The systematic torture of Gazans in Israel's secret prisons

Illustration - In-depth
8 min read
22 May, 2024

On 11 May, CNN exposed Israel’s harrowing treatment of dozens of Gazan prisoners held hostage in the Sde Teiman desert camp-turned-detention centre.

In the report, which stirred widespread condemnation, whistle-blowers revealed that Gazan hostages were subjected to “extreme physical restraint” and “stripped down of anything that resembles human beings”.

When The New Arab interviewed several of the 76 Gazan prisoners released just days after the CNN report was published, it became apparent that these abuses were not exclusive to that one prison.

Sami al-Ghoula, a 53-year-old father of eight, describes the torture to have been unending for the two months he was detained. Rounded up on 14 March from Al-Shifa Hospital where he and his family had been displaced, he was handcuffed and had his face covered before being shoved with other detainees into Israeli military vehicles and taken to warehouses made of corrugated iron, metal nets, and barbed wires - known locally as brixat.

“The torturing and beating started from the first instant and did not stop. I was tortured and severely beaten at all times: alone and in groups; with sticks, fists, and punches; electrocuted all over my body and attacked by dogs. I was subjected to insults and obscenities almost always. I had my hands tied and my face covered almost all the time,” al-Ghoula told TNA on the day of his release.

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Human rights organisations have for decades reported on Israel’s widespread use of torture of Palestinian prisoners. However, in the weeks and months following 7 October, leaked visual content and testimonies showed both a spike in arbitrary arrests and - according to Amnesty International - “gruesome scenes of Israeli soldiers beating and humiliating Palestinians while detaining them blind-folded, stripped, with their hands tied, in a particularly chilling public display of torture and humiliation of Palestinian detainees”.

The sheer number of arrests and brutality with which Israel treats Gazan prisoners is driven by “revenge, desperation and a frantic need for information”, Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs, told The New Arab.

“The prisoners are subjected to the highest levels of torture and pain in order to obtain information which Israel has failed to obtain after eight months of war on Gaza.”

"The sheer number of arrests, and brutality with which Israel treats Gazan prisoners, is driven by revenge, desperation, and a frantic need for information"

Allegations of terrorism

Despite the countless critical reports of torture being used, Israeli authorities have always found a justification for their methods by referencing ‘terrorism’.

During a raid on Gaza City’s Al-Shifa Hospital in March, during which Al-Ghoula was detained, Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and the Shin Bet security agency said they captured some 650 “terror suspects” including “very significant” senior members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. At least 358 of those detained, the IDF had said, confirmed they were "members of terror groups”.

Al-Ghoula was unaware of these accusations and claims but says he witnessed two prisoners - one in his forties and another in his fifties - die from torture in front of him. “They died early in the evening after a round of aggressive beatings and were collected from the cell the next morning. We do not know where they took their corpses,” he said wearily.

For the two months he was held, Al-Ghoula didn't know night from day. “We prayed based on rough speculations of the time and were only allowed between two to four hours of sleep every day,” he said in clear exhaustion. “We were made to sit on the ground in stress positions for hours, not allowed to interact with each other. Those who dared to move faced even harsher physical torture of all forms.”

Recounting the atrocities detainees faced in Israeli jails, Al-Ghoula said that for two months he was not seen by a lawyer, a doctor, or a family member. “I heard prisoners whimpering and moaning in pain from torture in Ofer Prison where I was kept. I saw a couple die. We were starved: the food we were given was not enough for people our age. We were humiliated in every possible way, and with no crimes committed.”

In the weeks and months following 7 October, there was a spike in arbitrary arrests and reports of torture and humiliation used against detainees. [Getty]

Torture in all Israeli prisons

Mohamed al-Shanar, a 33-year-old father of two who was rounded up while working in Israel on 9 October despite holding a work permit, said the mistreatment and abuse were systematic and not exclusive to one prison.

“I was held in the brixat for 12 days, then was transferred to Ofer Prison for what I think was three months, then to Nafha Prison until 6 May, before I was returned to the brixat until my release on 14 May,” he told TNA. “I was monstrously tortured in all of them.”

