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With contact barred, families of Palestinian prisoners go on air to send messages

Palestinians with relatives in Israeli security prisons have been deprived of visiting rights during the Israel-Hamas war, and are resorting instead to sending messages to loved ones on a radio program.

  • “Hello, this message is for my brother Islam. How are you, my brother?” said one greeting sent via a Palestinian radio show called Messages for the Prisoners.
  • “Your house is ready. When you get out, you will be all set to find someone to marry!”

The show on popular Palestinian station Radio Ajyal, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, features personal messages from families that often end with the sentence: “We hope you will hear these words.”

Campaigners say the number of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails has swelled to around 9,000, from about 5,200 before Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel in which terrorists from Gaza invaded southern Israel to kill about 1,200 people, most of them civilians in their homes and at a music festival, and kidnap 253.

The radio station has been inundated with messages from prisoners’ relatives since the beginning of the wave of arrests and the implementation of tough restrictions on detainees, including the denial of visitation and phone calls.

  • In response to the restrictions, the station has extended the show by more than an hour.

“We get messages from everywhere,” as many families “no longer have any news of their loved ones in prison,” said Walid Nasser, Radio Ajyal’s editor-in-chief.

  • “Dear dad, I can’t wait for you to come back to take me to school,” said one of the messages, which are often read by children, sometimes with a suppressed sob.

Palestinians with relatives in Israeli security prisons have been deprived of visiting rights during the Israel-Hamas war, and are resorting instead to sending messages to loved ones on a radio program.

  • “Hello, this message is for my brother Islam. How are you, my brother?” said one greeting sent via a Palestinian radio show called Messages for the Prisoners.
  • “Your house is ready. When you get out, you will be all set to find someone to marry!”

The show on popular Palestinian station Radio Ajyal, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, features personal messages from families that often end with the sentence: “We hope you will hear these words.”

Walid Nasser (standing), Radio Ajyal’s editor-in-chief, talks to a staff member on February 9, 2024. (Zain Jaafar/AFP)
“We get messages from everywhere,” as many families “no longer have any news of their loved ones in prison,” said Walid Nasser, Radio Ajyal’s editor-in-chief.

  • “Dear dad, I can’t wait for you to come back to take me to school,” said one of the messages, which are often read by children, sometimes with a suppressed sob.
  • “Everything is fine at home, everything is fine at university, don’t worry,” said another message.

The show’s host, Maysam Barghouti, who reads out some of the messages herself, said many families “are looking for hope to hold on to.”

“The show is really the only means to communicate with a loved one or to get information,” Barghouti said.

‘No news’

Israeli prison authorities announced a state of emergency after October 7 to prevent the potential involvement of inmates in any further unrest. Besides cutting off visitation and phone rights, radios have also been banned. But the families, as well as Radio Ajyal staff, hope that prisoners are still somehow able to tune in.

  • The Palestinian Prisoners Club advocacy group said visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross have also stopped. Both the ICRC and Israel declined to comment, but Israel has previously said that ICRC visits were suspended until Hamas allows the Red Cross access to the hostages in Gaza.

While some Palestinians are detained without known charges, the most common grounds for arrest range from online calls for violence to alleged terrorist activity.

Much of the new influx of inmates is composed of terrorists from Gaza arrested in Israel who participated in the October 7 massacre, as well as Palestinians arrested in the West Bank due to their affiliation with Hamas or other Palestinian terror groups.

Since October 7, troops have arrested more than 3,200 wanted Palestinians across the West Bank, including more than 1,350 affiliated with Hamas.

Prison conditions have deteriorated since the start of the war, several rights groups have said based on official Israeli data and accounts from former inmates.

  • “My brother has been in prison for 22 years, and the last three months have been the most difficult for all of us,” said Ihsan Kamal, whose brother Saed was sentenced to 38 years for carrying out terror attacks against Israelis.
  • “My parents used to visit him once a month,” Kamal said.
  • “Now, we have absolutely no news, and we hear that the situation is terrible in the prisons.”

Rights groups say at least nine Palestinians have died behind Israeli bars since October 7.

Israel provides medical treatment to its Palestinian prisoners. Notably, Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza and mastermind of the October 7 massacre, had his life saved by Israeli doctors who removed a tumor from his brain during his time in Israeli prison.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has called on judges to visit prisons where Palestinians are held to inspect their conditions.

The Supreme Court has announced that judges would go to jails, but no visits have yet been reported.

‘I miss him’

Ola Zaghloul is used to being away from her husband Mohammed, now in his 60s, who has spent more than two decades in Israeli prisons.

  • “My daughters grew up without a father,” she said.
  • One of their daughters, Aqsa, an 18-year-old student, said, “We just need to hear his voice.”
  • “Just by his tone of voice, we would know if he is okay or not.”

Mohammed, who was released in July and arrested again on January 10, is ill and was due to undergo neurological examination in Germany, the family said.

He was arrested again just a few days before the planned departure.

  • “We know he’s not doing well,” said the Zaghlouls’ youngest daughter, Dana.

Her father had been sentenced over his involvement in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party.

  • Mohammed has a “strong mind” but his health is worrying, said his brother, Youssef.
  • “I miss him,” he said.
  • “We went to school together before the war,” Youssef added.
  • “I think of him every time I head to the university.”

Source: TOI