Gazan prisoners describe abuse at secretive Israeli detention sites

JERUSALEM — Jihad Hammouda said he spent 17 days blindfolded and handcuffed in an Israeli detention facility, made to kneel on the ground for hours at a time. He did not know where he was or when he would be released.

Israeli soldiers stormed his family home in Gaza City on Dec. 8, the 20-year-old told The Washington Post. He said they shot dead his 78-year-old grandfather, who suffered from dementia, and rounded up his sister, cousins, uncles and grandmother.

Hammouda initially spent more than a day in confinement at a neighbor’s home in Gaza, where he said he was stripped to his underwear. Interrogators beat him when he denied being involved with Hamas, he recounted; one soldier held a knife to his hand, threatening to cut off a finger unless he admitted to possessing weapons.

“I assured them that I was a university student and had no connection to any military organizations,” Hammouda said.

On the afternoon of Dec. 9, he said, soldiers drove him over the embattled border to what he assumed was an Israeli military site. From beneath his blindfold, he glimpsed a large barracks surrounded by barbed wire. Soldiers took roll call every day for some 120 detainees in gray jumpsuits. Armed guards patrolled. He heard aircraft circling above. Each prisoner had a wristband with a number: His was 057906.

Israel is detaining civilians in Gaza. Many have disappeared, families say.

The Post could not independently verify Hammouda’s account, but it is consistent with those of six other recently released detainees interviewed for this story, as well as testimonies collected by human rights groups and other media reports.

Hundreds of Palestinians — both combatants and civilians — have been detained by Israeli forces in Gaza and incarcerated without charge inside Israel under a secretive legal framework that rights groups say has never been applied at this scale. Advocates say the system is intentionally opaque and open to abuse, allowing detainees to effectively disappear into a legal gray zone.

Hammouda has no official record of his detention. All he has is a deposit slip, written in Hebrew, which he said his jailers gave to him when they returned his Palestinian identification card. The undated document, shared with The Post, lists his name, ID number and birth date. It does not say where it was issued, or by whom.

The Israel Defense Forces did not respond to specific questions about the arrest or detention of the Gazans interviewed for this story but provided a general statement saying: “During combat in the Gaza Strip, suspects of terrorist activities were arrested. The relevant suspects are brought to Israeli territory for further investigation.” The military went on to say that suspects not involved in terrorist activity are sent back to Gaza and those who remain in detention are treated in accordance with Israeli law.

Asked about the alleged shooting of Hammouda’s grandfather, the IDF told The Post that “questions of this kind will be looked into at a later stage.”

The former prisoners told The Post they were grilled in interrogations: Where were you on Oct. 7? Do you work with Hamas? Who else helps Hamas? Where are the tunnels? Where are the fighters?

Muhammad Abu Zour, 24, said he was held for 20 days inside Israel, where soldiers withheld food as punishment.

“They always insist on accusing us of belonging to Hamas,” he said. When he denied it, he said, soldiers kicked and hit him. Abu Zour said his interrogators made him sign a Hebrew document he didn’t understand. They offered him money if he spied for Israel. He refused.

Sometimes, Hammouda remembered, a detainee does “not return until he is covered in blood or has traces of torture on him, or screams and cries from the intensity of pain.” Other times, Gazans accused of Hamas connections are sent to another facility, he said.

Hammouda feared that would be his fate. Instead, on Dec. 26, soldiers handed over his identification card, loaded him onto a bus and drove him back into the southern Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom crossing. When the blindfold was removed, he said, the intensity of the light nearly knocked him over. Soldiers told him to walk toward Rafah and not look back.

“Is there any track record of who has been arrested, who’s been released, who died, I can’t tell you — by law, the [Israeli authorities] don’t have to,” said Tal Steiner, executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. “Nobody sees where they are held and under what conditions. What’s the legality for holding them?”

Thousands of Hamas militants and allied fighters rampaged through southern Israel on Oct. 7 and, under the cover of rockets, killed 1,200 people and took around 240 hostages, according to Israeli authorities. As Israel fought to retake the south, it said it recovered the bodies of about 1,500 gunmen and detained an unspecified number of Hamas fighters.

“Some detainees were arrested Oct. 7, so quite reasonably [they included] Hamas combatants involved in the atrocities,” Steiner said. “But many, many others have been arrested in Gaza in the course of the operation, so they could be involved in Hamas. They could also be just citizens, innocent bystanders or people suspected of being involved.”

Israeli forces have swept up hundreds of Gazans as they move through the ruined enclave in pursuit of Hamas. Some Palestinians were taken from battlefields, others from hospitals, homes or while fleeing along Israeli-designated evacuation routes. Images leaked in December showing masses of detainees blindfolded and stripped to their underwear elicited international outrage.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says Israel has barred its representatives from visiting Palestinian prisoners detained since Oct. 7.

