Come Pray, and Tell Us About Your 'Military' Connections

Prisoners are brought to a special wing containing 'asafir,' birds in Palestinian slang, whose job it is to chat them up and obtain incriminating information.

"I had been in the hotel for six days. The Be'er Sheva prison hotel. I had a shower every day, good food, snacks, TV, fruit, regular clothes," relates D., a young Palestinian from Ramallah who was detained and interrogated for 40 days from mid-November 2004, following the six days he spent in Be'er Sheva jail.

Only on his last day there, before he was transferred to detention in Ashkelon prison, he realized that the "hotel" in which he was being kept was not a regular wing of the prison but rather the wing used to house prisoners with "asafir" - birds in Palestinian slang, who were to "chat them up."

Prisoners are brought to that wing when interrogators are unsuccessful in obtaining or extracting incriminating information. The birds masquerade as regular prisoners, as fighters with a glorious past, whose job is to gain the newcomer's trust and give him the impression that his interrogation is over, that he withstood the questioning like a hero, and now he has been transferred to detention until a decision is made regarding an indictment or an order for his release.

In the comfortable conditions offered him, he is seduced into believing that jail is not such a bad experience. He enjoys the attention and special relationship he has with the veteran "prisoner." He opens up, naively disclosing information on others or boasting about "heroic acts" that never happened.

The birds, according to reports by released prisoners, mimic accents from various regions in order to blur their true identities. They are people who have been recruited as collaborators from outside the jail, or are prisoners who have left their organizations in jail and were lured into cooperating with the Israeli authorities. They act out their roles for a while, go to visit their families and then come back again.

These are the conclusions of accumulated observation. For example, when prisoners and detainees are taken out of the prison, whether to go to court or to the Prison Service medical center, they sometimes notice the same "prisoners" they have met in the ward. These prisoner-actors are waiting at the gate, either to get in to "go to work" and relieve their colleagues on duty, or to go home.

D.'s asafir were constantly suggesting that D. pray with them.

"I told them I don't pray," says D. "They woke me up in the morning to pray anyway. Then they said, `Oh, we forgot that you don't pray.' They put on an act."

D. realized who they were only on the sixth day, because they were so insistent he tell them about his "military connections" and about his "military" experience; and that was exactly what the Shin Bet security services interrogators had not managed to get out of him during his interrogation.

"Sure, I was employed as a clerk in the offices of one of the Palestinian security mechanisms, but I never held a gun in my life and certainly did not fire one."

When D. realized that his cell mates were collaborators and told them so, he was taken out of the "hotel" and returned to a regular detention cell ("The jailer pushed my food plate with his foot") in Ashkelon prison. Only there, in the cell with real detainees, did he learn the term "asafir."

Former prisoners figure that since the High Court of Justice restricted the Shin Bet's methods of torture permitted in interrogations, it has switched its emphasis to intelligence gathering methods using collaborators. The asafir technique has apparently worked particularly well in the past four years: Thousands of youths without any experience in political organization and certainly not in "military" organization have been brought to interrogation and detention rooms with no advance preparation.


In the 1970s and 1980s the Palestinian organizations tried to prepare their people for the interrogation period awaiting them, and this information filtered down even to people who were not political activists. In the current intifada, on the other hand, no attempt has been made in the Palestinian Authority to prepare youths for interrogation, and those who were arrested exhibited astounding ignorance of Shin Bet techniques. Interrogation room veterans gained the impression that their young cell mates were shocked by interrogation conditions, even though there is no comparing them with the tortures of the past.

D., 25, was born in Jordan and arrived in Ramallah nine years ago with his parents, refugees who were natives of one of the villages destroyed in 1948 and long-time members of the Palestine Liberation Organization. During the war in Lebanon, they were in Beirut. They lived through the non-stop shelling. D.'s father has a senior job in one of the PA offices. The family came here as staunch supporters of the Oslo process. D. is single and still lives at home as do a brother and sister. He completed high school in Ramallah, found work in a casino and then switched to a clerical job in the security mechanism. When that didn't work out, right in the middle of the intifada, he left and began working as a driver, in partnership with his friend, H. Now he is studying computer programming.

He told me the story of his detention during an interview at his family's house. Some of the details he related for the first time. He was ready to publish his testimony under his own name, but his parents objected.

In mid-November he and H. were together, transporting someone to Abu Dis by taxi. At noon, on their way back, they were stopped by soldiers who checked their identity cards. They were transported in separate jeeps, H. with his eyes covered and his hands bound.

