RAMALLAH – Israel released over 200 Palestinians from Israeli jails in a "goodwill gesture" Monday. This followed the Muslim feast of Eid Al-Adha and was an attempt to boost the waning popularity of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Several prisoners spoke to the assembled local and international media about their time in detention. They accused the Israelis of maltreating and physically abusing detainees despite Israeli claims that torture and the abuse of prisoners have been outlawed and no longer occur.
Most of the detainees were Fatah members, the movement associated with Abbas and the ruling Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank.
Some belonged to smaller Palestinian resistance groups such as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).
While Israel’s "goodwill gesture" was much touted by the Israeli media, the majority of the prisoners were mostly small-time political detainees, who were due for release fairly shortly, having already served most of their sentences.
Many were teenagers when imprisoned and none were convicted of injuring or killing Israelis.
As negotiations were under way for the release of the 227 prisoners, hundreds more Palestinians were arrested by Israeli security forces.
The move was widely seen as an effort to boost Abbas’s floundering PA. The PA is currently engaged in a political battle against the rival Hamas movement which controls the Gaza Strip.
Hostility between the two main Palestinian political factions is rising as the end of Abbas’s term nears.
Abbas stated he would not step down, while Hamas said it would no longer recognize his authority after Jan. 9, when his term ends.
The released detainees were greeted by tearful family members, friends and hundreds of supporters who crowded into Ramallah’s presidential headquarters in the central West Bank.
Scenes of jubilation erupted against a sea of Fatah and Palestinian flags as patriotic music boomed into the winter air.
Muhammed Abdul Razik, 22, from the town of Qabatia in the northern West Bank, served two of his four-and-a-half-year sentence.
He was convicted in an Israeli court of weapons possession and being a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades, an armed offshoot of Fatah.
"I was beaten very badly when I was arrested by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers. I was kept in the back of a jeep for over four hours in the freezing cold," Razik told IPS.
"During detention my head was covered with a foul-smelling dirty sack as I was shackled to a chair with my hands handcuffed behind my back in a stressful position.
"Periodically, between punches and slaps, the interrogator would suddenly pull me forward causing extreme pain to my wrists and back," he said.
Razik added that beatings, insufficient medicine, poor food and lack of family visits were routine while he was incarcerated.
The Israeli Landau Committee into torture in 1987 ruled that Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, the Shabak, or Shin Bet, could use "moderate physical pressure and psychological pressure during the interrogation of detainees."
The committee did not elaborate on its definition of physical pressure in its report, nor did it outline the circumstances in which it could be used. The details were kept confidential and the full report was never published.
Following petitions by several human rights organizations against the ubiquitous use of torture in the country, the Israeli High Court prohibited the use of certain forms of torture during its 1999 ruling.
However, it authorized the use of "physical means" against detainees including "pressure and a measure of discomfort."
Rights groups B’Tselem and Hamoked released a report last year entitled "Absolute Prohibition: The Torture and Ill-Treatment of Palestinian Detainees" in which they accused the court ruling of "legitimizing severe acts, contrary to international law, which does not acknowledge any exceptions to the prohibition on torture and ill-treatment."
The organization added that the beatings, painful binding, humiliation and denial of basic needs appeared to be designed to "soften up the detainees" prior to interrogation.
B’Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli told IPS, "There has been an improvement, but there are still many cases of ill-treatment occurring."
B’Tselem and Hamoked interviewed 73 former detainees for their report and found roughly two-thirds had been subject to some kind of mistreatment.
Rabie Al-Latifah from Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq used stronger terms. "Ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons is both widespread and systematic," Rabie told IPS.
"The United Coalition Against Torture, of which Al-Haq is a member, has observed and recorded evidence of acts, omissions, and complicity by agents of the State at all levels, including the army, the intelligence service, the police, the judiciary and other branches of government," he added.
The Addameer Prisoners Support and Human Rights Association says that more than 800 Palestinians are currently in administrative detention.
Detainees are held for six months at a time without being brought to trial on the basis of "secret evidence."
This six-month period can be renewed repeatedly with some administrative detainees being jailed for up to six years without being convicted of any crime.
"Confidential material" denied to the detainee’s lawyer determines the period of detention.
Since 2001, the Israeli State Attorney’s Office received over 500 complaints of ill-treatment by Shin Bet interrogators, but not a single criminal investigation was carried out.
These decisions were based on the findings of an investigation conducted by an inspector who was himself a member of the Shin Bet.
Even in cases where interrogators were found guilty of abusing a detainee the State Attorney’s Office closed the case on the basis that the abuse was carried out in the "necessity of defense."