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Israel releases Palestinian detained while accompanying wife for eye treatment

Hassan Abumustafa was arrested in November 2021 at the Erez crossing despite receiving approval to travel with his wife to the West Bank
Hassan Abumustafa pictured on 27 Apr 2023 outside his home in the Gaza Strip after his release from Israeli jail (MEE/Mohammed al-Hajjar)
Hassan Abumustafa pictured on 27 Apr 2023 outside his home in the Gaza Strip after his release from Israeli jail (MEE/Mohammed al-Hajjar)
By Maha Hussaini in Gaza City, besieged Gaza Strip

Following months of waiting, Khaldiya Abumustafa finally got an Israeli permit allowing her to leave Gaza City to enter the occupied West Bank and undergo eye surgery, accompanied by her husband.

Excited to regain the ability to see properly - as a result of medical treatment not available in the Gaza Strip - Khaldiya arrived with her husband Hassan Abumustafa at the Erez border on the morning of 24 November 2021.

When they reached the Israeli side of the crossing - the only land crossing for Palestinians who want to move between Gaza and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory - Khaldiya was asked to wait in the hall, while her husband was called for interrogation.

Around 15 hours had passed before an Israeli officer entered the hall where she was losing hope to show up for the hospital’s appointment, and ordered her to go back home without her husband.

“Your husband is staying with us - he is under arrest,” the officer told her.

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Hassan, who had already received an exit permit and a security approval by the Israeli authorities to cross the Erez border, was surprised to be informed that he would be prosecuted over allegations of “belonging to a terrorist organisation”.

Following several interrogations and court sessions, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

On Tuesday, after serving his term, Hassan was released and went back to his family in a Khan Younis refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip.

Khaldiya, however, has yet to undergo eye surgery.

Hours of interrogation

“My wife has a damaged cornea. She needed to undergo a corneal transplant urgently so that her condition would not exacerbate. And since it was hard to do it in Gaza, we started the necessary procedures to obtain a medical referral for a hospital in the West Bank,” Hassan told Middle East Eye on the second day of his release.

“We got an Israeli permit from the first attempt, and we immediately headed to Erez."

Patients who receive Israeli exit permits to receive medical treatment in the occupied Palestinian territories are allowed one companion to accompany them - though minors may encounter more difficulties in obtaining permits, which often results in children travelling alone without their parents.

“After waiting with my wife in the hall for a couple of hours, an Israeli officer approached me and asked me to follow him. I went through several security screening checks, before he took me to a room where I was strip-searched," said Hassan.

'I now can barely see; I am slowly losing my vision and the worst part is that I suffer from enormous pain'

- Khaldiya Abumustafa

He was then told to wait for another two hours, and his mobile was confiscated, before an eight-hour interrogation started.

“The intelligence officer asked me to tell him about myself. I told him my name, the number of my children, and the reason my wife and I needed to go to the West Bank. He then said: ‘No, I want you to tell me about your affiliations,’” Hassan added.

“I told him I did not have any affiliations, and that if I had any political backgrounds, I would not have been allowed to work in the occupied territories in 2000, and would not have submitted a request to accompany my wife for treatment.”

The Israeli officer informed Hassan that another Palestinian who was previously interrogated at the Erez border confessed that Hassan was affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement (PIJ).

Since 2016, Israel has increased interrogations for Palestinians attempting to travel through the Erez crossing.

Before the Israeli authorities can process permit applications, many students, businessmen, patients and their companions are required to undergo a security interrogation.

“He told me that they searched through my phone and found previous calls with people affiliated with the Islamic Jihad. I told him that I worked as a doorkeeper at one of the Jihad’s sites, and that this was not a crime as I had not contributed to any military activities. My responsibility was to open and close the gate, and I worked there for the salary,” the father of eight told MEE.

“While they started asking me about several Jihad members and activities, I was only worried about my wife who was left to wait alone and did not know what was going on. I asked about her, and the officer said: ‘Don’t worry, we will call someone from Gaza to come and accompany her to the West Bank.’ Later on, I knew that this was a lie, and that she was left to wait until night then denied entry and sent back to Gaza.”

‘Like a trap’

In some cases, even after patients receive Israeli permits to enter the occupied territories for treatment, the Israeli authorities cancel their permits at the border and deny them entry.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 20,411 applications for medical exit permits from the blockaded Gaza Strip were submitted in 2022, of which 6,848 (34 percent), were rejected.

In addition, 219 patients were called in for Israeli interrogation at the Erez crossing, including 66 cancer patients, 38 women, and 26 elderly people. Around 91 percent of them were denied exit permits.

“The Israeli officer told me that I was officially under arrest, and that I would be prosecuted. I was hand and leg cuffed, then moved by an Israeli vehicle to an interrogation centre, where I was further interrogated for 26 days, then sentenced to 18 months in prison,” Hassan continued.

“It was like a trap. When I submitted the request to accompany my wife, they already knew my background and profession and still granted me the permit to facilitate my detention.”

Islam Abdu, a spokesperson for the Gaza Ministry of Detainees and ex-Detainees’ Affairs, told MEE that eight Palestinians from Gaza had been detained at the Erez border since the beginning of 2023, including cancer patient Ahmed Abu Awwad, 55, who was released a month later, and Naim al-Sharif, 63, who was accompanying his wife for medical treatment.

“In many cases, the Erez crossing serves as a tool to detain Gaza residents. The Israeli occupation grants them exit permits to bring them, then detain and punish them,” Abdu said.

“We have documented several cases where the Israeli authorities detained patients and family members accompanying them, including patients with critical conditions who needed urgent medical treatment.”

Losing hope for treatment

After several weeks, when his wife was allowed to visit him in prison, Hassan knew that she still had not undergone the surgery, and that her condition was worsening.

Khaldiya told MEE that since her husband’s detention, she had submitted three applications for medical treatment in the occupied West Bank.

She still has not received permission.

“I now can barely see; I am slowly losing my vision and the worst part is that I suffer from enormous pain. I am living on painkillers,” she said. “I feel that my eyeballs are going to fall out of my face. I spend the nights between the kitchen and my bedroom as I try to relieve the pain with ice.

“During the long hours of waiting at the Erez border that day, I was terrified that he would get detained. We arrived at eight in the morning and only at around 11 at night was I informed that he was detained and that I was denied entry. I burst into tears and went back home as I could not do anything about it.”

Khaldiya Abumustafa (L) sat next to her husband in their home in the Gaza Strip on 23 April 2023 following his release from Israeli jail (MEE/Mohammed al-Hajjar)
Khaldiya Abumustafa (L) sat next to her husband in their home in the Gaza Strip on 23 April 2023 following his release from Israeli jail (MEE/Mohammed al-Hajjar)

Since Hassan was the family’s main breadwinner, his wife, children and mother, who is living with them, faced difficulties covering their expenses during his imprisonment.

The Palestinian Authority's Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees granted his family a monthly stipend of 1,800 Israeli shekels (US $500), but his wife used to send him 700 shekels (US $200) to buy necessary food and cover his basic needs inside prison.

“The cafeteria inside the prison provides basic and supposedly cheap items with very high prices. Seven hundred shekels could barely cover his basic needs.” Khaldiyya added.

Today, Khaldiya is seeking to undergo the surgery in Gaza as an alternative, after she lost hope she would be granted an Israeli permit.

“They are punishing us for crimes we did not commit, we have to find a solution with what we have.”

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