Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2000, Pages 35-36, 78
The Ostrovsky Files
A Message From Hell
By Victor Ostrovsky
Occasionally an article appears that is so disturbing in nature that one wants to cry out to the world in anger and frustration, “stop!” The Tel Aviv daily Ha’aretz carried just such an article, by Aviv Lavi, on Dec. 23.
For the most part Ha’aretz translates its articles—or somewhat sanitized versions—into English and makes them available on its Web site at www.haaretz.co.il/english. But others, like the one described below, remain untranslated for reasons that will become obvious.
It is the story of Haim Peretz, a seemingly ordinary Israeli who grew up in the small town of Ofakim—not a place overflowing with left-wing activists. Nevertheless, in clearing him for obligatory military service, Israeli officials overlooked a character flaw. This ordinary young man from an ordinary town had, unnoticed by the authorities, developed a conscience. It apparently went unnoticed while Haim Peretz spent almost three years working on F-16 aircraft as an Israeli air force technician. However, with only two weeks left to complete his three years of obligatory service, this first sergeant with a clean record was sent for a two-week stint as a security guard at the holding facility at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
It is not at all unusual that soldiers reaching the end of their service are volunteered by their units to bolster manpower in under-staffed units to which no one wants to be assigned. Peretz had no intention of making waves at that facility. He just wanted to finish his two weeks and return to civilian life.
The holding facility is on the Israeli side of the Erez checkpoint and it is designed to incarcerate Palestinians arrested while trying to enter Israel without the proper documentation. The majority of the prisoners are people who were apprehended while trying to get into Israel to find work. They are arrested and brought to the facility where they await trial. The wait can extend from a week to three months.
Usually the facility holds about 60 inmates and is run by a regular crew of IDF soldiers, bolstered by temporary help sent in from various units, as was Haim Peretz.
He arrived at the facility in March of 1999. After he was released from the military and was a civilian again, he came forward and described his experiences at Erez to Ha’aretz. Below are some excerpts:
Peretz spent his last two weeks of military service at the Erez crossing’s holding facility.
“From the first day I started to understand what was going on there. Six to seven prisoners are housed in every three-by-three meters (about nine-by-nine feet) cell. There are no beds. The prisoners (men of all ages, from teenagers to old men) sleep on blankets on the (concrete) floor.
“The cell is windowless except for two small barred ventilation slots. There is no toilet in the cell: the prisoners are given access to a toilet once a day when they are taken out in the morning for their daily walk. The rest of the time they use a large bucket that is placed in the center of their cell. By the way, this practice prevents them from praying (as their religion requires them to do five times daily) because the bucket turns the cell into a washroom, an environment in which Muslims are not allowed to pray.
“Regulations specify that the prisoners have the right to a full hour’s walk every day. But an hour is a flexible thing: Sometimes the sergeant (a reference to whomever is responsible for the prisoners, usually a corporal or even a private) decides that it will be only a half hour, or even 15 minutes. Letting the prisoners outside their cells for the daily walk is a hassle for him, and in most cases he does not want to bother.
“At this time all of the prisoners are supposed to go to the toilet, using two stalls for 20 people, since 20 are taken for their walk at a time. Often there is no toilet paper. When they ask for it, sometimes they are told yes, sometimes no, sometimes maybe.
“On the sabbath there is no walk. After all, the sergeant has to get his sabbath rest. So the prisoners are locked in for a full 48 hours, from Friday morning to Sunday morning.
“Everyone is entitled to two cigarettes a day, but the guards use the cigarettes as a bargaining chip, taking the prisoners through seven stages of hell before they receive their smokes. Sometimes the guards don’t give the prisoners any cigarettes, just because they don’t feel like doing it.
“The prisoners are taken out for a shower once a week, on Wednesday. It’s a horrible sight: the prisoners are pushed in a large group into two showers, with one cake of soap for the entire group. Meanwhile the guards hold a stopwatch, shouting at the prisoners to hurry.
