Israel phasing out use of desert detention camp after abuse reports

June 05, 2024
A leaked photograph of an enclosure where detainees in gray tracksuits are seen blindfolded and sitting on paper-thin mattresses
A leaked photograph of an enclosure where detainees in gray tracksuits are seen blindfolded and sitting on paper-thin mattresses

JERUSALEM — Israel has transferred hundreds of Palestinian detainees out of the shadowy detention facility of Sde Teiman in Israel’s Negev desert, a state attorney told Israel’s Supreme Court on Wednesday during a first-ever hearing about the facility where prisoners from Gaza have allegedly been held under conditions of extreme abuse.

State attorney Aner Helman told the court that 700 inmates had been moved to Ofer military facility in the occupied West Bank, with another 500 set to be transferred in the weeks to come. Around 200 detainees will remain in Sde Teiman, said Helman, who added that the state would provide an update on their status within three days.

The hearing comes in response to a petition by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and other human rights groups, which drew heavily on CNN reporting about the makeshift prison to make a case for it to be shut down.

During a tense exchange, one of the Supreme Court justices, Judge Barak Erez, pressed the state’s legal team on the legality of the way the facility was being run. “The question is whether or not the Israeli law for the imprisonment of unlawful combatants applies or not. That you did not answer,” said Erez.

Avi Segal, an attorney representing the right-wing, Israeli legal organization Shurat HaDin which had asked to join the procedure, said the hearing was based on “newspaper rumors.”

“The court should be worried about setting up a hearing, and even asking for a response to petitions based on newspaper rumors,” said Segal.

CNN’s investigation, in which Israeli whistleblowers as well as Palestinian former detainees and eyewitnesses described horrific conditions at the facility, including continuous blindfolding and handcuffing, sparked an international outcry.

The White House called the allegations detailed in CNN’s report “deeply concerning” and said it was reaching out to Israeli officials for answers. Germany’s Foreign Office condemned the reported practices and said it was campaigning for the International Committee of the Red Cross to access the camp and other prisons.

In the wake of CNN’s investigation, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Unlawful Combatants, Alice Jill Edwards, called for Israel to investigate allegations of torture and mistreatment of detained Palestinians.

Last week, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said the military launched a probe into the allegations of mistreatment at Sde Teiman, as well as at Anatot and Ofer, two other military detention camps for Palestinians from Gaza. The committee tasked with examining the conditions of Palestinian detainees from Gaza is set to submit its recommendations to Halevi this month.

“They cannot keep holding people there, not even for a short while, not even only 200, and not even one week,” ACRI’s attorney Roni Pelli told CNN after the hearing.

On May 10, CNN released an investigation into Sde Teiman, a military base in the Negev desert which has doubled as a detention center for Palestinians detained over the course of Israel’s war in Gaza which was launched after the October 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel.

Three Israeli whistleblowers told CNN that Palestinian detainees at the facility were constantly blindfolded and held under extreme physical restraint. Doctors sometimes amputated prisoners’ limbs due to injuries sustained from continuous handcuffing, one whistleblower said. The account tallied with details of a letter authored by a doctor working at Sde Teiman published by Ha’aretz in April.

According to the accounts, the camp some 18 miles from the Gaza frontier is split into two parts: enclosures holding scores of detainees from Gaza, and a field hospital where wounded detainees are blindfolded, strapped to their beds, wearing diapers and fed through straws.

In a May 20 response to a petition led by the rights group Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), the Israeli government said it is set to “reduce the number of inmates held in military facilities in general and the facility of Sde Teiman in particular, with the intention that this facility will be used as a reception, interrogation and initial sorting facility, for keeping prisoners for short periods only.”

Responding to CNN’s request for comment on all the allegations made in its May 10 report, the Israeli military, known as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), said in a statement: “The IDF ensures proper conduct towards the detainees in custody. Any allegation of misconduct by IDF soldiers is examined and dealt with accordingly. In appropriate cases, MPCID (Military Police Criminal Investigation’s Division) investigations are opened when there is suspicion of misconduct justifying such action.”

“Detainees are handcuffed based on their risk level and health status. Incidents of unlawful handcuffing are not known to the authorities.”

The IDF did not directly deny accounts of people being stripped of their clothing or held in diapers. Instead, the Israeli military said that the detainees are given back their clothing once the IDF has determined that they pose no security risk. — CNN

June 05, 2024
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