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Gaza Central Prison reopens as a museum

February 15, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Gaza Central Prison has reopened. Commonly known as Al-Saraya, the old cells have been renovated; new tents have been erected; and the whole perimeter wall is topped with shiny barbed wire. The biggest difference, though, is that it is an NGO which has done the work on the remains of the building, and it is a museum, not a working prison.

Almost everyone in the Gaza Strip can describe what kind of mistreatment prisoners could expect once the gates close behind them. Speaking to an old man outside a nearby mosque recently, it was clear that he has memories of the prison going back many years. “It was built by Jews before they occupied Palestine,” Abu Muhammad told me, which made me very curious to know more about the notorious building.

Al-Saraya prison was built in 1936 during the British Mandate period, when Abu Muhammad was just 6 years old. The builder was a Jewish-owned company called “Simplea”, he said, and it was well outside the city in those days.

The British authorities built it to accommodate criminals, but they imprisoned Palestinian fighters who were struggling against the Mandate authorities and rising Jewish immigration. “They were tortured severely,” said Abu Muhammad.

After the British left Palestine, the prison was used by the Egyptians from 1948 to 1967 and then by the Israelis until 1993. Following that year’s Oslo Accords, the prison was taken over by the Palestinian Authority; it was bombed by the Israelis on a number of occasions, especially after the start of the Aqsa Intifada in 2000. Hundreds of Palestinians opposed to Oslo have been detained and tortured there, by fellow Palestinians working for the PA, including my older brother. He was in a very poor state of health when he was released in 1996. Al-Saraya was destroyed completely by Israeli F16 fighter jets during the 2008/2009 war on Gaza, when around 14,000 Palestinians were killed and around 5,000 were wounded.

Former prisoners have been wandering around the renovated site, recalling the months and years they spent there. Abdul-Nasser Ferwaneh, 50, is one of them. He spent six years in different jails run by the Israelis, mainly in Gaza Central Prison, Al-Saraya.

Listening to him you get a real sense of the human rights violations which have taken place behind Al-Saraya’s forbidding walls. When he speaks about his experiences you listen. His father was imprisoned when Ferwaneh was just three years old and spent a total of 15 years inside an Israeli prison. Ferwaneh’s only brother was imprisoned several times and spent a total of seven years behind bars courtesy of the Israeli occupation.

“There were 50 cells here, each with a number,” recalled Ferwaneh. “Prisoners were tortured in cells one to twenty five. Number 26 and over were called ‘the execution cells’, because very serious torture took place there.”

Apparently, 10 or 12 prisoners were squeezed into cells built to accommodate two people; there was no toilet. “The prison officers would give prisoners a bucket to urinate in.”

When a prisoner fell unconscious due to the torture and poor conditions, he would be moved to a place called the ‘slaughterhouse’. “It was in the ‘slaughterhouse’ that prisoners used to face the worst kinds of torture. That room was on the first floor, where Israeli officers used to humiliate naked prisoners and torture them physically and psychologically.”

Ferwaneh, who runs a personal website campaigning for his fellow prisoners, expressed his happiness that he was entering Al-Saraya as a visitor to a museum. He told me that he hopes that all Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel will be released soon and be able to re-visit their cells after they have also been changed into museums.