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par Charlotte SILVER
Palestinian prisoners are being held in painful positions for up to 35 hours, according to a new report. The Israel Security Agency, known as the Shin Bet, is confining detainees to filthy cells smaller than the size of an adult body stretched out, the report also reveals.
Compiled by the Israeli human rights organizations HaMoked and B’Tselem, the report focuses on the Shikma interrogation center in Ashkelon, a city in present-day Israel. It is based on 116 affidavits from Palestinian “security prisoners”, most of whom were still under detention when they testified. The detainees –the majority men under the age of 25 from the Hebron area of the occupied West Bank– recalled their arrest, transfer, interrogation and holding conditions to attorneys while sitting behind a glass partition, with their legs tied to the chair and under the supervision of a prison guard.
The report is a product of a three-year investigation. More than half of those interviewed reported they were forbidden to meet a lawyer or denied access to the International Committee of the Red Cross for all or part of their time at Shikma. That is despite how Israel’s own prison rules stipulate that a prisoner must be allowed access to the Red Cross within two weeks of detention.
The report also highlights the collaboration between the Palestinian Authority Preventive Security force and Shin Bet. Thirty-nine of the detainees interviewed were arrested and interrogated by the Palestinian Authority before being arrested by Israel. Most of those were arrested by Israel less than a month after being released by the PA, and usually interrogated about the same matters. Adi Awawdeh, 21, was detained by the PA for 70 days, during which he was physically and mentally tortured. Just a week after he was released, Awawdeh was arrested by Israel. When he arrived at Shikma, his interrogator showed him his file from the PA and said, “Here’s your file. It’s all ready. Do you want to add anything and save us some time ?”
The report accuses the doctors at the detention facility of complicity in the torture program. One 18-year-old high school student had a swollen face because of the beating he received by soldiers on the way to Shikma. Although the student also had epilepsy, mental health issues and a head injury resulting from being hit by shrapnel two years earlier, a doctor at the center pronounced him to be healthy. The student was not provided with regular medication during his 44 days at the center. After losing consciousness while being tied to a chair on one occasion, a doctor gave him painkillers and his interrogation continued.
The report notes that the ill-treatment at Shikma is far from isolated. It makes clear that the interrogation system followed in the center was shaped by the Israeli state and describes cruel and degrading treatment as “inherent” to the Shin Bet’s policies. Israel’s justice ministry has responded to the report dismissively, charging the authors with “distorting the existing reality” to advance an agenda on the basis of “several isolated incidents”.
But in fact the interrogation methods described in the report bear a striking resemblance to the methods the Israeli government and judiciary have already sanctioned. In 1987, the state-appointed Landau Commission reviewed the Shin Bet’s interrogation methods. Headed by Moshe Landau, a former president of the Israeli high court, the commission concluded that both physical and psychological “pressure” were necessary to defend Israel against “hostile terrorist activity”. “Terrorism”, according to the Landau Commission, included essentially any activity related to Palestinian nationalism. An unpublished annex to the commission’s report listed interrogation tactics that it deemed acceptable. That list has been approved by the Israeli state. In 1999, Israel’s high court ostensibly banned the Shin Bet from using the list of Landau-approved techniques, but left the option available in cases of “ticking bombs”. This exception was regularly invoked after the second intifada broke out only two years later. The decision gave Israel a legal framework within which it could torture that the United States would later replicate.
According to the US Senate report on torture published in 2014, the CIA argued in 2001 that “the Israeli example” could be used “as a possible basis for arguing that torture was necessary to prevent imminent, significant, physical harm to persons, where there is no other available means to prevent the harm”. Israel’s torture and abuse has never been reserved for “ticking bombs”.
Firas Misk, a 24-year-old from Hebron, was arrested while working in Tel Aviv without a permit to be in Israel. “They banged my head against the wall several times … At least three of them sat on top of me, beating the hell out of me, punching and hitting my head and chest with clubs”, Misk said.
The new report demonstrates that physical violence begins immediately upon arrest, which frequently occurs in the middle of the night. “Imagine being in bed with your wife and soldiers coming in just like that. I woke up to see a soldier in front of me, pointing a gun at me”, Ashraf Asfur, a 34-year-old student and farmer from Hebron, said.
Violence upon arrest can consist of slamming a detainee’s head against the wall to beating sessions that last up to an hour and a half. One detainee reported that he was beaten until he passed out.
The very little food the prisoners receive once they arrived at Shikma was reportedly not fit for human consumption. Detainees report being given dishes of raw, moldy and foul-smelling food, sometimes uncooked chicken and rotten eggs. At Shikma, interrogation sessions can last more than 24 hours. The detainees were held there for between three and 58 days. During their interrogations, detainees were placed in non-standard chairs that force them into straining positions. For instance, their chairs would be tilted backwards or forwards or the legs weren’t even. Some reported that their chair had a fifth leg that was affixed to the ground in the middle of the chair, so that they would swirl around on their chair throughout the interrogation. In their cell, detainees were provided filthy, threadbare blankets, too thin to give them any respite from their cold cells that were infested with cockroaches, flies and other insects. Many prisoners developed fungal infections and other skin problems.
Some detainees were held in solitary confinement for 18 consecutive days. “A solitary confinement cell : it’s like a grave, with yellow light and no window”, said Nur al-Atrash, a 25-year-old from Hebron. “They pump in really cold air, you feel helpless. There were times when I started banging my head against the wall, I didn’t know what else to do”. Awad Ghaidan, a 21-year-old owner of a car parts store from Qibya, also likened his cell to a grave. “You start dreaming and imagining stuff”, he said. “Sometimes I asked myself whether I was dead or alive”.