and unrelenting protest by all major international human rights
organizations. As the American facility in Cuba entered its third
year this month, Amnesty International denounced it as "a human
rights scandal." Amnesty's UK director said it was "two years too
many," and called for the immediate closure of a place where
prisoners detained in the course of President George W. Bush's "war
against terrorism" are held without access to lawyers and without
charge or trial.
But have you heard of Facility 1391, "Israel's Guantanamo"? Probably
not, because it is not mentioned by those campaigning against
America's Guantanamo. The only human rights organizations speaking
out against Facility 1391 are Israeli. Yet the facility is, in every
respect, far more shocking than Guantanamo. It is, in the words of
Israel's Haaretz newspaper: "(O)ne of the darker corners of Israel."
Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, who is due to be released today as part of
the prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizbullah, was held in
"administrative detention," without charge or trial, in Facility 1391
for 13 years. Mustafa Dirani, who will also be released today, was
detained there for eight years - seven in solitary confinement. For
most of those years, Dirani was held in subhuman conditions -
tortured and, according to his Israeli lawyer, raped. Obeid, Dirani
and other Lebanese prisoners held in Facility 1391 - some of them
teenagers - were not visited by the International Committee of the
Red Cross (ICRC) because the ICRC did not know the prison existed.
The Lebanese prisoners did not even know where they were. If they
asked, they were told they were "on the moon," "in outer space," or,
even, "in Honolulu."
Facility 1391 was airbrushed out of aerial photographs and is
unmarked on maps. Officially, it did not exist, and what happened
there happened with the certainty of complete impunity. And all the
evidence suggests that what still happens there is very much worse
than what happens at Guantanamo.
Set in a concrete fortress on a rise overlooking a kibbutz, close to
the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank, Facility 1391
belongs to the Israeli Army - specifically, to an army intelligence
group known as Unit 504, which specializes in interrogation. Unit
504's heyday came during the occupation of south Lebanon, when it ran
a vast network of collaborators and was responsible for interrogating
captured resistance fighters (and others who were not fighters).
At the end of the 1980s, Unit 504 began kidnapping Lebanese Shiites
who could be held as hostages in the search for information about the
fate of men like Ron Arad, the Israeli pilot who was shot down over
Lebanon in 1986 and who has been missing without sight or sound since
1987. This was not only a violation of international humanitarian
law, which categorically prohibits hostage taking; after April 2000,
when Israel's highest court ruled that the administrative detention
of Lebanese nationals as "bargaining chips" was illegal, it was also
a violation of Israeli law.
But not for long: In March 2002 the Knesset passed a draconian and
repressive piece of legislation that allowed Israel to continue
holding "bargaining chips." No prizes for guessing why the law,
titled the "Imprisonment of Combatants Who are Not Entitled to
Prisoner-of-War Status," was popularly called the "Obeid-Dirani Law."
The first glimpses of what went on behind the thick, high walls of
Facility 1391 followed the accidental disclosure of the prison's
existence in the wake of Operation Defensive Shield, the Israeli
Army's re-invasion of West Bank towns in April 2002. Mass arrests
strained Israel's customary detention facilities to breaking point,
and 1391 was used to accommodate the overflow. In the course of
inquiries into the whereabouts of one young Palestinian, an Israeli
human rights organization, Hamoked, eventually forced an admission
that he was being held in a prison that no one had ever heard of:
Former Palestinian guests of 1391 have described a vision of hell:
tiny, stinking, windowless cells where they could barely see their
own hands; solitary confinement cells without a toilet where
prisoners used their own clothes to contain their waste; water turned
on and off at the whim of guards; torture as a matter of routine
during interrogation -- even after the Israeli Supreme Court banned
torture in 1999.
Obeid and Dirani will be the first long-term foreign nationals to
give insider accounts of Facility 1391, but everything suggests that
their treatment was even worse than that of Palestinian detainees.
Dirani's lawyer, Zvi Rish, has filed a $1.3 million lawsuit against
Israel claiming that his client was raped and systematically beaten.
Dirani's cousin, Ghassan, developed catatonic schizophrenia during
his 13-year incarceration without trial - some of those years in 1391.
In his suit, Dirani charges that he was subjected to torture and
humiliating treatment for more than a month after he was kidnapped.
He says he was beaten, shaken violently, deprived of sleep, kept
naked during five weeks of interrogation and forced to squat for
hours on end with his hands tied behind his back. He says he was
raped twice -- on one of those occasions sodomized with a club by the
head of his interrogation team.
Rish said that after the club incident, "they forced him to drink oil
and a lot of water, put a diaper on him and forced him to relieve
himself in that for days while they laughed at him and photographed
him." Dirani was reportedly refused all medical assistance, despite
The Israeli government has denied Dirani was raped, but has confirmed
that prisoners were routinely stripped naked for interrogation.
To this day, Israel refuses to answer many of the questions asked
about Facility 1391. How many people are being held there, and in
what conditions? Why? Will they be put on trial? Answers are needed,
and those answers may not be forthcoming without the unrelenting
pressure of international organizations. They should speak out. Now.
Julie Flint is a veteran journalist based in Beirut and London.
She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.