Israel Is Imprisoning Palestinian Healthcare Workers, Including Our Mother and Sister, During a Pandemic

Shatha Odeh, who has been imprisoned by the Israeli army since July 7 on trumped-up charges.

By Khuloud and Shirin Odeh

Imagine that in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, a nurse and human rights leader working to provide healthcare in your community is arrested and imprisoned by a hostile foreign occupying army. This we need not imagine in Palestine — under Israel’s oppressive, more than half-century-old military rule, it is our reality.

Two months ago today, on July 7, Israeli soldiers barged into the home of our mother and sister, Shatha Odeh, in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank and arbitrarily detained her. Shatha, 60-years-old with underlying health conditions and a mother of three, works for the Health Work Committees (HWC), which provide health services to Palestinians living in remote areas. Unfortunately, she remains in detention today with her own health compromised. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, has called for the release of Shatha and two of her HWC colleagues, Tayseer Abu Sharbak and Juana Ruiz Sánchez, who have also been held in Israeli military prison since March and April 2021, respectively.

Several ago Shatha had her fifth hearing in a military court, in which she pleaded not guilty, and her imprisonment was extended until the next hearing on October 4. It was heartbreaking seeing her at her first hearing before the military court in July. She was shackled from her wrists and ankles, and our family members were not allowed to approach her or to give her a hug. Picturing her in shackles and behind bars is beyond painful.

Israeli authorities recently criminalized the HWC, deeming it an “illegal organization” under false pretenses and with no evidence provided. In reality, the HWC is guilty of carrying out effective human rights work in occupied Palestine. And for Israeli authorities, that is enough to land you in prison through its military court system, which has been condemned by human rights organizations as unjust and lacking due process.

The imprisonment of our mother and sister and attacks on HWC are part of a larger Israeli crackdown on Palestinian human rights defenders. According to the Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council (PHROC), rights advocates and civil society organizations have witnessed “a distressing increase in Israel’s harassment and attacks” of late, with a jarringly silent international community. On the same day as Shatha’s arrest, the Agricultural Work Committees were ordered closed by the Israeli military. On July 29, the only organization in Palestine focused solely on children’s rights, Defence for Children International-Palestine.

According to Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, there are currently 4,650 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, of whom 520 are being held without charge, 40 are women, and 200 are children. Shatha, Tayseer, and Juana are but a few of the 4,650 stories of political prisoners who have in one way or another spoken or acted to safeguard their rights.

Taking political prisoners is a common practice for oppressive regimes. Nelson Mandela was a political prisoner in apartheid, South Africa. Today, his memory lives on as a human rights icon who brought a nation together against systemic racism. The fight against apartheid in South Africa succeeded once the world came to terms with the true nature of the prevailing regime at the time and acted by launching global boycotts, which eventually helped the struggle to end systemic racism in South Africa.

A similar awakening is needed with regard to Palestine, especially at a time when the flow of information about the true nature of Israel’s policies is readily available for those who want to see it. Thankfully there are glimmers of hope this is happening. A growing number of experts like Human Rights Watch, members of Congress, and others are coming to understand that Israel has imposed an apartheid regime on Palestinians under its control, granting them inferior rights to Israeli Jews, or none at all, ethnically cleansing them and stealing their land. During Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in May, we witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of support for Palestinian freedom and rights from Americans and others around the world. Just recently, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream decided to end their sales in Israeli settlements built illegally on occupied Palestinian land.

Unfortunately, this evolution in US public opinion has not yet filtered up to the government, with the Biden administration and establishments of both major parties still clinging to the delusion that Israel is a liberal democracy that has shared values with the US.

It is imperative for those who believe in universal human rights to speak truth to power and not be intimidated into silence. We call on people of conscience to join our call for the immediate release of our mother and sister, and all Palestinian political prisoners and to put an end to the ongoing Israeli practice of targeting Palestinian civil society and silencing human rights defenders.

Shatha does not belong behind bars, she belongs back in her community and with her family and team of dedicated health and human rights defenders. We urge individuals, states, businesses, and investors to consider all means necessary, including economic pressure and sanctions, to alter Israel’s course of action and bring about an end to its systemic racism against Palestinians. Global action against South Africa brought an end to apartheid there; it can bring about change and an end to apartheid in Palestine.

Khuloud Odeh, Shatha’s sister, lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and works with The Urban Institute. Shirin Odeh is Shatha’s daughter and works as a legal researcher.

An independent nonprofit, the IMEU produces expert resources, including opinion, analysis, and digital content to raise awareness of Palestine and Palestinians.