The Daily Star – 15 November 2003
The roadside signpost bearing the information “Facility 1391” was removed months ago. Now there is nothing to identify the concrete fortress guarded by two watchtowers that sits atop a small wooded hill overlooking a kibbutz in central Israel close to the Green Line, the border with the West Bank until 1967.
The site’s location is one of the most closely guarded secrets in Israel: it is not marked on maps, it is erased from aerial photographs and military censors reject publication of any identifying details in the local media.
But this summer the Israeli government, under pressure from the courts, admitted that Facility 1391 serves as a “secret prison,” what one local newspaper termed “Israel’s Guantanamo,” in a reference to the Camp X-Ray jail for Al-Qaeda and Taleban captives run by the United States on occupied Cuban territory.
Opprobrium has been heaped on the US for holding prisoners in Camp X-Ray in violation of international law. Last month a panel of international jurists described the Guantanamo Bay jail as “a black hole” into which 662 inmates had disappeared and been stripped of their most basic legal rights.
But the prisoners of Facility 1391 – including possibly hundreds of Lebanese that went missing during the Israeli Army’s 18-year occupation of the country’s south – have even fewer safeguards. Unlike Camp X-Ray, the location of the military jail has never been publicly identified, no one knows how many inmates are being held there, and it has never been independently inspected. Even the International Red Cross is barred.
“Anyone entering the prison can literally be made to disappear – potentially for ever,” says Leah Tsemel, an Israeli lawyer. “It’s no different from the jails run by tinpot South American dictators.”
The only information available on Facility 1391 surfaced this summer after Tsemel managed to take affidavits from a handful of Palestinians who were detained at the prison.
These testimonies reveal shocking facts about the jail, particularly its routine use of extreme forms of torture. Differing information they contain also suggests there may be more than one secret prison operated by Israel.
According to several affidavits, the prison is crowded with inmates. Given that Israel says it only ever held a handful of Palestinians there, and none is now being detained, the question is: who is incarcerated in Facility 1391? The answer appears to be exclusively foreign Arab nationals, including Lebanese, Jordanians, Syrians, Iranians, Moroccans and Iraqis. The prison is run by a wing of army intelligence known as Unit 504; Palestinians, on the other hand, are handled by the Shin Bet.
How many prisoners are being held in Facility 1391 is a bigger mystery. The Friends of Prisoners Committee in Nazareth claims 15 Jordanian nationals alone have “gone missing” from Israel’s prison system in recent years. Captured Arab spies and even defectors are also thought to be among the jail’s population.
Other inmates are likely to include victims of Israeli kidnappings, particularly in Lebanon. For example, four Iranian government officials who disappeared in Beirut in 1982 and have never been accounted for are believed to have been snatched by Israel.
And then there is the growing suspicion among some human rights workers that Israel may be taking advantage of the United States’ “war on terror” to sell its expert interrogation services to its ally.
In the current mayhem in Iraq it is almost impossible to know who has been arrested and where they are being held, although the Red Cross has confirmed that no Iraqis are in Camp X-Ray. Diplomatic sources, however, say there is strong evidence that the US is using Jordan and possibly Egypt, Morocco and Pakistan to interrogate prisoners, as a way to circumvent international law.
Dalia Kerstein, of the Israeli human rights group Hamoked, which has been at the forefront of the fight to get information about Facility 1391, believes Israel is helping too.
“It would be quite astounding if Israel isn’t offering its services to the US,” she said. “Israel has decades of expertise in torturing and interrogating Arab prisoners – exactly the skills the Americans now need since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The iron curtain of secrecy surrounding Facility 1391 was finally torn this summer after Tsemel launched legal battles to trace a handful of Palestinian prisoners who disappeared during Israel’s massive reinvasion of the West Bank in April 2002.
Apparently Israel, faced with a swelling number of detainees, opened the doors of Facility 1391 for the first time to Palestinians. The families, through Tsemel, issued habeas corpus writs, demanding production of the missing Palestinians in court. Cornered, the authorities were forced to admit that a secret prison existed. They have been trying to impose an information blackout ever since.
The affidavits, however, reveal degrading conditions and torture as commonplace in Facility 1391.
Inmates describe tiny cells, measuring less than 2 meters by 2 meters, whose walls are painted black and dimly lit by a single bulb 24 hours a day. Inside are damp and foul-smelling mattresses on which to sleep, rarely emptied buckets are used as toilets, and a single tap in the room is under the control of invisible guards. Loud noises prevent them from sleeping and air-conditioning can be turned on to make them shiver with cold.
