Freed Palestinian prisoner recounts torture and mistreatment in Israeli jails
Mukhlis Burghal, a Palestinian prisoner who was freed in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, recalls, “[The] torture keeps changing: beatings, isolation, tear gas, suspension of family visits.” And after spending over 24 years in Israeli prisons, Burghal looks towards the future.
After more than two decades in Israeli prisons, Burghal is getting used to things like cellular technology. “I want to be with my family, stay in my city, get to know it and get to know the people once again,” Burghal says. (Photo: German Krimer)
Mukhlis Burghal grins like a child each time his mobile rings. He has become addicted to cellular technology since he discovered it just ten days ago.
“I´m in love with it; I have it on me everywhere I go”, Burghal, 49, confesses with a boyish smile that clashes with his white hair. His face is kind; his manners remarkably relaxed for a man who spent over 24 years in Israeli prisons. He discusses both his time in jail and his new-found freedom under the shade of lemon and tangerine trees behind his family home in Lod, not far from Tel Aviv.
On October 18, Burghal was released along with 476 Palestinians in exchange for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who as captured by Hamas more than five years ago. Burghal seems neither sad nor angry. He is far too interested in “absorbing,” as he puts it, everything: the new unfamiliar objects, like cell phones; the old things he has forgotten; and the memories that helped him survive beatings and mistreatment–people and places that are becoming alive once again.
“This is like being born again. It´s what I feel; I´m being reborn”, he says, as he glances at his five-year-old niece playing nearby.
During Burghal’s first free night, his house was full of people. Relatives, friends and neighbours had gathered to celebrate the day they had been waiting for since September 11th, 1987, when Israeli policemen arrested Burghal for throwing a grenade at a bus full of Israeli soldiers. Although the grenade did not go off and nobody died, a military court sentenced him to life imprisonment. 17 years later, his sentence was reduced to 40 years in prison.
But no one was thinking of those difficult times on the night Burghal was released.
“The most impressive and rejoicing part was seeing and feeling people. My family, all the citizens in my city, the Arab citizens, and many people from around here and from all over the country. I felt and saw happiness in the eyes of those people; this was what impressed me most and made me really happy,” he recalls, his eyes clouded by emotion.
Close to midnight, the house was still crowded, but Burghal and two of his brothers snuck away and went to their father´s grave. He died in 1991 and Burghal had never had the chance to say goodbye to him, to lay flowers on his tomb, or to or hug his mother. Burghal had not been allowed any calls, letters, or visits other than the regular 30-minute visit every fortnight (oin recent years, visits have been extended to 45 minutes).
Mukhlis had another “small dream” to achieve. In less than half an hour, the three men were barefoot, enjoying the sand of Jaffa beach. Above them, the stars and the moon projected a show of light and shadow, a show Mukhlis could only dream of for the last 24 years.
As he looks back, the grey-haired man who plays with his mobile with a shy smile does not speak with regret; nor does he make a stern statement in favor of the armed struggle or the “Palestinian revolution.”
“What will become of my life?” he wonders aloud. “The first thing I want is to spend a long time with my mother, I want to make her happy. I want to be with my family, stay in my city, get to know it and get to know the people once again. I want to reach a point where I can feel normal in this new life. I want to visit my brothers who live abroad, too. And then, maybe in a year or two, I´ll plan something out. For the time being, I can´t make any plans. All in all, I don´t see myself too distant from the activities for the community”.
The only time Burghal’s youthful smile fades is when he remembers his friends who are still behind bars.
“The hardest thing is to know there´s not much I can do for them. After so many years of sharing hardships they become your family. Their families are my family and mine is theirs”, he says, as he looks at his brother, who visited him every month during the quarter of a century he spent in prison.
Over the last few days, his family has learned about Burghal’s suffering–the mistreatment and deprivation he had to endure inside the prison.
“The initial questioning is one of the most difficult moments, the hardest”, Burghal says, touching his head. “My head ended up with 14 stitches.”
Halfway through his jail time, he received another severe beating that resulted in 16 stitches in his head, a punctured lung, a broken rib, and a dislocated jaw.
“[The] torture keeps changing: beatings, isolation, tear gas, suspension of family visits,” he recalls, with an emotional detachment that makes his story even harder to hear.
Transfers from one jail to another were another method of torture. Prisoners sometimes travel for up to ten hours, inside a metal box, with metal seats, with hands and feet cuffed together. They stop for two or three hours at each prison where, if they are lucky, guards may allow them to go to a bathroom.
“The food is thrown inside the truck in plastic bags,” he says. “I myself always avoided eating during those trips because all cuffed up and very uncomfortable, I ended up vomiting.”
But one of the most difficult mistreatment that Palestinian prisoners endure is shoddy–or no– medical attention, given on the whim of the Israeli authorities. Burghal remembered three of his mates who died from asthma attacks and another one who caught AIDS after the prison dentist used an old needle.
“That shows how much they care for us,” Burghal says.
Burghal had to face three medical issues during his long stay in prison; one in the knee, another one in his back, and the third in his teeth. For the first two, after having all the pre-surgery check-ups, doctors decided that the operations were “not necessary.” Now, Burghal is planning to undergo surgery abroad.
His teeth, on the other hand, turned into a legal battle which left a bitter taste in his mouth: “I managed to get a doctor from outside but once the treatment started, they called it off. So now it´s not finished. I was told I had to make a new request for the treatment since they wanted to study my case once again.”
Burghal has a thousand stories to tell from his life in prison; in these 24 years the world has changed and so has he. He went in as a 25-year-old and, now, he is 49. He went in a young man with his whole life ahead of him and came out a veteran whose prison mates called “Uncle.”
But he would rather not give too much thought to the years that passed and all he missed. He wants to travel, enjoy his family, and feel normal again. At midlife, Mukhlis wants to be reborn.