Israel’s War Against Palestine: Documenting the Military Occupation of Palestinian and Arab Lands

Ilana Hammerman: Lost in the desert

6 November 2009

By Ilana Hammerman, Haaretz – 6 Nov 2009

“The prison is located amid the Halutza dunes in the northwest Negev, near the Egyptian border, and has an area of 400,000 square meters … From the outside the prison resembles a kind of huge castle, painted in camouflage colors, in the heart of the desert. The extensive interior areas include huge tent compounds, and the concrete wings are surrounded by towers that rise above the prison grounds.”

– Web site of the Israel Prison Service, National Incarceration Organization (Hebrew).

A few years ago, with colleagues from work, I visited Nitzana, an educational land settlement community that was founded in 1987 by Arie (Lova) Eliav. We arrived after a long trip from Tel Aviv, and the founder himself showed us around. At some point, at a desolate spot not far from Nitzana, Eliav instructed the driver to stop so that he could show us the region. We stood there, scanning the desert, our eyes following his outstretched arm to seek out signs of life and activity hidden from our sight but known to him. Lova Eliav is well acquainted with these remote arid expanses, this strong and tireless man who had the inner fortitude to establish an educational institution here, of all places.

And indeed, my eyes now noticed the green of treetops and perhaps of other shrubs and plants, attesting to a corner of Nitzana where the desert was being made to bloom. I hesitated, wrestled with myself, felt the tension surging inside, but finally, nevertheless, pointed in a different direction and asked Eliav whether it was possible to see from here the immense Ketziot prison camp – Nitzana’s neighbor, opened a year after the community was founded, and where, at this very moment, thousands of people are incarcerated, hundreds of them without trial. An awkward silence fell. No one responded. I think Eliav mumbled a few words about his great involvement on behalf of peace. Probably I felt a twinge in my heart at how I had hurt this 80-year-old sworn idealist who has done so much work for good causes.

The Ketziot camp could not be seen from where we were, even though it was very close. The camouflage colors hid it well, and maybe also the earth ramps that had been created for the same purpose. So that even if we had stopped a little before on Highway 211 in the desert, at the junction before the turn to Nitzana, it probably would have been difficult for us to see it; we would have seen only the sign. No, not even the sign, because it was installed after our trip, in the period when the prison facility was transferred from the army to the National Incarceration Organization. In any event, the sign is perfectly clear, not disguised at all: “Ketziot Prison,” it says in blue on white.

The taxi I traveled in not long ago, on September 29 this year, did not continue to Nitzana but turned left at that clear sign. Past a meager road kiosk and an abandoned gas station, the eye can make out the very long concrete wall, painted in desert hues; the barbed wire atop it, the concrete towers looming above it, the many cables that stretch from it in every direction between the electricity poles, and maybe also other devices of unknown purpose. That’s it. Even close up you don’t see more than that: not the huge tents and not the concrete structures. The driver said that in the past week, since the last time he was here, another earth rampart had been added to conceal the site. Look, he said, pointing a finger, even the bulldozer is still here.

My taxi pulled up next to a barbed wire fence with a sign in Hebrew and Arabic welcoming visitors to the Ketziot Military Court and announcing that this was the lawyers’ entrance. Beyond the entrance, hidden behind a jumble of ugly walls, but enlivened by a vibrant green climbing plant, my friend Adnan, who has been held here since August 2008 in administrative detention – imprisonment without trial – awaited another hearing in his case. I very much wanted to see not only him but also the eyeglasses I had sent him a few months earlier. I hadn’t yet seen them perched on his nose. Back then I had asked for permission to visit him and bring him the glasses in person, but my request was turned down in a plodding but very clear text:

“1. Your request was examined by the personnel of Ketziot Prison, to note that an administrative detainee is allowed to receive family visits only.

“2. In light of the above and after consultation with the relevant personnel, it was decided not to allow the convict a visit by someone who is not part of his family.

“3. For your information.”

So I had to send the glasses by other means. This is what happened.

Number 2, maybe 2.5

Adnan is nearsighted, and his glasses broke while he was in prison. “The facility,” according to the Web site of the National Incarceration Organization, “has a medical unit that includes a team of physicians, dentists and medics who provide medical treatment for the prisoners.” As this medical unit apparently does not have an optometrist, there was no one to give Adnan an eye examination and a prescription for glasses. “I think I need number two, maybe two and a half,” he informed me.

