ISSN 2330-717X

Supreme Court Reopens Israel’s Guantanamo


If you’ve ever heard Alan Dershowitz or any liberal Zionist talk about the wonderful role played by the Israeli High Court in protecting democracy and human rights in Israel, do me a favor and quote ‘em this post I’m writing.  I’m sorry to say that the Supreme Court is little more than a sham; window dressing allowing the State to say it has a supreme judicial body like other western democracies, while its Court is enfeebled and subservient to the interest of the national security state.

The Supreme Court today overturned an injunction secured by the Israeli human rights NGO, HaMoked and former MK Zahava Gal-On, which had closed a top-secret Israeli prison used for the detention and interrogation of high-value foreign prisoners (aka “enemy combatants”).  The prison, known only by its number, Unit 1391, is located within a secret Israeli military base called Camp Shlomo (after the name of a former commander of the IDF 504 intelligence unit) near Kibbutz Barkai.  Chris McGreal wrote about the detention camp here.  Dan Ephron wrote this about it in 2004:

What [Israeli historian Gad] Kroizer had discovered…was the location of an ultrasecret jail where Israel has held Arabs in total seclusion for years, barred visits by the Red Cross and allegedly tortured inmates. Known as 1391, the facility is used as an interrogation center by a storied unit of Israel’s military intelligence, whose members–all Arabic speakers–are trained to wring confessions from the toughest militants. According to Arabs who’ve been imprisoned in 1391, some of the methods are reminiscent of Abu Ghraib: nudity as a humiliation tactic, compromising photographs, sleep deprivation. In a few cases, at least, interrogators at 1391 appear to have gone beyond Israel’s own hair-splitting distinction between torture and what a state commission referred to in 1987 as “moderate physical pressure.”

Let’s call it Israel’s Guantanamo as Jonathan Cooke has.

What’s faintly humorous is that Maariv’s coverage of this story makes a major flourish over the secrecy of the military base, when most knowledgeable Israelis know everything I wrote above.  They just can’t write it in a newspaper or say it on TV or radio.

The prison is most notorious for the ‘hospitality’ enjoyed there by a Hezbollah operative it housed for eight years, Mustafa Dirani.  Dirani was sodomized at Unit 1391 by IDF military intelligence interrogators under the command of Doron Zahavi.  Later Dirani sued the State, won a large monetary settlement and his freedom.  His cousin, arrested with him, wasn’t so lucky.  As a result of his torture, he developed catatonic schizophrenia according to Jonathan Cooke.  Zahavi, who surely would’ve been promoted without the glare of publicity shined by the court suit, was drummed out of the IDF only to surface last year as the new Arab liaison for the Israeli police with special responsibilities to ensure the safe Judaization of East Jerusalem (though that’s not how the police describe his job).

This blog exposed Zahavi’s identity, because the country has a quaint tradition of refusing to identify anyone publicly who’s ever been an intelligence agent, even if they’re dead.  To Israelis he’s simply known as “Captain George.”  I thought that rather ridiculous and that Israel deserved to know the real name of someone who’s engaged in such heroic acts on behalf of his country.

As if all this history wasn’t bad enough, Maariv portrays the maddening legal contortions used by the justices for approving Israel’s latest torture facility.  We are supposed to feel reassured because the Court placed “meaningful” limits on use of the facility.  It is now only to be used to house foreign prisoners (no Israelis or Palestinians) and only for the limited period of a few days (Dirani was imprisoned there for eight years).  Prisoners will be entitled to visits from their attorneys and international organizations “except insofar as this shall be limited by the needs of the investigation according to the conditions of the law” (a loophole wide enough to drive a Mack truck through).  In order to detain a prisoner there, the IDF will have to notify the government’s legal advisor of his identity.  The judges also directed visitation rights for government and parliamentary delegations “under certain circumstances” (unspecified, natch).  These visiting bodies will have authority over the conditions under which detainees are held and ensure they are compatible with the law.  Only members of the Knesset intelligence subcommittee will be entitled to participate in these visits (and certainly no one from Zahava Gal On’s party, Meretz).

The justices wrote without a hint of irony:

“We believe that this will provide an appropriate balance enabling parliamentary visits without undermining security considerations which provide the reason for guarding the secrecy of the facility.”

The Court chief justice, Dorit Beinisch, emphasized that the examples provided by the complainants of secret prisons in Eastern Europe to which prisoners were brought through secret rendition were “a very great distance from the matter before it.”  She rejected the claim by HaMoked that the secrecy of the location of the prison violated international law saying that the holding of prisoners in detention there would fall under the rules of Israeli and international law.

While the complainants criticized the physical conditions under which the prisoners would be held and the methods of interrogation which would be used, the State claimed that conditions of detentions would be compatible with the law.  The government also rejected the claim that forbidden forms of interrogation would be utilized (saying this with a straight face after the Dirani affair beggars belief) except for the fact that prisoners would be blindfolded when transferred there.

The government claimed that the secrecy of Unit 1391 would not detract from the prisoners’ rights (except when they’re being tortured or deprived of attorney-client visits during those times when “conditions of the investigation” simply didn’t permit them).  The State offered to notify family of the detainee/victim of their detention, but would not provide the location of the facility.  Instead it would offer an “address” to which family could turn with its requests.  The authorities argued that providing such notice to the attorney would fulfill its obligations.

At a time when the U.S. has abandoned extraordinary rendition and drastically reduced the prisoner population at Guantanamo in an attempt to close it, it’s rather extraordinary that Israel’s Supreme Court is backpedaling on human rights and reopening one of Israel’s most notorious torture chambers.  Further, unlike Guantanamo which at least has a known physical address, no Israeli officially knows where the Unit 1391 prison is.

Saying that members of the parliamentary intelligence committee would provide sufficient oversight to ensure protection of the rights of the prisoners is like saying that the House intelligence committee provided sufficient oversight over CIA participation in waterboarding and extraordinary rendition.  Again, it simply beggars belief.  This from the “Only Democracy in the Middle East.”

Original article published at Tikun Olam and republished with permission.

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Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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