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Martyred Palestinian Political Prisoner – Saadia Farajallah Matar

This women’s month, we mourn the passing of Saadia Farajallah Matar, whose life was cut short in July by slow killing and medical neglect, endemic to Israel’s carceral system. Matar passed away at the age of sixty-eight, while serving a five-year sentence in the notorious Damon prison. She is the 230th Palestinian since 1967 to die inside an Israeli prison, many of those due to the systematic policy of medical neglect, negligence, abuse and assassination.

Saadia Farajallah Matar was one of over over 500 ill Palestinian political prisoners languishing inside an Israeli prison. The state of Israel has long being accused of carrying out a policy of deliberate medical negligence – causing or exacerbating prisoners’ illnesses, before effectively killing them by denying them proper treatment. Palestinian prisoners receive treatment in Israel’s Ramleh prison clinic – also known as the “slaughterhouse,” because of how many people die during their time there.

Just a week before Matar’s death, she appeared in a wheelchair before an occupation military court. Her lawyers noted that she had severe health difficulties, including complications related to diametes and high blood pressure. Rather than allow her access to a specialised doctor as demanded, Israel’s military court imposed a fine of $4,400 USD (approximately 72,000 South African Rand) on her, and sentenced her to five years’ imprisonment. This sentence effectively rubber-stamped her death in prison.

Saadia Matar was one of thirty Palestinian women currently imprisoned inside Damon prison. The prison is located outside the 1967 occupied territory, which is a war crime itself. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Occupying Power must detain residents of occupied territory in prisons inside the occupied territory.

The prison itself was originally built as a horse stable and tobacco storage facility, meaning that it retains a significant amount of humidity. This worsens the already harsh living conditions, like the lack of fresh air and sunlight, that female prisoners are subject to. Many women suffer from rheumatism and dermatological problems due to the moisture infiltrating their cells in the winter. Cells are often dirty, overcrowded, and infested with insects. Israeli prison authorities have repeatedly refused to provide women prisoners with cleaning products, exacerbating illness and mental degradation.

Female prisoners, especially those in hijab, have their privacy and bodily integrity persistently violated inside Damon. The prison has an invasive surveillance system, which monitors prisoners inside their cells and in the prison yard. In addition, Israeli male soldiers are arbitrarily deployed to conduct routine inspections without warning the female prisoners.  The trauma of this gender-based intrusion into women’s bodies and personal spaces is often unaccounted for. While this form of gender-based violence is routine, it does not preclude Israeli warders from inflicting even more brutal and sinister crimes against women prisoners.

Palestinian women politcal prisoners have repeatedly complained about Israel’s use of strip and body searches, where women are forced to remove all their clothing and sometimes even subjected to internal body searches. According to Dr. Mahmoud Saiwail, the director of a treatment and rehabilitation center for victims of torture in Ramallah, strip searches of women prisoners can even amount to torture in certain circumstances.

Research has shown that Israeli prison forces intentionally exploit patriarchal norms and gender customs within Palestinian society to evoke fear in Palestinian women. Sexual assault is widely seen as a taboo topic, so post-assault rehabilitation is thus difficult to access. This imbues racist prison authorities to brazenly threaten and harrass women prisoners. Threats of rape and sexually degrading insults are recognised as a fundamental part of Palestinian women’s prison experience, and as a common and systematic form of racial and gender-based State violence.

Just days before Saadia Matar’s arrest, The Israeli Prison Sevices conducted an especially violent assault against female prisoners in Damon. The special forces of the Israeli Occupation Forces raided cells, physically assaulted women inmates, beat them and dragged Palestinian prisoners to other cells. Thereafter, a series of collective sanctions were imposed upon all prisoners, who were banned from family visits and access to the canteen. Some were forced into solitary confinement.

The brutal and dehumanising violence inflicted against Palestinian women prisoners, including frequent harassment, sexual assault, and strip-searching as a method of punishment, constitutes a horrific violation of international human rights law. This, coupled with gross medical negligence, sets the dystopian context wherein Saadia Matar spent her last days.

Matar officially passed away after a sudden heart attack, but it may just as well have been heartbreak that killed her. The elderly mother of eight was the subject of a lifetime of trauma under illegal zionist occupation, which intensified dramatically during her final months. From being attacked and physically assaulted by settlers, to violent arrest, administrative detention, and ultimately her death sentence – Saadiya Matar faced the brutality of apartheid Israel from her cradle to her grave.

Israel’s carceral system is an integral part of its colonial system of domination, fragmentation, and dispossession. As Matar’s experience proves, women are by no means exempt from such tragic violence. At least 230 Palestinians have died in Israeli custody since 1967. Many Palestinian organisations have called for international probes into Israeli prison violence.

As the Palestine Solidarity Alliance, we echo these calls and stress the need for urgent investigations into Israel’s system of apartheid by the international community. We endorse the calls for Boycott, Divestment, and SAnctions against Israel, recognising the need to bring accountability to a dangerously unjust regime. Saadia Farajallah Matar would not have lived and died in such tragic circumstances if the internaitonal community took action against the racist ideology of zionism.


Mahfouz Raffee