Al-Ahram Weekly – 5 February 2004
The recent prisoner swap between Israel and Hizbullah has exposed some worrying truths about conditions endured by political prisoners, and raises questions about who are behind these bars today.
Tel Aviv lawyer Zvi Reich let out a small sigh of relief as the office television showed his client — one of the figures most reviled by the Israeli public — safely stepping out of his plane on to the tarmac of Beirut airport last Thursday night, to the crack of fireworks and the cheers of flag-waving crowds.
Mustafa Dirani, once a leader of the Lebanese militia group Amal, had been held in Israeli prisons since he was abducted from his home in the Bekaa Valley by commandoes 10 years ago. In the early months of his detention, interrogators tortured him for news of an Israeli airman, Ron Arad, who was captured in 1986 after his plane was downed over Lebanon.
Dirani returned to Lebanon last week as part of a prisoner exchange, mediated by Germany, between Israel and another Lebanese militia, Hizbullah. He and Sheikh Abdul-Karim Obeid, a Hizbullah leader abducted by Israel in 1989, were the two most high-profile prisoners released in the swap.
They were among 23 Lebanese, 12 nationals of other Arab countries and a German flown to Cologne on Thursday, before being transported home. A total of 59 coffins containing Lebanese bodies were driven in Red Cross vehicles across the Israeli-Lebanese border for burial. And 400 Palestinians — all low- security prisoners close to release or uncharged administrative detainees — were freed from Israeli jails.
In return, Israel received from Hizbullah one living Israeli, Elhanan Tannenbaum, whose murky dealings in Lebanon have been the subject of gagging orders by the courts, and the bodies of three soldiers. Promises that more information about Arad’s whereabouts would be forthcoming in a second phase of the deal are tied to the release of the last known Lebanese in an Israeli jail, Samir Kuntar, who has been in captivity since 1979.
The apparent heavy weighting of the deal in Hizbullah’s favour caused some anguish in Israel, where many commentators speculated that the Lebanese militia would learn from the episode that it was in its interests to abduct Israelis. Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah did nothing to dispel such fears when he announced that his group was “ready to kidnap more Israeli soldiers if the need arises”.
The motivation of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, in pressing for a conclusion to the deal now — over the objections of the family of Ron Arad, who enjoys near mythic status in Israel, and some of his cabinet — was also the topic of debate. Most focussed on Sharon’s sentimentality for fallen soldiers.
The question few asked was what Sharon had to lose. The prisoner swap distracted attention from his domestic woes, such as a looming corruption scandal, and offered the chance to empty Israel’s severely overcrowded prisons of a few of its 6,000 Palestinian inmates. Those freed either posed, according to military assessments, no threat to Israeli security or were due for imminent release anyway.
Israel’s international image as the generous party in the exchange probably did it no harm either. And despite giving Hizbullah a short-term publicity fillip, Sharon may in the longer run have strengthened his hand against Hizbullah, whose quarrel with Israel since its army withdrew from South Lebanon in May 2000 is now limited to a dispute over control of a tiny piece of territory known as the Shebaa Farms.
But one additional benefit went entirely unnoticed. Earlier in the same week that Dirani stepped back on to Lebanese soil, he appeared in a Tel Aviv court suing the state for $1.3 million in compensation for abuses he allegedly suffered at the hands of army interrogators during the early period of his detention.
The date of the hearing was rushed forward from June at the urging of his lawyer, Reich, so that as much evidence as possible could be made public before Dirani departed for Lebanon. A petition by the army to hold the hearing in secret was rejected by the court.
Reich believes the case can still go forward without his client being present, although that may not be the view of the state authorities, who have much to lose from the case. Obeid, who shared a cell with Dirani, would have been a key witness.
During 10 hours of testimony, Dirani presented a horrifying account of his treatment by the army. He said that after he was captured six soldiers stripped him naked, shackled him and brutally interrogated him around the clock on the whereabouts of Arad.
Interrogators alternately splashed him with hot and freezing water, shook him until he fainted, squeezed his testicles, sodomised him and sexually assaulted him with a stick, he said. “I would pray that I’d die.” He accused an army intelligence officer known to him only as “Major George” of coordinating the torture.
Dirani testified that one uniformed soldier named Kojak was ordered to force him down on to a bench. “I couldn’t see or resist … I was raped by the soldier. He said he would rape me, and he did,” he told the court. “Two or three days later they started raping me with a police baton. It’s impossible to describe the pain. I yelled to high heaven.”
