What Goes on in Secret Jail Facility? Rights Groups Accuse Israel of Torture

Just off a highway linking the Mediterranean coast to the Galilee, on a hilltop screened by eucalyptus trees, lies a facility known only by its military code number, 1391.

To human-rights groups, this is Israel’s Guantanamo, a secret detention center where top-priority Arab prisoners are questioned and allegedly abused far from the eye of judicial scrutiny.

“The facility, the secrecy in which it is held and the manner of its operation assist in attaining the goal of applying . . . physical and psychological torture outside of public view,” one psychiatrist said in a petition against 1391 filed by the Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual.

Hamoked repeatedly has demanded that Israel’s High Court of Justice order 1391 closed. The state has rebuffed these calls, citing national security needs.

That rationale may resonate internationally, given the U.S.-led war on terrorism and Washington’s reluctance to allow inspection of its interrogation center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But having set a new standard by allowing the security services to employ “moderate physical pressure” on some terrorist suspects in strictly limited circumstances, Israel’s justice system is especially attuned to charges that 1391 strays from this accepted norm.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli Defense Forces said, “The IDF does not comment on the nature or activities of military facilities.”

A spokeswoman for the State Attorney’s Office said 1391 was “an important case that we handle with the appropriate gravity.”

The state’s response to the latest Hamoked petition against 1391 is expected later this month. Senior prosecutor Shai Nitzan, who is responsible for fielding petitions against 1391, was not available for comment.

Complicating matters is that fact that as a Military Intelligence facility, all of 1391′s functions are classified. Built as a British Mandate-era police station, it does not even appear on most Israeli maps. The main access is by dirt track. Any motorists who end up there by accident are stopped by a high fence and manned watchtowers.

Founded more than two decades ago, 1391′s existence came to light only in 2002, when Hamoked was asked by Palestinians to track down relatives who disappeared in Israeli security sweeps of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Affidavits filed by those suspects and other Arab inmates paint a picture of cruelty that led Israeli lawmaker Zehava Gal-On, of the Meretz Party, to describe 1391 as “one of the signs of totalitarian regimes and of the Third World.”

Prisoners said they were brought to the facility blindfolded and told by jailors they were in exotic locations ranging from Hawaii to “a submarine.” Many complained of being held incommunicado for months — in cramped, dark and filthy cells — with no access to family or lawyers.

“After 10 days had passed, one of the interrogators was bothered by my stench and asked them to take me to shower. That was the first time they took me to shower. They did not give me soap,” said a Palestinian complainant identified in court papers by his initials S.H. “During my 30 days in the installation, the interrogator sent me to shower three times.”

But the most extreme charges came from Mustafa Dirani, a Lebanese warlord abducted in the early 1990s. Israel hoped to trade Dirani for missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad, who was captured by Dirani’s Amal militia in Lebanon.

“What happened at Facility 1391 was a Nazi act,” Rich told the JTA.

The state rejected Dirani’s claim, saying he was seeking an excuse for having freely given up information under interrogation. The intelligence major alleged to have tortured Dirani, identified only as George, donned a wig and sunglasses to protest his innocence on Israeli television.

But the stain of suspicion remained, especially given the IDF’s decision to transfer George out of service at 1391. According to security sources, he now serves as an immigration officer with the Israel Police.

While at 1391, George was with Military Intelligence Unit 504, which specialized in counterinsurgency operations in Israel’s now-defunct security zone in southern Lebanon. According to security sources, the fact that 1391 dealt with prisoners taken outside Israel’s borders gave it an extra level of discretion.

That was a departure from the Shin Bet, whose jurisdiction long has been limited to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip — and duly regulated by the judiciary.

In a series of landmark rulings in the 1990s, the High Court gave Shin Bet interrogators latitude to employ “moderate physical pressure” — techniques including sleep deprivation and violent shaking — against suspects believed to be withholding information on impending terrorist attacks.

Though use of the tactics was strictly limited to exceptional cases, rights groups denounced the move as a green light for torture. Still, activists tacitly welcomed the Israeli effort to lend new transparency to Shin Bet procedures.

According to Ami Ayalon, who headed the Shin Bet between 1996 and 2000, there was no such oversight at 1391.

“I knew there was a facility not under the responsibility of the Shin Bet but under the responsibility of the military,” Ayalon said in a newspaper interview. “I didn’t think then, and I don’t think today, that such an institution should exist in a democracy.”

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