For Palestinian prisoner, return to Gaza brings anguish and shattered dreams

Youssef Mikdad, a former Palestinian prisoner recently released by Israel, meets with people, in Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza Strip

By Ramadan Abed

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza (Reuters) - During more than two decades in an Israeli prison, Palestinian Youssef Mikdad dreamed about one day returning to a prosperous Gaza Strip where he could make up for lost time with his children.

But when Mikdad finally tasted freedom and set foot in Gaza last week, he found his house destroyed and his homeland reduced to rubble, dust and twisted metal by Israeli bombardments.

Walking through neighbourhoods laid waste by air and artillery strikes, he came to Gaza's Mediterranean shoreline, where Palestinians displaced many times over by the Israeli offensive were living in tents on the beach.

Like every Gazan parent, he has to find a way to feed his family in a territory suffering shortages of food, fuel, power and medicine. Schools which would have provided an education to his grandchildren have been destroyed and few hospitals are functioning.

Mikdad's daughter Haya - his favourite child, he says - was just four years old when he was imprisoned. She perished in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City in March, one of more than 38,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza since the start of the war.

"I have five children, three sons and two daughters, this girl was the youngest and the best," he said.

He received the devastating news during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan - which he observed behind bars for years - that Haya had been killed along with her husband and four children.

"I didn't see her as a bride when she was married, but I longed to see her with her children. Every time I see a woman with young children, I think to myself this must be her," he said.

Mikdad, 63, was seized by Israeli forces from his house in a Gaza City suburb during a raid in 2002. He was sentenced after he was convicted of being a member of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah Palestinian faction.

He served time in several Israeli prisons. He recalls how at one point Palestinian prisoners were allowed to run their own affairs in jail, as each side learned to respect the other.

But the atmosphere changed radically after fighters led by the Palestinian group Hamas attacked communities in southern Israel on Oct. 7 last year, killing 1,200 people and taking about 250 hostages back to Hamas-run Gaza.

"Even animals have rights, but we humans for them didn't (have any rights). We have seen all forms of torture, even hunger," said Mikdad.

"There was no food, water, papers or any ways of communication, there was nothing. Prisoners were humiliated and crushed for 24 hours (a day)."

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment about prison conditions.

Widespread reports of mistreatment of detainees in Israeli prisons have added to international pressure on Israel for its conduct of the Gaza war, now in its tenth month. In May, the U.S. State Department said it was looking into allegations of Israeli abuse of Palestinian detainees.

Hamas, like other Palestinian factions, has long called for the release of the roughly 6,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails, an issue that has been part of talks aimed at ending the war.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Ros Russell)