I went to the excellent old optician’s shop where I am a client and asked the experienced owner: “What do you suggest, two or two and a half?” “How am I supposed to know?” he asked – the person has to come himself. I told him the person was in jail. The optician was taken aback and fell silent for a moment. Then he said that even so, he could not tell me – it would be unprofessional. So I gambled on two and a half. “Fine,” he said. “What about astigmatism? he asked. On the spot I decided there was none, and asked him to help me choose a frame, a fashionable frame for a man of 35.

I chose a metal frame that was somewhat round and somewhat square, costing NIS 420, and anti-scratch lenses. Two days later, I picked up the glasses, in their hard black case that would protect them on the long journey into the heart of the desert, along with a soft purple cloth for cleaning the lenses. On the morning of February 19, 2009, the glasses were sent, via the Fast Express Service of Israel Post, to Adnan’s lawyer in Tel Aviv, who in three days’ time was going to Ketziot to attend a “judicial review” in Adnan’s case, in the “Military Court for Administrative Affairs.”

The reader should know that every administrative detention order entails a hearing known as “judicial review” under the aegis of a military judge. As for the legal value of this review, that may become somewhat clearer below.

The lawyer took the glasses to the incarceration camp in the heart of the desert. But the glasses did not reach Adnan’s nose. Because at the gates of the military court the lawyer was prohibited from taking them in. There is a standard procedure for this, she was told, and it had not been carried out: The prisoner had to submit a special written request to the warden. So the glasses returned to Tel Aviv. Adnan submitted the request.

Some time afterward, the lawyer appealed Adnan’s arrest and another hearing was scheduled, this one in a court which for this purpose is called the “Military Court for Appeals of Administrative Detentions.” The lawyer went to Ketziot again and the glasses went with her. This time the glasses made it into the courtroom, but the Israel Prison Service personnel would not allow them to be given to Adnan: The request had been duly submitted to the warden, but there was no answer. The glasses were in the lawyer’s hands and Adnan looked at them with pleading, nearsighted eyes. The IPS ruled: No!

In the face of that No! not even the cajoling of the judge, who recommended giving Adnan the glasses, could avail. This detail, the No!, shows something about the people who rule this legal system; it’s a small detail, perhaps, certainly not essential, but not trivial, either. Indeed, it was because of that small detail that the prisoner, who is generally reserved, lost control, stood up in the dock, waved his arms and said it was hard for him to get along without glasses. He protested and shouted and demanded to be given the glasses immediately. In vain. After the hearing, the prisoner was placed in solitary confinement for his outburst. He spent four days in a small, cold, dirty hole. The lawyer returned to Tel Aviv with the glasses in her bag.

A desert bird

Because the appeal was rejected and Adnan’s detention was extended administratively by another six months, no further hearing was scheduled in the near future. So I went to the lawyer’s home and retrieved the glasses and took them back to Jerusalem. My intention now was to get them to Adnan’s family in Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, so that someone from the family who would one day be allowed to visit Adnan would bring him the glasses. It is far from easy to get a permit for such a visit, because the prison camp is located, in total violation of international law, deep inside Israel, while the residents of Deheisheh, like most relatives of prisoners, are unable to enter Israeli territory. So one might assume that by the time someone from the family was able to visit, the warden’s reply would have arrived.

Surprisingly, though, it was not very long before a visit to Adnan was scheduled, and I had to scramble to get the glasses to Deheisheh. But because no one from Deheisheh is allowed to enter Jerusalem, either, I had the idea of changing the second part of my weekly bicycle outing and bringing the glasses to the Beit Jala junction, on Highway 60, a venue that both they and I could get to.

It was a clear, pleasant winter day. The glasses were placed in a small backpack and traveled with me through a beautiful landscape, amid wooded hills blossoming with winter plants, up to Bar Giora, down to Beit Shemesh and up again to Tzur Hadassah. From there I planned to continue along Highway 375, pass the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Betar Illit and the Palestinian village of Husan, and then cruise to Highway 60 near Bethlehem and its environs, which are completely hidden behind a high decorative stone wall.

But by the time I reached the heights of Tzur Hadassah, the skies had clouded over, a thin cold rain was falling and a heavy fog covered the world around me. The lovely red-tiled roofs of Tzur Hadassah had disappeared and so had the red sign that warns: “Dear citizen!!! Owing to the fear that you will by mistake / against your will be taken into the areas of the Palestinian Authority, which are off limits to Israelis, the soldiers at the checkpoint have taken down your details and the details of your car – Wishing you a good and safe trip, IDF Headquarters, Ayosh [Judea and Samaria Region].”

