Hatim Abu Sharia is a photographer who was attacked while doing his job.
On 28 May 2018, Hatim was covering the Great March of Return – regular protests called to demand respect for basic Palestinian rights.
Accompanied by a fellow photographer, he was close to Gaza’s boundary with Israel, when Israeli snipers began firing toward them.
Hatim and his colleague managed to find a hiding place, where they could avoid the snipers’ bullets.
While they were spared death, the two men were soon found by Israeli troops.
The soldiers captured both men and took them to the boundary.
“They made us take off all our clothes, except our underwear,” Hatim said. “They kept hitting us until my glasses were broken.”
Hatim and his colleague were handcuffed and driven to Erez, an Israeli military checkpoint.
“Even on the road, they [Israeli soldiers] kept beating us,” Hatim said.
That evening, the two men were taken to a prison in Ashkelon, a city in Israel. When they arrived, the prison’s administrators claimed it was too late for them to enter.
They had to spend the night outdoors, with Israeli personnel watching over them.
“We were still wearing only our underwear and handcuffed,” Hatim said. “And we were blindfolded.”
As it was Ramadan, the two men had been fasting all day. They were not offered anything to eat or drink by their captors that evening.
The following morning, the two men were brought into the prison.
It was the beginning of a lengthy period during which Hatim was subjected to extreme violence, both overtly physical and psychological.
“In almost every interrogation, they beat and tortured me,” he said.
Hatim was placed in solitary confinement. His conditions were extremely cramped.
“Sometimes they put me in a cell that was just 1.5 meters long,” he said. “I am 1.95 meters tall.”
Hatim was eventually put on trial in May 2019 – a year after his arrest.
He was charged with entering Israel unlawfully and photographing military facilities without authorization. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment (the sentence included the year he spent in pre-trial detention).
When he heard of his sentence, “I felt like I wanted to cry,” Hatim said. “But I didn’t want to break down in front of the Israeli authorities.”
During the trial, Hatim was kept in Nafha prison. The conditions there were a little better than in Ashkelon.
“I found people to speak with,” he said. “I could cut my hair and take a shower, after spending 53 days without bathing.”
Many other prisoners who he met had been handed sentences of 20 or 30 years. Knowing that his own sentence was shorter eased things slightly.
Hatim was held in Eshel – a prison in the city of Beersheba – but later transferred to Ketziot, which is located in the Naqab region. He was not given any reason for the transfer.
“Your name suddenly comes up for transfer,” he said. “They move you on a whim. You’ve built up friendships and suddenly you’re with new people.”
“They didn’t like seeing us happy”
Hatim found ways of defying his jailers.
Using smuggled mobile phones, he applied to sit the tawjihi, an exam taken before going to university.
Israel does not allow textbooks into prisons. To challenge that ban, Hatim had school books smuggled to him.
The books’ covers and initial 10 pages were altered so that the prison authorities would think that they belonged to the categories of permitted reading material.
Many other prisoners also sat the exams. As the number of textbooks were available, they developed a system whereby each prisoner would have a book for a week and then hand it over to others.
Exam papers are also not allowed. So one prisoner would have to communicate with a particular school, find out the exam questions and then circulate them among other prisoners.
Being able to overcome obstacles created a sense of camaraderie among the prisoners. When Hatim learned he had passed the exam, an impromptu party ensued.
Hearing prisoners break into song, the prison authorities demanded to know why so much noise was coming from the cells.
“They didn’t like seeing us happy,” Hatim said.
Hatim’s mother Fayqa sought permission – via the International Committee of the Red Cross – to visit him on numerous occasions.
All her requests were turned down.
First, Israel cited “security” as a pretext. Later, it invoked restrictions introduced amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following the death of his father in 2015, Hatim’s bonds with his mother became increasingly strong.
“Hatim was my right-hand man,” Fayqa said. “When he was imprisoned, I felt like I had lost him.”
The early stages of his detention were especially difficult. With almost no information available to her, Fayqa was uncertain that he was alive until he called her one day with a mobile phone smuggled into prison.
Eventually, Hatim was released in May this year.
“I shed tears of joy when I could hug him again,” Fayqa said. “The feeling was indescribable.”
Now aged 28, Hatim is trying to rebuild his life. He has just become engaged.
Numerous photographers and reporters were attacked during the Great March of Return.
Israel’s attacks on the press have continued since then. Such attacks caught the attention of the world’s media last year when Israeli forces killed Shireen Abu Akleh, a journalist with Al Jazeera, in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin.
While Abu Akleh’s killing prompted expressions of concern – so far toothless – from the United States (where she held citizenship) and the European Union, most violence against Palestinian media workers elicits no response from powerful governments.
Hatim Abu Sharia is among many whose plight has been ignored.
Mohammed Hamo is a journalist and translator based in Gaza.