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A week of 'abandonment, desperation, suffocation, isolation'

Jan. 12, 2010 8:32 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 19, 2011 12:18 P.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an - On 12 January 2009, one year ago today, nine Palestinian detainees were blindfolded, handcuffed, and transported to Israel's Erez border crossing. Several hours later, they were told to run into Gaza, to look straight ahead - and not to look back.

During their time at Erez, the nine were subjected to harsh interrogation and made to strip completely, one of them alleged, capping off more than a week of mistreatment described by other detainees as amounting to abandonment, desperation, suffocation and isolation.

On the morning of 5 January, the Al-Atatra sandpits area 10 kilometers north of Gaza City, a largely agricultural neighborhood with orange and lemon orchards, suffered heavy aerial bombardment, which was followed by a ground incursion by Israeli troops.

Richard Goldstone's UN inquiry met six people, members of the same extended family and residents of Al-Atatra, three of whom were direct witnesses and victims of the events that occurred in the aftermath of the ground incursion. Their testimonies are supported by those of three others, also residents of Al-Atatra, submitted to the mission by an NGO, the final report of the mission stated.

Goldstone's report quotes a witness who states that all 65 detainees from the original group taken from Al-Atatra to Israel were eventually released. Some members of his family were detained afterwards, but not in the original group of 65, according to the report. At the time of writing, three of these remain incarcerated in various detention facilities of the Israel Prison Service.

An unknown number remain in prison facing charges of being illegal combatants and members of the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing. The first hearing was scheduled to be held in August in Israel.

The saga began on the morning of 5 January, shortly after the ground operations began, when an estimated 40 Israeli soldiers broke into several homes, including that of the witness, who is not named for "security reasons." He described to the Goldstone mission how 65 persons, several of whom were holding white flags, were made to assemble in the street.

The soldiers separated the men from the women. The men were made to line up against a wall and strip to their underwear. The witness indicated that any attempt to resist the soldiers was met with physical force, resulting in injuries.

Approximately 20 minutes later, they were taken into a house owned by Khalil Misbah Attar, where they were detained for a day, the men still separated from the women. The house had been struck by a number of missiles that morning and was badly damaged. Witnesses indicated that the house was at that time being used by the Israeli armed forces as a military base and sniper position.

At around 10 pm, all of the men were handcuffed behind their backs with plastic restraints and blindfolded. The men, 11 women and at least seven children below the age of 14 were taken on foot to Al-Kaklouk located south of the American School, one to two kilometres away. Many of the men remained in their underwear, exposed to the harsh winter weather (According to the BBC weather services, temperatures in the Gaza Strip in December and January, on average, vary from maximum 17° to minimum 7° Celsius.).

The witness told Goldstone that, on arrival at Al-Kaklouk, everyone was asked to clamber down into trenches, which had been dug to create a pit surrounded by a wall of sand, about three meters high. There were three such pits, each of which was surrounded by barbed wire. They were estimated to cover about 7,000 square meters ("six or seven donums") each.

He described how they were assembled in long single files, rather than massed together, and held in these pits, in the open air and exposed to cold temperatures for three days. Each pit accommodated approximately 20 people. They were forced to sit in stress positions, on their knees and leaning forward keeping their heads down. They were monitored by soldiers and were not allowed to communicate with each other. They had no access to food or water on the first day of their internment, and were given a sip of water and an olive each to eat on the second and third days of their detention.

They had limited access to toilet facilities. The men had to wait for two to three hours after asking before they were allowed to leave the pits to relieve themselves and sometimes were able to remove their blindfolds for the purpose. A few of them were told to relieve themselves inside the pit, behind a small mount of sand. They stated that it was culturally too difficult for the women to seek permission to relieve themselves and they did not ask.

AD/01 states that some tanks were inside the pit with at least one tank positioned at the eastern end. While the people were held there, the tank facing inland each day sporadically fired on the houses along the road opposite the site.

They recounted that on 8 January, the women and children were released and told to go to Jabaliyah. The men were transferred to military barracks near the northern border, identified as the Izokim Barracks. At the Izokim barracks, the men were detained in pits similar to but smaller than those in al-Kaklouk. They continued to be exposed to the cold temperature, rain and the constant sound of tank movement overhead. The witnesses have described to the Mission the experience of continued and prolonged exposure to the sound of this tank movement as disorienting and creating feelings of futility, isolation, helplessness and abject terror.

The men were held handcuffed and in their underwear in the Izokim barracks overnight. They were questioned intermittently, mostly on details and locations of Qassam rockets, the tunnels and the whereabouts of Hamas parliamentarians. According to statements made to the mission, they were beaten during the interrogation and threatened with death and being run over by tanks. The mission notes that the nature and types of questions asked remained the same throughout the interrogations in various detention facilities.

On 9 January, the men were taken to a prison in Israel, indentified by one witness as the Negev prison, where they remained until 12 January. They were detained in one section of the prison, alternating between being held in isolation and in shared cells, and were subjected to harsh interrogation, often by two people dressed in civilian clothes. Interrogation focused on the identification of Hamas tunnels and arms as well as the whereabouts of Gilad Shalit.

They recounted that they were shackled to a chair with plastic strips and interrogated several times, with AD/01B stating that he was made to strip naked during an interrogation. He was kept in solitary confinement where a soldier would come intermittently during the day, and slam the cell door open and shut, exposing him to extremely cold temperatures. One stated that during the first interrogation he was verbally threatened and in the subsequent two he was blindfolded and beaten. He was made to stand up and face the wall, following which his face was smashed against the wall several times before he was severely beaten (kicked and punched) on his back and buttocks.

Requests for clothing were denied. During the interrogation the detainees were informed that they were “illegal combatants” and that they had no protection under the Geneva Conventions. They had limited access to food, water and sanitation. Their morning meal was a bottle-cap-sized piece of bread with a drop of marmalade. The evening meal, if provided, consisted of rotting sardines and cheese on mouldy bread.

One described the experience of being detained, stripped and shackled as one of abandonment, desperation, suffocation and isolation. He continues to experience discomfort where he was beaten and is unable to sit and sleep comfortably.

Another stated that while in Negev prison an additional group arrived. They were kept separately in the second section. The exact number of detainees in the second group is unknown, although one indicated to the mission that the second group was smaller.
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