Indeed, even the checkpoint itself had disappeared. Also invisible was the large stone sign that welcomes visitors to the city of Torah and Hasidism in the Judean Hills, and gone too was the entire village of Husan, opposite, which in any case has no sign welcoming those who wish to visit its homes and mosques, and in fact its very name had been slashed from the green sign on the road. But were it not for the fog, the houses and minarets would have loomed up behind the high wire fence, which is possibly three times the height of an average person and was built as protection against the stones that are occasionally thrown at cars passing on the road. This whole conflicted and hostile terrain, together with its hilly vistas and its abundant curses had disappeared. I rode back. The glasses rode back with me and reached my home safe and dry – not even the purple cloth got wet.

A few more weeks passed, and the glasses were given to friends of Adnan and then to family members, who were also prohibited from giving them to him. Then they were given to someone who went to visit another prisoner from Deheisheh. This unknown visitor, of all people, was given permission to hand the glasses to the warders, who gave them to Adnan. The tale of the glasses was at an end.

In the meantime, the winter passed, spring came, and summer, too, was almost over, and Adnan was still imprisoned without trial in Ketziot. But now he could see and read in comfort, and even better, his conditions of incarceration improved. A few weeks ago, he was moved from the tent in which he had been crammed with another 20 or so prisoners and where he had frozen on the cold winter nights and in the summer boiled as though in a kettle, as he put it, to a hut where he was incarcerated with only seven others and where every two prisoners had a fan!

“Still, you look a bit ashen,” I tell him. “Because I had serious flu, he replies. Almost two weeks.” “Swine flu?” I ask in a panic and move my mouth back a little from the small round listening holes in the transparent divider that separates us. “No, he laughs, confine flu, and now I’m fine. Don’t worry.”

I draw close again and lay my hand flat on the divider, to meet his flattened hand on the other side. A type of handshake. He describes his daily schedule for me: wake-up at 6:30, physical activity until 8, then breakfast, then reading and/or group learning, lunch, supper, sleep. Three roll calls, two short, in groups of 10, one a little longer, by name. Yes, names, not numbers. Prisoners are no longer called by numbers. “Good conditions,” I tell him. “Sounds almost like a health resort. Just like our newspapers describe it.”

To this he replies with an allegory, because Adnan likes to speak in images and allegories: “Take a bird from this barren desert and offer it a life among the branches of trees in a cool grove in the Judean Hills. Do you think the bird will want that? No, it will want to live in its natural surroundings, with its bird friends. And it’s the same with me: I want to live in my surroundings, I want to go home, home, I want to be free, enough already, I don’t have the strength for jails anymore. Or let them at least try me and I will know why I am in detention and also how long I will be here. The worst thing is to think that I might even stay here for good.”

Exposed in secret

We sat opposite each other in a room within the compound of the military court at Ketziot, able to speak freely; the silent warder behind Adnan didn’t even look at us, maybe he had fallen asleep. I scanned with satisfaction the glasses on Adnan’s nose and remembered their winter journeys; he has been here 13 months already, I thought sorrowfully. The wind that blew across the clean tiled courtyard where I afterward accompanied Adnan and his warder on the way to the military court already bore intimations of fall.

Adnan was brought to this place, “a kind of huge castle in the heart of the desert,” in the wake of a decision by the Military Commander worded as follows: “Under my authority according to Par. 1 in the Order Regarding Administrative Arrests (Temporary Provision) Judea and Samaria (No. 1226) 1988, after examining the security material of the under-named, and believing that this is essential for absolute security reasons, and because I have a reasonable basis for supposing that considerations of the security of the region and the security of the public oblige it, I hereby order the arrest of … from … until … because he is a military P.F. [Popular Front] activist who is endangering the security of the region and the public.”

This order, which does not contain a specific accusation, can be extended by six months time and again. But one can appeal, too. In this drama someone plays the part of the defense counsel and someone plays the part of the prosecutor and someone plays the part of the judge. The defense counsel appeals, the prosecutor requests that the order be confirmed and the judge almost always confirms. In Adnan’s case, the prosecutor requested that the administrative detention order be confirmed “on the basis of the classified information which I will submit ex parte [with only one party present]. He is a P.F. activist to whom organizational and military activity is attributed.”

