Ahmad Abu Foul visits al-Saraya, a park in Gaza City, every day. Although he goes there to unwind, the 55-year-old is constantly reminded of how he was tortured on the same site.
During the early stages of the first intifada in 1987, Abu Foul was imprisoned for three months. He was charged with being active in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and throwing Molotov cocktails at the Israeli military.
Held in solitary confinement, Abu Foul was repeatedly suspended from a ceiling with a chain. His jailers forced him to give information about his political activities and about neighbors from al-Shati refugee camp, who were involved in armed resistance.
The park opened four years ago but it was not until 2018 that Abu Foul went back to the site. “It felt like a ghost town,” he said. “It was like I could hear the sounds of torture again.”
Pointing around, he said: “Here were the cells. Here were the interrogation rooms. This was the yard where prisoners met [for exercise]. The area over there was covered with barbed wire.”
“Interrogation and torture”
Al-Saraya prison was built by Britain, which administered Palestine from the 1920s to the 1940s.
After Israel was founded in 1948, Gaza was initially controlled by Egypt. For the Egyptians, al-Saraya served partly as government offices and partly as a prison.
Israel invaded Gaza in June 1967. Like the British had done previously, the Israelis used al-Saraya for locking up Palestinians who refused to accept oppression.
The Israelis renamed al-Saraya as Gaza Central Prison. Local Palestinians, however, have kept referring to it by its original name.
“This prison was a place for interrogation and torture,” said Salim al-Mubayid, a historian. “It was heavily guarded for fear of attacks by resistance fighters [seeking to help prisoners escape], as happened many times before.”
Ali Yaghi, now aged 78, was jailed by Israel from 1970 to 1985 for his activities with the Palestinian People’s Party, a socialist organization. He spent the first year of captivity in Gaza Central Prison before being moved to Ashkelon, a jail inside Israel.
“We were severely tortured and forced into making confessions,” Yaghi said, referring to his year in Gaza Central Prison. “Interrogations were carried out using extortion and threats of harm against our families.”
After the Oslo accords, the Palestinian Authority assumed responsibility for the prison in the 1990s. The prison would later be run by Hamas, which has been managing Gaza’s internal affairs since 2007, the year of bitter fighting between its forces and those loyal to the rival Fatah.
On 28 December 2008 – the second day of Operation Cast Lead, a major offensive against Gaza – Israel bombed the prison from the air. One guard was killed and much of the prison was destroyed.
Palestinian gunmen executed a number of prisoners who escaped after the bombing, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch. The Hamas-led authorities had locked up people accused of “collaborating with the enemy” on the site.
Israel again bombed al-Saraya during another major attack on Gaza in November 2012.
The destruction of the prison prompted a debate about what should be done with the 11-acre site. One idea was to transform it into a mall.
“It was too large for the Palestinian government to start rebuilding it and there were not enough investors,” said Naji Sarhan from Gaza’s public works ministry.
Amid a consensus that the site was historically significant and should be preserved in some form, the idea of opening a park in its grounds was eventually agreed.
Imad al-Din al-Saftawi was one of six detainees to escape from Gaza Central Prison in 1987. He fled first to Egypt and then to Syria.
In 1995, al-Saftawi returned to Gaza, where the Palestinian Authority gave him a job. Five years later, he was arrested by Israeli forces at the Rafah crossing – which separates Gaza and Egypt – when he was returning from a business trip to the United Arab Emirates.
Following that arrest, he was jailed for 18 years inside Israel.
“Ruins and rubble”
Al-Saftawi has only gone back to al-Saraya once since it opened as a park, though he has passed by the site on numerous occasions.
“I am happy that people can now relax in a place where I was tortured,” he said. “Today, it has grass and trees. But a huge number of people who were revolutionaries in their youth have bad memories of what the Israeli occupation did there.”
Ahmad al-Dabba, 28, has a business degree from al-Quds Open University. Unable to find other work, he is among many traders who sell refreshments to al-Saraya’s visitors.
“Elderly people come here, telling us how notorious this place was in the past,” he said. “Al-Saraya witnessed countless violations of human rights. But now it happens to be an important source of income for us.”
Ahmad Rabie, 40, is another vendor in the park. He noted how the site has undergone a major transformation since the prison was bombed by Israel.
“It was so horrible before, all ruins and rubble,” he said. “Today people go there to eat, have some drinks and chill out.”
Ola Mousa is an artist and writer from Gaza.