Describing his time in prison as “inhumane”, Al-Shanar said that beatings, humiliation, starvation, abuse, and torture were the norm. “Strikes with rubber sticks were exceptionally painful and were used often,” he said, his face cringing at the memory.

As for food, Al-Shanar said that it was poor in both quality and quantity. “We were given food insufficient to feed a four-year-old. At the time of my detention, I weighed 87 kilograms, of which I lost around a third of my weight,” he said, adding that he witnessed several deaths resulting from torture.

"I heard prisoners whimpering and moaning in pain from torture in Ofer Prison where I was kept. I saw a couple die. We were starved: the food we were given was not enough [...] We were humiliated in every possible way, and with no crimes committed"

Nemr al-Nemr, an 11-year-old boy, was detained with a friend of his fathers on 1 April in Beit Lahya while the three were attempting to collect humanitarian aid delivered by airdrops. The child, who waiting on an animal-drawn cart while his father hunted for food, was fired at by Israeli soldiers and shot in his stomach, back, and right leg.

“I was drugged for the majority of the 15 days I was arrested, moved from one hospital to the other, operated on, without any contact with my family and without anyone telling me what was happening to me or where I was,” the child told TNA by phone, clearly traumatised by the experience as he recalled the pain and fear he had felt for days on his own.

“I’d wake up from anaesthesia to find I had been taken to another hospital, or in an individual cell. I’d cry and ask for someone to speak to me,” he said, adding that no medical staff or lawyers spoke with him or explained where he was.

“One of the times I woke up from the drugs, I found I was transported to a prison where grown-up prisoners were held. They were blindfolded and tied up. No one was allowed to speak or move. I saw Israeli prison guards peeing on them, beating them, and dogs attacking them,” said al-Nemr.

Released at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, his uncle - with whom he is staying - says that al-Nemr has not yet reunited with his family as they remain in the north of Gaza.

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'Crimes against humanity'

Fares, head of the Palestinian Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs, said a multitude of crimes have been committed against Gazan prisoners, starting with enforced disappearance.

“These are not violations, but crimes. They are kidnapped, concealed from the world, and any source of information came either from a liberated prisoner speaking about them or through West Bank prisoners in Ofer Prison who reveal the presence of two sections for Gaza prisoners and how they’ve heard of Gaza prisoners facing assault,” he said.

He further explained that while administrative charges should technically enable a prisoner to be visited by a lawyer after 90 days of being held, down from the previous 120 days, in reality, this doesn’t happen.

“Israeli prison authorities demand receiving a hard copy of a direct power of attorney made for the lawyer, and signed by the detainee’s relatives in Gaza, which is impossible: the lawyer will not access Gaza, and the families of the prisoners cannot enter Israel. Having a power of attorney sent by WhatsApp or email is not accepted by Israeli authorities, and so prisoners aren’t allowed legal presentation, he said.

At least 27 Palestinian detainees from Gaza have died in Israeli jails since the war began. [Getty]

Stating that there are no official numbers for Gazan prisoners detained after 7 October, Fares cited Israeli claims of holding 900 prisoners. He added that - based on information from released prisoners - Gazans are held in four prisons.

“We are certain of two: Ofer and Ktzi'ot in the Negev, and those 900 prisoners are held here because they are under the administration of prisons,” he said. There are, he added, two other locations that have not been confirmed, including Sde Teiman, which is under the command of the Minister of Defence, located to the east of Beersheba.

“While Israel is classified as a state, it has disavowed all legal obligations or commitments, including announcing the numbers of those it detains, their names, the locations of their detention and their conditions,” he said, accusing the Israeli government, the army, the police, intelligence, and the judiciary of complicity.

“I can confirm that dozens of prisoners from Gaza were murdered in Israeli prisons, and hundreds were badly harmed and wounded as a result of physical torture. This is not an individual violation as claimed by Israeli authorities.”

Mohamed Solaimane is a Gaza-based journalist with bylines in regional and international outlets, focusing on humanitarian and environmental issues

This piece was published in collaboration with Egab.