Facility 1391, Israel’s Guantanamo

FACILITY 1391, a concrete fortress in central Israel on a rise overlooking a kibbutz, is almost obscured by high walls and fir trees. Two watchtowers give armed guards extensive views of surrounding fields. From the outside it looks like many other police stations built by the British in the 1930s across the Mandate of Palestine. Today many serve as military bases, their location revealed by signposts showing only a number.

Facility 1391, close to the Green Line, the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank, is different. It is not marked on maps, it has been erased from aerial photographs and recently its numbered signpost was removed. Censors have excised all mention of its location from the Israeli media, with the government saying that secrecy is essential to “prevent harm to the country’s security”. According to lawyers, foreign journalists divulging information risk being expelled from Israel. But, despite government attempts to impose a news blackout, information about more than a decade of horrific events at Facility 1391 are beginning to leak out. As a newspaper described it, Facility 1391 is “Israel’s Guantanamo” (a reference to the Camp X-Ray prison for al-Qaida and Taliban captives run by the United States on occupied Cuban territory).

In October 2003 a panel of international legal experts, led by Richard Goldstone, a judge in South Africa’s constitutional court who has also been chief prosecutor of the international tribunals for former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, called Camp X-Ray “a black hole” into which inmates disappeared, to be stripped of basic rights under the Geneva Conventions. The report added that “states cannot hold detainees, for whom they are responsible, outside of the jurisdiction of all international courts”.

Although Facility 1391 has received none of the publicity of the US prison, it more flagrantly violates international law. Unlike Camp X-Ray, its location is not publicly known; there aren’t even long-distance photographs of its inmates of the kind taken at Guantanamo Bay. Unlike the US prison, Facility 1391 has never been independ ently inspected, not even by the International Red Cross. What happens there is a mystery.

Justice Goldstone was able to declare that inside Camp X-Ray there were “662 people without any access to due process” of law, but no one, apart from a few senior Israeli government and security officials, knows how many inmates there are in Facility 1391. Testimonies from former inmates suggest it is crowded with detainees, many of them Lebanese captured during Israel’s 18-year occupation of south Lebanon.

Four months after the first revelations of its existence, the Israeli courts have yet to make the government reveal any substantial information about it. “Anyone entering the prison can be made to disappear, potentially for ever,” says Leah Tsemel, an Israeli lawyer who specialises in advising Palestinians (see Israel: beyond hope) “It’s no different from the jails run by tinpot South American dictators.”

What little information is available suggests that interrogation methods using torture are routine. A high-profile detainee, Mustafa Dirani of the now defunct Lebanese Shia militia Amal, has alleged that he was raped by his interrogators. Israel recently admitted that he had been moved to Facility 1391 after he was kidnapped from Lebanon by Israeli agents in 1994.

The first chinks in the secrecy about the prison were prised open by Tsemel last year, after the Israeli army’s reinvasion of West Bank cities in Operation Defensive Shield, April 2002. Until then it seems to have been used almost exclusively for captive foreign nationals, mainly Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians and Iranians. It is not known how many of them have been held there. The Friends of Prisoners Committee in Nazareth claims 15 Arab foreign nationals have gone missing from Israel’s prison system.

There are many instances of kidnappings, particularly from Lebanon, assumed to have been carried out by Israel. Four Iranian government officials who disappeared in Beirut in 1982 have never been accounted for. In recent prisoner exchange negotiations between Israel and the Lebanese militia Hizbollah, their families have requested information from Israel.

But after the mass arrests in April 2002, which stretched Israel’s detention facilities to bursting, a number of Palestinians were also sent to Facility 1391. For a while the disappearance of these detainees was concealed in the general chaos after the army sweeps. By October 2002, however, Tsemel and an Israeli human rights group, Hamoked, were demanding information in the courts. They presented habeas corpus writs, effectively demanding that the missing Palestin ians be produced to prove they were alive.

