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U.S. inmates suffer in Israel

Intervention: Former prisoners and rights groups say American citizenship means little for those arrested without charge and detained by Israeli authorities.

By Mark Matthews, Sun Journal, April 13, 2001

JERUSALEM - Hana Abu Khdeir was born in East Jerusalem. She became a U.S. citizen in 1995 while living on Fleet Street in Baltimore. Then she returned to East Jerusalem.

By her account, her American citizenship may have spared her some of the harshest treatment dealt out to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, but not all of it.

She is one of five Americans of Palestinian origin detained by Israel since the outbreak of violence in September. Three have complained of severe abuse, raising the question of whether the United States does enough to protect citizens arrested overseas - especially those arrested by governments friendly to Washington.

The authorities' interest in Abu Khdeir's family dates at least to 1981, the year her brother, Nasser, lost an eye when a bomb he was making blew up in his face. He spent five years in jail. He was then rearrested in February and held without charge.

Hana Abu Khdeir, 29, is married to Walid Abu Khdeir; they have no children. Walid had been imprisoned for seven years for throwing Molotov cocktails and membership in the outlawed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian; he now helps manage inventories for one of Israel's largest bakeries. And one of Hana Abu Khdier's brothers-in-law is a fugitive facing a 10-year-to-15-year prison term.

Hana Abu Khdeir says that on March 12, as she was preparing for bed, Israeli security men surrounded her home in East Jerusalem's Shuafat neighborhood and arrested her. Her Israeli lawyer believes she was taken into custody to pressure her brother, Nasser, who had been re-arrested three weeks before.

Taken to the jail that Israelis and Palestinians know as the Russian Compound, she was put in a cell measuring about 7 feet by 5 feet, with a smelly hole for a toilet, a mattress on the floor next to it and two dirty blankets. An overhead fan blew cold air into the cell. Food arrived on a dirty tray, placed in front of the toilet, she says.

The next morning, she was blindfolded, handcuffed and chained at the ankles and led to an office, where one hand was cuffed to a metal chair. She says that she was interrogated continuously for 2 1/2 days. without sleep.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has declined to comment on her case, or those of other Palestinian-Americans detained by Israeli authorities. Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin says that any complaints of mistreatment will be investigated and the perpetrators punished. "There is no such thing as a policy of torture," he says.

Khdeir describes events at the Russian Compound in detail. Interrogators asked what help she had given her brother. "Yes, I helped him," she recalls saying. "I took care of his four children until you arrested me."

She says the Israelis accused her of belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They failed to provide proof, she says, and she denied it.

'Snake' without children

Khdeir says an interrogator told her at one point: "You're a snake. You're married to a snake, and that's why God didn't give you children, because he doesn't want more snakes in the world."

"Why don't you have children?" she says she was asked. "Think about being too old to have children. You will be here so many years."

Interrogators threatened to re-arrest her husband, Walid, whose memory of beatings and other abuse was still fresh, she says. And she says they claimed her brother and sister-in-law had both betrayed her.

She was freed after 10 days without being charged with a crime but was required to surrender her U.S. passport. She has been ordered to report regularly to Israeli authorities, she says, and her travel is restricted.

Thousands of Americans live or have close family ties in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel law makes no distinction between Palestinians holding U.S. citizenship and permanent residents of the occupied territories. If arrested, they are subject to stringent security laws that allow detention for up to six months without charge, inability to communicate with consular officers, lawyers or family members for long periods, and trial of youths older than 14 as adults.

Brooklyn-reared Wael Ali Herbawi, 20, won't talk about his 100 days in prison. He says he's too frightened of running afoul of Israeli authorities and being incarcerated again. His lawyer says he was "brutally beaten," suffering a broken collarbone. Arrested on the third day of the latest Palestinian uprising and taken to the Russian Compound, he was convicted of participating in an illegal demonstration and resisting arrest.

Steve Adams, 39, a naturalized American who was born Mohamed Balatta in the Gaza Strip, was held for 37 days in "very cold" cells at Ashkelon prison after being arrested at the airport en route to his home in Dubai, where he works as a municipal engineer.

"Sometimes they put me in the hall handcuffed to the chair and with my ankles cuffed to the chair and put the fan blowing on me (this happened three times)," he said in an affidavit released by Partners for Peace, a Washington advocacy group.

During seven hours of daily questioning, Adams says, Israeli interrogators referred to him as "donkey" or "cow," threatened to have his U.S. citizenship revoked, to arrest other members of his family, and to incarcerate him for 10 years. He was finally released without charge.

None of the Palestinian-Americans interviewed for this article would agree to have a photo taken.

The kind of treatment the detainees say they endured fits a pattern described in the latest U.S. State Department human rights report.

"Israeli security forces abused Palestinians in detention suspected of security offenses," the report says. "There were numerous credible allegations that police beat persons in detention."

Some of the abuse the Americans complained of approached the kind outlawed by the Israeli high court in 1999, which barred sleep deprivation for an extended period of time and prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures.

Foreign intervention helps

Leah Tsemel, Abu Khdeir's Israeli lawyer, says her interrogation would have been "much rougher," and her detention prolonged for a month, had the U.S. consulate not made known its interest in the case to Israeli authorities.

"Any foreign intervention is important because it requires Israel and the interrogators to limit themselves to methods acceptable to international standards," Tsemel said.

But while consular officials visit the detainees, provide them with a list of lawyers and intervene at various levels with Israeli authorities, the U.S. government refrains from publicizing the arrests, thus keeping them away from the media spotlight. "That's not our role," says Consul Mary Draper. "The fact that it's not public doesn't mean we're not raising the issue [of mistreatment] repeatedly."

An official of the State Department's consular bureau in Washington added, "Very rarely does it help to conduct diplomatic discussions out in public. We can do a lot more good using our regular channels."

This approach stands in stark contrast to the Bush administration's recent public complaints about a U.S. green-card holder who was arrested in China, a case President Bush himself reportedly raised with the Chinese.

Unlike China, with whom U.S. relations are tense, Israel is a U.S. ally and major aid recipient, and American officials feel their complaints would get a hearing. But Israel is acutely sensitive to U.S. public opinion, a factor that presumably would give the State Department added leverage.

And the problem isn't new. Partners for Peace cites cases from previous years in which Palestinian-Americans complained of much worse treatment.

"The feedback we have from 40 years' experience is that being public contributes to some guarantees - treatment is not as harsh or as severe as before the case was made public," says Kamal Samari, a spokesman for the London-based human rights group Amnesty International. "Overall, the message we get from victims is that publicity is helpful."

Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun

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