The Guardian March 14, 2001


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.

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