“Exile was my only option”

NOVANEWS

Ayman Sharawna (36) was forcibly transferred to the Gaza Strip in March 2013 

Today, 17 April 2013, marks Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, an international day of solidarity with Palestinian prisoners. Ayman Sharawna (36), a former prisoner from Dura, Hebron, in the West Bank, recently arrived in Gaza for the first time. He will remain here indefinitely as, last month, Sharawna was released from an Israeli prison on condition that he would be forcibly transferred to the Gaza Strip.

Prior to his recent detention, Sharawna spent 10 years in prison in Israel. On 18 October 2011, Sharawna was released under the terms of the prisoner exchange deal, in which 1,027 prisoners were released in exchange for the release of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. According to his release agreement, Sharawna was prohibited from leaving the Hebron district, where he resided, and was required to attend a meeting with Israeli intelligence every two months. At 2am on 31 January 2012, Sharawna’s home was raided by Israeli soldiers, who arrested him on the basis of a secret administrative file, which was said to contain evidence that he had breached the terms of his release agreement. The military prosecution was demanding that Sharawna serve the remaining 28 years of his original sentence. In response to this situation, on 1 July 2012, Sharawna declared an open-ended hunger strike which lasted for 261 days, until the Israeli authorities agreed to release him, provided that he agreed to end his hunger strike and take up residence in the Gaza Strip; this amounts to forcible transfer and is a violation of international humanitarian law.

The former prisoner describes the motivation for his hunger strike: “The main reason I decided to go on hunger strike was because I had been arrested and detained, less than three months after my release under the prisoners’ deal, and I was not told of the charges against me. There was no investigation, and I had no idea when I might be released. The Israeli intelligence held a secret file about me. Not even my lawyers were allowed to see the file. According to the Israeli intelligence, this was to protect the identity of the person or people who provided information about me. Being held under administrative detention is worse than being charged with any crime, because you don’t know what you are accused of. I felt that the Israeli authorities were trying to implement my previous sentence, even though I had been released under the deal. I had no hope.”

Sharawna describes his poor treatment in the Israeli prisons: “The prison authorities treated me very badly. They treat all of the Palestinian prisoners poorly, but in particular the hunger strikers. When I decided to begin my hunger strike, I suffered much ill-treatment, both physically and psychologically. In addition to the insults, they treated me coldly. I know they were following instructions from the higher authorities. They would transfer me from one prison to another, and from one hospital to another, although I was suffering. I was in solitary confinement for months. They kept me in total isolation. The only people I saw were the prison guards and the doctors. They tried to force me to eat, and brought food and water and placed it in front of me. They prevented me from seeing my lawyers, and I did not have access to a radio or television. I did not know what was happening in the outside world. I had no sunlight, no fresh air, no exercise. I was kept in a small room and not allowed to go anywhere. Even worse was the treatment I received from the doctors in Soroka hospital. They showed no sympathy. When I told them how much I was suffering, that I had pain in my kidneys and my eyes, they just said, “If you eat, you will feel better. If you don’t, you won’t.””

Sharawna has suffered severe weight loss and health problems as a result of his hunger strike

It is clear that the prolonged hunger strike had a serious impact on Sharawna, who currently walks using a Zimmer frame. “During the hunger strike, I lost consciousness and fainted many times. By the time I was released and I came to Gaza, I couldn’t see clearly. I am suffering with my health. I cannot walk on my left leg. At the end of this month, I hope to have surgery on my back and my leg. I have already had an eye operation. Throughout my hunger strike, I depended on Allah to help me through. My faith was what sustained me. Before the strike, I weighed 111 kilograms. I used to work out and play sport for four or five hours a day. I think this gave me the strength to survive as long as I did. For 61 days, I accepted water only. For the following 200 days, I took 22 vitamin pills and an intravenous saline solution every day. Without this, I would have died.”

The decision to accept the deal from the Israeli authorities was very difficult for Sharawna: “The Israeli authorities offered the deal to me four or five times to be released under the condition that I would go to Gaza. I felt that they were not serious about the deal in the beginning. In March, when they offered the deal again, I told them to speak to my lawyer. I thought a lot about it. I felt sure that if I did not go, I would die. I was suffering, physically and psychologically. I decided I would go to Gaza. Many criticised me for my decision, but my family supported me. The people of Gaza welcomed me, though they live under terrible conditions. I am happy that I came here and I don’t regret my decision. It is more secure here than in Hebron, but it is very restricted. My experience in prison prepared me for life in Gaza. To be exiled to Gaza was the least loss I could expect. I am against exile, but it was my only option. Otherwise, I surely would have died.”

Sharawna has suffered greatly due to the prolonged separation from his family, which is still ongoing: “When I was in prison from 2002 until 2011, my family was allowed to visit me. After I was released following the prisoners’ deal in 2011, I was able to spend three months with my children. But I was arrested and detained again, in January 2012, and my family was prevented from seeing me. For 14 months, I did not receive any family visits. Now, I am still separated from my family. It is very difficult for them to get into Gaza. So far, since my release, I have only seen my mother, who came to visit me here. My nine children are all in the West Bank. I have five sons and four daughters, and the youngest is 11 years old. My eldest daughter, Suheir, is 18 years old. She is now married and has one son and one daughter. I have hardly seen her, and I never had the chance to get to know her husband.”

On 24 April, Sharawna will turn 47. He will spend his birthday in a new place, separated from his family: “When I arrived in Gaza in March, it was the first time I had ever been here. The conditions here are totally different to the West Bank. There, I used to live in the mountains. Now, I am by the sea. I live in a rented apartment, although I own two houses in the West Bank. I don’t know anyone here. I have been released from prison but I am not in my home. I miss my village. I miss the mosques, the schools, the hills of Dura. I feel sad when I think of my children and my mother who is ill. I call my family on the phone but, of course, there is no substitute for being able to see them face to face, to hold them in my arms. My main purpose in trying to secure my release was to return to my family. Although I am now with the people of Gaza, who are my family too, nothing can replace my family in Dura. I hope one day I will be able to bring them here to join me in Gaza.”

Forcible transfer is prohibited under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which holds that “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive”. Unlawful transfer also constitutes a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In relation to the release of Palestinian prisoners who originally come from the West Bank, on condition that they take up residence in the Gaza Strip, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said that “choosing between staying in detention or being released to a place other than the detainee’s habitual place of residence cannot be considered as a genuine expression of free will”.

Israel continues to apply the procedure of administrative detention in a manner that does not conform with Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture. PCHR is increasingly concerned by the continued detention of Palestinians without charge or trial for long periods without recourse to even the most basic requirements of judicial procedure. Administrative detention orders are generally based on classified information to which the detainee’s lawyer has no access. They are issued by Israeli military commanders in the occupied Palestinian territory, rather than judges, and can be renewed an indefinite number of times.

Denying a detainee access to his lawyer is prohibited under Article 72 of the Convention, which provides that, “Accused persons […] shall have the right to be assisted by a qualified advocate or counsel of their own choice, who shall be able to visit them freely and shall enjoy the necessary facilities for preparing the defence.” Furthermore, imposing a collective prohibition on family visits is a further violation of the Convention, namely Article 33.

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