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Israel Behind Barbed Wire

6 minute read
Johanna Mcgeary/Ketziot

The prisoners call it Ansar 3, after the lockup in Lebanon where Israel held Palestinian guerrillas captured during the 1982 invasion. Like the original, Ansar 3, deep in the Negev Desert, is something of a prisoner-of-war camp, this time for veterans of the intifadeh (uprising), the sticks-and-stones insurrection against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, a rebellion that began last December and still sputters on. Most of the 2,483 men and boys detained at the Negev camp are in effect political prisoners, held without charge, trial or sentence. They make up half of the nearly 5,000 Palestinians jailed in connection with the intifadeh at nearly a dozen facilities in Israel and the occupied territories.

The number of detainees may keep swelling. Late last week Palestinian leaders called a three-day strike in the occupied territories that shut down virtually all business activity in the West Bank and Gaza. A young Arab was killed by Israeli gunfire and seven others were injured, as authorities broke up a series of West Bank demonstrations. Days earlier, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin had held a clandestine meeting with four Arab leaders from the Gaza Strip as part of his campaign to develop a dialogue with a budding local leadership. The idea, he said, was to “get a sense of what should be done now that the violence has calmed down.”

But in its bid to quell the rebellion, Israel has resorted to a system of secret justice for alleged Palestinian activists, with little recourse for appeal. The cases carry a numbing similarity. Around midnight on Feb. 1, for example, there was a knock at the door of Ezzidine al Aryan’s home in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The pharmacist and head of the city’s Red Crescent (Arab Red Cross) was at prayer. Aryan, 51, was taken to Jneid prison, where he languished in a cell for nearly three months. One day a judge handed down an order for six months of “administrative detention,” based on charges contained in a file marked SECRET. On May 4, Aryan was transferred to the Negev camp, known officially as Ketziot. Like most Ansar prisoners, Aryan is presumed to be an activist and a security threat.

Today Aryan is among 28 men who spend searing days and chilly nights in a tent at one of four 200-man compounds in Ansar’s Camp B, which constitutes one-third of a canvas village that sprang up on the desert plain three miles from the border with Egypt. By day the men loll on wooden pallets that are cushioned by a layer of foam and a rough gray blanket. At night prisoners are required to retire to their tents, close down the side flaps of their dwellings by 9 p.m. and not come out until reveille at 5:30 the next morning.

Conditions are harsh but not inhumane. There is enough water for drinking, occasional showers and laundering each prisoner’s army-issue shirt and pants. Everyone receives one bar of soap a month. The food is army rations — filling but hardly appetizing. The primitive latrines reek; rats, scorpions and mosquitoes are ever on the prowl.

Beatings and other varieties of brutality are rare. Minor infractions of camp rules may be punished with an hour “in the corner” — kneeling in the dirt, hands behind the back, forehead to the ground — while more serious troublemaking can earn a stay in solitary of two to four days. Three times daily the prisoners are mustered outside their tents, hands behind their backs, heads down, to count off. Dr. Abdul Aziz Rantisi, once a pediatrician from Khan Yunis and now an administrative detainee at Ansar, is known as No. 561. Says he: “Our hearts are bleeding, and we prefer to die rather than do this.”

“Everything is done to break our spirit,” says Mutawakel Taha, 30, a journalist from Khalkilya. “We are completely isolated from everyone,” says Raji Saalim, 28, who used to live in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza. Newspapers are rare at Ansar 3, books — except the Qur’an — and radios are unavailable. Few of the prisoners at Ansar 3 have seen any relatives, not even those who are detained in another section of the camp. The army responds that family visits to the prison have been prevented by “activist Palestinians,” who intimidate relatives. The families complain about the cost, the long distance they must travel and formidable amounts of red tape.

For their part, Israeli military officials insist conditions are no worse in detention than in Israeli military camps. They defend regulations as necessary for “security” and argue they are providing more privileges for those in detention than convicted criminals normally receive.

Before the uprising, some 5,000 Palestinians were confined in Israeli jails, but only a relative handful were under “administrative detention,” the imprisoning of security offenders for six months without trial. In March the army abolished a requirement for judicial review of detention orders; appeals were reinstituted only two weeks ago. As of now, well over a third of the 5,000 people jailed for involvement in the intifadeh have not been charged or tried. The detained population includes doctors, lawyers, labor leaders, | students, human-rights activists, close to 30 journalists, as well as hundreds of suspected members of the outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization and the growing Islamic fundamentalist movement.

Justice is almost as harsh for Israelis accused of supporting the intifadeh. Last February the authorities closed down the tiny left-wing newspaper Derech Hanitzotz (Way of the Spark), which was known for its pro-Arab views. Eventually all six of the paper’s editorial staffers — five Jews and one Arab — were arrested. Israel accused two of the publication’s female editors of membership in the illegal Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Remanded for trial, the journalists have been held without bail in a women’s prison, where inmates last week violently assaulted them.

Few of the Ansar 3 prisoners who managed to appeal their detention orders have won release. The brief appeals hearings before a three-man military tribunal generally amount to little more than ritual. And so the prisoners will continue to languish in their tents, with little to do but discuss politics. Detention, says Inmate No. 1,231, Kassan Ali, 29, of Gaza, “only strengthens our demand for national rights. Conditions here create more hatred.”

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