Ralph Schoenman


The Hidden History of Zionism


Chapter 11
The Prisons

10. The Prevalence of Torture   |   12. Strategy for Conquest

Israeli prisons are essentially political prisons. They contain mainly Palestinians suspected, accused and occasionally – on the basis of coerced confessions – “convicted” of carrying out, abetting or planning acts of resistance, whether peaceful or armed. While statistics for the total prison population are not available, the number of prisoners in maximum-security prisons who are serving long-term sentences consistently hovers around 3,000; thirty Palestinian women are imprisoned in Neve Tertza, not including those women brought from Lebanon. Lawyers estimate that prior to the recent uprising 20,000 Palestinians were imprisoned each year.

Within the pre-1967 borders there are ten prisons, including Kfar Yonah, Ramle Central Prison, Shattah, Damun, Mahaneh Ma'siyahu, Beersheba, Tel Mond (for juveniles), Nafha, Ashkelon and Neve Tertza.

Nine prisons are located in the post-1967 Occupied Territories: Gaza, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Fara'a, Jericho, Tulkarm, Hebron and Jerusalem.

There are regional detention centers at Yagur (Jalameh) and Atlit near Haifa, Abu Kabir in Tel Aviv and the Moscobiya (Russian Compound) in Jerusalem. In addition, police headquarters in Haifa, Acre, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the eighteen police stations throughout the state and the forty police outposts in the occupied territories are used to detain suspects for interrogation and torture. [152] Military installations throughout the country also serve as interrogation and torture centers. Prisoners agree that the most savage of these is Armon ha-Avadon known as the “Palace of Hell” and “Palace of the End”. It is located at Mahaneh Tzerffin near Sarafand.

Finally, detention camps with only tents for shelter were erected to maintain the large numbers of Palestinian prisoners brought from Lebanon during the 1982 invasion as well as the youths rounded up during the current resistance. Meggido, Ansar II (in Gaza) and Dhariyah have become detention centers notorious for their inhumane conditions and daily routine of torture.

Distinctions in Treatment

The differences between prisons for Palestinians within the post-1967 Occupied Territories and those within pre-1967 Israel, i.e., within the “Green Line”, are not great. Ashkelon prison, Nafha prison, the main wing of Beersheba prison and the special wing of Ramle prison, while located within pre-1967 Israel, are major detention centers for Palestinians from the post-1967 Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Damun and Tel Mond are used for Palestinian youth.

The physical location of prisons has little bearing on conditions. Israeli prison authorities maintain rigorous segregation between persons held on criminal charges and those convicted of “security offences”, who are political prisoners.

As only a small number of Jews qualify as political prisoners and only a small number of Palestinians, particularly from the Occupied Territories, are criminal offenders, this separation entails de-facto segregation between Jewish prisoners and Palestinian detainees. Neither contact nor communication is allowed. They are either in separate prisons or different wings of the same institution.

Distinctions are also made between Palestinian prisoners from the territory occupied after 1967 and “Israeli Arab” inmates, who are Palestinian and Druze residing in pre-1967 Israel and holding Israeli citizenship. Conditions of imprisonment for prisoners from the West Bank and Gaza are many times worse than those of pre-1967 “Israeli” inmates.

Some, but not all, prisoners from pre-1967 Israel are allowed a bed or mattress. Approximately 70% of these Israeli prisoners enjoy this “privilege”. They also may receive one visit every two weeks and send two letters a month. They are allowed three blankets in summer and five in winter.

Prisoners from the post-1967 Occupied Territories sleep on the floor during summer and winter. They are allowed a rubber mat one quarter of an inch [0.5 cm.] thick, one visit and one post card a month.

Whereas the average living space per prisoner in European and American prisons is 112.5 square feet [10.5m2], in prisons for Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, it is one tenth this area or l6 square feet [1.5m2] per prisoner.

The prison bureaucracy is a law unto itself. Upon entering this domain the citizen loses all rights. He or she becomes subject to wholly arbitrary authority wielded by people selected for their harshness.

The Prison Ordinance (revised 1971) has 114 clauses. There is no clause or sub-clause defining prisoner rights. The ordinance provides a legally binding set of rules for the Minister of the Interior, but the Minister himself formulates these rules by administrative decree.

There is no provision stipulating obligations incumbent upon the authorities nor is there any clause guaranteeing prisoners a minimum standard of life.

In Israel, it is legally permissible to intern twenty inmates in a cell no more than 15 feet [5m.] long, 12 feet [4m.] wide and 9 feet [3m.] high. This space includes an open lavatory. Prisoners may be confined indefinitely to such cells for twenty-three hours a day.