Despite Israel’s Supreme Court banning torture in 1999, it is apparently being widely used again. Hannah Friedman, director of the Public Committee Against Torture, says her group has been recording a steady rise in such cases in Israeli jails during the intifada.
A recent survey showed 58 percent of Palestinian prisoners reported being subjected to overt violence, including beatings, kicking, shaking, being forced into painful positions and having handcuffs intentionally tightened.
One Palestinian held in Facility 1391, 23-year-old Mohammed Jadallah of Nablus, says, for example, that he was repeatedly beaten, his shackles were tightened, he was tied in painful positions to a chair and was not allowed to go to the toilet. He was preventing from sleeping, with water thrown on him if he nodded off.
He adds that the interrogators showed him pictures of several family members and threatened to harm them.
“They brought me a picture of my father in prison clothes and played a cassette of him as a detainee. They threatened to imprison and torture him.”
But the most horrific accounts come not from Palestinians but the long-term inmates, Arab foreign nationals, who are interrogated by Unit 504.
The most high-profile detainee, Mustafa Dirani, security chief of the Lebanese militia Amal, who Israel recently admitted was moved to Facility 1391 after he was kidnapped from Lebanon by agents in 1994, has alleged in a law suit that he was raped by his interrogators.
Dirani was seized from his home in Lebanon in May 1994 in an attempt by Israeli intelligence to get information on the whereabouts of an airman, Ron Arad, whose plane crashed over south Lebanon in 1986. Dirani held Arad for two years before allegedly selling him on to Iran.
Dirani, who was moved to Ashmoret prison near Netanya a year ago, spent eight years in Facility 1391. In the first months of his capture, when hopes of extracting information on Arad were high, he was tortured by a senior army interrogator known only as “Major George.”
Although torture was at that time legal in Israel, Dirani is suing the state and George for two incidents of sexual abuse. In one, George allegedly ordered a soldier to rape Dirani; in the other, George is accused of inserting a wooden baton into his rectum.
Dirani’s accusations have been corroborated by affidavits from other soldiers who served in the prison. One interrogator, TN, says: “I know that it was customary to threaten to insert a stick. The intention was that the stick would be inserted if the subject did not talk.”
A petition signed by 60 officers in defence of George does not deny that such practices were employed, only that it is unfair to victimize George for using working methods standard in the prison. George himself has admitted that it was normal practice for detainees to be naked while being interrogated.
Jihad Shuman, a British and Lebanese national accused of belonging to Hizbullah after he was arrested in Jerusalem in January 2001, was held in Facility 1391 for three nights. He recounts severe beatings by soldiers: “They removed my blindfold. I saw 15 armed soldiers, some with clubs, standing around me. Some of them beat me, pushed me and punched me from behind.”
Soon afterward he was interrogated by a man in military uniform who said: “You have to confess or you’re done for, and no one will know what happened to you. Confession or death.”
The effects of such practices on the emotional and psychological well being of inmates are not hard to predict. A relative of Dirani’s, Ghassan Dirani, who was captured with him and held for a time in Facility 1391, later developed catatonic schizophrenia.
Although Israel has confirmed to the courts that Facility 1391 is a secret prison, it is far from clear that it is the only one in Israel. Among the documents submitted to Hamoked by the Israeli Army are ones relating to 35-year-old Moussa Azzain, a Hizbullah activist who was imprisoned in the notorious Khiam jail in south Lebanon in August 1992.
According to Israeli officials, he was later transferred to a “Facility Barak” in Israel. Azzain himself reports that he was taken to a secret prison referred to by inmates as Sarafend, a name often cited by Lebanese prisoners. Sarafend is the English name of an army base now known as Tzrifin, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
Before the government-imposed information blackout, Facility 1391 was occasionally referred to in internal documents by the name of the neighboring kibbutz. That name is neither Barak nor Sarafend, leading Hamoked to suspect that the facility where Azzain was held may not be Facility 1391.
Hamoked’s director, Dalia Kerstein, points out that Azzain, when he was allowed to see a lawyer, was taken to Haifa. Dirani and Hizbullah leader Sheikh Abdel-Karim Obeid, both of whom are known to have been held in Facility 1391, were always taken to Tel Aviv. That may suggest that Azzain was held in another secret jail, possibly one close to Haifa.
Also, several detainees known to have been held in a secret prison say they could hear the sound of waves. Facility 1391, however, is some distance from the sea. Others say they could hear the sound of planes taking off or the sound of gunfire, possibly from a military firing range.
Facility 1391 is in a fortified police station, known as a Taggart building, one of 70 constructed by the British in the 1930s. They are dotted across Israel and the Occupied Territories. Several could be being used as secret jails without raising suspicion