“Some of the prisoners just forego the humiliation and stand aside. There were some in the prison who did not take a shower for weeks. There is no reason for letting them take only one shower a week except that to provide more showers would be a bother for the sergeant. Even after taking a shower the prisoners have to get back into their own dirty clothing. They are not given any clean clothing or even a towel. Sometimes they sit for months in the same dirty clothes.
“There are 12- and 13-year-old kids there. When I was there (in March), there was one kid who arrived barefoot. That was the way he stayed. He walked around that way and was brought in front of the judge that way.
“They have no contact with their families. The day they are arrested they are allowed one telephone call, and if there is no one at home, that’s their problem. Whoever is brought to trial is entitled to a conference with a lawyer, but that doesn’t happen often because the trials themselves appear to be an aberration.
“The lawyer promises that if he is hired he will get the prisoner off with a 1,500-shekel fine. That from people who tried to infiltrate Israel to work for 50 shekels a day.
“I would escort the prisoners to trial as a security guard. The trials took place in a small room in an adjacent facility. These are assembly line trials. They are worthless. The lady judge and the lady prosecutor have lunch together before the hearings and are themselves bored by the routine. They call each other by their first names. They hand out sentences of several months or a fine, and because most of the prisoners do not have any money to pay a fine, they remain in jail.
“One 15- or 16-year-old kid was fined 300 shekels. I took him aside and gave him 200 shekels that I had on me. The officer saw the exchange from the corner of his eye and yelled at me for wanting to bail out an Arab. I saw the kid a week later still in jail, just because he did not have all of the money to pay the fine.
“They get three meals a day. In the morning a large plate is placed in the cell on which the guards throw a loaf of bread, a small container of white cheese, and some vegetables. The single small container of cheese is supposed to be enough for seven people. At lunch there are rice and one or two hotdogs per prisoner. How many depends on how much the prisoner sucks up to the soldiers.
“When there was a visit from Amnesty International to the facility the inspectors were taken to the cell where the collaborators were housed. The collaborators told the visitors the food was great. In the evening the prisoners get the same thing as in the morning. Most of the time they are hungry. If someone happens to be out for a trial during lunch, or if he has been taken away for any other reason, he will not be given his lunch. When I tried to change that, I was told to shut up. Even as it is, I was told, the upkeep of the prisoners is costing the country too much and ”˜These leeches are ruining our lives.’
“Once a week, on Tuesday or Wednesday, the prisoners are given a hot drink. One week when I was in the facility they did not get a hot drink. It is pitiful to see people who have been looking forward for a full week to a hot cup of tea begging when they do not get it. (This was winter and there was no heating in the cells.) The only reason the tea was not made was that the cooks didn’t want to bother.”
It is a rarity that an Israeli breaks ranks and tells the public the minute details of what is really going on inside such government installations. It is not an easy thing to do, and Haim is still trying to understand why he felt it was up to him to come forward and tell his story.
“Maybe it’s because I myself have come from a place where affluence was not the norm, and I saw people enduring hard times. I couldn’t stand seeing people so mistreated. For God’s sake, we were not dealing with terrorists here, or people who wanted to harm anyone. All these poor people wanted to do was work so they could feed their families.
“When I was in high school I worked in a textile factory where most of the workers were Arabs. I had a great relationship with them. I learned a few words of Arabic before I went into the army. I also had the opportunity to take a couple of courses in Arabic and Islam in the open university. That is probably the reason that I, unlike most other soldiers, did not regard every Palestinian as a terrorist and I didn’t look down on them.”
Liaison Between Guards and Prisoners
Due to his partial knowledge of Arabic Haim became a liaison between the guards and the prisoners. He escorted them to trial or to the nurse or the doctor. There a prisoner might have expected to find an island of compassion, someone who, in compliance with the Hippocratic oath he or she had taken, would relieve some of the prisoner’s suffering. But the reality was different.
“The medical treatment they get is a story in itself. When they arrive they are given a medical check-up to verify that they are healthy enough to be held in prison. That checkup is meant to provide the facility with a cover of legitimacy.
“In fact, the doctor did not touch or check the prisoners. He just asked them if they were all right. He did not speak one word of Arabic and couldn’t understand what they answered—not that there was much chance that they would complain anyway.
