'They wanted to humiliate us:' Palestinian women detained by Israel reveals abuse in Israeli custody

AP , Saturday 2 Mar 2024

Nabela thought the United Nations school in Gaza City was a safe haven. Then, the Israeli army arrived.

Nabela
Nabela, who was detained by Israeli forces, poses for a portrait at the U.N. school where she is sheltering in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. AP

 

Soldiers stormed the place, ordering men to undress and hauling women to a mosque for strip searches, she said. So began six weeks in Israeli custody that included repeated beatings and interrogations.

“The soldiers were very harsh, they beat us and screamed at us in Hebrew,” said the 39-year-old from Gaza City, who spoke on condition that her last name not be used for fear of being arrested again. “If we raised our heads or uttered any words, they beat us on the head.”

Palestinians taken hostages by Israeli occupation forces in Gaza during the war on Gaza have repeatedly revealed stories of widespread physical abuse and neglect. It's not known how many women or children have been detained.

Nabela, her face bruised, told her story of unjust detention she was shuttled between facilities inside Israel in a coed group before arriving at Damon Prison in the north, where she estimated there were at least 100 women.

Rights groups say Israel is “disappearing” Gaza Palestinians — detaining them without charge or trial and not disclosing to family or lawyers where they’re held. 

UN rights experts have called for an independent probe into Israel's abuses against Palestinian women and girls, including killings, rapes and sexual assault. 

The experts voiced alarm at "credible allegations of egregious human rights violations" targeting women and girls in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

They cited reports of women and girls reportedly being "arbitrarily executed in Gaza, often together with family members, including their children".

Israeli ground troops have arrested hundreds of Palestinians. Images of stripped naked men, blindfolded kneeling, heads bowed and hands bound, have sparked worldwide outrage. In northern Gaza and the southern city of Khan Younis, troops rounded up dozens at a time from U.N. schools and hospitals, including medical personnel.

The Israel army claims it makes detainees undress to search for explosives, bringing kinapped Palestinians into Israel before releasing them back into Gaza "if they're deemed innocent."

For Nabela, that process took 47 harrowing days.

Despite Israeli evacuation orders, Nabela and her family had decided not to leave Gaza City, believing nowhere in Gaza was safe. Troops entered the school where they sheltered on December 24.

“I was terrified, imagining they wanted to execute us and bury us there,” she said.

Forces separated Nabela from her 13-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son and loaded her onto a truck bound for a facility in southern Israel. According to the Israeli group Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, or PHRI, all detainees in Gaza are first brought to the Sde Teiman military base.

“We were freezing and forced to remain on our knees on the ground,” Nabela told The Associated Press from a school-turned-shelter in Rafah where she's staying with other recently released female detainees. “Loud music, shouting and intimidation — they wanted to humiliate us. We were handcuffed, blindfolded, and our feet were tied in chains.”

Moved between several prisons, Nabela said she was subjected to repeated strip searches and interrogations at gunpoint.

Asked about her connection to Hamas, she maintained her innocence, telling interrogators she was a housewife and her husband worked for the Palestinian Authority.

‘URINATED ON BY GUARDS’

One woman taken hostage from Gaza, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of another arrest, told the AP that during a medical check, before she was moved to Damon Prison, Israeli forces ordered her to kiss an Israeli flag. When she refused, a soldier grabbed her by the hair, smashing her face into a wall, she said.

In a report by PHRI, former detainees from Gaza reported similar abuse.

One, whose name was redacted, said he was urinated on by guards at Ketziot Prison in southern Israel and witnessed strip searches where guards forced naked detainees to stand close to each other and inserted search devices into their buttocks.

PHRI described Israel’s prisons, also housing Palestinians from the West Bank and east Jerusalem held on security-related charges, as “an apparatus of retribution and revenge." It said the prison service and military “have been granted free rein to act however they see fit.”

At the beginning of the war, prisons entered “lockdown mode,” confining detainees to their cells for two weeks, the report said. Under wartime emergency measures, Israel's parliament in October suspended normal cell capacity requirements. Since then, inmates have slept on mattresses in overcrowded cells.

Phone privileges have been completely suspended, the report said. At some facilities, security wings were disconnected from electricity and water, plunging prisoners into darkness for most of the day and rendering showers and sinks unusable.

During eight days at an unknown facility in southern Israel, Nabela said she did not shower and had no access to menstrual pads or toiletries. Food was scarce. Once, Nabela said, guards threw down the detainees' meals and told them to eat from the floor.

“The violent and antagonistic treatment of detainees described in the allegations is prohibited," the Israeli military said in response to an AP request for comment. “Cases of inappropriate behavior will be dealt with.”

It referred questions about Ketziot and Damon prisons to the Israeli Prison Service, which did not comment on the accusations beyond saying it was uninvolved in the arrests and interrogation of Palestinians from Gaza.

NO CHARGE, NO TRIAL 

Nabela said she never spoke with a lawyer or a judge.

Under a wartime revision to Israeli law, all captives from Gaza can be held for 45 days without charge or trial.

Designated “unlawful combatants,” they aren't granted the same protections under international law as prisoners of war. Their appearance before a court can be delayed and access to an attorney withdrawn, according to PHRI. The Israeli rights group HaMoked said there are 600 people from Gaza held as unlawful combatants in Israeli prisons, and more could be held in military facilities.

Palestinian detainees told PHRI that adequate medical care was rare, even for those needing insulin or chemotherapy treatments.

An official document obtained by the AP, laying out operations at the Sde Teiman military medical facility, specified that unlawful combatants be treated handcuffed and blindfolded.

Medical staff's names were kept anonymous “to maintain the safety, well-being and lives of the caregivers,” it said. It did not require patient consent for medical procedures and said confidential medical information could be passed to detention center staff.

Eleven Palestinian detainees have died in Israeli custody since October 7, according to the advocacy group the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, and the most recent was just this week. At least five had chronic health conditions, which PHRI says raises concerns that they died because of medical neglect.

The Israeli army said it would examine the deaths.

It also claimed the handcuffing of prisoners was “done in accordance with their assessed level of danger and medical state.” Israel’s Ministry of Health did not respond to requests for comment.

 

‘BETTER THAN GAZA’

Nabela’s fortunes improved when she arrived at Damon. There, she met Palestinian women detained from the West Bank.

She said the women were kind. She had electricity and warm showers. Her interrogator wondered aloud why Nabela was detained.

A month and a half after her arrest, a prison administrator announced Nabela would be free with about 20 other women. Israeli buses brought them to a Gaza crossing, where they made their way to U.N. shelters in the southern city of Rafah, full of displaced Palestinians. She cannot travel to Gaza City, where her family remains.

Nabela recalled one of her final interrogations. She had begun to weep, and her interrogator told her:

“Don’t cry about it. You’re better living here than Gaza.”

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