Israel Held 82-year-old Gaza Woman With Alzheimer’s for Two Months as an ‘Unlawful Combatant’

Israeli soldiers arrested Fahamiya Khalidi in early December at a school in Gaza after she fled her home due to IDF shelling. She was moved to Damon prison, where she was refused a meeting with an attorney and was only freed after an appeal

The Israel Defense Forces and the Israel Prison Authority arrested and imprisoned for almost two months an 82-year-old Gaza woman who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. She was jailed under the Incarceration of Unlawful Combatants Law. Because she was considered an unlawful combatant, Damon Prison in Israel’s north also refused a request by a lawyer from the Israeli organization Physicians for Human Rights to meet with her. She was released two weeks ago after an appeal was filed over the refusal to permit her to meet with the lawyer.

Fahamiya Khalidi, who was born in 1942, was arrested in the Gaza Strip at the beginning of December by Israeli soldiers. At the time, she was sheltering in a school in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood after leaving her home due to Israeli bombardments.

As a result of her medical condition and the fact that her children live abroad, she had a full-time caregiver with her. The caregiver was also arrested but was not released when Khalidi was, and as far as we know is still in custody. Many of the details regarding Khalidi’s incarceration remain unknown because, since her release, she hasn’t been able to reconstruct what happened to her.

Khalidi’s daughter and sons knew of their mother’s arrest from neighbors, but they were unable to find out where she was. Since the beginning of the war in Gaza on October 7, Israel has refused to provide families and human rights organizations with any information about the whereabouts of Gaza’s detainees.

Physicians for Human Rights learned by chance that Khalidi was being held at Damon Prison. A lawyer from another human rights organization visited West Bank female prisoners and heard from them about an elderly prisoner from Gaza who wasn’t speaking and was functioning with difficulty. The lawyer notified the family and passed along Khalidi’s personal details to Physicians for Human Rights.

On December 27, Muna Abu al-Younes Khatib, a lawyer for PHR, filed a request to meet with the elderly woman from Gaza. On December 31, a response arrived from Damon Prison stating the following: “Incarcerated [women] are prevented from meeting with a lawyer until February 21, 2024 based on a decision of the responsible official by virtue of Section 6A of the 2002 law on the incarceration of unlawful combatants.”

According to Israel Prison Service data, as of the end of December, 661 individuals who had been declared unlawful combatants were imprisoned in its facilities. They included 10 male juveniles who were 16 or 17 years old, one female juvenile and 42 adult women. That would mean that one of the women was Khalidi. The figures do not include Gazans who are still being held in IDF facilities.

The 2002 law defines unlawful combatants as anyone who has directly or indirectly participated in hostile acts against the State of Israel and who is not entitled to prisoner-of-war status according to the Geneva Convention. Based on a 2023 amendment, the law only permits such prisoners to meet with a lawyer 30 days after their incarceration, and the official at the prison who is responsible for implementing the law is authorized to extend the period without access to a lawyer to up to 75 days – as was done in Khalidi’s case.

On January 10, the prison’s denial of a meeting was appealed by another lawyer, Tamir Blank, who also provided a medical report from June last year that stated that Khalidi was suffering from a range of medical problems and had difficulty walking, in addition to being an Alzheimer’s patient. Blank also noted that he did not have a signed power of attorney because Khalidi had been denied a meeting with the Physicians for Human Rights lawyer. The following day, Haifa District Court Judge Ron Shapiro gave the Haifa state prosecutor’s office until January 14 to respond.

Einat Shterman Cohen of the Haifa prosecutor’s office responded at the last moment that the meeting would be permitted “beyond the letter of the law … [since the lawyers appealing on Khalidi’s behalf] should not be viewed as representing the appellant” in the absence of a signed power of attorney form. Prison officials scheduled a meeting for Khalidi with the Physicians for Human Rights lawyer for Sunday, January 21.

But on January 19, Khalidi was released from Damon Prison along with five other women who had been deemed “unlawful combatants.” PHR learned about Khalidi’s release by chance, again.

This time, too, a lawyer from another organization who was visiting the prison heard that six women from Gaza, including Khalidi, were being released. PHR’s efforts to obtain more information from the prosecutor’s office, at least to arrange for someone to wait for her on her return to Gaza, were unsuccessful.

Various media reports provided a bit of information about her situation in prison. Based on what was said by one of the other Gaza women who was released, it could be concluded that she had sometimes gone to the prison infirmary in handcuffs. Since she had difficulty walking, she was in a wheelchair. Khalidi was not the only elderly and ill female prisoner there, the other prisoner said. The six released female prisoners were driven to the vicinity of the Kerem Shalom Gaza border crossing along with 18 male prisoners. They were not familiar with the area, and when they began walking away, soldiers fired over their heads and yelled at them to come back so that they could be sent in the proper direction, another prisoner recounted. The soldiers, she claimed, still continued firing after they were redirected.

On the Palestinian side of the border crossing, there is an UNRWA tent where the released prisoners are received. Khalidi was sent from there to a hospital in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, where she still remains. The hospital contacted someone with the same last name – who had been displaced by the war from the Shati refugee camp. He immediately came to visit her, but it transpired that they are not related.

In a video of their meeting posted on social media, he is seen trying in vain to ask her about her identity and her past weeks’ experience. He is also seen reading from her identification card (which states that she was born in Lydda, in what is now central Israel).

The reporter of Falastin television channel, who interviewed the two released prisoners, tried unsuccessfully to have a conversation with Khalidi as well. The women recounted that before being brought to Damon, they were in a detention center that they described as being in “the mountains” – apparently referring to Anatot military facility outside Jerusalem – where they said that they were questioned for ten minutes a day for several days.

Naji Abbas, director of Physicians for Human Rights’ prisoners department, who was in regular contact with Khalidi’s family and coordinated his organization’s handling of her case, said the prolonged imprisonment of an 82-year-old woman who was also suffering from Alzheimer’s disease raises questions regarding the grounds for the arrest and the identities of a considerable number of Gazans who are being held by the IDF or the Israel Prison Service. He also told Haaretz that his organization has received reports of other people in their 80s and 90s whom the IDF had arrested and whose families have not been contacted.

In response to this article, the Israel Prison Service said: “The prisoner was received at the prison service on December 10, 2023. She was held for 30 days until her release. During that period, she was held in accordance with the law.”

But according to witness accounts, and contrary to the prison service’s statement, she was released on January 19, more than 30 days after her arrival to Damon.

The prison service did not respond to Haaretz’s query whether Khalidi had been examined by a doctor and whether based on such an examination, Damon Prison decided that she was an unlawful combatant who shouldn’t be allowed to meet with a lawyer. The prison service also didn’t respond to the query about whether prison authorities didn’t find it strange to consider a woman in her condition as an unlawful combatant.

The Shin Bet security service and the Justice Ministry were both asked if Khalidi was questioned by the Shin Bet security service and whether the IDF, the prison service and/or the Shin Bet have the authority to release from prison someone arrested under the unlawful combatants law if it turns out that they are not combatants and are also incapable of providing information. The Justice Ministry said the questions should be referred to the Shin Bet and the Shin Bet did not respond. The IDF spokesperson’s response did not arrive before print time.