Al-Ahram Weekly – 18 April 2002
Convoys of Israeli army buses were crossing the dusty plains of the Negev desert this week to a high-security military base near the Egyptian border. Inside was a human cargo — hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, blindfolded and handcuffed.
The reopening of the Ketziot prison camp is the first proof that Israel intends to imprison long term thousands of Palestinian men rounded up since the invasion of West Bank towns and villages began two weeks ago.
Ketziot can hold up to 7,000 prisoners in several blocks of tents and is likely to fill rapidly, human rights groups warn. The army, which has been continuing house-to-house searches, is holding more than 4,000 Palestinians at temporary detention centres.
Ketziot, nicknamed Ansar III by Palestinians after two notorious Israeli army prisons in south Lebanon and Gaza, is Israel’s version of America’s Camp X- Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Its new inmates, according to Sharon, are the foot-soldiers of the Palestinian “infrastructure of terror.”
Keeping it open will be a huge drain on Israeli resources, both financially and in terms of manpower. Thousands of reservists are likely to be called up to run it.
Hassib Nashashibi, of the Palestinian legal rights group, LAW, said the revival of the prison was the death blow to the Oslo peace process. “We are back to the mass arrests policy of the first Intifada; it’s reoccupation by other means.”
Even before the latest invasions Israeli security jails were bulging. The prison population has soared as hundreds of Palestinians, mainly labourers, have been arrested trying to cross into Israel.
The new wave of arrests will set Israel a far bigger challenge. Jails such as Nafha, also in the Negev, have already been cleared of criminals to make way for Palestinian detainees.
Many of the men, aged between 14 and 45 who have surrendered or been arrested in West Bank towns and villages have reported being forced to strip to their underwear.
After interrogation, most have been quickly released. Stories from these captives that they were beaten during questioning have been confirmed by the testimonies of at least one Israeli soldier working at the Ofer interrogation centre near Ramallah.
Leo Yavner, of the influential Israeli human rights organisation B’tselem, said it had presented evidence to the courts last week of torture, but the judges had refused to take action. “The guard told us that he had witnessed several men having their fingers and toes broken to extract information,” he said.
The new inmates at Ketziot are being held in tent compounds hidden from view behind high earth embankments. A checkpoint on the approach road and heavily armed watchtowers deter uninvited visitors.
Both the United Nations and the US State Department called for the closing of Ketziot during the first Intifada, pointing out that the transfer of prisoners out of their own country contravened the Geneva Convention.
The camp was also condemned for its dismal hygiene and health provisions, for making family visits almost impossible and for using tents unsuitable for desert conditions.
In addition, the UN Commission on Human Rights warned that Ketziot was a training ground for armed Palestinian groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It is a view confirmed by former inmates.
Jawad Natshee, 35, from Hebron, a member of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organisation, was held in Ketziot in the summer of 1990. He said: “On arrival, each new inmate would be assigned to a tent with people from our group. The Israeli guards never interfered.
During the day there was nothing to do so Fatah, Hamas, Jihad and the other groups would hold educational classes and debates in the tents. Group leaders would teach the less experienced men about Palestinian history and the armed struggle. We forged life-long bonds.”
Other inmates describe the harsh living conditions of Ketziot.
Auni Jabran, from Beit Sahour, who was arrested in 1988 aged 16 for belonging to Fatah and held for a total of 18 months, said: “The extremes of temperature make it a difficult place to live for months on end. Sometimes we would be made to stand outside in the desert sun for several hours. And at night, especially in the winter, the temperatures would plunge to below freezing. But we were provided only with light summer clothing all year round.”
Jabran and Natshee, like many of Ketziot’s inmates, were administrative detainees, imprisoned without a trial and on secret evidence.
Allegra Pachecho, a lawyer living in Bethlehem, said the first batches of prisoners sent to Ketziot included the 280 administrative detainees currently being held by Israel. She expects the number imprisoned without trial to rise sharply as Ketziot fills.
Others are worried by emergency measures hastily introduced by Israel to prevent prisoners from meeting a lawyer.
Hannah Friedman of the Public Committee against Torture in Israel says a collective military order issued last week gives the army and police the power to hold prisoners for 18 days without a hearing or access to a lawyer.
“It is the first time such an order has been used in Israel and erodes all the safeguards against abuse of power,” she said. “In the current climate, however, there is not much chance of successfully challenging it in the courts.”