Palestine: A message from Hell
by Victor Ostrovsky This is a brief account of the conditions and inhuman treatment of inmates at a holding facility on the Israeli side of the Erez checkpoint. The facility is designed to incarcerate Palestinians arrested while trying to enter Israel without the proper documentation. The majority of the prisoners are people who were apprehended while trying to get into Israel to find work. They are arrested and brought to the facility where they await trial. The wait can extend from a week to three months. Usually the facility holds about 60 inmates and is run by a regular crew of Israeli Defence Force soldiers, bolstered by temporary help sent in from various units, as was Haim Peretz. He arrived at the facility in March of 1999. After he was released from the military and was a civilian again, he came forward and described his experiences at Erez to the Ha'aretz newspaper. Below are some excerpts: From the first day, I started to understand what was going on there. Six to seven prisoners are housed in every three-by-three metres cell. There are no beds. The prisoners (men of all ages, from teenagers to old men) sleep on blankets on the concrete floor. The cell is windowless except for two small barred ventilation slots. There is no toilet in the cell: the prisoners are given access to a toilet once a day when they are taken out in the morning for their daily walk. The rest of the time they use a large bucket that is placed in the centre of their cell. By the way, this practice prevents them from praying (as their religion requires them to do five times daily) because the bucket turns the cell into a washroom, an environment in which Muslims are not allowed to pray. Regulations specify that the prisoners have the right to a full hour's walk every day. But an hour is a flexible thing. Sometimes the sergeant decides that it will be only a half hour, or even 15 minutes. Letting the prisoners outside their cells for the daily walk is a hassle for him, and in most cases he does not want to bother. At this time all of the prisoners are supposed to go to the toilet, using two stalls for 20 people, since 20 are taken for their walk at a time. Often there is no toilet paper. When they ask for it, sometimes they are told yes, sometimes no, sometimes maybe. On the sabbath there is no walk. After all, the sergeant has to get his sabbath rest. So the prisoners are locked in for a full 48 hours, from Friday morning to Sunday morning. The prisoners are taken out for a shower once a week, on Wednesday. It's a horrible sight: the prisoners are pushed in a large group into two showers, with one cake of soap for the entire group. Meanwhile the guards hold a stopwatch, shouting at the prisoners to hurry. "There are 12-and 13-year-old kids there. When I was there, there was one kid who arrived barefoot. That was the way he stayed. He walked around that way and was brought in front of the judge that way. "They have no contact with their families. The day they are arrested they are allowed one telephone call, and if there is no one at home, that's their problem. Whoever is brought to trial is entitled to a conference with a lawyer, but that doesn't happen often because the trials themselves appear to be an aberration. The lawyer promises that if he is hired he will get the prisoner off with a 1,500-shekel fine. That from people who tried to infiltrate Israel to work for 50 shekels a day. The medical treatment they get is a story in itself. When they arrive they are given a medical check-up to verify that they are healthy enough to be held in prison. That checkup is meant to provide the facility with a cover of legitimacy. In fact, the doctor did not touch or check the prisoners. He just asked them if they were all right. He did not speak one word of Arabic and couldn't understand what they answered — not that there was much chance that they would complain anyway. The doctors are rotating reservists. When I was there, the doctor did not let the prisoners sit or lie on the bed when he checked them. He didn't want to get it dirty, so he told them to lie on the floor. During one of the visits, when a prisoner complained of some pain the doctor said in my presence: "They should die, these Arabs, they should get one bullet each and be done with them. Who needs to treat them?" Later he said he was only joking, but I know he was not. Most soldiers regarded the Palestinians as animals. I saw soldiers who would, for the fun of it, spit into the plates of the prisoners. When the prisoners arrive they already have been beaten up by the border patrol that caught them. On one of the first days I saw a border patrol soldier beating up a kid right there in the facility. I asked him to stop. "Shut up, you Arab-loving lefty", he said to me. At the time I still didn't want to get involved, so I backed off. The sergeants beat up the prisoners all the time. It appears the soldiers expect the prisoners to speak fluent Hebrew, and every word a prisoner speaks in Arabic sounds to the guards like a curse word. If a prisoner who did not know better complained, he would be beaten up. During a roll call one of the prisoners said something and the guard thought he was talking back so he twisted the prisoner's hand behind his back and threw him against the wall. The guard then placed him in isolation in a tiny cell. The prisoner was moaning in pain for several days before I was asked to take him to the doctor, who diagnosed a broken arm. When I told the doctor what had happened, he wrote in his report that it was the result of the prisoner tripping. When I insisted that it was a beating, one of the male nurses made it clear to me that if I opened my mouth they would "blow my head off". It must be remembered that there are many more facilities like this one in Israel, and there are many prisoners who are simply unaccounted for. In addition, one should not forget the hostages Israel has kidnapped from Lebanon and who are held as pawns for future exchanges with the Hezbollah. Five such Lebanese hostages were released recently. One was 31 years old and had been in captivity-without trial and without committing a crime- since he was 16-15 years ago. Former Mossad case officer Victor Ostrovsky is the author of By Way of Deception and The Other Side of Deception, both of which are available on audiotape through the AET Book Club.