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Secret but not forgotten - Israel's facility 1391

April 19, 2014 at 9:35 am

In May of this year, the United Nations Committee Against Torture bought up the issue of Facility 1391, a clandestine Israeli prison where Palestinian, Lebanese, and other Arab prisoners are detained and subjected to torture. The committee called upon Israel to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross access to this prison and demanded to know if there were other secret prisons in Israel.

The existence of Facility 1391 came to light in 2002, purely by accident.  An Israeli human rights group, Hamoked, which provides assistance to Palestinian prisoners, demanded to know where Bashar and Mohammed Jadallah, two Palestinian cousins who could not be traced by their families after their arrest by the Israeli army, were being held.  The Israeli authorities were forced to admit that they were in a secret prison.  The location of that prison was also discovered accidentally a short time later. In 2003, Gad Kroizer, an Israeli historian, was researching old police buildings from the time of the British Mandate, when he came across a 70 year old map displaying 62 such buildings.  He discovered that one of the buildings shown, called Meretz, could not be seen on any modern Israeli maps, and was not referred to in any of the literature relating to Israeli security compounds.  He soon put two and two together.  The Israeli authorities had done a thorough job in wiping away any trace of the facility from maps.  It is however, visible on Google Earth today. The facility is located near the town of Pardes Hanna-Karkur. The coordinates are 32°28’11.93″N 35° 1’20.74″E.

The facility is inside a military base controlled by Unit 504, a secret unit of the Intelligence Corps which is responsible for gathering “human intelligence” outside Israel.  This unit runs a network of collaborators in Lebanon and Facility 1391 started out as a detention centre for prisoners captured or kidnapped by the Israelis in Lebanon in the 1980s.  Among the abductees held there were Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, a Hizbullah leader seized from his home in Southern Lebanon in 1989 and Mustafa Dirani, head of security of the Amal Movement, who was kidnapped in 1994.  The prisoners also included people who the Israelis said were abducted in order to be exchanged for the Israeli air force pilot Ron Arad who was captured by Amal in Lebanon in 1986. These included Hashem Fahaf, a 20 year old who was visiting Sheikh Obeid on the night he was abducted and who spent the next 11 years in Facility 1391, and two youths, one aged 16 and the other 17.  Following the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, Unit 504 began to operate in the Palestinian territories and Israel began to detain Palestinians in Facility 1391 for the first time.   Marwan Barghouthi, a prominent leader of the intifada, is perhaps the best known Palestinian to spend time in the secret prison.

Facility 1391 has often been called “Israel’s Guantanamo”.  However the situation there is even worse than in Guantanamo in at least one way.  While the Red Cross has access to the notorious American detention centre, it has never been allowed to visit Facility 1391, neither has any other international organisation.  Even members of the Israeli Knesset have been denied access to it by Israeli courts. Practically all the information about the facility comes from the testimony of prisoners held there.  A former Israeli justice minister, David Libai, claimed to know nothing about Facility 1391 when interviewed.

This secrecy surrounding the prison plays a key role in the torture of the prisoners held there, most of which is psychological. Prisoners arriving in Facility 1391 were led blindfolded into their cells. They were told by their captors that they were “outside the borders of Israel”, “in a submarine”, “in Honolulu”, or “on the moon”. The prisoners were held in cells with no windows. The lighting provided was barely equivalent to that of a candle. It was so dark that they had difficulty seeing their own hands. A repetitive and deafening sound, given off by a fan was constantly present. The cells there were of varying sizes but most were 2x2metres. Some cells, used to hold prisoners who were still under interrogation were only 1.25×1.25 metres.  One prisoner reported being held in a cell no wider than a mattress.  Prisoners were given sacks on arrival in the prison and told that they must place them on their heads any time a guard entered their cell or gave them food.  They were threatened with dire consequences if they failed to follow this instruction or glimpsed a soldier’s face. The use of beatings, sleep deprivation, and force feeding was routine.

Toilet facilities consisted of a bucket placed in each of the tiny cells and emptied every few days.  In most of the cells there was no running water; “luxury” cells had running water but this was under the control of the guards. One prisoner, Raed Bader, says of the sanitary conditions in Facility 1391, “On the ninth consecutive day in the stench-filled cell, one of the soldiers was supposed to come and take me out. He almost vomited and rushed out of the cell,” because of the smell of the unemptied bucket. Bader also speaks of the role isolation played in his torture, “I spent many days in that solitary confinement cell and in others like it, and hour after hour I would talk to myself and feel that I was going crazy, or find myself laughing to myself.”

Another Palestinian held in 1391, Hassan Rawajbeh, mentioned that he had been in six Israeli prisons before “but these experiences were like five star hotels compared to 1391” He said that for four months the only people he saw were his interrogators and that he was kept naked for days on end.  It seems that the technique of using the taboos of Arab culture and Islam concerning nudity against prisoners, which was later employed in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, was pioneered in this prison.  Prisoners were not only forced to remain naked, they were photographed in this state as well.

They were also subjected to sexual abuse and rape.  Mustafa Dirani filed a lawsuit against the Israeli authorities, stating that he was raped by four soldiers on the orders of an officer known only as Major George.  On another occasion, Major George himself raped Dirani with a stick.  Dirani’s account is backed up by one of the interrogators who worked in the facility who says that it was common practice to threaten prisoners with the insertion of a stick if they did not talk.  In his defence Major George, who was later dismissed from the army, stated that everything he had done was in accordance with the standard practice of Unit 504.  Sixty other officers signed a petition in his support confirming this.

Human rights activists have a very simple explanation for the existence of Facility 1391. Manal Hazzan, a human rights lawyer working with Hamoked says, “Our main conclusion is that it exists to make torture possible – a particular kind of torture that creates progressive states of dread, dependency, debility. The law gives the army enough authority already to hide prisoners, so why do they need a secret facility?” Hamoked has also stated that, “The detention conditions… are not proper for holding a human being, and are liable to cause physical and psychological injury, which may even be irreversible”.  Indeed, Ghassan Dirani, a relative of Mustafa Dirani, developed catatonic schizophrenia as a result of his incarceration.

It is widely believed that Facility 1391 is only one of several secret prisons in Israel.  Palestinians captured in Israel’s war on Gaza last December and January were held as “illegal combatants”.  It is very possible that they are being held in similar conditions to those that exist in Facility 1391.