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A symbol of Palestinian prisoners' suffering

Death in custody prompts complaints about Israeli negligence and questions about Palestinian leadership.
Last modified: 6 Apr 2013 22:33

With three prison guards on his bedside, 64-year-old Maysara Abu Hamdeya died of cancer shackled to an Israeli hospital bed on Tuesday.

Abu Hamdeya's health started to deteriorate in August last year, his lawyer, Rami al-Alami, said. He was suffering severe throat ache, accompanied by swelling in lymphatic and salivary glands.

“He went to the prison clinic and was given antibiotic medications without any tests,” Alami wrote in an affidavit upon visiting Abu Hamdeya on 12 March.

One of five Palestinians to die in or shortly after being released from Israeli jails this year, Abu Hamdeya's death revived fears for the lives of sick Palestinian prisoners and anger over a perceived Israeli policy of medical negligence.

After months of pushing with the prison clinic, Abu Hamdeya got an approval from the Israeli authorities to go to the hospital in October 2012, but the visit was delayed several times.

When he made it to Soroka hospital in December 2012, he was told that he was brought due to eye problems.

Abu Hamdeya returned to prison without performing needed tests.

Tests were only performed on January 10; by then Abu Hamdeya's health had deteriorated further.

He was suffering acute pain in his neck and all his body.

Israeli statement

According to an official Israeli statement, Abu Hamdeya was diagnosed with cancer in February.

On March 12, Abu Hamdeya told his lawyer that he was not given any treatment. "He has only been given painkillers," the affidavit says.

The Israeli autopsy of Abu Hamdeya confirmed that he died of cancer. In a statement, the Israeli health ministry said they found a malignant tumour in the throat, which spread to his chest, lungs, liver, spine and some of his ribs.

Nevertheless, Palestinians performed a re-autopsy. More tests were needed to prove that the cancer had spread to Abu Hamdeya's organs years - and not months ago, the Palestinian Minister of Prisoners' Affairs said.

One of 25 diagnosed with cancer, Abu Hamdeya was among hundreds of sick prisoners, including 48 in Ramleh prison hospital. Their families and many Palestinians say Israel is killing them slowly through negligence.

It's Israel’s fault, Abu Hamdeya's son Hamza said. "The logical thing to do is to blame Israel," he said.

However, Hamza said his family also has some complaints about the Palestinian government for not following up on his father's case.

"Where have they been all that time? Why didn't they ask about Maysara?" he said.

Hamza said his father was a general in the Palestinian Preventive Security force, so Palestinian officials had an extra duty to ask about him.

'A national issue'

Abu Hamdeya was imprisoned several times, first in 1969. He was exiled to Jordan in 1978 and returned to the Palestinian Territories in 1998.

Since his last sentence in 2002, Abu Hamdeya was almost always banned from receiving family visits. Each of his four children barely saw him during the past 11 years.

With his illness and death in prison, Abu Hamdeya has become a symbol of the Palestinians' suffering in Israeli jails. But his case is not merely something to sympathise with, his eldest son Tareq warned.

"Don't you dare think that Maysara’s case is a humanitarian issue," Tareq said in a recording before his father's death. "Maysara is a national issue just like the Palestinian cause."

With bitterness, Tareq voiced frustration with the Palestinian leadership that didn't intervene to free one of its captive officers, he said.

In the five-minute recording, Tareq blamed the Palestinian Authority for being helpless when it came to core issues, accused it of corruption and said it failed his father.

In the street, Abu Hamdeya's death ignited anger in various places across the West Bank. A general strike halted life in the streets of East Jerusalem, Nablus and Hebron on Wednesday.

The usual group of committed Palestinians took  tothe streets to demonstrate against Abu Hamdeya's death in Hebron, Nablus, Tulkarem and Ramallah.

Two Palestinian teenagers were killed in clashes north of Tulkarem, both by live fire.

After their funeral there were reports of Palestinian security units trying to stop protesters from reaching tension points.

Mourning orders

Abu Hamdeya's funeral on Thursday was followed by the funerals of the other Palestinians killed in Tulkarem.

On the way to Hebron, masked Palestinians were asking store keepers in Bethlehem to shut down for mourning.

A similar scene took place a day earlier in Ramallah.

In Palestinian Territories in 2013, there seems to be a need to impose solidarity.

Israel accused Abu Hamdeya in 2002 of attempted murder, illegally possessing a weapon and belonging to Hamas. But Fatah activists said that the man was one of their own. It wasn't until recently that he moved to the Hamas section of the prison, a senior Fatah activist said.

In Gaza, Hamas declared Abu Hamdeya one of its martyrs. In a statement, the group said he was a top commander of its West Bank military wing.

But those who knew Abu Hamdeya said he was "old-school" Palestinian - for resistance and Palestine.

At the end of the day, he was not wrapped in a yellow or a green flag: it was the black, white, red and green Palestinian flag that accompanied him to the grave.