When Israel imprisons a Palestinian, it imprisons their whole family


June 27, 2023


In January 1990, the sun had yet to shine. Grandma Iftikar, then a 54-year-old woman, was standing in front of four fully-armed soldiers. Unafraid of getting shot in the head, she slapped one of them. They didn't even bat an eye and kept walking.

Helplessly, she stood there watching as they dragged a 20-year-old young man along with them. They took her beloved son, Shaban, away. That day, the sun didn't shine. An agonizing phase had just begun for the family, not only Shaban.

This was the second time. Two years earlier, they had broken into the house through the roof and taken Shaban in the middle of the night. He was interned in one of the Israeli jails in his city, Gaza, preventing him from finishing high school.

"For the last 22 years,
my eyesight has been worsening.
From crying."

Six months later, he was released. His mother looked at him, concerned. She sighed, "I don't want to see all of this happening to you because of some trivial things," she firmly said.

"No worries, Mom. No worries," he unconsciously replied. 

Not long after, the Israelis came to take him again. This time, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Grandma Iftikhar

"For the last 22 years, my eyesight has been worsening. From crying."

Iftikhar's name means pride. Had she known her son would be away from her for the next 22 years, she would have cooked him all of his preferred dishes and held him dearly for so long. 

After that harsh January morning, she didn't leave any Israeli police station without asking why they took her son and where they imprisoned him. Her husband visited every lawyer's office in town. Nobody could help them. Nobody knew a thing about their son. No answers. No lawyers. No visits.

For the next six months, Grandma was running here and there, trying to pull a mere piece of information about her son. She walked from her home to the jail near the sea, waiting to hear her son's name along with the other prisoners. She was scolded. She was ignored. "Your son is extremely dangerous," Israeli soldiers finally told her. "We will transfer him to Al-Naqab jail." It was 46 kilometres away. But at least she now knew where he was. She could visit him.

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On one of the gloomy afternoons, the TV was on. She, her husband, and the children were sitting watching the local news. "Shaban Hassouna is accused of killing an Israeli informer," the reporter's voice echoed through the room. "He is sentenced to life imprisonment." None of them uttered a word. Two years later, her husband died. Shaban's father died without ever seeing him again.

Begging for answers from Israeli soldiers, walking, waiting, running, asking, waiting, pleading with the lazy authorities, waiting, bearing the harsh treatments, waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Her son was sentenced to life in prison, and she was sentenced to a life of waiting.

In 2008, Iftikhar, then 72 years old, was diagnosed with several deep vein thromboses in the leg. She couldn't walk as much anymore. She couldn't visit her son. Her health worsened day after day. She was already old, and the silent suffering grew her even older. "Oh son," she cried. "I want to see you and your children before I die." 

The Caged Bird Sings

Although Shaban was first detained at 18 without finishing high school, he didn't sit still. His alma mater was books and self-study. He managed to finish his school education inside the jail. 

Shaban studied Arabic morphology and grammar by himself. Then, he studied criticism books and started to write novels. He wrote about Palestinian resistance, martyrs and their families, and Palestinian traitors.

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The problem lay in how to smuggle his works. In capsules, he managed to deliver his writings to his family whenever they visited him. Thin paper with tiny words in capsules and food boxes were the only way for his writings to see the light. 

He published two novels: The Shadow of The Black Cloud and On The Blood Wing. His novels got him membership in the Palestinian Writers Union. 

Shaban used his novels to fight for the freedom of all. He wrote about women's rights in his society and discussed the injustice they are treated with, highlighting a connection between the Israeli oppression of Palestinians and men's oppression of women. Shaban identified himself with every oppressed person in the world. 

Family also suffers

"We were in a constant state of worrying and anticipating the unknown, wondering what else would happen," says Khairya, Shaban's sister. His mother and siblings were just trying to keep themselves busy with work or anything else. But it was impossible. It was as if Israel had built a cage around every family member.

Every one of Shaban's siblings would secretly go to the Red Cross asking about their brother. They weren't comfortable with thinking loudly of him. They preferred to hush their thoughts up, lest they should make the atmosphere even gloomier. 

One of his older siblings, Hamed, would go to the Red Cross weekly to ask about Shaban. People sometimes thought he was Shaban's father.

"I can't sit still in a room
with iron window guards."

Hamed would often wake up horrified from nightmares, thinking of Shaban. "If I, the one who lives freely here, can't tolerate such nightmares, how does Shaban tolerate the nightmare he lives in?"

Hamed's heart would ache whenever he saw a stray cat. He would recall what Shaban told him during one of his visits. "I see cats every now and then from the bars of the little window, living the life I'm not allowed to have. I wish to be a stray cat."

Shaban was a sacred topic for the family. They had his photo—or something that reminded them of him—hanging in every room. Even after his brothers and sisters got married, they still had things to remind them of Shaban in the corners of their homes, narrating his story to their children. Shaban is always there.

Released from prison to prison

Shaban was released in the Wafaa Al-Ahrar deal of 2011, in which 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were released in exchange for the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Israel had been refusing to add Shaban's name to the deal all this time. Negotiations on his name and a handful of other Palestinian prisoners continued for two and a half years until they finally agreed to make the additions. 

"I found everything is different," said Shaban, describing life after prison. His little nieces and nephews had become adults with their own families. His mother had aged. She was too feeble to cook him his favourite dishes. Even mere talking was hard for her.

After his release, his siblings would leave their work every day and come to sit with him in their mother's room, planning for the life that had been cut off for 22 years.

Shaban had been released from prison. But little did he know that prison will live in him forever. 

Now, after 11 years of release, he can't tolerate anything that reminds him of jail. "I can't sit still in a room with iron window guards." He's moved from a prison with metal shackles to another bigger one with mental shackles. The Gaza he knew is different from this one. His town has become an open-air prison.

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Cruel and unusual punishment


"I still have nightmares about my momma crying, begging for the chance to hug me when we saw each other in court. The Chief Judge said he thought sending me to prison with such significant injuries was cruel, but he had a statute to abide by."

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Eman Hillis is a Palestinian teacher and writer. She likes to discuss Palestinians’ oppression, women's rights, and racist behaviors.