Israel's 'arbitrary' detention of Palestinians condemned

Human-rights watchers warn that recent detentions violate the Geneva Convention.

Assem Shaqain was walking home one evening after closing his father's carpentry shop when he was stopped by Israeli soldiers. He was told to get into a military jeep and taken to an interrogation center near his home.

For the next 24 hours the boy, 15, says he was systematically beaten and questioned by a team of eight interrogators who wanted to know what he was doing on the street after dark. During interrogation, Assem says he was blindfolded and his hands were tied. He was struck with what he says felt like a metal pole and dragged by his bound hands up and down stairs. He was left standing for hours at a time then told to lie face down on the floor while a dog circled his body, sniffing his face and genitals.

After many hours Shaqain was forced to sign a confession, written in Hebrew, admitting he had "attempted to throw stones." He was brought before a military court and sentenced to three months prison, periods of it served in solitary confinement.

"This experience has changed me a lot," Assem says. "I feel nervous all the time, and I dream I am still in the prison. I have started to hate the occupation more and more. I did nothing to deserve this treatment."

Israel says the policy of detaining Palestinians – some 600,000 since Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 – is a crucial part of gaining intelligence and disabling militant networks.

But human rights advocates, including Amnesty International, have condemned the policy as a gross abuse of human rights that violates the Geneva Convention.

Their concerns are twofold. The arbitrary nature of the detentions – which target all males of a certain age regardless of whether Israel has any reason to suspect them – violates Article 33 of the fourth Geneva Convention which states that "no protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed."

Secondly, human rights advocates say, once in detention, Palestinian prisoners are not informed of the reasons for arrest, are denied access to lawyers and are prevented from informing family of the arrest and place of detention – also a violation of the Geneva Convention. But because the current conflict is not considered a war, human rights conventions covering the treatment of prisoners of war do not apply.

In recent months, the policy – justified by Israel according to a series of Military Orders – has been significantly stepped up. Figures from Amnesty International, released in May, state that since Feb. 27 more than 8,500 Palestinians have been arbitrarily detained.

Most have since been released, but as many as 2,000 remain in Israeli custody, many under administrative detention, which allows Israel to hold Palestinians without charge for blocks of six months. Those who are charged with specific crimes are tried in military courts where evidence is kept secret from both the prisoner and his or her lawyer.

Israel's Ministry for Justice referred all questions to the Israel Defense Force (IDF). The IDF avoided answering questions about human rights violations. An IDF spokesman did say: "It's true the people are inconvenienced, but this is the best way to do it. We are in a situation of a certain type of war; we try our best under difficult circumstances."

Israel uses military justice to drive the policy. In the past, Military Order 378, written in 1970, has been used to detain Palestinians. But new military orders have been added that allow Palestinians to be held without any evidence against them and without charge for up to six weeks "for the purposes of investigation."

A'azem Bishara, an Israeli-Arab lawyer who represents detainees for The Palestin- ian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment calls the policy "mass detention without any grounds."

"Being Palestinian and male is enough to make you suspicious," Mr. Bishara says. "We are talking about almost an entire generation that has been arrested and humiliated."

Mohammed Yousef, 18, says he was ambushed in his home one night after refusing to attend the local mosque for questioning. "It was raining, and we were left outside without anything to protect us," he says. "We didn't even have any blankets or enough to eat. We were given one apple and one tub of yogurt to share between 10 of us." He was subsequently released but admits he has thrown stones at Israeli soldiers in the past.

Bishara says most detainees are held in makeshift quarters – usually large tents, with 22 prisoners per tent. Mattresses, described as thin, are issued. Sometimes two or three prisoners share one mattress.

Up to 10 percent are children under 18, according to Defense for Children International (Palestine Section), an aid group that provides free legal advice to minors.

To cope with the increased number of detainees, Israel has reopened an isolated prison in the Negev Desert.

Yoni Fighel, a retired IDF colonel and analyst at the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya, says the detention policy is an essential part of fighting terror activity. "If you want to intercept terrorism before it occurs, you must detain people, whether it is based on intelligence, inquiries, or interrogation."

Yet Mr. Fighel agrees that "an in-built tension exists between civil rights and combating terrorism.

"Of course, it would be better [that detainees] are those where we have 100 percent evidence of a connection to terrorism, whether passive or active," Fighel says. "The possibility of excessive detention can't be excluded, but some of these detentions are necessary to increase [Israel's] intelligence capability."

After the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 and Israel withdrew from the main population centers in the West Bank and Gaza, a decrease in intelligence-gathering capacity followed. "We were out of the business," says Fighel. "Now we face a situation where ... we have to build again our intelligence capabilities. This can be done during interrogation of detainees."

Fighel says Palestinians are offered "opportunities" to collaborate with Israel during interrogation.

"It's not Club Med, that's true," he says of the conditions facing detainees. "But I would be very critical of any evidence of torture. It's not in the [guidelines governing detention policy]."

Amnesty International has requested an independent inquiry to investigate arbitrary detentions and reports of abuse.

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