Dirar Abu Sisi, the 43-year-old deputy engineer of the only power plant in the Gaza Strip, went on a one-day hunger strike Thursday to protest against being held in solitary confinement by Israel. His fast marks the latest episode in a mysterious story of abduction and torture.
In February 2011, Abu Sisi traveled to Ukraine, his wife Veronika’s native country, to seek citizenship after Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s winter 2008-09 attack on the Gaza Strip, made him fear for the safety of their six children. On 18 February, he boarded an overnight train from Kharkiv to Kiev, hoping to meet his brother Yousef, a resident of the Netherlands, for the first time in 15 years.
But he never reached Kiev. During the night, three men, two of them wearing Ukrainian military uniforms, boarded his compartment, flashed a badge from the Security Service of Ukraine, and demanded that Abu Sisi leave with them. At around 1am, they forced him off the train.
“My last contact with Dirar was immediately before his disappearance, the night of 18 February 2011 at about 10:30 in Palestine,” Veronika told The Electronic Intifada. “The next day, my brother-in-law later told me that Dirar’s phone was ringing, but there was no answer, and we should inform the Ukrainian authorities and the Palestinian embassy that he was missing. I immediately flew to Kiev to look for him.”
Her plane may have passed her husband’s in the air. By the end of 19 February, Abu Sisi was held in the isolation unit of an Israeli jail near Petah Tikva, 76 kilometers from Gaza and more than 2,000 from Kiev.
Veronika didn’t learn his whereabouts for more than a week. “On 27 February, I was preparing a letter to [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas about Dirar’s disappearance when I got a call from Dirar,” she said. “He told me that he had been kidnapped by the Mossad [Israel’s external intelligence agency] and was detained in Israel.”
Forced into coffin
An Israeli court’s gag order and tight security controls prevented neither Abu Sisi nor his attorney from sharing the details of his abduction. But in the coming weeks, they would emerge through his conversations with a lawyer from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (“Detainee Abu Sisi discloses detail of his kidnapping in Ukraine to PCHR lawyer,” 21 March 2011).
A fellow detainee also later spoke about Abu Sisi’s treatment to the Gaza-based al-Aqsa TV (“‘Rendered’ in a coffin: The untold story of Dirar Abu Sisi,” Yousef M. Aljamal, 31 May 2012).
Abu Sisi, according to these conversations, had been handcuffed, hooded and taken by car to a Kiev apartment, where six men introduced themselves as agents of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. After interrogating him, they forced him into a coffin, then flew him to Israel, with one unknown stopover along the way.
“All I know is what I’ve heard from his lawyer, that his treatment was horrendous,” Veronika said of her husband’s reception by the Israeli Prison Service. “They chained his hands to his bed for eight hours a day, and didn’t let him sleep for seven or eight days straight.”
Abu Sisi’s Israeli attorney, Tal Linoy, told the Kyiv Post last year that his client had been tortured.
“Illegal methods of investigation were applied to my client,” he told the Ukrainian newspaper, adding that the gag order, which prevents him from disclosing details of Abu Sisi’s interrogation, also prejudices his case: “They [the prosecutors] just lynch my client by publishing against him only the data they want to publish” (“Lawyer: Abu Sisi was forced to “admit” guilt,” 19 August 2011).
That data, presumably, was a redacted transcript — spanning more than 21 pages — of Abu Sisi’s interrogation released by the Beersheba District Court eight days earlier. He offered his captors a litany of confessions, from “improving rocket range” for Hamas’ military wing, the Izzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, to heading the “administrative program” at “Hamas’ new military academy” (“Interrogation of Dirar Abu Sisi: Excerpts ‘cleared for publication’ by the Beersheeba District Court, Israel,” BBC, 11 August 2011 [PDF]).
Abu Sisi was indicted in April 2011 and “charged with membership in a terrorist organization, conspiracy to commit a crime, the production of illegal weaponry, assistance to an illegal organization, and a variety of other crimes” (“Shin Bet files indictment against ‘rocket godfather,’” The Jerusalem Post, 4 April 2011).
“Not a single word of truth”
According to the record, Abu Sisi also confessed that one of his professors, Konstantin Petrovich Vlasov, had arranged for him to study at a military engineering academy in Kharkov.
“This is all lies, there isn’t a single word of truth in it,” Vlasov had said two months earlier. “I have never lectured at any military academy and never had anything to do with anything military. I have only seen missiles on TV” (“Ukraine professors defend Palestinian engineer alleged to have conspired with Hamas,” Haaretz, 6 June 2011).
The Haaretz article also noted that “no such school exists.”
“It was the Mossad, with the help of some Ukrainians,” Veronika said of Abu Sisi’s abduction. “I still haven’t blamed the Ukrainian government for this, although Ukrainians were clearly involved.
“Yesterday, I met the Ukrainian ambassador to Palestine in Gaza for the first time. He hadn’t heard about the kidnapping before, but promised to look into it and get back to me. He said it would be difficult, because my husband didn’t yet have Ukrainian citizenship. I told him that Dirar is my husband, and I’m a Ukrainian. And he was a legal resident of Ukraine, giving him the same rights as a citizen under the constitution,” she added.
Why would Mossad have kidnapped Abu Sisi? “Because of his brain,” Veronika quickly replied. “He knows everything about electricity and its generation. After Israel destroyed the power plant in 2006, he reconfigured it to run on regular diesel fuel from Egypt, instead of high-grade diesel bought from Israel. This threatened Israel’s control over the Gaza Strip.”
Israel breaks isolation pledge
Perhaps to obscure the details of his case, Abu Sisi remains one of two detainees in isolation, despite how Israel has undertaken twice over the past 12 months to end its solitary confinement of Palestinians in response to hunger strikes by prisoners.
“Of the 19 prisoners held in long-term isolation before the hunger strike, one, Dirar Abu Sisi, has still not been removed from isolation,” a spokesperson for Addameer, a Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association, confirmed. “An additional prisoner, Awad Saidi, was also placed in isolation under a six-month order in April.”
“Israel has already violated the 14 May agreement that ended Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike in almost every single way,” the spokesperson said, adding that “at least 30 renewals of administrative detention orders and three new orders were issued” since 14 May. Administrative detention is a practice whereby prisoners are held indefinitely without charge or trial.
On Thursday, 13 September, Abu Sisi joined hundreds of other detainees in a mass hunger strike protesting these violations, according to Doaa Abu Amer, a spokeswoman for the Palestinian Ministry of Detainees’ and Ex-detainees’ Affairs in Gaza.
For Abu Sisi, these violations have come at a high personal cost. “Since his first day of detention, he’s been held in solitary confinement,” Veronika said. “When he was first detained, he weighed 98 kilograms [216 pounds]. Now, he’s down to 62 [136 pounds]. The humidity has given him asthma. Every prisoner is entitled to a medical examination every six months, but they’ve only let a doctor see Dirar once, in May 2011. He also has stomach and kidney problems, and his health is deteriorating quickly because of his solitary confinement.”
Neither Israel’s nor Ukraine’s ministries of foreign affairs, justice, public security or internal affairs responded to requests for comments on Abu Sisi’s case.
“He still hasn’t been tried or found guilty,” Veronika said of her husband. “Israeli intelligence now claims that he must be an Islamist terrorist because he has a beard. This is the only thing they’ve been able to find against him.”
Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He works with the Centre for Political and Development Studies (CPDS) and other Palestinian groups and international solidarity networks, particularly in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions and prisoners’ movements. He blogs at joecatron.wordpress.com and tweets at @jncatron.