Gazan workers describe inhuman treatment at Israeli detention centers since outbreak of war

A Palestinian released from detention said that workers were held in overcrowded 'cage-like' enclosures, handcuffed and blindfolded, and were denied meeting with their attorneys or red cross representatives. 'Israel has disappeared thousands of legal Gazan workers,' say human rights groups

Gazan laborers at the Erez border crossing in 2022

Hagar Shezaf and Chen Maanit report in Haaretz on 26 October 2023:

Israel’s Justice Ministry is concerned about the situation of thousands of Gazan laborers who entered Israel legally and have been held in detention centers at military bases in the West Bank since the outbreak of the war.

According to the testimony of one of the detainees, who has since been released, the workers were held in the sun and without food for two days, blindfolded and with their hands tied. Thousands of them were then transferred to overcrowded, cage-like facilities, where they were held despite the fact that most of them not being suspected of any wrongdoing.

The Justice Ministry described their situation as “very difficult” and expressed concern that they were being held in inappropriate conditions.

On Sunday, human rights organizations petitioned the High Court of Justice demanding that the state provide the names of the detainees and inform their families of their whereabouts.

Haaretz has learned that Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon contacted the Defense Ministry last week and warned about the situation. According to sources, Limon directly contacted a “senior security-political source” about the issue.

At the same time, a defense establishment official discussed the workers’ conditions last week with representatives of the attorney general. The Justice Ministry says that it is the Defense Ministry and the IDF who are responsible for the Palestinian laborers and that they are waiting for their decision on how to deal with the issue. A security source told Haaretz that the workers would be detained until they could be returned to Gaza.

Annan (a pseudonym), who was born in Gaza but has lived in the West Bank for many years with a permit, was held at the Anatot detention facility for eight days.   He was released after a petition was filed in his case by HaMoked – The Center for the Defense of the Individual, and after the army realized that he was not a resident of Gaza.

In a call with Haaretz, Annan described the harsh conditions in which the laborers whose permits were annulled after the Hamas assault are held.  The detained Gazan workers do not have access to phones, and Haaretz has learned that they are not allowed to meet with a lawyer or be visited by The Red Cross.

“Israel has disappeared thousands of residents of the Gaza Strip who [entered it] lawfully,” said Attorney Daniel Shenhar of HaMoked and Attorney Osnat Cohen-Lifshitz representing Gisha-Legal Center for Protection of Movement, a co-petitioner. “Their families fear for their fate and know nothing about their whereabouts, even though they are protected civilians who, according to international law, are entitled to special protections.”

Annan says he was arrested at the Na’alin checkpoint when he tried to return to the West Bank. He says that after being arrested he was taken to a room where he was held with around a hundred other laborers for around three hours with no access to bathroom facilities or water.

Later, he relates, he was put on a bus with the other detainees, and says that the bus was guarded by officers from the Israel Prison Services Nahshon unit, which is responsible for transferring prisoners.  “There were elderly people there, 75 years old, and the guards cursed and beat them,” says Annan.

According to him, the prisoners had their hands and feet cuffed and were taken to a military base. There, he says, the handcuffs were replaced by plastic zip ties and their foot cuffs were released. They were blindfolded and kept like that for two days, in the sun, “without water, food or a bed,” he claims.  “If anyone requested anything,” Annan says, “the guards would shout, ‘shut up you son of a whore.’ I have never seen behavior like that.”

Two days later, says Annan, the detainees were released from the handcuffs, their blindfolds removed and they were transferred to a cage-like enclosure or chicken coop about 300 square meters in size.

Annan says that there were chemical toilets in the compound and that the detainees received three meals a day, usually consisting of bread with a little tuna and tomato. In addition, five cigarettes were distributed to each detainee every day.

He also said that there were beds and mattresses placed on a sand floor and that they had access to a military doctor. A few days later, he says, an officer informed them that their families had been notified of their whereabouts.

“There was someone who asked to contact the Red Cross and they beat him,” he said. He also described how one of the officers who entered the compound told the detainees: “Don’t think you’re going home; you will only go home when our hostages are returned.”  “Annan” says he was held like this for eight days, during which he tried to explain to the soldiers that he was not a resident of Gaza at all.

Last week, he was taken for interrogation. “I was taken from the chicken coop to the interrogation and on the way there I suffered beatings and abuse. One [soldier] said to the other, ‘We’ll give him a bullet in the head.’ I thought I was about to die,” he said.

At the end of the interrogation, Annan was told he would be released – and the next morning he was taken out of the base. According to his testimony, he did not understand where he was, and a man he saw at a nearby bus stop replied that he was close to the Palestinian town of Anata. “I don’t know where that is, I asked him, is it in the West Bank or in Israel?”

The petition to the High Court of Justice was filed by HaMoked, Gisha, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights, Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel on behalf of ten families of Gaza residents who were lawfully present in Israel on the eve of the war.

The petition demands that detainees be released if it turns out that they are being held illegally.  The petitioners also demanded that Israeli authorities provide the names of all the Palestinian residents of Gaza who were arrested and where they are being held.

The human rights organizations said in the petition that they have received many requests from families of workers who lost contact with their family members when the war broke out, and that the petition demands that the detainees are awarded their basic right to receive legal representation.

According to attorneys Cohen-Lifshitz and Shenhar, “the shocking massacre carried out by Hamas does not justify acts of revenge and retribution against innocent people and does not allow Israel to violate the provisions of the law. We demand the immediate publication of a list of the detainees and their status and that Israel cease their arbitrary detention.”

The Justice Department declined to comment. An IDF Spokesperson said that “the State of Israel is at war against the Hamas terrorist organization after the murderous attack it launched two weeks ago. Due to the war in the south, residents of the Gaza Strip who were located within the State of Israel and Judea and Samaria [biblical name of the West Bank] and who do not currently hold a residence permit in Israel were transferred to their current place of stay. It is not possible at this time to return them to the Gaza Strip.”

The Shin Bet refused to say how many of the workers were suspected of collaborating with Hamas or had been interrogated on this matter.  The domestic security organization noted that there is a gag order in place on the interrogations.

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