An Israeli Jail that Specialized in Nightmares


Sometimes a country's darkest secrets have a way of surfacing in the most
offhanded manner. Gad Kroizer, an Israeli historian, was researching old
British police buildings when he stumbled on a 70-year-old map drawn by a
government architect. The map showed the location of 62 police compounds
built by the British in Palestine in the late 1930s and early 1940s where
both Arabs and Jews who agitated against Britain's occupation were
interrogated. What caught Kroizer's eye was a camp called Meretz, which he
had not seen on any contemporary Israeli map or read about in any modern
writing on security compounds in the Jewish state. "There was a discrepancy
between the map I had and the lists I'd been looking at," says Kroizer, who
lives in Jerusalem and teaches at Bar-Ilan University. "I started putting
two and two together."

What Kroizer had discovered and later footnoted in an academic paper
(published in the March 2004 issue of Cathedra, circulation: 1,500) was the
location of an ultrasecret jail where Israel has held Arabs in total
seclusion for years, barred visits by the Red Cross and allegedly tortured
inmates. Known as 1391, the facility is used as an interrogation center by
a storied unit of Israel's military intelligence, whose members-all Arabic
speakers-are trained to wring confessions from the toughest militants.
According to Arabs who've been imprisoned in 1391, some of the methods are
reminiscent of Abu Ghraib: nudity as a humiliation tactic, compromising
photographs, sleep deprivation. In a few cases, at least, interrogators at
1391 appear to have gone beyond Israel's own hair-splitting distinction
between torture and what a state commission referred to in 1987 as
"moderate physical pressure."

But the nightmare for those in 1391 is the isolation and the fear that no
one knows where you are, say Arabs who've been held there as well as an
Israeli who's been inside the prison. The location of the compound is so
hush-hush that a court this year banned a visit by an Israeli legislator.
Prisoners describe being hooded everywhere at the facility except in their
cells. Jailers often tell them they're on the moon or in another country
(in fact, the compound is less than an hour's drive from Tel Aviv). "This
can be devastating emotionally," says Dalia Kerstein, whose Israeli
human-rights group, HaMoked, has petitioned the High Court of Justice to
close down 1391. "We've seen that psychological pressure in certain
instances can be even harder on inmates than physical pressure..."

Israeli officials deny torturing inmates at 1391 or any other facility. But
Gideon Ezra, the former deputy head of Israel's Shabak security service,
says psychological pressure is one of the most effective tools
interrogators have in the war against terrorism. Ezra, now a member of
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party and his cabinet, says 1391 was
actually set up as an interrogation center for non-Palestinian Arabs who
entered Israel illegally. (Ezra says the number 1391 corresponds to the
adjacent military base and has no particular significance.) "In cases like
that, you need to find out very quickly who this person is and how he might
harm you..."

 


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