‘More Horrific Than Abu Ghraib’: Lawyer Recounts Visit to Israeli Detention Center

PALESTINE - ISRAEL, 1 Jul 2024

Baker Zoubi | +972 Magazine - TRANSCEND Media Service

Palestinian prisoners from Gaza seen at a courtyard in a prison in southern Israel, 14 Feb 2024.  (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

At Sde Teiman, Khaled Mahajneh found a detained journalist unrecognizable as he described the facility’s violent and inhumane conditions.

27 Jun 2024 – “The situation there is more horrific than anything we’ve heard about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.” This is how Khaled Mahajneh describes the Sde Teiman detention center as the first lawyer to visit the facility. More than 4,000 Palestinians whom Israel arrested in Gaza have been held at the military base in the Naqab/Negev since October 7; some of them have subsequently been released, but most remain in Israeli detention.

Mahajneh, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was initially approached by Al Araby TV, which was seeking information about Muhammad Arab, a reporter for the network who was arrested in March while covering the Israeli siege of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. “I contacted the Israeli army’s control center, and after providing them with a photo and an ID card of the detainee, as well as my official power of attorney document, I was informed that [Arab] was being held at Sde Teiman and that he could be visited.”

When Mahajneh arrived at the base on June 19, he was required to leave his car far away from the site, where an army jeep was waiting to transport him inside. This was “something I had never encountered on any previous visit to any prison,” he told +972. They drove for about 10 minutes through the facility — a sprawling network of trailers — before arriving at a large warehouse, which contained a trailer guarded by masked soldiers.

“They repeated that the visit would be limited to 45 minutes, and any action that may harm the security of the state, the camp, or the soldiers will lead to the immediate cessation of the visit. I still don’t understand what they meant,” Mahajneh said.

Soldiers dragged out the detained journalist with his arms and legs tied, while Mahajneh remained behind a barrier. After soldiers removed his blindfold, Arab rubbed his eyes for five minutes, unaccustomed to the bright light. “Where am I?” was the first question he asked Mahajneh. Most Palestinians at Sde Teiman do not even know where they are being held; with at least 35 detainees having died in unknown circumstances since the war began, many simply call it “the death camp.”

“I have been visiting political and security detainees and prisoners in Israeli jails for years, including since October 7,” Mahajneh noted. “I know that the conditions of detention have become much harsher, and that the prisoners are abused on a daily basis. But Sde Teiman was unlike anything I’ve seen or heard before.”

Khaled Mahajneh, a lawyer who visited Sde Teiman detention center. (Courtesy)

Khaled Mahajneh, a lawyer who visited Sde Teiman detention center. (Courtesy)

‘Even the courts are rife with hatred’

Mahajneh told +972 that Arab was nearly unrecognizable after 100 days in the detention facility; his face, hair, and skin color had changed, and he was covered with dirt and pigeon droppings. The journalist had not been given new clothes for nearly two months, and was only allowed to change his pants for the first time that day because of the lawyer’s visit.

According to Arab, detainees are continually blindfolded and tied up with their hands behind their backs, forced to sleep hunched over on the floor without any bedding. Their iron handcuffs are removed only during a weekly, minute-long shower. “But the prisoners began refusing to shower because they don’t have watches, and going beyond the allotted minute exposes prisoners to severe punishments, including hours outside in the heat or rain,” Mahajneh said.

All detainees, Mahajneh noted, face deteriorating health conditions due to the poor quality of the daily prison diet: a small amount of labaneh and a piece of cucumber or tomato. They also suffer from severe constipation, and for every 100 prisoners, only one roll of toilet paper is provided per day.

“The prisoners are prevented from talking to each other, even though more than 100 people are kept to a warehouse, some of them elderly and minors,” Mahajneh told +972. “They are not allowed to pray or even read the Qur’an.”

Arab also testified to his lawyer that Israeli guards sexually assaulted six prisoners with a stick in front of the other detainees after they had violated prison orders. “When he talked about rapes, I asked him, ‘Muhammad, you’re a journalist, are you sure about this?’” Mahajneh recounted. “But he said he saw it with his own eyes, and that what he was telling me was only a small part of what was happening there.”

Multiple media outlets, including CNN and the New York Times, have reported on instances of rape and sexual assault at Sde Teiman. In a video circulating on social media earlier this week, a Palestinian prisoner recently released from the detention camp said that he had personally witnessed multiple rapes, and cases in which Israeli soldiers made dogs sexually assault prisoners.

