Foretold deaths: Israel accused of medical negligence towards critically ill Palestinian prisoners
The Masalmeh family’s house, at the end of the busy Hebron street in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, has become a recognisable site since last week. At the entrance of the humble stone house, a portrait of Hussein Masalmeh, the 39-year-old Palestinian who died of cancer on September 23 shortly after his release from an Israeli prison, welcomes visitors. On the upper floor, a dozen women sit around a small room, constantly sobbing.
In the middle is Hussein Masalmeh’s mother. “It was back in January when two gentlemen from the detainees’ affairs commission came to see us,” Hussein’s mother recalls. “They said to my husband that we will hear news about Hussein in the media and we shouldn’t be afraid. They said that he had some kind of stomach infection, but I knew immediately it was more than that.”
In late December 2020, Hussein Masalmeh was officially diagnosed with cancer at the Soroka Medical Center. He had been detained since 2002 and was one year away from ending his 20-year sentence. Two months later, he was released and transferred to the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, before his condition deteriorated rapidly.
The Palestinian Commission of detainees and ex-detainees affairs, PCDA, along with Hussein Masalmeh’s family accuse Israel of medical negligence and believe it to be the cause for Hussein's death.
"A mixed atmosphere of sorrow and pride that has been a commonplace for Palestinians for decades. Back at the humble stone house at the end of the busy Hebron street, Hussein Masalmeh’s mother is still sitting in silence on her upper floor, as other women sob"
'Painkillers for everything'
Hussein Masalmeh’s case is not the first. In November last year another Palestinian prisoner, Kamal Abu Waar, died in an Israeli prison due to throat cancer. He was only 46-years-old. In 2019, 51-year-old Faris Baroud died in an Israelí prison after kidney complications. In both cases, Israeli authorities were equally accused of medical negligence.
Palestinian human rights groups accuse Israel of systematic medical negligence towards prisoners, claiming that there are currently 550 sick Palestinians in Israeli prisons, with at least 12 of them in critical condition, suffering from chronic diseases such as cancer and kidney failure.
According to Hussein Masalmeh’s family, his health began to deteriorate long before he was diagnosed. “In 2018 he began to feel pain in different parts of his body,” says his father. “We learned from his lawyer that he was given painkillers by the prison administration.”
Masalmeh’s friend Shadi Musleh, an ex-prisoner who shared the same cell with Masalmeh for several years, insists that “Hussein began to feel bad as far as 2016. He regularly felt general pain and asked for help, but all they gave him was painkillers.”
Musleh was a sick prisoner himself. He had a stomach infection when he shared his cell with Hussein in the Naqab prison. “When I felt severe pain, I would call out for help and knock on the cell door, and other prisoners would do the same until the guard came," he said. “Then the guard used to call the prison doctor, who is a general medic that prescribes painkillers for everything. If things got worse, then they would take me to isolation, and then to the hospital.”
Israeli hospitals where Palestinian prisoners are treated have been criticised by human rights groups. According to Ehteram Ghazawneh, head of the documentation unit at Addameer prisoner support organisation, “Prisoners are most often taken to the Ramla clinic, which lacks specialised staff. The most severe cases, however, are taken to real hospitals, like Soroka."
Diagnosed too late
Hussein Masalmeh’s father says that his son was taken to Soroka hospital without knowing what he really had, although the prison medics had taken blood samples from him over 15 times. As he was still a prisoner then, he was not allowed any visits.
“Hussein was admitted to Soroka last December, and that’s when we believe he was finally diagnosed with cancer,” explains Thaer Shreiteh, the spokesperson for the PCDA. “That is where his health deteriorated dramatically.”
Hussein’s mother was allowed to visit him at the hospital shortly after he was admitted. According to her, she was allowed to stay with him no more than five minutes. “I hadn’t been able to visit Hussein for two years. One entire year because the Israelis didn’t give me a permit, and then another year because of the pandemic,” she explains. “When I finally saw him, I didn’t recognise him. He had lost his hair and couldn’t speak. His eyes were red and his face was pale. I was sick myself, but I made an effort to pretend I was fine to try to comfort him.”
According to Thaer Shreiteh, “Hussein received chemotherapy sessions, but his cancer had already reached an advanced stage.”
Ehteram Ghazawneh points out that the medical system and the security system in Israeli prisons are one and the same. "Doctors are part of the security system and don’t view Palestinian prisoners as patients. This is one of the reasons why there is negligence in conducting proper tests, and when prisoners are diagnosed with something serious, it is often too late," he explains.
"Palestinian human rights groups accuse Israel of systematic medical negligence towards prisoners, claiming that there are currently 550 sick Palestinians in Israeli prisons, with least 12 in critical condition"
Hussein Masalmeh was released in March after an intense campaign led by the PCDA and his family, "but other prisoners aren’t that lucky,” Thaer Shreiteh says. In 2019, a grassroots campaign demanded the release of 36-year-old Sami Abu Diak, who was in the final stage of his cancer, to allow him to fulfil his last wish of seeing his mother. However, he died in prison. This is why Hussein urged his parents to continue to help other sick prisoners, they reveal.
'I knew this day was coming'
Despite some slight improvements in Hussein's health, his condition dropped back down again in early September after months of treatment at the Istishari hospital in Ramallah. “Doctors told us from the beginning that he might get better, but hardly anything more than that... I knew this day was coming,” his father affirms.
His mother stayed beside his bed in his final days. “My daughter told me to go home, but I wanted to stay there, especially after Hussein stopped eating,” she says. “The next day he barely had any water and he couldn’t speak anymore. Then he couldn’t hold his eyes open."
His father continues, “The doctor asked me to bring all his family members and his friends in, and so I understood it was the end. I asked my wife to let me take her place for a couple of hours, and shortly after she left, Hussein’s pulse stopped, and his eyes rolled back."
Hussein’s coffin was received in Bethlehem that same night by a caravan of cars and thousands of Palestinians, raising Palestinian flags and his picture.
In the Masalmeh family’s hall, not far from their house, young Palestinians take turns at the microphone to speak in his memory while pledging loyalty to other prisoners in a similar situation, as Hussein’s father accepts condolences from residents and dignitaries of the city.
Back at the humble stone house at the end of the busy Hebron street, Hussein Masalmeh’s mother is still sitting in silence on her upper floor, as other women sob.
Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's West Bank reporter, covering political and social developments in the Palestinian territories since 2014 in Arabic, English and French. He has co-authored two books in French, Terre Sainte Guerre Sainte? and Taybeh, dernier village Chrétien de Palestine. He is also the founder and editor of the 7ara36 blog in Arabic