The Palestinian village of Beit Fajjar, just south of Bethlehem, is in shock. The family of Nassar Majed Taqatqa has no respite from it sorrows. Less than a month after the arrest of their son, aged 31, he will now return home in a coffin. He was found dead on Tuesday in the Nitzan Israeli prison at al-Ramleh.
He was arrested on June 19, for the first time in his life, after the Israeli army raided his family home in Beit Fajjar, a village with a little over 11,000 inhabitants, where white stone houses alternate with agricultural terraces. They are mostly workers in nearby stone quarries, like Nassar was, in a community that once lived on agriculture, but lost its lands to the nearby colonies of Efrat and Kfar Etzion and the separation wall.
The reasons for his arrest are obscure, no charges were officially filed, and, according to the ADDAMEER prisoner support NGO, he was still in the “interrogation phase.” Nassar was taken to the Jalameh detention center, known for the long and violent interrogations to which Palestinian prisoners are subjected. After being freed, they often report having been victims of physical and psychological abuse.
Two weeks later, in early July, he was transferred to Nitzan, where, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Center for Studies (PPCS), he was placed in solitary confinement. He had a hearing scheduled for Wednesday in a military court (the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are subject to military law, not civil law), which was supposed to decide whether to extend his detention.
Then, on Tuesday, news of his death came: “We were shocked to learn of his death,” his cousin Mohammed told al-Jazeera. “We still haven’t received his body,” which the family intends to subject to an autopsy. According to the family, it is certain that Taqatqa was in good health and was not suffering from any disease.
The Palestinian Prisoner Affairs’ Committee (once a ministry of the Palestinian National Authority) is also suspicious, and is accusing Israel of bearing responsibility for his death: “We will not accept the Israeli version of Taqatqa’s death,” said Qadri Abu Bakr, head of the Committee, regarding the stroke hypothesis which was widely reported in Israeli media on Tuesday. “We demand an autopsy to be carried out as soon as possible to determine exactly the cause of his death.” Abu Bakr is inclined to blame Nassar’s death on medical negligence or on the side effects of torture.
If that is true, it would not be an isolated case, according to the NGOs providing support to prisoners. Since 1967, the year in which Israel’s military occupation began in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, 220 Palestinian prisoners have been killed in Israeli prisons as a result of torture, being shot by guards, and, in 60 cases, due to the absence or poor quality of medical care.
Nitzan prison is “one of the worst in Israel,” according to Amina al-Taweel, a PPCS researcher, interviewed by al-Jazeera. “It is known for its horrific conditions and cruel guards. During Taqatqa’s detention, he was not allowed access to his lawyer, family visits or any communication with others.”
According to the Israeli media, Taqatqa—who was described as “a Hamas terrorist” who supposedly led, or planned to lead (they are unclear on this point), an attack against the security of the State of Israel—had been examined a few days ago at the hospital in Afula, and at the time of his death was in the section of the prison reserved for mental patients. According to Palestinian sources, however, he was detained in a damp and dirty cell and was bound hand and foot during long interrogations.
Protest marches were organized immediately on the streets of Ramallah and Gaza, and the Palestinian political prisoners have also responded: according to a statement by the Palestinian Prisoners Society, they are ready to protest from their cells through the harshest form of protest, a hunger strike. There was also a reaction from the PA, which, through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called for an international investigation into the death of Nassar, described as “a racist crime.”
There are currently 5,250 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, including 205 minors and 44 women. Four hundred eighty of them are held in administrative detention (without any charge or trial), and seven of them are members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. During the first six months of the year, 2,759 Palestinians have been arrested, among whom were 446 children and 76 women.
“Over the past five decades, international organizations for human rights have documented the systematic and extensive violations by Israel of the Fourth Geneva Convention and the rights of Palestinian prisoners, including the use of torture and physical and psychological abuse,” Hanan Ashrawi, a historian and member of the PLO, told us. “The Palestinian prisoners are victims of a colonial and racist machinery, designed to keep up the oppression of the Palestinian people through mass incarceration.”