Legacy of bitter war in Lebanon: thousands of Arab prisoners with nowhere to go; 'What will happen to the detainees is a political question,' Israelis say

In a sprawling tent camp ringed by barbed wire and tall searchlights, Israel is holding more than 7,000 Palestinians, Lebanese, and foreign prisoners taken during the war in Lebanon.

Their future - especially that of the Palestinians - is unclear. Not even Israel knows yet what will be done with them.

Their treatment has been a subject of controversy. Their continued detention is causing tensions between Israel and the remaining Lebanese population - as well as hardship for thousands of Palestinian refugees left in Lebanon without breadwinners.

The camp at Ansar, roughly a mile square, was bulldozed in 10 days to hold the growing number of captured guerrillas and civilians. Israel claims these men - there are no women - are all activists of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

''They are 100 percent terrorists,'' said an Israeli official. ''They have been sifted two or three times.''

Nearly all of the captured men were interrogated and held first in camps in Israel, then transferred to Ansar beginning July 7. The camp still has an unfinished look.

Surrounded by a high dirt embankment topped with barbed wire fencing, it is divided into sections by concertina barbed wire. Each compound contains rows of open tents on reddish, sandy earth. Roughly two dozen men peer from each tent. Their heads shaven, wearing blue or brown uniforms, they stare listlessly at passers-by, jumping up beside the barbed wire at a shouted ''hello.''

A substantial corps of the prisoners are Palestinian guerrillas who were captured or surrendered in the fighting in recent weeks. The Israeli Army still conducts sweep searches in the citrus groves and hills around former PLO concentrations in the south.

In addition, Israel uses a system of informers in a continuing attempt to identify alleged PLO men among the civilian population. This system, however, appears to contain a high risk of error.

In neighborhoods of Sidon, the largest city in south Lebanon, all Palestinian and Lebanese men between 14 and 60 have been called several times to assemble on a hospital ground. There they are required to march in front of masked informers in parked vans. The informers indicate thumbs up or down to waiting Israeli officers.

Sidon residents say hooded men also traverse the city in jeeps with Israeli border police, checking men on the streets. Southern Lebanese villagers say informers in dark glasses arrive in Israeli armored vehicles that call all village men to pass by in procession to be checked.

Those singled out are usually taken for further checking to the factory grounds of the Safa Citrus Company on the edge of Sidon, where more masked men wait in vans. The factory's gate is covered with plastic sheeting to shield the proceedings, but the place is easily identifiable by scores of Lebanese and Palestinian women waiting tearfully outside for news of their men.

Official Israeli sources say the masked informers are often captured PLO leaders who agree to turn in their own people.

''We make a deal with them,'' an Israeli source says. ''This is a dirty business with a dirty people.''

But Lebanese villagers say many of the informers are local people out for their own gain. ''A man owes someone else money, so he turns that person in,'' a Sidon merchant said bitterly.

Sometimes those identified are released quickly. ''I never held a gun, but the masked man picked me,'' says Kasid Hallak, a Lebanese student from Sidon who spent seven days in Safa and 20 days in Israel. ''They asked me what I knew about the Palestinian terrorists and then they finally let me go.''

Other innocent men may be held longer - as the accompanying story (below) about Ali Hussein Ghaddar makes clear.

The prisoners at Ansar have a murky legal status. Unlike Syrian soldiers, who are considered prisoners of war and are still held in Israel, the Palestinians, Lebanese, or foreign civilians being held by Israel are not recognized as prisoners of war. Such POW status carries certain rights under international law , such as visits by the International Committee for the Red Cross. (One Israeli pilot being held by the PLO has been accorded POW status and visited by the ICRC , which has not been allowed to see the one Israeli prisoner in Syrian hands, also a pilot.)

Since moving the bulk of detainees to Ansar, however, Israel has expressed willingness to afford them the equivalent of POW rights. An Israeli official who was recently appointed liaison of the ICRC at Ansar said, ''Civilians once detained are entitled to really 100 percent of the treatment of POWs.''

But charges of severe beatings and torture under interrogation have been made by a Canadian and two Norwegian health workers, arrested by the Israelis while working in a PLO hospital in Sidon. These events allegedly took place at the beginning of the war in a Sidon schoolyard used for interrogation.

Such charges are difficult to corroborate. The ICRC, now permitted by Israel to visit prisoners at Ansar and conduct independent medical checks, began these visits only on July 18, six weeks after the war commenced. Prior to that the ICRC could visit only wounded Palestinian and Syrian prisoners in hospitals.

As of Aug. 2, the ICRC had seen only 490 of the detainees at Ansar. Tension between ICRC workers and Israeli military officials at Ansar had resulted in a brief stoppage of visits. But that tension has apparently been resolved.

Interviews with four ex-detainees, two Lebanese and two Palestinians who were held in Israel, brought forth allegations of casual beatings, often while in transit, but nothing systematic or more severe.

Omar Ali, a Palestinian mechanic from Mieh Mieh refugee camp, was arrested in the first week of the war and transported blindfolded to Israel, where he was held for a month. On the bus to Israel, he says, ''We heard young men crying, 'Help. My body, my stomach.' ''

When queried about treatment of prisoners, an Israeli official said, ''Interrogation is not a charity affair.''

Israel permits no access to Palestinians detained in Israel. (United Nations peacekeeping forces stationed near Tyre report still seeing busloads of blindfolded prisoners moving south to Israel.) The Israeli military allows press meetings only with selected prisoners accompanied by Israel soldiers.

At one such meeting Salah Ta'ameri, a middle-level PLO official, was asked, ''How were you treated?'' He replied, ''You give me two choices: to lie or to be punished. It's been better than I expected.''

Living conditions for those now in Ansar appear to be adequate. Prisoners cook their own food, have unlimited water and bathing rights and are free to walk around, subject to a headman appointed in each area. Rows of curtained portable toilets and showers stand off to the side in each compound. Each compound also has its own clinic with a Palestinian detainee doctor and male nurses.

The key unanswered question for both local residents and the Israelis is: What will happen to the detainees?

Permanent structures will be need if they are to be kept through the cold Lebanese winter, when Ansar's clay soil will turn into mud. Israeli officials say no plans are yet being made for such buildings.

''What will happen to the detainees is a political question,'' an official says.

Israeli sources say plans are under way to release the wounded and those over 65, then those Lebanese citizens with identity cards. They say 500 have been released so far, including 220 youths aged 10 to 16 who were trained by the PLO.

The Israelis would like to deport most of the foreigners. Israeli sources say they hold 663 Arab nationals, apart from Syrian POWs, Lebanese, and stateless Palestinians, and 512 foreigners. These foreigners include 380 Bangladeshis, 58 Pakistanis, and 56 Indians.

The problem of Lebanese detainees is causing tension between Israel and southern Lebanese communities. Mayor Ahmed Kalash of Sidon says, ''Every day people come and complain to me about their missing relatives. The Israelis are holding good people that I know.''

As he spoke three women came looking for their sons.

But releasing Palestinians creates a thornier problem for Israel. Israeli sources say a small number of Palestinians being held in Israel are suspected of specific terrorist acts and will be tried if evidence can be found.

As for the rest, those who are judged PLO activitists fall into the same category as the besieged guerrillas in west Beirut. If let go, they may form the nucleus of a rejuvenated PLO presence in the south. But if Israel wants to deport them, some Arab country must be found to take them. And if they leave, their families - women, children, and elderly now in dire straits throughout south Lebanon - must accompany them or face disaster.

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