Cornered, the Israeli authorities admitted that the missing men were being held in a secret facility but would give no more details. They referred all requests for information to Madi Harb, head of an anti-terror unit attached to Kishon prison near Haifa. Since the petitions, Israel admitted incarcerating a few Palestinians in Facility 1391, though many others have claimed to have passed through it, including the Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, now on trial. According to Israel, all have now been moved to normal prisons. But only one, Bashar Jadallah, 50, a businessman from Nablus, has been released. He was arrested with his cousin, Mohammed Jadallah, 23, at the Allenby bridge crossing between Jordan and Israel on 22 November 2002. Mohammed Jadallah has provided an affidavit saying he confessed to being a member of Hamas under torture.

Bashar Jadallah says he was not beaten or physically tortured, unlike most other prisoners, possibly because of his age. However, he describes months of severe isolation, held by captors he never saw, who terrorised him. His tiny cell, 2 metres square, was windowless and painted black, with a bulb providing a dim light 24 hours a day. He was refused access to a lawyer, not allowed to meet other inmates and told he was “on the moon” when he asked where he was. He was not allowed to see anything outside his cell. “They made me wear a pair of blacked-out goggles that covered the whole of my eyes before allowing me out,” he said. “I had to wear them if they took me to another room, such as the interrogation room or the medical clinic. Only once inside could I take the goggles off.”

Hamoked is to present an expert opinion from Dr Yehuakim Stein, a Jerusalem psychiatrist, on the effects of detention in such conditions. Dr Stein says that the treatment of Jadallah and the other Palestinians who provided affidavits is mental torture that creates what he calls “DDD syndrome”: dread, dependency and debility. Lack of food, sleep, movement and mental stimulation, as well as exclusion from human contact–whether lawyers, family members, other prisoners or guards–is designed to lower resistance to questioning and force inmates to be entirely dependent on interrogators. Combined with the pain of torture, with threats of torture, with the fear of being killed and the sense of being forgotten, inmates are likely to be consumed by what Dr Stein calls psychologically damaging dread. Jadallah says: “Not knowing where I was or even seeing the faces of the jailers made me extremely frightened. The worst thing was feeling like I might disappear and my family would never find out what had happened to me.”

His account of his isolation and living conditions corresponds with those of other detainees whose affidavits have been collected by Tsemel and Hamoked. They describe damp, foul-smelling mattresses, rarely-emptied buckets used as toilets and a single tap in the room under the control of invisible guards. Loud noises prevented inmates from sleeping and air-conditioning could be turned on to chill them.

The affidavits also include descriptions of torture, a practice banned by Israel’s Supreme Court in 1999. Hannah Friedman, director of the Public Committee Against Torture, says her group has recorded a steady rise in such cases in Israeli jails during the intifada. A recent survey showed that 58% of Palestinian prisoners reported overt violence, including beatings, kicking, shaking, being forced into painful positions and having handcuffs intentionally tightened.

Such practices and worse are commonplace in Facility 1391. According to the affidavit of Mohammed Jadallah, he was repeatedly beaten, his shackles were tightened, he was tied in painful positions to a chair and not allowed to go to the toilet. He was prevented from sleeping, with water thrown on him if he nodded off. The interrogators showed him pictures of family members and threatened to harm them. “They brought me a picture of my father in prison clothes and played a cassette of him as a detainee. They threatened to imprison and to torture him.”

But these prisoners probably fared better than Facility 1391’s long-term inmates, the foreign nationals. The Palestinians who passed through the secret prison remained under the authority of the General Security Services (Shin Bet), responsible for interrogation in the usual Israeli detention centres. Foreign nationals in Facility 1391 are the responsibility of a special wing of Israeli military intelligence known as Unit 504. The treatment of these prisoners has been revealed by documents submitted to the courts in Dirani’s law suit. He was seized from his home in Lebanon in May 1994 in an attempt by Israeli intelligence to get information on the whereabouts of an airman, Ron Arad, whose plane crashed over south Lebanon in 1986. Dirani held Arad for two years before allegedly selling him on to Iran.

Dirani, who was moved to Ashmoret prison near Netanya a year ago, spent eight years in Facility 1391, along with another famous inmate, Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid of Hizbullah. In the first months of Dirani’s capture, when hopes of extracting information about Arad were high, he was tortured by a senior army interrogator known only as “Major George”. Although torture was at that time legal in Israel, Dirani is suing the state and “George” for two incidents of sexual abuse. In one, “George” allegedly ordered a soldier to rape Dirani; in the other, he is accused of inserting a wooden baton into Dirani’s rectum.

