Israel’s desert torture camp faces legal challenge

Palestinian men who were arrested during Israel’s ground offensive in northern Gaza receive medical treatment upon their release at al-Najjar hospital in Rafah, southern Gaza, 24 December 2003.

Abed Rahim Khatib DPA

Israel is facing a legal challenge over its notorious Sde Teiman military camp in the Naqab desert just east of Gaza where it has held thousands of Palestinians deemed to be suspected unlawful combatants since early October.

Reuters reported last week that Israel intends to “phase out” the Sde Teiman facility.

CNN, citing claims made by a state attorney during a hearing at Israel’s high court on Wednesday, reported that several hundred detainees have already been transferred from Sde Teiman to other detention centers, including Ofer military prison in the West Bank.

Hundreds more will be transferred in the coming weeks, according to the state attorney.

But Israel will still use the military camp for its “initial screening of detainees,” according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, one of the groups that initiated legal proceedings to shut down Sde Teiman.

“Holding detainees in the Sde Teiman camp is prohibited under both Israeli and international law, even if for short periods and when the number of detainees is low,” the rights group said.

“Incomprehensible reality”

Sde Teiman has been described as Israel’s answer to Guantánamo prison, an American military camp where nearly 800 Muslim men and boys have been held since 2002.

“Guantánamo has become a symbol of injustice, abuse and disregard for the rule of law,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The same could be said for Sde Teiman.

Palestinians from Gaza who were held at the Sde Teiman facility and later released, as well as whistleblowing doctors who worked at the site, have given horrific testimony regarding treatment at the camp.

“More than 1,000 detainees are held in cage-like facilities, without beds or any other equipment,” according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which told the Israeli high court that detainees are blindfolded “for days even during medical treatment and toilet use.”

“Testimonies have revealed an incomprehensible reality of surgeries performed without anesthesia, the holding of detainees for days on end in painful positions and such severe handcuffing that led to amputation,” the Israeli human rights group said.

A whistleblower who worked at Sde Teiman described doctors denying painkillers to a detainee during an operation in what he and others felt “had been a deliberate act of revenge.”

Former detainees, many of whom were arbitrarily swept up by Israeli troops in Gaza and held without any way of communicating with their families or a lawyer, amounting to enforced disappearance, have said they were beaten, given electric shocks during interrogation and deprived of adequate food.

Diaa al-Kahlout, the Gaza bureau chief for the London-based Al-Araby al-Jadeed newspaper, said he was subjected to torture daily and lost nearly 100 pounds during his more than month-long detention at Sde Teiman. Upon his release, the journalist’s vision was impaired after being “blinded for 33 consecutive days and nights.”

“Unbearable pain”

Younis al-Hamlawi, a senior nurse who was arrested in November after leaving al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, told The New York Times that during his interrogation at Sde Teiman, a female officer ordered two soldiers to penetrate his rectum with a metal stick, causing him to bleed and experience “unbearable pain.”

Al-Hamlawi’s account echoes that of a released detainee interviewed by the UN agency for Palestine refugees, which has been collecting testimonies from Palestinians dumped by Israel at the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza.

The detainee interviewed by UNRWA said that he and others “were subjected to electrical shocks through their anuses, causing another man he was detained with to get sick and die.”

Al-Hamlawi’s testimony was buried dozens of paragraphs down in the lengthy feature story published by The New York Times, which makes no mention of sexual abuse reported by Palestinian detainees in either the title or teaser.

By contrast, the same publication “gave the front page to a debunked hoax article alleging Palestinian militants sexually assaulted Israelis en masse” during the 7 October attack, as pointed out by journalist Max Blumenthal.

Blumenthal’s The Grayzone and other independent media outlets, such as Mondoweiss and The Electronic Intifada, have led the debunking of the Times article. The debunked article has been used to manufacture consent for what human rights experts say may amount to grave violations of international law by Israel in Gaza, including the use of sexual violence.

Palestinians who were subjected to electric shocks during interrogation, including al-Hamlawi, said that they were forced to wear only a diaper.

Nearly three dozen people died while being held Sde Teiman, Israeli personnel at the facility told The New York Times.

War crime

The detention of residents of occupied territory in prisons outside of that territory is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, as observed by Addameer, a Palestinian human rights and prisoner advocacy group.

This practice “is also recognized as a war crime under Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court,” according to Addameer.

Israeli violations against Palestinian detainees are hardly limited to the Sde Teiman facility. Palestinians held at other Israeli prisons are also being treated appallingly.

Adnan al-Bursh, the head of orthopedics at al-Shifa hospital, the largest medical facility in Gaza, was killed in mid-April after reportedly being beaten and tortured in Ofer prison in the West Bank.

Al-Bursh was abducted by Israeli troops at a hospital in northern Gaza in mid-December.

As of early May, when al-Bursh’s death in Israeli custody was first reported, nearly 500 medical workers had been killed in Gaza since 7 October, and another 1,500 were wounded and more than 300 were being held by Israel, according to the health ministry in the territory.

The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor published a report in late May based on the testimonies of 100 Palestinian men, women, boys and girls who had been detained by Israel during its ground invasion of Gaza and later released.

The Geneva-based group concluded in its report that “the Israeli army routinely commits widespread crimes of arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, premeditated murder, torture, inhuman treatment, sexual violence and denial of a fair trial.”

Palestinians testified to Euro-Med Monitor that they were also beaten, subjected to psychological and physical torture, denied access to food and medical care and made to endure degrading acts such as being spat and urinated on by soldiers.

Demand for ICC investigation

Addameer denounced the omission of Israel’s abuses against Palestinian prisoners and detainees in the recent announcement by Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, stating that he was seeking arrest warrants for senior Israeli officials.

For decades, Israel has built a “judicial system” for the purpose of controlling, criminalizing and collectively punishing Palestinians, according to Addameer.

This system allowed Israel to arbitrarily arrest masses of Palestinians after 7 October, Addameer added.

Nearly 9,000 Palestinians have been arrested since then, Addameer said on 22 May, and are being held in deteriorating conditions and subjected to increasing acts of torture and ill-treatment.

Addameer called on Khan to investigate Israeli personnel for crimes committed against Palestinian detainees, including the use of administrative detention orders by which Israel holds Palestinians without charge or trial on the basis of secret evidence withheld from the detainee and their counsel.

The rights group specifically called on Khan to investigate Israeli national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, the current and former heads of the Israel Prison Service and other prison authorities, as well as Israeli military judges and prosecutors and the head of Israel’s “security service for his responsibility for the torture practiced during interrogations.”

Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said that “impaling prisoners with metal rods in their rectum” is but one of the “thousands of horrors Palestinians have had to endure these past eight months.”

“However, abuses, torture, mass killing, wanton destruction, have been the daily reality for the Palestinians under Israeli rule for over half a century,” Albanese added.

“Israel operates as a military dictatorship, committing all sorts of crimes including apartheid [with] the aim of removing the Palestinians from their land.”


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Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.