No mercy in Bethlehem
The five daily prayers helped Nader E'bayat calculate how many days had passed during his first weeks of detention at the interrogation division of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service in Bethlehem.
The five daily prayers helped Nader E'bayat calculate how many days had passed during his first weeks of detention at the interrogation division of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service in Bethlehem. Toward the end, when he was transferred to the interrogation cells at the Bituniya headquarters, he started to lose count. Altogether, E'bayat spent 47 days in detention, from June 30 to August 15. He was released on the order of the Bethlehem magistrate's court after no evidence was presented to prove accusations that he had participated in Hamas' operative force in the West Bank.
E'bayat is one of some 650 Hamas members who have been arrested by the Palestinian Authority's security forces in the West Bank since the middle of June, Hamas says. Palestinian human rights organizations estimate that 80 to 120 Hamas activists are currently detained in various interrogation facilities throughout the West Bank. Many of those who were released are afraid to give written testimony about their ordeal, while the rumor mill has it that Hamas activists have been instructed to spread orchestrated lies about torture in detention.
Majd al-Aruri, of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights (PICCR), believes the detainees were threatened so they would keep quiet. The commission is an official Palestinian institution founded by Yasser Arafat in 1993, and its task is to supervise civil rights in the PA. Its representatives regularly visit some of the Palestinian detention centers and collect testimonies from those detained there, including E'bayat.
E'bayat is 30 years old and a surveyor by profession. He is married with two children, and lives in the village of Ta'amra, east of Bethlehem. In a conversation in Bethlehem, in a small room in his sister's beauty parlor, not far from the Church of the Nativity, he described how he was arrested. On the evening of June 30, he was on the way with his mother to the family's small workshop for designing signs and nameplates, where his brother Nasser works. E'bayat's father was killed on May 6, 2001, at the age of 47, during a clash with the Israel Defense Forces. According to the family, he had joined the armed Fatah gunmen who were shooting at Israel from Beit Jallah. His wife and their 11 children were left to fend for themselves.
At 6 P.M., on June 30, E'bayat's mother and her two sons locked up the workshop and made their way toward their car when suddenly two white Preventive Security forces jeeps drove up. At first, E'bayat refused their demand that he climb into their vehicle "for 10 minutes." In the end, however, he got in, at gunpoint. The security agents were not masked and he recognized some of them, including several residents of his village. His mother and his younger brother followed the two vehicles to the Security Forces' Bethlehem headquarters to wait for E'bayat, who was "due to be released after 10 minutes." Instead, the security personnel arrested his brother Nasser as well (he was released nine days later).
In the past 11 years, E'bayat has been in PA jails twice (for a month in 1996 and for four months in 1998) and in Israeli jails twice (he served four years starting in 1999 and two and a half years from 2003 onward) on charges of working for Hamas.
When he arrived for his fifth detention, he says, the interrogator began "hurling unpleasant words at me." When he protested, E'bayat says, the interrogator threw a chair at him. In the hallway leading to the interrogation room, E'bayat saw five detainees whose heads were covered with cloth sacks, bent forward with their hands tied behind their backs. A few minutes later, he, too, was handcuffed in the same position, known among prisoners as the dreaded "shabah." He was blindfolded and his head was covered with a sack. A warden gave him water when he asked for it. He was allowed to go to the bathroom, but only after several requests.
Two days and two nights passed until he was given a break from the cuffs, the sack and the standing, during prayers in the dark solitary confinement cell. After two days, E'bayat was again taken to the interrogation room. He was seated on a chair - another short chance for a respite from the painful standing. "The interrogator told me they wanted to finish with my case. I told him, 'There is nothing to finish because I have nothing to say.' A soldier [warden] came and took me back to the hallway." The warden then tied his already handcuffed hands to an iron bar fixed to the wall, forcing E'bayat to bend over uncomfortably. This is how he spent three days, with the regular short breaks. He did not shower during the entire detention period, but was allowed to wash his hands and feet before prayers. During that time, E'bayat started to feel pain in his right shoulder. He could hear shouts and groans around him.
On the fourth day of his detention, a radio-tape recorder was put in the hallway, blaring loud, Western-style music ("so we would not be able to fall asleep"). The unpleasant noise was interrupted during prayer times only. For the most part, his interrogations were held between midnight and 4 A.M. When his handcuffs were removed during one of the interrogations, he realized he could not move his right hand. After six days of "shabah," of standing and without any sleep ("Allah gives us strength," he replies to a question of how this was possible), a new period began. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays he was put in solitary confinement (on the floor, without a mattress) in order to sleep, and on the other days, he was taken back to the "shabah," to stand in the hallway. And every night there was an interrogation.
The same questions
E'bayat's willingness to be interviewed and to have his case publicized is unusual. In response to the reports about the difficult torture he endured, one of the Preventive Security Force's senior officers told a PICCR lawyer that E'bayat's accusations were fabricated and that he had not been tortured. Haaretz was not able to get a response from a Preventive Security Forces official about the case. E'bayat's account resembles stories of torture described by other released detainees whose testimonies have reached various legal organizations, members of the Palestinian parliament and Haaretz.
PICCR members confirmed that the worst charges initially concerned the detention facility of the Preventive Security Forces in Bethlehem (which allowed a PICCR representative to visit only in mid-July, at the conclusion of the state of emergency declared by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas). In general, the PICCR's al-Aruri says that most complaints about torture have come from people arrested by the Preventive Security. He says that while some complaints could not be substantiated, but in other cases, it transpired that contrary to first impressions, those who were interrogated were indeed tortured.