The following is part of the exchange that took place between defense counsel and the prosecutor:

“What is meant by ‘military activity’?”

“[That] will be specified in secret.”

“Is ‘military’ the same as ‘violent’?”

“I am unable to elaborate on definitions.”

“What is the meaning of the word as you use it?”

“I cannot elaborate.”

The judge confirmed the order. He also stated that none of the information presented to him could be made public, for fear that this was liable to adversely affect the security of the region or the security of the public. In February 2009 the order was extended until August 2009, and in August 2009 the order was extended until February 2010.

Ahead of the appeal against the extension, I said I wanted to give testimony for the defense, and so I finally arrived in person at the gates of the castle-like prison that stands in the Halutza dunes, where about 2,200 security prisoners are incarcerated, according to the Web site of the IPS – which the Web site also calls the National Incarceration Organization.

The request to summon me as a witness in the third judicial review hearing engendered a number of written documents: the defense asked, the prosecution objected, a judge saw no reason to take note of the objection, but allowed the prosecution to put forward its position again, the prosecution put forward its position again in an additional document, another judge ordered the defense witness to be called and allowed the prosecution to put forward its objections at the start of the hearing. Another judge, known as a senior judge, acceded definitively to the request, the summons was issued, the defense counsel made efforts to arrange my entry, the IPS acceded and issued a one-time entry permit.

From the moment I went through the gates and the various inspections, I found myself in an orderly, clean place, quiet and relaxed, almost empty of people. Behind one of the many fences a few warders and policemen sat at a table and conversed amicably. Past the table were four very small white huts with locked iron doors, with a small latticed opening on the facade of each. From time to time, one of the doors opened and a prisoner emerged, his hands and feet shackled with a chain long enough for him to be able to walk. From time to time, a prisoner like this was led calmly to one of the structures housing the courts.

Here one does not see small groups of family members like those who are allowed to huddle in the visitors’ pen at the military court in the Ofer base, near Ramallah, because the hearings here deal exclusively with administrative detentions and are not open to any sort of audience. Even though almost all the material in these cases is secret, the hearings take place “behind closed doors.” But in the absence of visitors, the doors of the courtroom in which I gave my testimony were open – open to the small fenced courtyard outside and to the dry, pleasant air of late summer and the chirping of unfettered birds.

I gave my testimony in an almost intimate atmosphere, to Adnan, who was sitting not far from me behind a modest rail, and to the tall officer who served as the judge here, an extraordinarily polite person who occasionally asked me to speak more slowly for the benefit of the stenographer, and to a major who served as the prosecutor, a gentle-looking young man, thin of frame and light of hair and face, with whom and with whose tiresome mannerisms filled with the spirit of battle, I was already familiar from the hearings in the military court at Ofer.

To them and to the defense counsel I related Adnan’s biography in brief. He was born and raised in Deheisheh refugee camp. At the age of 15 he was wounded very seriously by soldiers during demonstrations against the fence, which at the time closed off the camp. He then took part in various actions against the army and was arrested several times: He has spent about 11 of his 35 years in prison. I told the court I had got to know him after he completed his last prison term, of five years, and that I had met with him and spoken with him a great deal in the one year during which he was a free man. In that year, he decided he had sacrificed more than enough of his physical and mental strength for the sake of his people’s national struggle, and that now he wanted to complete his university studies and live his life with his wife, who had also had enough of the separations that were forced on her.

I said that from my long political and personal conversations with him, my impression was that he is a sincere and frank person, and therefore I believed what he told me – that it was not only for personal reasons but also for reasons of principle that he now advocates a peaceful struggle, that he believes – unlike me – that there is a good chance to establish peace between the two nations and that the armed struggle will not succeed in bringing this about.

I said I would be frank with this court, even though I do not accept it, that I had no intention of feigning anything in my testimony and that I was well aware that Adnan, just like me, was an involved political person, but that unlike me he had paid a very dear price for his involvement and with the circumstances had changed his views and the thrust of his activity, and was now devoting himself to open activity at which I myself had sometimes been present: meetings to further prisoners’ rights and educational activities for children.

I also said something that the prosecutor made much use of in the cross-examination: that from my lengthy observation of military court hearings I know that in the West Bank it is almost impossible to be an involved person like Adnan without being arrested, because from demonstrating and scrawling slogans, to forming ties with one of the hundreds of organizations, associations and groups that have been outlawed under military law, almost everything a person says or does outside his private confines is liable to land him in prison.