Dirani’s accusations have been corroborated by affadavits from soldiers who served in the prison. One interrogator says: “I know that it was customary to threaten to insert a stick if the subject did not talk.” A petition signed by 60 officers in defence of “George” does not deny that such practices were employed, only that it is unfair to victimise him for using working methods standard in the prison. “George” has admitted that it was normal practice for detainees to be naked while being interrogated.

Jihad Shuman, a British national whom Israel accused of belonging to Hizbullah after he was arrested in Jerusalem in January 2001, was held in Facility 1391 for three nights. He recounts severe beatings by soldiers: “They removed my blindfold. I saw 15 armed soldiers, some with clubs, standing around me. Some of them beat me, pushed me and punched me from behind.” Soon afterwards he was interrogated by a man in uniform who said: “You have to confess or you’re done for, and no one will know what happened to you. Confession or death.”

The effects on the emotional and psycho logical well-being of inmates are not hard to predict. A relative of Dirani’s, Ghassan Dirani, who was captured with him and held in Facility 1391, later developed catatonic schizophrenia.

Although Israel has confirmed to the courts that Facility 1391 is a secret prison, it is unclear whether it is the only one in Israel. Among documents submitted to Hamoked by the Israeli army are those relating to Moussa Azzain, 35, a Hizbullah activist imprisoned in the notorious Khiam jail in south Lebanon in August 1992. According to Israeli officials, he was later transferred to a “Barak Facility” in Israel. Azzain reports that he was taken to a secret prison referred to by inmates as “Sarafend”, a name often mentioned by Lebanese prisoners. This is the English name of an army base known as Tzrifin, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

Before the government-imposed information blackout, Facility 1391 was occasionally called by the name of the neighbouring kibbutz, which is neither Barak nor Sarafend, leading Hamoked to suspect that the facility where Azzain was held may not have been 1391. Hamoked’s director, Dalia Kerstein, points out that Azzain was taken to Haifa in northern Israel when he was allowed to see a lawyer. Dirani and Obeid, both of whom are known to have been held in Facility 1391, were always taken to Tel Aviv. That may suggest that Azzain was held in another secret jail, possibly close to Haifa. Several detainees known to have been held in a secret prison say they could hear the sound of waves. Facility 1391 is some distance from the sea. Others say they could hear the sound of planes taking off or gunfire, possible from a military firing range. There are up to 70 Taggart buildings–heavily fortified police stations built during the British Mandate–so several could be used without raising suspicion.

Another Taggart building, in Gedera, south of Tel Aviv, is reported to have been a secret prison until the 1970s, when operations were supposedly relocated to Facility 1391. There may be other precedents. A former Red Cross official, who tracked prisoners during the first intifada between 1987-93, says the organisation learned in the early 1990s that Israel had been secretly holding Palestinians in a wing of a military detention centre near Nablus, known as Farah. He suspects that Israel may have several secret prisons, which it opens depending on its needs. During the height of the occupation of Lebanon, several could have been used. The glut of Palestinian prisoners last year may have forced Israel to open more secret jails.

Kerstein also fears that Israel may lease the services of such prisons to other countries, particularly the US following its invasion of Iraq. The Red Cross has confirmed that no Iraqis are being held in Camp X-Ray. In the current mayhem in Iraq it is almost impossible to know who has been arrested and where they are being held.

Diplomatic sources say there is strong evidence that the United States is using Jordan to interrogate prisoners, to circumvent international law out of sight of the Red Cross, which has access to Camp X-Ray. Egypt, Morocco and Paki stan may also be helping. “It would be quite astounding if Israel, the US’s most loyal ally, which we now know has at least one secret prison, wasn’t offering its services to the US,” says Kerstein. “Israel has decades of expertise in torturing and interrogating Arab prisoners–exactly the skills the Americans now need since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.”

JONATHAN COOK is a journalist living in Israel. This article originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.



Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is http://www.jonathan-cook.net/