"Mental Torture Never Leaves You": Palestine's Longest Serving Woman Prisoner
JERUSALEM: After 15 years of imprisonment, Lina al-Jarbouni is struggling with life in the outside world.
She finds it difficult to sleep at night and to be in a room with an open door. She is still getting to know her nieces and nephews. As they were born while she was in jail, she had only seen photographs of them before her release.
New technology baffles her. She has been given a smartphone by her brother but she has no idea how to use it.
Lina, now aged 43, only heard about social media in 2015. She was introduced to the concept by some younger Palestinians who had recently been detained in Hasharon, a prison inside Israel.
Lina had been detained there since 2004.
Some of the younger women and girls in Hasharon wrote and performed a play for her. It told the story of children visiting an ill grandmother, whom they had not seen in a long time. Rather than speaking – or listening – to their grandmother, the children spent all their time fixated on their mobile phones.
The younger prisoners “would constantly use words like Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagram and I felt like they were talking in a foreign language,” Lina said. “This world, where people can make video calls and stare at their phones for hours, was completely unknown to me.”
Lina became close friends with many of those women and girls. She also defended their rights.
The Israeli authorities tried to move the younger detainees from Hasharon, which is reserved for Palestinian political prisoners, to a jail for convicted Israeli criminals. Lina and a number of other prisoners campaigned – successfully – to thwart the planned transfer.
The girls were under 18 and had mainly been arrested by Israel on charges of carrying a knife or accused of involvement in a stabbing incident.
Most had not been involved in political activism and were “traumatized and devastated” when they arrived in prison, Lina said.
Her own experience was somewhat different. A member of Islamic Jihad, she had been politically active for some time before she was arrested in 2002.
Convicted of joining a proscribed organization and of housing and assisting resistance fighters, she was sentenced to 17 years of imprisonment.
Lina was raised in Arrabeh, a town in the Galilee region of historic Palestine. Arrabeh witnessed mass protests and intense clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli forces during the second intifada. At one such protest in October 2000, two teenagers were shot dead by the police.
The second intifada had a profound effect on Lina. Yet she had already been politically conscious for many years before it broke out.
Growing up, she often heard of the events that became known as Land Day. In March 1976, a general strike was observed in Arrabeh and other parts of the Galilee. The strike was declared in opposition to Israel’s large-scale theft of Palestinian land.
Israel opened fire on the protests, killing six Palestinians.
“People in Arrabeh have always been involved in the Palestinian struggle and never hesitated to sacrifice for the cause,” Lina said. “I realized that I could not simply be a witness to the injustice inflicted on my people. I had to fight it actively.”
Because Arabeh is located within present-day Israel, Lina is officially a citizen of the state. Nonetheless, her Palestinian identity was “never in question,” she said.
“I learned that all Palestinians are under occupation regardless of the color of their identification card. It doesn’t matter whether you live in the Galilee, the West Bank, Gaza or a refugee camp in exile. We are all Palestinians and resistance is our only choice.”
Lina was the longest-serving Palestinian woman in Israeli detention before her release last month.
Although she was not physically beaten while in custody, she was subjected to sleep deprivation and psychological torture during her interrogation.
“At times psychological torture is even harder than physical abuse because it never heals and never leaves you,” she said. “The worst part was that they arrested my brother and my sister and threatened to keep them in prison if I didn’t confess.”
Lina was not the first member of her extended family to be locked up or targeted by Israel.
Her father, Ahmad, was imprisoned in the 1970s for his involvement in the Palestinian national movement. Hussein al-Jarbouni, her uncle, spent 14 years in prison for resistance activities.
Another uncle, Omar al-Jarbouni, was a fighter with the Palestine Liberation Organization. He was killed by Israel during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Visits from her parents and what she called the “unconditional” support of her family helped sustain Lina through the worst times of her imprisonment. “When I was down, they lifted me,” she said.
Lina undertook a series of hunger strikes while in jail, the first of which was in 2003.
On that occasion, she was among the Palestinian women who refused food for six days in protest at how they were held in Neve Tirza prison, along with convicted Israeli criminals.
“We were held in the same section: they [the Israeli prisoners] abused us and cursed us,” she said.
Israel accepted their demands, then performed a U-turn. The Palestinian prisoners were moved to Hasharon, yet were brought back to Neve Tirza in 2004.
Lina was among the Palestinian prisoners to undertake a general hunger strike in August that year. The protest meant that female prisoners were returned to Hasharon on a long-term basis.
The hunger strikers also demanded that Israel lift its restrictions on the amount of clothing that prisoners may receive from their families and that vegetables be provided in prison canteens. “To those outside, these may appear to be minor demands,” Lina said. “But when you are behind bars, even the simplest demands and improvements matter greatly.”
Lina described the mass hunger strike now being undertaken by Palestinian prisoners as a “battle for dignity.” The battle “must be fought both to improve prison conditions and to keep the prisoners’ cause at the top of the Palestinian national agenda,” she said.
The harsh treatment of prisoners at Hasharon included their arduous journeys on a vehicle known as the bosta. Prisoners have been kept inside a metal cage during such journeys – mainly from their cells to court hearings.
“The journey can take up to 18 hours a day in scorching heat or freezing cold,” she said. “Detainees are crammed in the vehicle, shackled. And no consideration is given to their health. It is especially tough if this journey coincides with your period. We were denied extra sanitary pads or a toilet break.”
Despite such ordeals, prisoners have often been determined to appear strong in courtrooms.
“We smile [in court] because we see our parents,” she said. “We know that if we cry or despair, this will destroy them.”
Lina expected to be released in 2011 when a prisoner exchange deal was clinched between Hamas and Israel. Yet the Israeli authorities refused to free her.
“I was thrilled for the women who were released, especially since many of them were facing life sentences,” she said. “But it is extremely frustrating when you get your hopes up and build high expectations of release only for them to be crushed.”
In 2014, Lina’s 48-year-old sister Wasila was hospitalized, having been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The Israeli authorities prevented Lina from visiting her sister in hospital.
When Wasila died, Lina was refused permission to attend the funeral.
Lina could not have coped with Israel’s cruelty had it not been for how fellow prisoners rallied around her.
Finally outside of prison, Lina is planning to become a professional chef. She wants to start a family and “give birth to quadruplets,” she said.
Her main concern, however, remains the plight of Palestinian women still in jail.
“We live in a patriarchal society and while many women prisoners are celebrated immediately after release, they are quickly abandoned and even stigmatized precisely for being in jail,” she said.
The Palestinian Authority, she added, has an obligation to continuously honor the sacrifices of female prisoners – “not just on the first day of their release.”
Lina has vowed to ensure that her friends in prison – whom she refers to as sisters and daughters – must never be forgotten.
“Release from prison comes with a great responsibility,” she said, “to be the voice of those still languishing behind bars.”
(Budour Youssef Hassan is a Palestinian writer based in Jerusalem).