“The doctors are rotating reservists. When I was there, the doctor did not let the prisoners sit or lie on the bed when he checked them. He didn’t want to get it dirty, so he told them to lie on the floor. During one of the visits, when a prisoner complained of some pain the doctor said in my presence: ”˜They should die, these Arabs, they should get one bullet each and be done with them. Who needs to treat them?’ Later he said he was only joking, but I know he was not.
“From the beginning he treated them like garbage. He only pulled them or pushed them, barked at them and cursed them. ”˜What is your name, dirty Arab?’ he would say. On a good day he would give them Acamole [an Israeli version of aspirin], which was not much help.
“One day one of the prisoners swallowed several pills and lost consciousness. He lay there for over an hour, but the doctor was in no hurry. ”˜Let him wait, no one told him to commit suicide,’ the doctor explained. ”˜One fewer Arab will be better.’
“One of the prisoners had a bad rash, which he got from the military blankets. The prisoner was accused of arriving from Gaza that way. But I know he was well when he came. He was 16 and had been caught the day before when he and his brother tried to infiltrate Israel. The doctor said that he should be placed in isolation.
“When the prisoner was placed in isolation, still suffering from an extremely itchy rash, he was crying and yelling for help. He stayed like that for a long time, freezing in a small cell with very little to eat. I begged the officer to let me explain to him why he was isolated and try to calm him down. I was not allowed to do so.
“The doctor said that the prisoner needed to have a shower every day. And even if he had a shower, it probably wouldn’t help as he would have to get back into his old clothing afterward.
“Most soldiers regarded the Palestinians as animals. I saw soldiers who would, for the fun of it, spit into the plates of the prisoners. When the prisoners arrive they already have been beaten up by the border patrol that caught them.
“On one of the first days I saw a border patrol soldier beating up a kid right there in the facility. I asked him to stop. ”˜Shut up, you Arab-loving lefty,’ he said to me. At the time I still didn’t want to get involved, so I backed off.
“The sergeants beat up the prisoners all the time. It appears the soldiers expect the prisoners to speak fluent Hebrew, and every word a prisoner speaks in Arabic sounds to the guards like a curse word. If a prisoner who did not know better complained, he would be beaten up.
“During a roll call one of the prisoners said something and the guard thought he was talking back so he twisted the prisoner’s hand behind his back and threw him against the wall. The guard then placed him in isolation in a tiny cell. The prisoner was moaning in pain for several days before I was asked to take him to the doctor, who diagnosed a broken arm. When I told the doctor what had happened, he wrote in his report that it was the result of the prisoner tripping. When I insisted that it was a beating, one of the male nurses made it clear to me that if I opened my mouth they would ”˜blow my head off.’”
After Haim went public he was harassed and regarded by many of his friends as a traitor. The military said it would look into his revelations and an official investigation was promised. The commander of the facility was removed from office.
It must be remembered, however, that there are many more facilities like this one in Israel, and there are many prisoners who are simply unaccounted for. In additon, one should not forget the hostages Israel has kidnapped from Lebanon and who are held as pawns for future exchanges with the Hezbollah. Five such Lebanese hostages were released recently. One was 31 years old and had been in captivity—without trial and without committing a crime—since he was 16—15 years ago.
Haim’s exposé made very few ripples in Israel. Is it possible that the well of Israeli compassion has totally run dry? The most worrisome element of this story is the uncalled for and unnecessary cruelty displayed by what one can only regard as “regular Israelis.” It appears to vindicate the many predictions made by psychologists that the prolonged Israeli occupation of the territories might rob the Israelis of their souls. When and if peace is achieved, and hopefully that day is near, where will “the new Israeli” release all his stored up cruelty, hatred and violence? Already the rates of violence by Israelis against Israelis, starting with their own families, may be the final revenge of Israel’s hundreds of thousands of innocent victims. ❑
Former Mossad case officer Victor Ostrovsky is the author of By Way of Deception and The Other Side of Deception, both of which are available on audiotape through the AET Book Club.