Images of stripped and humiliated Palestinians draw condemnation

The IDF said last month that “over 700 operatives from terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip have been taken for further questioning” in Israel. Some, the IDF said, voluntarily “turned themselves in.”

“Detainees held by the IDF who are found not to be involved in terror activity following their initial screening and questioning are promptly released back to the Gaza Strip, generally through the Kerem Shalom crossing,” the IDF said in a statement to The Post. “Those that must continue to be held are brought before a judicial review by a judge according to Israeli law.”

The IDF declined to comment on how many detainees have been held or released, citing “security reasons.” The military referred questions about alleged abuse during interrogations to Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Israel Prison Service referred questions to the IDF and Shin Bet.

At least six Palestinians have died in Israeli prisons since Oct. 7, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, a Ramallah-based advocacy group. The IDF told The Post that it was “aware of cases of deaths of detainees” but could not elaborate due to ongoing investigations.

Israel’s air and ground war in Gaza has killed more than 23,000 people and injured some 59,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry; the ministry says at least 99 Gazan medical workers are in Israeli custody.

Since Oct. 7, Israel has also ramped up arrests in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, where Palestinians are subject to military law. Israeli military law has not been applied in Gaza since 2005, when the country withdrew its forces from the strip.

Gazans “involved in terrorist activity” can be detained under criminal law or through the Unlawful Combatants Law, the IDF said in a statement. Under the UCL, Palestinian prisoners are subject to a form of administrative detention, or incarceration without charge or trial, said Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s director for Israel and the Palestinian territories. They are not classified as prisoners of war.

The IDF told The Post that the UCL removes someone “from the cycle of hostilities” and “grants several procedural safeguards and basic rights.”

Though enacted in 2002, the UCL has never been applied to so many prisoners at once, Steiner said. Under wartime amendments, Israel can hold someone for 45 days before issuing an indictment; a judge has 75 days to review the detention. A detainee can be held for 180 days without access to a lawyer.

“You can compare [the UCL] to the Patriot Act,” said Steiner, referring to the U.S. law passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “We really fear that we are going to see another Guantánamo, or another Abu Ghraib.”

The Israel Prison Service told Hamoked, an Israeli rights group, this month that 661 Gazans were detained under the law as of Jan. 1, up from 260 in December, but did not disclose where they are being held.

The only detention site to be publicly identified by Israeli authorities is the Sede Teiman military base, in the south, which the IDF said was set up as a “screening” and medical facility after the war began. Conditions “reflect the requirements of Israeli law and international law,” the statement said.

Detainees “receive three meals a day, access to water, clothing, mattresses, and blankets, as well as toilet-access,” the IDF said, and are offered a daily medical inspection.

On Thursday, the Palestinian Prisoners Club released the names of 51 women from Gaza it said are detained at Damon prison in northern Israel — a threefold increase from November. Hammouda’s sister, 69-year-old grandmother and three female cousins are on the list.

Hammouda still doesn’t know where he was imprisoned. He said he was allowed to sleep a few hours at a time on a thin mattress. He had three meals a day — bread with cheese, tuna, apple or tomato — and could use the bathroom and drink water about once each day. A doctor came daily, but checked only detainees with critical injuries, such as “amputation candidates,” Hammouda said. Many detainees were sick or wounded.

Hours after Abu Zour’s release on Dec. 26, he spoke to The Post by phone from al-Najjar Hospital in Rafah, in southern Gaza, where he said he was being treated for heavy bruising.

Marwan al-Hams, the hospital’s director, said other detainees have arrived home with similar injuries, as well as infected wounds. In mid-December, the hospital received the body of an unidentified man, dropped off by Israel at Kerem Shalom.

Asked about the dead man, the IDF told The Post: “An investigation is conducted for each death of a detainee. The reviews are still ongoing, so it is not possible to comment on the findings of these reviews.”

Saqr al-Jamal, 59, went to Najjar hospital for treatment on Dec. 22 after being released from Israeli custody. A resident of Beit Lahia, in northern Gaza, he said he was captured by soldiers in November while sheltering in an empty school.

In detention in Israel, Jamal said he was often cold and urinated on himself. Soldiers tied his hands above his head to a fence as punishment for peeking from his blindfold, he said.

“I was interrogated if I knew if any relatives belonged to Hamas,” Jamal told The Post. “They asked me if I knew where the fighters’ explosive devices were.”

“I told them that I am old and sick and I do not know anything.”

Harb reported from London. Loay Ayyoub in Rafah, on the Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.

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