E'bayat says a new team of interrogators was brought in every week, "and every time they started asking questions from scratch." A typical interrogation, in his words, went like this:
Interrogator: "Can't you see what is happening in Gaza? We don't want this to be copied in the West Bank."
E'bayat: "I am not connected with Gaza. The way you are behaving and torturing people, you are the ones who are bringing Gaza here."
Interrogator: "You are connected with the operative force of Hamas. You have weapons."
Interrogator: "You have 26 Kalashnikovs. Give us some and we'll leave you the rest."
E'bayat: "I can't say 'that's right' about something I didn't do and about someone I'm not."
Interrogator: "You conscripted people to Hamas' operative force."
E'bayat: "Please bring in the people I've conscripted."
And indeed, at a certain stage during his detention, E'bayat says, two detainees in neighboring cells told him that under duress, they had signed a confession stating he had conscripted them to the operative force. "And I have no idea who they are," he says.
On July 12, E'bayat went on a hunger strike, refusing even to drink water. As soon as he began his strike, he was released from the "shabah" position and sent to solitary confinement. He demanded to be freed, to see a lawyer, and receive family visits. He ended the strike after five days, when he was promised that he would be freed within two days. During the hunger strike, he received an injection to give him strength. He was given several more such injections during his detention.
He had no idea that his mother and youngest sister came to the gate of the headquarters and demanded to see him, every day. After 25 days in detention, a warden said to him: "Wash your face. Someone is waiting to see you." It was his wife Samira and his two sons, 3 years old and two months old, respectively. An interrogator was present in the room, to ensure they would merely say insignificant things. But his wild beard and the pain on his face testified to what he could not say.
Once every 18 days, a general military prosecution representative met with the detainees. He wanted to know whether they had admitted their guilt. E'bayat says he told the representative about the torture. During his fourth week in detention, "they allowed me to rest." They left him in solitary confinement for eight days. Then, apparently on July 30, he was taken to the Bethlehem magistrate's court, where he was represented by a lawyer his family had hired. He told the magistrate that he had been tortured, and the court ordered that the charges be investigated. The magistrate also ordered E'bayat's detention be extended for another 10 days; after this time, and unless proof was presented of his activities on behalf of Hamas, he would have to be released.
The days become confused
After the first week of August (here, E'bayat says, the days become confused), "they came in the night and told me to prepare my things. 'You are free,' they said. But they handcuffed me and blindfolded me and then I realized that they were merely making fun of me." He was taken in a car with his eyes covered. During the ride, he realized they had passed through two IDF roadblocks because he heard his handlers speaking with the soldiers. "They put me in a room with two doctors and a group of interrogators. I told the doctors that my hand was paralyzed and that I felt pain in my back and legs." He says that one of the doctors told him: "Finish up the matter and you'll be released right away and they won't take you downstairs [to the interrogation division]. You have two children. It's a shame." In response, E'bayat told them that he had nothing to say.
The security officials once again cuffed his hands behind his back, with his aching right hand turned outward, "so it would hurt more," and the other hand turned in. They led him "downstairs." Later on he found out that he was being kept in the Preventive Security building in Bituniya, near Ramallah. He was put in the hallway and his legs were cuffed. "The interrogator came, lifted the sack a little from my head and said to me: 'We have principles. It is forbidden to pray and it is forbidden to go to the toilet. It is forbidden for you to ask anything except to say that you want to finish with this affair.'" E'bayat believes two days went by like this.
Then, after two days, a new interrogator asked him to answer five questions: "If I was the head of Hamas' operative force in the West Bank, if I had distributed weapons, if I had trained people to use weapons, if I had received money and if I had a connection with Gaza." He said no to all five. As a result, he was tied up in a different position - standing on one leg, with his right leg and left hand in the air, tied to an iron door. He was presented with the choice: eat or pray, for five or ten minutes each time.
On Monday, July 13, a PICCR representative came and was surprised to see him there - after all, a day before, a magistrate had ordered him released. But E'bayat's is not the only case where a civilian magistrate has ordered a release and the military prosecution overrules it and orders the prisoner's remand extended. The commission protested this type of practice in its official publication and to the PA. The following day, Tuesday, E'bayat was twice taken out of the "shabah" position and taken to the interrogation room. "You have a family," the interrogators told him. In other words: Admit your guilt already, for their sake. He responded, "Allah will extend their spirits."
On August 15 in the evening, E'bayat was released. His family members came to get him. He got home at 2:30 A.M. and was hospitalized for two days, where doctors discovered he was bleeding internally. He began a series of treatments for infections in his ears and mouth, and receives massages to ease the pain in his hand, back and leg. He limps, and walks and sits down with great difficulty. During his first few days back home, the signs of the handcuffs were still visible on his hands and his joints still hurt.
A senior officer of one of the Palestinian security forces, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Haaretz, "During the wave of arrests of the past few months, we received important information about the operative force Hamas set up in the West Bank. But we can't get exact information through torture, and we didn't get the information we have in that way. There may be one or two officers who make a mistake under certain circumstances, but our general policy is that torture is forbidden. Any officer who tortures a detainee is doing so on his own accord and if information about such practice reaches his superior, he will have to bear responsibility." He says that detainees have exaggerated in their reports about torture.
According to the senior officer, only those suspected of having connections with the operative force were arrested, not political activists, as Hamas claimed. He says that the illegal operative force has even begun conscripting people, training them and buying weapons. In addition, he claims, they collected information about senior security personnel and PA political figures, "with the aim of copying what they did in Gaza, in the West Bank." He promised that these arrests will continue, even if Gaza returns to its natural state, and even if there are negotiations. "We will not allow any organization to hold weapons, other than those that belong to the PA. This is true of Hamas as well as other organizations, including Fatah."
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