood throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, who were shooting those around him from their tanks. When he was arrested at nineteen, he was sentenced to one year for being a part of the resistance. And to be a part of the Palestinian resistance, for the Israelis, all it takes is the casting of a single stone.
[Tarek] was charged for throwing stones at an Israeli tank with his friends and was sentenced to one year in Ofer Prison.
Yunus believes that throwing the stones served as a message to the Israelis; the Palestinians were insisting that they still exist, that they will not remain silent. During protests, the Israelis would often try to suppress them by shooting rubber bullets and releasing tear gas. Still, Yunus would participate with his friends, and one night in 2010, without warning, Israeli soldiers broke into his home. Within fifteen minutes he was blindfolded, his hands were tied behind his back, and he was taken to a local police station, where he was interrogated and held for one week. At the time of his arrest, he was not told the charges being pressed against him, nor was he permitted to say goodbye, hug, or kiss his parents and siblings who witnessed his arrest. He wasn’t even permitted to put on his shoes.
At the police station he was eventually told that Israeli spies had been keeping an eye on him and his friends, and they were charged for being a part of the Intifada. He was arrested with five other friends, three of whom were eighteen. The remaining two were only sixteen. The friends were interrogated as a group. They were asked questions about whether or not they were a part of the Fatah or Hamas political parties, and were asked for more names of friends, to which Yunus did not give in. “Fortunately,” Yunus said, “because we were being interrogated with a group of young men, we were not tortured severely for being uncooperative. Some of my friends were punched in the face, but it stopped there.”
After a week at the police station, Yunus was transferred to Ofer prison, near Ramallah, West Bank. At this prison, Yunus was detained for the rest of his sentence in a six by three meter prison cell with ten others. There was one toilet. Prisoners had three-hour breaks per day to step outside of the prison for fresh air. Once in awhile he was permitted to shower, but had a short time limit. He received three meals a day in his cell, but the food was of poor quality. It was after four, long months of detention that he was permitted to see his family. Only two family members were allowed to visit at one time, and only for forty-five minutes every fifteen days. To continue demonstrating their resistance, Yunus and the other prisoners would participate in hunger strikes during their time in Ofer Prison.
Tarek Ismail, another Palestinian refugee, was also nineteen years old when a couple of Israeli soldiers broke into his home to arrest him. Like Yunus, he was charged for throwing stones at an Israeli tank with his friends, and sentenced to one year in Ofer Prison.
Tarek is one of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners recently released as a part of the Gilad Shalit “prisoner swap“ negotiations. But, despite the prisoner swap, Palestinians are still being arrested on a weekly basis. On December 22, 2011, 50 Israeli soldiers came to Yunus and Tarek’s neighborhood for the arrest of three more Palestinians on similar charges as the boys.
Upon being asked for his opinion on the morality of Gilad Shalit’s abduction, a middle-aged refugee residing in Yunus and Tarek’s camp didn’t have much to say except that there are hundreds of Palestinians who have been abducted and are still living in the same or worse conditions that Shalit did. “Who will fight for their freedom?“ He wondered aloud.
Tarek believes that the Palestinians deserve to move back to their homes. For Tarek’s family, that means going back to western Hebron, from which they were expelled over 60 years ago due to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. While the Israelis have enormous power and strength, Tarek says his generation was born with the energy to fight back. “The issue is, and always has been, occupation,” he says. “The prisoners are what keep the fury alive.”
Yunus and Tarek’s names have been changed.