Muhammad Arab, a Palestinian journalist with Al Araby TV. (Courtesy)

Muhammad Arab, a Palestinian journalist with Al Araby TV. (Courtesy)

In just the past month, according to Arab, several prisoners were killed during violent interrogations. Other detainees who had been wounded in Gaza were forced to have their limbs amputated or bullets removed from their bodies without anesthesia, and were treated by nursing students.

Legal defense teams and human rights organizations have been largely unable to counter these serious violations of prisoners’ rights at Sde Teiman, and most are prevented from even visiting the facility to prevent greater scrutiny. “The State Prosecutor’s Office said that this detention center was going to be closed after harsh criticisms, but nothing happened,” Mahajneh said. “Even the courts are rife with hatred and racism against the people of Gaza.”

Most of the detainees, Mahajneh noted, are not formally accused of belonging to any organization or participating in any military activity; Arab himself still doesn’t know why he was detained or when he may be released. Since arriving at Sde Teiman, soldiers from the Israeli army’s special units have interrogated Arab twice. After the first interrogation, he was informed that his detention had been extended indefinitely, based on “suspicion of affiliation to an organization whose identity was not disclosed to him.”

‘To take revenge on whom?’

In recent months, international media outlets have published several testimonies of released prisoners as well as doctors who worked at Sde Teiman. For Israeli doctor Dr. Yoel Donchin, who spoke to the New York Times, it was unclear why Israeli soldiers had detained many of the people he treated, some of whom were “highly unlikely to have been combatants involved in the war” based on pre-existing physical ailments or disabilities.

The Times also reported that doctors at the facility were instructed not to write their names on official documents or address each other by name in the presence of patients, for fear of being later identified and charged with war crimes at the International Criminal Court.

“They stripped them down of anything that resembles human beings,” one witness who worked as a medic at the facility’s makeshift hospital told CNN. “[The beatings] were not done to gather intelligence. They were done out of revenge,” another witness said. “It was punishment for what they [the Palestinians] did on October 7 and punishment for behavior in the camp.”

Members of the Keter unit, an Israeli prison service response unit, seen while detainees put their hands on their heads, at a prison in southern Israel, February 14, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Members of the Keter unit, an Israeli prison service response unit, seen while detainees put their hands on their heads, at a prison in southern Israel, February 14, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Since his visit to Sde Teiman, Mahajneh has felt deep frustration and anger — but above all, horror. “I have been in this profession for 15 years … I never expected to hear about rape of prisoners or humiliations like that. And all this is not for the purpose of interrogation — since most prisoners are only interrogated after many days of detention — but as an act of revenge. To take revenge on whom? They are all citizens, young people, adults, and children. There are no Hamas members in Sde Teiman because they are in the hands of the Shabas [Israeli Prison Service].”

In its response to queries for this article, the Israeli army stated: “The IDF rejects allegations of systematic ill-treatment of detainees, including through violence or torture … If necessary, military police investigations are opened when there is suspicion of unusual behavior justifying it.” The army denied Arab’s and Mahajneh’s accounts of deprivation, and insisted that detainees are provided with sufficient clothing and blankets, food and water (“three meals a day”), access to toilets and showers (“between 7 and 10 minutes”), and other amenities.

The army also added: “Since the beginning of the war, there have been deaths of detainees, including detainees who arrived wounded from the battlefield or in problematic medical conditions. Every death is investigated by the military police. At the end of the investigations, their findings will be forwarded to the Military Advocate General’s Office.”

Mahajneh relayed a clear message from Sde Teiman: “Muhammad Arab and the other prisoners in the detention center call on the international community and the international courts to act to save them. It is inconceivable that the whole world talks about the Israeli abductees, and no one talks about the Palestinian prisoners.”

Mahajneh does not know what happened to the detained journalist after his brief 45-minute interview. “Did they attack him? Did they kill him? I think about it all the time.”

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Baker Zoubi is a journalist from Kufr Misr currently living in Nazareth. Baker has been working in the field of journalism since 2010, initially as a reporter for local Arab media outlets, and later as an editor of the Bokra website. Today, he also works as a researcher and editor for television programs on the Makan and Musawa channels. He writes and posts on his Facebook page various opinion pieces on politics and social issues related to Palestinian society. Recently, he also started writing for Local Call.

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