Here’s what Anhar al-Dik, a Palestinian woman of 25 and the mother of a toddler, wrote from Damon Prison, south of Haifa, where she was incarcerated in her ninth month of pregnancy: “You are familiar with the C-section. How will it be performed inside the prison, with me handcuffed and alone? I am really worn out. My pelvis is very painful, and my legs hurt from sleeping on a prison bed,” she wrote in a letter conveyed to her family by her lawyer. “I have no idea where I will be after the operation and how I will take my first steps after the birth with the help of an Israeli guard who will hold my hands in disgust.
“They will place me in isolation with my baby after the birth, because of the coronavirus. My heart aches over that. I have no idea how I will look at him or how I will protect him from frightening noises. It doesn’t matter how strong I am, I will feel helpless in the face of the harm they are doing to me and to the other prisoners.
“I ask every free person of honor to do something, even with words, for the sake of this infant. Responsibility for him depends on everyone who can help. I miss you, Julia, my daughter: I wish I could hug you and press you to my heart. It is impossible to express in words the pain in my heart. What will I do if I have to give birth far away from you – with my hands bound?”
Until Thursday evening, it appeared she would have to give birth next week under tight security at an Israeli hospital. But then a military judge, Major Sivan Omer, decided to release her on a 40,000-shekel bail and place her under house arrest at her mother’s home, where she’s under surveillance, which includes medical observation and a weekly check-in at the Modiin Illit police station. Perhaps the birth will be a little bit easier after all.
Her family nevertheless wondered why she had to be jailed at all, and for so long. According to her family, since her first pregnancy, Anhar has suffered from bipolar personality disorder and depression. That is the only explanation, they say, for what she did last March 8, when she abandoned 2-year-old Julia and went to the unauthorized, illegal settler outpost of Sde Ephraim not far from her home, where she took a kitchen knife and tried to stab a woman, according to the indictment. She was in her fourth month at the time and was remanded in custody until the conclusion of the proceedings against her – which are still going on – in one of Israel’s grimmest and shabbiest prisons, after being charged with attempted assault. The court did not recognize her difficult mental state. And Israel shows no pity for Palestinians, even if they’re pregnant.
A visit to her family’s home, in the village of Nima in the central West Bank. Aisha, Anhar’s mother, is 61, and Muthea, Anhar’s older brother, a dentist – he obtained his degree in Russia – is 43. Anhar was never active politically, he tells us.
Julia, in pigtails, scampers among us. She kisses her mother’s image on the cell-phone screen, and her face lights up with joy. “Mama, mama.” In the photo her mother is a smiling, pretty woman. The family says her life swerves between good and bad periods.
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Anhar graduated from a nursing school in Ramallah, but never worked in the profession. She married a local man, a 30-year-old clerk named Thaar al-Haj’a. A photo of the two on an outing shows a young couple during what looks like a moment of happiness.
A month after she became pregnant with Julia, her family noticed radical changes in Anhar’s behavior. On one occasion she shut herself in the house and shuttered the door and windows, in an apparent panic attack. Another time she set fire to the curtains, and once she went up to the roof and threatened to jump. In all of these cases, she didn’t remember anything afterward. There were also attacks of rage and violence against her family, including against Julia, and bouts of depression.
Psychiatrist Dr. Zvi Fishel, director of closed ward No. 3 at Israel’s Geha Mental Health Center, confirms that pregnancy can definitely cause an outbreak of mental illness or the onset of mental instability, though the phenomenon is more common after birth.
Anhar was taken to two psychiatrists. The first, Dr. Abdel-fattah Alawi, from Ramallah, prescribed medication, which helped for a very short time, before she fell back into depression. Afterward Dr. Samah Jaber, a mental health specialist from Kufr Aqab, prescribed a different medication.
Until March 8, Anhar’s life fluctuated between stability and depression, punctuated by attacks of anger. On that day, International Women’s Day, her husband went to work in the morning and she remained alone with Julia.
Haj’a’s family owns land on Jabal al-Risan, a hilltop that settlers from the Sde Ephraim illegal outpost seized by force. The family used to go on picnics there. On February 5, a settler named Eitan Ze’ev killed Khaled Nofal – a 34-year-old accountant who was married and had a child – from the nearby village of Ras Karkar, after he arrived, unarmed, at the outpost’s entrance in the middle of the night under unclear circumstances. The same settler was later accused of shooting another Palestinian and is on trial on a charge of aggravated assault.
At around 9 A.M. on that day in March, Anhar suddenly left her house, without telling anyone, leaving little Julia alone. Almost immediately, her husband’s father, who lives in the same building, noticed that his granddaughter was alone and called the child’s father and Anhar’s brother. The family organized quickly. Nothing good, they knew, could come from Anhar’s disappearance; it was clear that she could be dangerous to herself and also to her surroundings, and could also get lost. The family split up into three search parties. Anhar’s brother, Muthea, and her father-in-law, Ahmed Haj’a, 50, set out for Jabal al-Risan, the other two went in different directions.
Then her brother and her father-in-law spotted her wandering on the hill near the outpost, which is about two kilometers from her home, as the crow flies. They were too far away to signal her and were also afraid to approach. Encountering a settler grazing his flock, they told him about Anhar’s mental state and that she was pregnant, and asked him to inform the other settlers.
According to the indictment that was submitted by military prosecutors in April to the court in the Ofer base, Anhar took a knife from the outpost’s kitchen and tried to stab a settler. The woman was not hurt, but Anhar was struck and injured by someone. The indictment states that a settler threatened her with a pistol and she dropped the knife. She was next seen three days later via video from the courtroom, where she had been brought after her arrest, her face injured and bruised.
In the meantime, settlers, police officers and soldiers saw Muthea and Ahmed, and bound and detained them. Initially suspected of cooperating with the attempted attack by Anhar, they were taken for interrogation and released about an hour later. They explained the circumstances of the incident and Anhar’s condition to the Shin Bet security service agents who questioned them. Anhar, they were told, had been taken to a hospital for medical treatment and was under arrest. The two were certain she would soon be released, given her condition. But half a year later, she was still in jail. Throughout this entire period she was allowed only one visit, by her husband – and she cried the whole time. Phone calls were out of the question, of course.
Her lawyer, Akram Samara, requested Anhar’s release on medical grounds several times, but a court-ordered examination carried out by an Israeli physician found her fit to stand trial. Attorney Samara requested a second opinion. He also suggested that Anhar be transferred to the mental health center in Ramallah instead of being detained in jail. A physician speaking on behalf of the family noted that there was serious concern that giving birth in prison, all alone, would further aggravate her mental state.
On Monday this week, the family was informed that the birth had been moved up to September 10, instead of the originally scheduled date, September 20. The couple decided at the start of the pregnancy to name the little boy Ala. Under law, he is allowed to stay with his mother in prison until the age of 2. If she is jailed again, Anhar will be the first Palestinian woman with a baby in an Israeli prison since 2008.
The Israel Prison Service told Haaretz this week that they are ready to deal with the infant in Damon.
This week, in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and outside Damon itself, small groups of demonstrators called for Anhar’s release. They have managed to ease the cruel decree, albeit late and in a limited manner.