Twilight Zone / One in a shroud, one on crutches
The Ashkar family is mourning their two sons: Lo'ai, whose prison stint left him crippled and Mohammed, who died during a raid in Ketziot prison.
The prisoners went to sleep after the evening roll call. At 2 A.M. they woke in a panic when hundreds of armed warders from the Masada and Nahshon units of the Israel Prisons Service (IPS) raided their tents. Quickly the scene turned into a battlefield. The warders fired at the inmates with a variety of weapons; the inmates fought back by throwing vegetables and other random objects.
According to affidavits submitted by a number of prisoners to the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, the warders were extremely brutal. They shot inmates and beat them with truncheons even when they lay bound on the floor, and forced more than 400 prisoners into a small visitors' room. The result: one prisoner killed by ammunition of unknown type - though the testimonies indicate that he was shot in the head at close range - and a large number of prisoners wounded.
The fatality was Mohammed Ashkar, who was 29 at the time of his death. A few months ago, we visited his home in the village of Saida, shortly after his older brother, Lo'ai, was released from the same prison, Ketziot. Lo'ai is half paralyzed as a result of torture he underwent at the hands of the Shin Bet security service. In his living room we saw a fine drawing of a prisoner burying his head between his legs, done by his brother, Mohammed. Now Mohammed is dead. In their parents' home, which is across the road from the cemetery, they are now mourning for the dead Mohammed and the crippled Lo'ai. This is the "prisoner release" of the Ashkar family: one in a shroud, the other on crutches.
What happened on the night of October 22 in Ketziot prison? Lo'ai has taken testimony from prisoners who have since been released and visited him at home.
"Suddenly, at two in the morning, we heard people shouting and sounds of gunfire, and we went out into the yard to see what was going on," one of the prisoners, Omar Salah, relates. "Everyone who went into the yard was shot at from across the fence. Afterward the forces opened the gate and went through it, shooting at everyone in their way."
"They threw stun grenades at the prison wing," another prisoner, Majid Salit, says. "When they saw us, they told us to get into the wing. We refused, and they jumped us ... When they opened fire at us, we started to throw things at the forces ... They kept on shooting until they pushed us into a corner ... We all came out crawling on the ground. We were not allowed to look at the forces. Our heads were in the ground.
"They chose a group of 10 every time and started to hit them with big truncheons and they got us back into the prison wings. When they got to me, I said I was wounded ... They took me to the side and started to hit me with truncheons. They put me into the visitors' wing, where there were 400 prisoners ... We sat there for two hours, bleeding ... On the way to the ambulance they hit us, and they also hit us with truncheons when we were in the ambulance."
According to the prisoners, the tents caught fire in the wake of the warders' gunfire. There was no air in the grossly overcrowded visiting room, Omar Salah relates, and the inmates broke a window so they could breathe. "The forces arrived and started to shoot into the room," he says.
Prisoner Sufian Jamjoum describes the ammunition: "From a distance of one meter a warder shot me in the leg as I was talking to him. His weapon looked like a hunting rifle. It was the first time I ever saw this type of bullet. It was a bullet the size of an egg and there were about 200 small iron bullets inside it ... I was left in the tent even though I was bleeding, and afterward I was taken to the visiting room, wounded and bleeding, with another 400 prisoners in a small, closed room."
Salah explained the circumstances of Mohammed Ashkar's death. "The shahid [martyr] ran and entered his tent. The soldiers went into the tents. Mohammed was next to the door of tent No. 3, on the inside, and the soldier was about one meter away ... When the shahid was shot and fell, he was opposite the soldier. I saw him."
Salit: "[Mohammed] stood by the door of our wing and watched what was going on. A masked man from the security forces arrived. He aimed his pistol at his head and shot him. Mohammed collapsed. The other prisoners shouted that he had to be taken to the hospital. They took him only after the tents burned."
The chairs for the mourners are still arranged in the corner of the yard of the house across from the cemetery. Lo'ai enters the room, barely able to drag his crippled leg. Little Moujahid also comes in, a beautiful boy of three, asking where Daddy is. Daddy is dead.
Lo'ai saw Mohammed for the last time on May 10, when he was released from Ketziot. For five months the brothers had been incarcerated together, in beds placed next to each other. Mohammed was scheduled to be released next month. The two brothers talked a lot about the future. Mohammed's dream was to open a small store to repair cellular phones. Waiting in Saida were Mohammed's wife and child, and their apartment, now under construction above the parents' home.
