Help Came Too Late for Jafar Awad in Israeli Jail

Suffering from a rare disease while serving time in an Israeli prison, months went by before Awad was hospitalized and given a diagnosis. To no avail. After his funeral, soldiers shot and killed his cousin.

Alex Levac

It’s a jarring poster of death: Jafar Awad is lying unconscious in a Hebron hospital, a breathing tube thrust into his mouth, while his close friend and cousin, Ziyyad Awad, is leaning over his bed. Within 12 hours both young men in the picture will be dead.

Jafar died last Friday before dawn; 12 hours later, Ziyyad was shot to death by Israel Defense Forces soldiers, on his way back from the funeral. Jafar languished in an Israeli prison, apparently suffering from a rare disease, until his release. His death provoked rage in his hometown of Beit Umar, near Hebron, where the general sentiment is that Jafar did not get proper medical treatment during his incarceration. Now the town is mourning for two of its sons: Jafar, a 22-year-old student, and Ziyyad, 28, who was married and had two children.

A cold wind lashed the mourners’ tent, which was deserted when we arrived one morning this week. Soon, however, young people from the town showed up to clean and organize the huge tent and the adjacent meeting hall, to the sounds of songs of lamentation for the dead. There was a palpably fraught atmosphere, with the pounding of drums heard via loudspeakers, the gusts of wind, the photographs of the town’s martyrs on the walls, and the dozens of grim-faced men who gathered and sat in the rows of chairs.

Ibrahim Awad, Jafar’s father, was there, too. He’s 44, a physical education teacher. When Jafar, his firstborn, came into the world, he was in prison. His son was brought for him to see for the first time, through the bars that separate visitors from inmates, when the baby was a month old. It wasn’t until four years later, when he was released, that Ibrahim was able to hug the boy.

For his part, Jafar was arrested for the first time when he was 17; he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for being a member of Islamic Jihad and for throwing stones. After his release he enrolled in a private college in Ramallah, where he was studying to be a legal assistant.

On November 1, 2013, soldiers arrived at the Awad home in the dead of night and arrested Jafar for the second time, ostensibly due to activities with Islamic Jihad. He was remanded in custody until the conclusion of the proceedings against him but the proceedings never concluded.

In June 2014, when Jafar’s mother, Zinat, visited him in prison she saw that his features had changed. He was thin, weak and distressingly pale. Afterward, his condition continued to deteriorate. The family was later given tattered plastic bag holding the results of hundreds of medical tests administered by the Israel Prison Service’s health-care system.

A few weeks later, Jafar lost consciousness and was taken to Assaf Harofeh Hospital, at Tzrifin, near Ramle, where he spent two weeks in intensive care. His parents were contacted but they were only allowed to spend half an hour a day with him.

His father recalls now that four prison guards kept watch over his son, who was bound to the bed by his hands and feet, even when he was unconscious and on a respirator. In the autumn of 2013, he was transferred to the IPS clinic in Ramle.

Last summer, when Operation Protective Edge raged in the Gaza Strip, his parents were flatly denied permission to visit Jafar – as were all families of prisoners suspected of membership in Islamic Jihad or Hamas. They received only scraps of information about their son’s condition, from relatives of Fatah organization prisoners, who maintained their visiting rights.

The months passed and Jafar’s condition worsened. The Awads hired the services of attorney Jawad Boulos, who finally managed to bring about Jafar’s early release from prison on medical grounds.

But on January 21, Jafar, weak and frail, was taken by ambulance from the Ramle clinic to Al Ahli Hospital in Hebron. His father says the family had to pay 40,000 shekels (about $10,000) before their son could be released. That night Jafar lost consciousness again, but before that, his father says, his son told him that Shin Bet security service agents offered to arrange treatment for him if he became a collaborator.

A spokesperson for the Shin Bet said in response to that claim: “As you know, the Shin Bet does not comment on its operational activities. However, the claim that it conditioned the medical treatment of Jafar Awad on his agreement to collaborate totally lacks any basis in fact or connection to reality.”

Some residents of Beit Umar accuse the Israeli occupation authorities of implanting the disease in Jafar. The bereaved father, for his part, is demanding an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the circumstances of his son’s death.

In response to a query from Haaretz, Sivan Weizman, spokeswoman of the IPS, stated: “The case in question involves a prisoner who became ill before his incarceration and who received treatment and tests during that period. [There was] hospitalization and follow-up at civilian facilities, as needed, but we cannot discuss this for reasons of medical confidentiality. The security arrangements and the unusual approval of visits were done according to regulations, on one hand, out of consideration for his medical situation, and on the other, due to the danger he posed.”

Jafar apparently contracted an extremely rare disease. The initial symptoms included eye problems, rapid pulse and high blood sugar. According to a medical report from February 14, compiled by Dr. Abed El-Raouf Bayya, from Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem – where Jafar was transferred from the Hebron hospital, at the family’s request – based on diagnoses made at Assaf Harofeh and at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem during Jafar’s incarceration, he was suffering from Kearns-Sayre syndrome, a very rare condition. (According to the U.S.-based Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, KSS is a neuromuscular disorder resulting from abnormalities in the DNA of mitochondria – rod-like structures in the body’s cells that produce the energy that drives cellular functions. Its frequency is approximately 1 to 3 per 100,000 individuals.) However, the sea of medical documents also contain other peculiar findings.

In the months that followed, which turned out to be the last in his life, the family tried to have Jafar transferred to Israel for treatment. But no hospital agreed to admit him, they say. Subsequently, a hospital in Germany said it would accept Jafar, but that never happened, owing to the foot-dragging of the Palestinian Authority, which was to approve and pass on the necessary funding of 22,000 euros for treatment there.

Jafar weighed only 30 kilos (66 pounds) when he was moved to Augusta Victoria from the hospital in Hebron, which had been at a loss as to how to treat him. Before his arrest and the onset of the disease, he was healthy and weighed 76 kilos. Still, during his 24-day stay at Augusta Victoria, his condition improved. His weight rose to 57 kilos and he was released to his home.

He felt well last week on Wednesday, too. He and his father ate breakfast together, before the latter left for the school where he teaches. Jafar remained at home with his mother. Half an hour after he arrived at school, Ibrahim got a phone call from his brother: Jafar had lost consciousness. He was rushed by ambulance to Al-Mizan Hospital in Hebron, which tried – again, futilely – to transfer him to a hospital in Israel.

Two days later, last Friday, with the whole family at his side, Jafar died. His funeral took place the same day, and was attended by thousands.

Afterward, hundreds of enraged young people started to march toward the IDF checkpoint at the edge of the town and began throwing stones. Troops from the Golani infantry brigade lay in ambush for them in the skeleton of an old Israeli bus that was abandoned long ago in the town. The mourners were in the street, the remains of the bus stood on the slope below.

Ziyyad Awad was distraught at the death of his beloved friend and cousin; he had been with him until his final moments.

The soldiers shot at Ziyyad. He was hit in the stomach and died, the rounds apparently fired with a .22-caliber Ruger rifle. Three other people were wounded, two of them in their upper body. The Military Police launched an investigation.

Alongside the picture in the mourners tent of Ziyyad bending over Jafar is another photo. It shows Jafar in the Hebron hospital holding a note he wrote, a kind of last testament: “I, released prisoner Jafar Awad, say to the world: Free all the sick prisoners.”

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This article was amended on 19/4/2015 to add the fact that some mourners at Jafar Awad's funeral threw stones at IDF forces.