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Israel Now Has 5,000 Palestinians in Custody

During Israel's forays into the West Bank in recent months, the army has detained more than 5,000 Palestinian men in roundups that government officials say have slowed, but not halted, attacks on Israel.

About 1,000 of those prisoners face indefinite detention without trial — a status easily renewed every six months.

For Israel's security forces, the roundups that began in March amid an unprecedented wave of Palestinian suicide bombings have proved the most effective tool in limiting attacks. Israeli human rights groups have protested the mass arrests, but with Israelis still facing bombings and shootings, broad public support remains.

"These arrests have directly contributed to the reduction in terror attacks we have witnessed in recent months," the army said in a written response to The Associated Press. "The arrests also provide us with an opportunity to question terrorists and foil future planned attacks."

Palestinians see the arrests as random and arbitrary. At the peak last summer, troops ordered Palestinian males, from teenagers to the middle-aged, to gather in public places for questioning and locked up anyone arousing suspicion. Thousands were held briefly before being freed.

In other cases, wanted Palestinians are arrested in pinpoint raids.

The Palestinian Ministry of Prisoners says about 5,500 Palestinians arrested since the fighting began in September 2000 remain incarcerated.

Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli army's chief of staff, told a Cabinet meeting this week the military has arrested 4,700 Palestinians "involved in terrorism" since Israel launched a major West Bank incursion in March.

The army said it did not have overall numbers but it did not dispute the Palestinian figures.

Of the total, more than 1,200 Palestinians have been convicted in Israeli military courts and are serving sentences, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem and others.

In addition to the 1,000 being held with out charge, about 3,000 are at various stages of the judicial process, from interrogation to trial.

Abdel Karim Barghouti, a 38-year-old money changer in Ramallah, says his case is typical. Detained three times in 1984-1991 for involvement in a banned political group, his record makes him a permanent suspect, he said.

He was stopped at an Israeli roadblock July 28, 2001, near Ramallah. After soldiers checked his identity documents, they began kicking him and shoved him into a military jeep, he said.

He wound up at a military base, and later at the Ashkelon prison in southern Israel, where he was interrogated for up to eight hours a day while sitting in a chair, blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back, he said.

"The interrogators spit in my face and said, 'No one leaves this place healthy,"' Barghouti recalled. At night, guards would bang on the doors to keep the detainees from sleeping, saying, "Why should you sleep while we have to work?"

Barghouti repeatedly was asked about his previous political activity and about the current conflict, but never was accused of anything specific, he said. He was released after two weeks.

Last month, he was stopped at a roadblock and told to go to a military base for "a cup of coffee" with Israeli military intelligence. Barghouti turned up, was questioned for about four hours, then told to leave, he said.

Barghouti belongs to the same clan as the most famous prisoner of the current conflict, Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank head of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Marwan Barghouti, who is charged with organizing multiple deadly attacks against Israelis, is the first senior Palestinian figure tried in a civilian, rather than military, court.

To accommodate the increasing number of prisoners, Israel has reopened the Ketsiot prison in the Negev Desert. More than 1,000 Palestinians were detained there at the beginning of this month, including 840 under "administrative detention," meaning they can be held indefinitely without charge, B'Tselem said.

During the first Palestinian uprising of 1987-1993, the camp was notorious for its harsh conditions — overcrowded cells, frequent reports of beatings, excessive heat in the summer, freezing cold in the winter, a lack of family visits. The prison closed in 1996 but reopened in April.

"Many of those recently detained without charge have been subject to torture and ill-treatment," said Hisham Abdel Razek, the Palestinian Minister for Prisoners.

Qadoura Fares, a Palestinian lawmaker who formerly headed parliament's human rights committee, was imprisoned in 1980-1994 for throwing a bomb at Israeli soldiers. It failed to detonate.

Prisoners routinely were beaten in those days, he said. At one prison, Israeli guards had three identical clubs — nicknamed Jesus, Moses and Mohammed — and asked prisoners which they wanted to be hit with, Fares said.

"For us, this was Israeli democracy — choosing the club you were beaten with," he said.

Beatings have become less common since Israel's Supreme Court outlawed torture in 1999, he said. But Israelis have stepped up psychological pressure and use methods that do not leave any physical signs, he said.

Today, prisoners being interrogated are permitted little or no sleep for days or weeks, Fares said. They are forced to stand for hours as their feet swell with pain.

Interrogators tell a prisoner his relatives have been killed, or that the family home will be demolished if he does not confess, he said.