A grim irony hangs over Israel's heavily guarded jails and detention centers: More is known about conditions inside the facilities than about the numbers and identities of Palestinians being held there.
Palestinian sources, including the weekly newspaper Al Fajr, have published estimates that up to 13,000 prisoners have been confined at any one time. The Jerusalem-based Palestine Human Rights Information Center (PHRIC), which operates a data bank, places the figure at over 5,000.
Amnesty International and the Red Cross have issued reports decrying conditions, but up-to-date figures remain lacking. That's because Israel has institutionalized secrecy about the prisoners, their identities, and whereabouts. It's also traceable to the nation's revolving-door arrest policies.
Drawing on reports from former inmates, families, and international agencies, PHRIC estimates that in the first year of the intifada, 30,000 Palestinians have been arrested.
Once taken into custody by either the Israeli military or police, the detainees are held, often for indefinite periods, on secret charges at locations that are rarely disclosed to their families. Most of the Palestinian detainees have never been charged, never been tried, and never have seen a lawyer.
Although Israel stepped up its roundups after the start of the intifada in December, 1987, the practice of detaining Palestinians without charge for renewable periods goes back decades. All along, Israel has maintained that such detentions were sanctioned by international law because they constitute an extension of British practices when Palestine was its mandate. Although it signed the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949, Israel refuses to abide by that international agreement that guarantees due process of law.
While hundreds of "children of the stones" are included among Israel's anonymous prisoners, Palestinian sources indicate that the main crackdown has been on the professionals who will provide the human infrastructure of the developing Palestinian state-teachers, doctors, lawyers, union officials, and journalists.
Scores of women are also languishing in separate quarters of the jails and detention centers, including some being held because their children allegedly took part in street demonstrations. Other women were arrested after participating in union and student activities. An American delegation organized by the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee reported from Jerusalem that pregnant women had been forced to undergo abortions during detention.
Of three Israeli detention centers (one in South Lebanon and another in Gaza City), Ansar III is the largest and has gained the most notoriety. Known as the "camp of slow death," Ansar III is isolated in the searing Negev desert where temperatures are known to climb to over 110 degrees.
Last summer, an American group of lawyers and physicians that tried, but failed, to reach it, interviewed "graduates" and the relatives of inmates. Spokesman A. Bates Butler III, a former US district attorney, said at a news conference in Jerusalem, that the Palestinian prisoners are often beaten and forced to sit in the blazing sun with their hands bed behind their backs and their heads lowered. Former inmates also reported having been confined to tiny steel cells designed to intensify heat. Another punishment involved tying the prisoner's hands behind his back, tying his feet separately, and then tying them together from behind, forcing the body into a banana shape. "Not only is there denial of medical care," Butler said, "but if detainees report an illness or injury, these areas of the body become targets of further injury by the guards."
A letter from inmates spirited out of the camp by the Palestinian rights group, Al Haq, described "a war of starvation, thirst, and humiliation, and a policy of physical and psychological destruction." Sworn affidavits of mistreatment abound, but rarely are they picked up by the US mainstream media.
Small delegations have repeatedly—but mostly unsuccessfully—made attempts to penetrate Ansars II and III but,as with an Italian/Palestinian women's delegation last August, were turned away, sometimes violently by Israeli guards. Just before the women's abortive visit, two inmates of Ansar III had been shot to death, three were injured, and over 70 suffered tear gas inhalation when fired on by guards for protesting jail conditions.
A word picture of the barbed-wire-enclosed tent camp was drawn last spring by the Hebrew-language periodical Koteret Rashft: "in the middle of the compound there is a hut with a pit: the central latrine, swarming with flies and giving off a vile smell. There are no newspapers, no books, and it's forbidden to walk around, save in the compounds during designated periods.
Every disturbance reaps a punishment, usually collective. With their hands tied behind their backs and heads lowered, the prisoners are forced to sit in the sun for hours at a stretch. There is no canteen, and there is no laundry. And there also isn't enough water. The prisoners shower once every 10-14 days. They receive almost no vegetables or fruit. Two prisoners share a single plate."
A chilling report alleging that torture is being used to extract confessions from teen-aged prisoners was made public in 1987 by the Rev. Canon Riah Abu el-Assal of the Episcopal Church in Nazareth. Denied by the Israeli military, the report received support from an unexpected source-then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy. Speaking for a government that has been notoriously callous toward the Palestinians, Murphy wrote Congress that "charges of mistreatment of Palestinian young people by some Israeli authorities have been largely substantiated."
The Landau Commission, appointed by Israeli authorities to investigate persistent reports that Israeli security police tortured prisoners not only to extract information but to extract confessions, also confirmed that "Palestinians were routinely physically and psychologically abused during interrogation. " The commission made no recommendation, however, that the hundreds of convictions based solely upon such false "confessions" be reversed.
Since 1967, over half a million detentions and arrests have been recorded within occupied Palestine by the Palestine Human Rights data bank. Compared to South African arrests since the issuance of the emergency decree in 1986, arrests of Palestinians are seven times greater since the start of the intifada. Those figures are based on Israel's own estimates. Palestinian estimates of arrests are double the Israeli figures.