As for Adnan’s past deeds, for some of which he had been tried in military court and which, according to the verdicts, apparently also involved weapons – which, it had to be said, had not led to anyone being hurt and about which there were “evidentiary difficulties,” as the judge in his trial at that time had said – as for those deeds, I said, I don’t know what I would have done if I were in his place and been forced to live under occupation from the day I was born.

The prosecutor did not forget this remark, either. For the fact is that after I was asked to leave so that the hearing could proceed “behind closed doors,” as befits a secret security hearing like this, he said: “I think the witness’s impression is influenced by her opinions, which she did not hide … ” He even went so far as to conjecture that what Adnan had said to me in our conversations was done “to hide his activity from others and thus to create a kind of alibi.”

But the judge, who had treated me so courteously, took even less account of the whole matter of my testimony than the prosecutor. He wrote in his decision that what I had said was not enough “to constitute testimony of great weight concerning the detainee’s activity. No one disputes that the detainee’s deeds were not known to the witness beyond what she saw and heard. The activity that is exposed in the secret material is by its nature clandestine and accordingly the witness certainly could not have been exposed to it.”

Loud and clear

Indeed, I could not be exposed to that information, which was quite dubious, as will become apparent below – not I and not the defense counsel, not the accused, in fact no one outside the defense establishment, of which the military court is an integral element. The order extending Adnan Abdullah’s administrative detention was thus reconfirmed. The judge ruled that the information attributing to the detainee “current military activity … is not of a high level of credibility,” and therefore “this information needs to be ignored.” He also reduced the extension to three months, but at the same time wrote that the abridgment was “not cardinal.”

“What does ‘not cardinal’ mean?” I asked the lawyer. After all, three months is a very cardinal time for Adnan, who counts off the days assiduously ahead of every hearing in the hope that this time he will at last go free. Well, in the language of customary usage in these judicial precincts, an abridgment that is “not cardinal” means that the detention can be extended again. And afterward again. And again. But in the meantime, the prosecution quickly appealed even the “non-cardinal abridgment,” on the grounds that the secret material in Adnan’s case indicates that his being out of prison in the near future “will endanger the security of the region irreversibly.” Nothing less – irreversibly!

What I wanted, to tell the truth, was to say loud and clear something else entirely to the military personnel before whom I gave my ludicrous testimony in those fictitious circumstances. I wanted to tell them this: Maybe for once you will listen to my voice, the voice of a woman who has lived here all her life, from war to war and in the bad times between the wars, and is tied to this place no less than you. I too am one of the public which you have undertaken to protect along with its security, as the cliche that appears on all your documents says, and I contend that for many years now you have been endangering me; that imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people behind fences and walls of cities and villages and in camouflaged prisons on the outskirts of cities and in the desert is not protection but the constant fanning of a fire, which is prone to reignite constantly. I contend that an incarcerated and desperate Adnan is more of a danger to me than a free Adnan. That a free Adnan has been for me, and could also be for the rest of my nation and for you, too, an interlocutor and not an enemy.

Justice detained

Since 1967, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been tried in Israeli military courts. As of the end of September 2009, 7,155 Palestinians were incarcerated in the various detention facilities by the Israeli security forces. Almost everyone who is tried in the military courts is remanded in custody until the conclusion of the proceedings against them. Because the law allows them to be held in this status for two years and more, the great majority prefer a plea bargain, in which some of them admit to offenses they did not commit.

The majority of the Palestinian detainees and prisoners are incarcerated within Israel, in contravention of international law, which prohibits transferring residents of an occupied territory outside its boundaries. Because of the closure imposed on the territories, many of the prisoners are deprived of visits by family members.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been placed in administrative detention since 1967. At the end of September 2009, 355 of the Palestinians in the custody of the security forces were being held in administrative detention. The authorities use administrative detention as a speedy and efficient substitute for criminal proceedings, particularly if they do not possess proof of guilt or do not want to make public the evidence they have.

Administrative detainees are given no information about the reasons for their arrest and are thereby deprived of the possibility of addressing the suspicions alleged against them. In most cases, the only information given to the detainee is that he is active in an organization. Even though administrative detainees are brought before a military judge for “judicial review,” and afterward can appeal the detention, again before a military judge, in point of fact they are not given a genuine opportunity of self-defense, because the secret information against them (which is produced and served up by the Shin Bet security service) is unknown to them or their lawyers. W

[This article may have been truncated on the Haaretz website]

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