Al-Ahram Weekly – 25 April 2002
Lawyers and international observers are excluded from Ofer detention camp at Betunia, near Ramallah, where it is believed 1,400 prisoners are currently being held. More than 5,000 Palestinians have passed through the camp since the start of Israel’s “Defensive Shield” operation.
Seven leading Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations were due to appear before Israel’s high court today to demand that they be allowed to see conditions at the camp.
New emergency laws permit Israel to hold suspects for up to 18 days without access to a lawyer or a hearing before a judge. Detainees have then either been released or sent on to military prisons such as Ketziot in the Negev desert and Megiddo in northern Israel.
But the accounts of released Palestinians collected by Al-Ahram Weekly and human rights groups paint a disturbing picture of abuse, both official and unofficial, during detention.
Several Palestinians tell of being held by soldiers, apparently without authorisation, for up to two days before being handed over for questioning, during which time they were humiliated and assaulted.
Others say that even after they reached Ofer camp, which is under the control of the Israeli security services, guards took the opportunity to beat and kick them.
The human rights groups B’tselem also fears that captured men on Israel’s wanted list — who are still being held and have been unable to testify — were tortured during their interrogation. It has evidence it claims it obtained from a guard that these mens’ fingers and toes were broken to extract information.
Conditions at Ofer camp were described by former detainees as sub-human. Inmates sleep on the ground, many without blankets, are not allowed to wash and go for days without food, according to their accounts.
Many also report being released without having their identity cards returned, putting them at risk of being even more harshly treated should they be rearrested.
Leo Yavner, of the Israeli human rights organisation B’tselem, said: “Many of the former detainees we have talked to say they have been beaten, apparently just for the amusement of the soldiers. We are now compiling cases and will then file complaints to the Israeli authorities.”
Bassem Kashoer, a 44-year-old father of five from Ramallah, said he was arrested on Sunday 7 April while he was out with other electricians repairing damaged power lines.
He has testified to B’tselem that he was beaten, kicked and hit with rifle butts during the 24 hours he was held handcuffed and blindfolded at the Beit El military base near Ramallah. There appears to have been no supervision of his detention during this period.
He reports that he and other detainees there were ordered to shout: “One, two, three, Arafat is a maniac.” They were then told to repeat “One, two, three, Israelis are maniacs,” at which point the severity of their beatings increased.
According to his account, a bottle of cold water was poured over him and he was hit in the face with the empty bottle. He passed out and awoke the next morning trembling and weak. He says he was covered with a blanket only when a medic intervened.
Refud Fadayel, 24, an accountant in Ramallah, was arrested on 10 April and released from detention this week. He too was temporarily held in Beit El, in a hangar where armoured vehicles were stored.
He was left, handcuffed and blindfolded, on gravel for two days. Soldiers prevented him from sleeping by playing loud music and kicking him. He also says that he was repeatedly terrorised with taunts and threats that they would kill him.
Every time a tank crew returned, he says, he and his brother Fa’ek were hit and kicked in the stomach, back and face. “They were doing it for fun,” he said.
“Occasionally our blindfolds would be removed so that a group of soldiers could have a picture taken standing over us. To prove how brave they were, I suppose.”
Fedayel described the conditions at Ofer camp, where he was later transferred, as being “unfit for animals.” He was sleeping with 40 others in a tent without beds and many had no blankets. Some were held for up to two weeks without the chance to wash or change clothes.
Hashem Assem, 29, a computer engineer from Ramallah who was arrested on 30 March, early in the invasion, was held in a barrack with more than 300 others. He said leaks in the roof meant that the ground they were sleeping on became wet every time it rained. For the first four days he was forced to go to the toilet by a tree outside.
Fedayel says that whenever he was transferred by bus, including his final journey to the Qalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem where he was released, he was hit with batons every time he moved his head.
Kashoer, who was kept in a tent at Ofer, says that there were cases of inmates being beaten when they went to the toilet block. Some detainees became so frightened of leaving the tent that they relieved themselves in their trousers.
Breakfast, according to Kashoer, was 250 grammes of cheese, two tomatoes and a handful of crackers shared between eight. Other inmates also say small meals had to be shared between many detainees.
Medical provision was also reported to be inadequate. Assem, who suffers from asthma, had to wait a week before his pleas for treatment were heeded.
Two inmates in Fedayel’s tent arrived seriously injured but received no medical attention. One, a member of Palestinian president Yasser Arafat’s personal guard who was badly burned in the tank shelling of Arafat’s Ramallah compound, had lost his sight in one eye.
The other man, someone Fedayel knew only as Abu Hisem, had been partially paralysed when he jumped from a burning building in the city. “We had to make a stretcher from a plank of wood to carry him to the toilet because he couldn’t walk,” he said.
He added that both men were removed from the tent when a visit was due from the Red Cross.
Yossi Volfson, a lawyer with the Israeli human rights advocacy group Hamoked, said: “There can be no excuse for this kind of mistreatment of Palestinians. Israel can call up 30,000 reserve soldiers and feed, clothe and accommodate them at short notice, so why can’t it do the same for detainees?”
Hamoked and other organisations accuse Israel of breaking its obligations to civilian non-combatants under the Geneva Convention and also under Israeli law.
In many cases, according to Leo Yavner of B’tselem, the duration of detention cannot be justified, particularly as Ofer camp is used mainly to verify the identity of detainees before deciding whether to release or jail them.
Assem was released last Sunday, after 21 days in custody. He says he was questioned three times but never for more than five minutes. Like most of the others interviewed by the human rights groups, he says he was only asked basic questions about his name, job, address and family.
Fedayel and his brother were questioned on the same day but while Faek was freed immediately Fedayel had to wait another week before being released.