Lawyers representing the state have argued that Dirani’s suit is “an insurance policy” he needed to create before his return to Lebanon so that he would not be criticised for divulging information to Israel.
However, Dirani’s account has been confirmed by several former soldiers who served at the same prison. One has said: “I know that it was customary to threaten to insert a stick if the subject did not talk.”
A petition signed last year by 60 officers in defence of “George” does not deny that such practices were employed, only that it is unfair to victimise him for using working methods standard in military intelligence. “George” has also admitted that it was normal practice for detainees to be naked while being interrogated.
But the biggest blow to the state defence team came last week when a video was handed to Israeli television showing a former interrogator whose identity was concealed talking about George.
“I remember one instance that I still feel until today, which makes me shudder, in which a baton was used — not for hitting,” he said. “Even in the field, George did what he wanted, in front of my eyes and the eyes of everyone else.”
The row over the details of what happened to Dirani is, however, overshadowing an even more disturbing element in the case that the state hopes will evade both domestic and international scrutiny — as it did in last week’s coverage. Dirani, along with Obeid, was being held in a secret, army-run prison when the abuse took place.
Facility 1391, as it is officially known, is Israel’s version of the controversial Camp X- Ray jail in Guantanamo Bay (the jail where the United States is holding Afghan, Taliban and Al-Qa’eda prisoners).
Located next to a kibbutz on the Wadi Ara road, halfway between the northern city of Hadera and the Arab town of Umm Al- Fahm, Facility 1391 has never been visited by the Red Cross and the number of prisoners held there is unknown. It is used for interrogating foreign nationals, mainly Arabs, outside the rules of international law. Such prisoners are effectively made to “disappear”.
In a revealing moment during last week’s prisoner exchange, Moroccan officials expressed surprise at the news that the deal included three Moroccans, none of whom was reported to be a political prisoner. A Moroccan human rights activist, Khaled Al- Soufyani, was reported saying: “We have no clear information about these three prisoners. Even Hizbullah knows nothing about them.”
Dirani, Israel admitted last year after legal action by local human rights groups, was held in secret detention for eight years, until he was moved to Ashmoret jail near Netanya in 2002. Reich confirms that he began representing Dirani only in 1997, after a year-long battle in the Supreme Court against the army. In the previous three years Dirani appeared before military judges without any legal representation. Obeid, whose case Reich took up a year later, in 1998, was nine years without representation.
Reich had no idea where his clients were being held and was only allowed to meet them every three months, when they appeared before a military court in Tel Aviv for a renewal of their detention. He was not allowed to see them outside the courtroom, or to prepare their cases with them before their appearances. “It was not a normal lawyer-client relationship,” he said.
He says he was shocked to learn that prisoners like Dirani and Obeid were being held in secret, in violation of the Geneva Conventions. However, he says it was not the first time he has come across such practices in Israel.
In 1992 he accidentally located 19 missing Lebanese youths, aged between 15 and 16, who were being detained in a secret wing of a civilian prison in Beersheva in the Negev. All were being held without charge as administrative detainees after their abduction by Christian Phalangists in Lebanon. They had been “sold” on to Israel as bargaining chips in 1986.
At the time Reich was a lawyer with the human rights group ACRI compiling a report into conditions at Beersheva jail. Despite having permission to enter all parts of the prison, wardens barred him from access to one wing.
A Bedouin guard later gave him the name of a Lebanese prisoner being held there. Reich made an appointment to meet the youth as a private lawyer and persuaded him to give him power of attorney.
It took five years for Reich to make the story of the Lebanese youths public, and a further three years before they were finally freed by the courts.
Following last week’s deal, Reich is sure that all the inmates from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Libya and Egypt who were once in Facility 1391 have been removed. But he believes there are almost certainly new prisoners there: Iraqis held there for interrogation following last year’s American-led invasion.
“We petitioned the courts last year to close the jail,” he said. “The state replied that there were no foreign nationals from countries bordering Israel being held there but refused to shut the facility. If there is no one there, why not close it? I think one has to look at the small print: Iraq is not, after all, a country bordering Israel.”
It is a view shared by Dalia Kerstein, the director of Hamoked, an Israeli human rights group that has been tracking Palestinians who were briefly held in Facility 1391 after a round of mass arrests following the army’s invasion of the West Bank in the spring of 2002.
“It would be quite astounding if Israel, the US’s most loyal ally wasn’t offering its services to the US,” says Kerstein. “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.”