By Omar Karmi
19 April
The National

As Palestinians mark their Prisoners’ Day, Abdel Karim Sadouk, 55, speaks of his time Israeli jail. Alexei Kidel for The National

Abdel Karim Sadouk is a bruised and battered man. A circular scar on the top of his head marks where he had surgery last year in Jordan to remove a malignant brain tumour.

His left hand is swollen and he moves it with some difficulty, the result, he said, of an exploding bullet he took in 1989. Cancer is also ravaging his lungs and at times he pulls up, wincing slightly in pain.

Undeterred, he puffs away at a cigarette.

“The cancer hasn’t killed me yet. The Israelis didn’t kill me. Prison didn’t kill me. I’ll probably get run over by a lorry.”

The 55-year-old former shoe salesman is more concerned with the fate of his oldest living son, Alaeddin, 27. Alaeddin received a brain cancer diagnosis last year, but has yet to receive proper medical treatment in the Israeli jail where he is serving a nine-year sentence according to his father.

Alaeddin is due out in 2011. But that depends on whether his family can scrape together 20,000 shekels (Dh17,500) to pay a fine that was imposed when he was arrested in 2001. If not, Alaeddin could serve two more years.

Alaeddin’s younger brother, Izzedine, 23, is also in prison. Unlike Alaeddin, however, Izzedine is in six months’ “administrative detention” and is being held without trial. Israel reserves the right to renew such administrative detention indefinitely. He may suddenly be released or he may be brought to the military courts that dole out sentences for Palestinians, often with evidence that is not revealed for “security reasons”.

On Friday, Palestinians marked Prisoners’ Day, an annual day of demonstrations and sit-ins across the West Bank and Gaza Strip in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The issue of prisoners is hugely resonant in Palestinian society. Since 1967, 750,000 Palestinians, or about 40 per cent of the male population of the occupied territories, have been imprisoned by Israel. Hardly a family has been unaffected.

Today, Israel holds around 8,400 Palestinians in prison, according to Adameer, a Palestinian prisoner rights group. Some 550 are in administrative detention such as Izzedine. Like Alaeddin, so many prisoners do not receive proper medical attention that, in a press release on the occasion of Prisoners’ Day, Adameer said that “medical neglect seems to have become an institutionalised policy of the Israeli Prison Service”.

More than 400 prisoners are under 18. The last two of Mr Sadouk’s sons, Rida, 18 and Muntasa, 19, have just been released after serving two and a half-year sentences.

All four of Mr Sadouk’s sons were imprisoned for their political activities. Mr Sadouk will not say where their factional loyalties lie, only that they, like Mr Sadouk who was imprisoned on three different occasions, were “fulfilling their national duties”.

But the photos of Mr Sadouk’s oldest son, Nidal, a member of the PA’s Presidential Guard when he was killed by an Israeli shell on the family house in Dec 2001, tell their own story, and Mr Sadouk, like many parents of prisoners, is clearly disillusioned with the current state of Palestinian divisions.

“We used to be proud of fighting the occupation. The Oslo process let us down. Negotiations gave us nothing. Now, although the people in Gaza and the West Bank are one, our political leaderships are dividing us. Things have changed, and not in a positive way.”

That is also true of conditions in Israeli prisons. When Mr Sadouk was first imprisoned in 1974 prison could be an educational opportunity for those deprived of such possibilities on the outside. By 1989, at the height of the first intifada when he was imprisoned a second time, prisons were popularly known as “Palestinian universities”. Many long-term prisoners received degrees in prison, while prisoners themselves formed committees to teach the younger generations about their history and politics.

Today, no such opportunities exist. According to Adameer, the Israeli Prison Service deprives child detainees of adequate schooling in line with the official Palestinian curriculum, while adult prisoners are rarely allowed to pursue a higher education in Arabic.

“Rather than a right, the IPS views education as a privilege and makes it conditional on a prisoner’s disciplinary record.”

For Rida, Mr Sadouk’s youngest son, that meant the years he spent in a prison near Haifa from when he was 16 were years wasted.

“The food is awful; we have to force ourselves to eat it. We get no exercise and we got no books. There was nothing to do.”

Rida is now in a vocational training scheme to become a carpenter. He said he “just wants to live my life” and has no desire to go back to prison conditions that Adameer, along with both international and Israeli human rights groups, say fall far short of international standards.

But Mr Sadouk is less hopeful for his son.

“As long as there is occupation, its consequences are forced upon people. We are only at the beginning of the struggle. That is why it is important that a day like Prisoners’ Day shows those who have sacrificed that they are appreciated and respected.”