"We parted at the entry to the wing. I never saw him again. Afterward he sent me regards with prisoners who were released," Lo'ai says, speaking Hebrew. The father of the family, Sati, who is very cordial and also speaks good Hebrew, hadn't seen Mohammed since his arrest two years ago. He was on the "banned visitors" list. His wife, Hijer, visited her son in the middle of October. Mohammed told her: "Next time I will visit you, and that will last for the rest of my life." He added that he was "counting the days, the hours and the minutes" until his release. A week later he was killed in the prison.
On October 23 there was a phone call from the International Red Cross: Mohammed was seriously wounded in prison and was hospitalized at Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva. Trying to organize a visit, the family went to the Red Cross offices in Tul Karm, where they were told that Mohammed's father and brother would not be allowed to enter Israel. Mohammed's mother, his wife and the former village council head set out in a Red Cross vehicle for Be'er Sheva, and reached the hospital after being held up for two hours at the Taibeh checkpoint.
The door of Mohammed's room in the hospital was closed; two policemen stood guard next to it. Each relative was given five minutes to visit. Mohammed's mother went in first. She relates that her son was unconscious and on life-support. His head and one hand were bandaged, and both hands and both feet were in iron handcuffs. Hijer says she started to tremble and shout: "Why is he handcuffed? Do you really think he will get up and attack you?"
The police, she says, told her she was doing her son harm. After time ran out, she begged to be allowed to stay - "Maybe he will wake up" - but the policemen told her to leave. An hour after they left, the phone call came: Mohammed is dead.
Lo'ai: "We started to make arrangements to get the body, and they started to talk to us about an autopsy. We said we didn't want an autopsy - after all, it was obvious, a wound in the head. They said there had to be an autopsy."
The family applied for a court order to prevent the autopsy, but it quickly turned out that it had already been performed. A report of the Institute for Forensic Medicine at Al-Quds University, whose representative attended the autopsy, describes "a round wound, radius about 3 centimeters ... in the center of the forehead, above the left eyebrow ... a bruise with redness around it on the right forehead. This redness is [from] a burn caused by a metal surface at high temperature."
Dr. Boaz Sagi, a surgical expert, wrote to Physicians for Human Rights, which is also investigating the events in the prison: "The findings of the autopsy are unequivocal. The cause of death is a head injury caused by a blunt object, with no penetration wound. The cause of the injury is apparently a round object that caused a fracture of the forehead on the left - that is, an injury that came from within."
Here are the video photographs in Lo'ai's laptop: Mohammed's body, two wounds on the front skull area, a wound on his hand, eyes and mouth wide open. Mohammed was buried in the cemetery across from the house, in the section of the village shahids. Saida, a village of 3,000 inhabitants, counts 23 dead in the present intifada, probably the highest percentage in the territories.
A series of organizations are demanding a thorough investigation into the events at Ketziot. In a letter to the head of the national unit for the investigation of prison warders, lawyers Yaara Kalmanovitz and Nour Atawna, of the Public Committee Against Torture, wrote: "The testimonies show prima facie that members of the Masada unit and other IPS personnel committed various criminal offenses during the raid on the tents and afterward. A criminal inquiry is necessary, as well as an examination to determine whether the crime of manslaughter was committed against the deceased Mohammed Ashkar ... In addition, an investigation must also be conducted into the many offenses of assault and abuse against helpless individuals that were prima facie perpetrated against the prisoners after the raid."
In a letter to the prime minister, the minister of public security and the attorney general, the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, Hadas Ziv, is calling for an external examination of the events at Ketziot. Attorney Abir Bacha, from the Legal Clinic for Prisoners' Rehabilitation and Rights at the University of Haifa, is demanding that the attorney general appoint an independent, external commission of inquiry to investigate the events in the prison, and that he order a criminal investigation against Masada unit personnel "on suspicion of perpetrating offenses causing bodily harm, including manslaughter, and of departing from the rules of engagement and use of measures to disperse demonstrations." A similar demand was made by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in a letter to the head of the IPS.
The spokesman of the IPS, Yaron Zamir, this week responded to a query by Haaretz on the subject: "In the wake of a riot by hundreds of security prisoners in one of the compounds of the Ketziot prison, a riot that included the burning of the compound, endangering the lives of the warders and of other prisoners, the prisoner was wounded and later died at Soroka Medical Center. In the wake of the event, an examination and investigation of the incident is under way. Following the conclusion of the examination, we will be able to say more concerning the event and its circumstances."
A spokeswoman for Soroka Medical Center told Haaretz: "The wounded individual was evacuated to the hospital in critical condition. At the directives of security personnel, he was handcuffed. The medical staff, following the usual procedure, asked the security personnel to unshackle him. Regrettably, the patient died [without any connection to his being handcuffed] before the reply of the security personnel arrived."