"I was put into a second jeep with my hands bound, and my shirt was pulled up over my head until my head was bent forward," says D. "We hadn't traveled far when we were taken out of the jeeps. I imagine it was the police station in Ma'aleh Adumim. I was held in a closed room, my shirt over my head. My head was bent forward the whole time. The door would open, someone would come in, and I heard the click of a camera. I'm sure someone wanted to show his girlfriend a souvenir, so she should know he arrested someone."

That evening they were taken to the Ofer detention camp - first H. and then D. Three soldiers were in the jeep. D.'s hands were cuffed to the ceiling of the jeep, and he says that the soldiers beat him. When they reached Ofer, the soldier sitting beside the driver allegedly said to him, "No one hit you." At the medical examination, however, a routine procedure with new detainees, D. told the doctor he had been beaten. D. says that a report was recorded and, "I was given a pill to relieve the pain in my neck, which had been bent forward for hours."

The captain shouted

After two nights he was transferred to the Ashkelon prison. He was taken to the interrogation wing, where he was "greeted by captain Sheike, who said, `Your friends confessed about you.' He also told me, `You have an expensive watch and a cell phone. Where from?'

"I laughed. He started shouting at me and called a prison guard. He took me to change my clothes, for brown clothes stamped with Hebrew words. I don't read Hebrew. Then captain Sheike handed me a paper written in Arabic and Hebrew and asked me to read my rights: that I receive meals three times a day and shower three times a week. Things like that."

He was seated on a plastic chair connected to the floor, with his hands bound behind him. Even a month after his release, D. still suffers from pains in his elbows and forearms.

"I sat like that for a long time. I don't know how long. He kept on saying, `Your friends have confessed, told me everything about you.' And I told him, `I came from the outside, I am a dove of peace. An Oslo supporter.' He told me. `They confessed about you, that you are in a security mechanism.' He showed me evidence [a police confession - A.H.] signed by H. I said I didn't know Hebrew, and that I work with H. as a driver. `Liar,' he said, and cursed me and my parents and my brother. He brought his head up close to mine and shouted. I saw his spittle. He showed me a picture of H. and said, `He laughed just like you, and now he is tired and confessed everything.'

"Again I said, `There is nothing between us, only work, and he has Jewish friends and loves Israel. If he confessed against me, go ahead and file an indictment.' It was cold and he opened a window. A chill wind blew in. `Cold?' asked the interrogator. `Hot,' I answered. All the interrogators are like that, opening the window during the interrogation. There were three interrogators: Sheike, Yuri and Abu Rabia. During about eight days I slept maybe six hours in a solitary confinement cell and the rest of the time I was in interrogation."

During his interrogation D. was also shown aerial photographs of his neighborhood on a computer screen and was asked to point to where he lived.

One day he was hooked up to something he described as a polygraph. "Someone introduced himself as a professor from Tel Aviv. Later I found out he was another interrogator. He asked me about my military connections with H. I came out a liar. But the polygraph is the liar, or was not real. I never held a gun in my life. After I came back from the polygraph test, I sat with Abu Rabia. He didn't let me go to the bathroom for hours on end. That was the only time they didn't let me go to the bathroom. I don't remember anymore which day it was. Suddenly I found myself in solitary confinement, and that I had soiled myself."

About two or three years ago D. knew about someone who was thinking about carrying out a suicide bombing, and gave his name to the PA. The man was arrested and released and became a fugitive.

"To this day he is angry with me," says D. "I respected Israel, and the interrogators made me hate Israel. Before I was arrested, I thought they knew everything. When I was detained, I realized they don't. When they sat me with my hands tied behind me for hours, with a cold wind blowing in, they told me that I had fired [a gun]. I said yes, I did September 11, I did all the attacks. At first they said they had a lot against me. I had shot Jews. I said I had never held a gun. They told me I was a liar, that I was acting. Then they backed down a bit, saying I visited fugitives in the Muqata [Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah - A.H.]. I said I visited my father, who worked in the area. At the end of the interrogation, when they saw that I had nothing to confess, they tried something else. `You're a good driver. Just confess that your friend fired from the car.'"

Twice, D. relates, he was offered a job as a collaborator.

"What do you think about working for us?" they asked him, and he declined.

"Abu Rabia told me, `Go, tell them you held up, that you didn't say anything.' I told him that it's not a matter of holding up. How could I say I had held up when I had nothing to say?

"For 40 days I was in detention and interrogation," concludes D. "Without sunshine. I was allowed to see a lawyer only toward the end. On the 40th day I was released. They tossed me out at the Tarkumia checkpoint [in the southern West Bank - A.H.]. They knew I was from Ramallah, but they tossed me there. If they see someone has an I.D. card from Hebron, I'm sure they throw him out at Ofer, beside Ramallah. So that we'll hate them."