The Kutler Report

An extensive inquiry into the physical conditions inside prisons located within pre-1967 Israel was published in Ha'aretz in 1978 by Israeli journalist, Yair Kutler. Yair Kutler called prison life in Israel “hell on earth” and proceeded to describe each prison in detail. [153] His account is harrowing:

Kfar Yonah: Senior officials name the prison of Kfar Yonah as “Kevar Yonah” (the grave of Yonah). It is the detention center that terrifies all who pass through its gates. Detainees have named it “Meurat Petanim” or “The Lair of Cobras”. “The reception awaiting those remanded there until trial is frightening.” Cells are extremely cold and damp. The shabby, torn and filthy mattresses are crowded. Most detainees have nowhere to lie but the floor. The overwhelming stench of human excretion, sweat and filth never fades from the locked and bolted cells. In ‘D’ wing there are three rooms into which twelve, eighteen and twenty detainees are crammed.

Central Prison of Ramle: Ramle is one of the harshest prisons in Israel. It is a former British police station that was once used as a stable for horses. It is overcrowded and stinking, packed with seven hundred inmates. Many prisoners do not have a bed, a small corner or even a few square meters for themselves. Frequently one hundred men must lie on the floor.

There are twenty-one isolation cells (‘X’s) in Ramle. Sunlight never penetrates into the isolation cells, which are completely sealed off. A dangling bulb gives off light the whole day long.

In addition to the isolation cells, Ramle has a series of dungeons. They are 6 feet long, 3 feet wide and 6 feet high [2m. by 80cm. by 2m.]. They are dark, filthy and give off a terrible stench. There are no windows or light bulbs; a small opening in the door lets in a little of the light from the corridor.

Before a prisoner is placed in the dungeon cell he is stripped naked and given a torn, thin overall. Once a day he may be let out to use the toilet; otherwise he must contain himself for the entire day and night.

He can urinate through a wire mesh in the door. The prisoner is allowed neither a daily walk nor a shower.

Frequently there are beatings. The favored mode is the “blanket method”. A few guards cover the prisoner’s head and beat him until he falls unconscious.

In order to avoid solitary confinement a prisoner must know how to lead a life of total submission and self-abasement.

Damun: Life in Damun is “hell on earth”. “The living conditions are disgraceful and cause revulsion in every visitor who comes to this God forsaken place.” The buildings absorb the damp and cold. Five blankets would not be sufficient to keep warm. “Many are sick and most are despairing.” The youth wing of Damun has even worse conditions. Overcrowding is so terrible that youths can only stretch their limbs for two hours every fortnight and this interval is often missed.

Shattah: Overcrowding is terrible in Shattah. The stench is felt at a far distance ... The cells are dark, damp and chilly. The air is suffocating. In summer during the period of great heat in the Beit Shean valley, the prison is a blazing hell.

Sarafand: The “Palace of the End” is set behind a high wire fence seen by all tourists as they drive on the last section of road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, but five miles from Ben Gurion airport. This is the perimeter of Sarafand which is ten miles square and Israel’s largest army ordinance and supply depot. It is also the repository of the Jewish National Fund, which uses Sarafand to store equipment for construction of new settlements in pre-1967 Israel and the post-1967 Occupied Territories.

The inexorable relationship between occupation, settlement, colonization and the system of torture visited upon Palestinians becomes evident. Sarafand – the torture center – has historical significance.

It was built prior to World War II and served as the principal ordinance depot for Britain. It was one of the most notorious camps for detainees during the Palestinian uprising in 1936 against British rule and Zionist colonization of the land. The old British Mandate buildings were simply taken over by Israeli authorities, their function unaltered, and used for a new generation of Palestinian detainees. The center, known by Palestinian and Jew alike during the British era as the “concentration camp”, has been maintained in character and use.

Nafha – A Political Prison: Palestinian political prisoners have not received the status of Prisoners of War but prisoner camps are constructed for them. Nafha is called “the political prison “ by its inhabitants.

It is in the desert, eight kilometers from Mitzoe Ramon and half way between Beersheba and Eilat. It is in a barren area with terrible sandstorms. Sand penetrates everything. Nights are extremely cold and the daytime heat is unbearable. Snakes and scorpions roam the cells.

A typical cell is 18 feet by 9 feet [6m. by 3m.]. There are ten mattresses on the floor and no other space. A primitive lavatory occupies one corner. Above the lavatory is a shower. While one prisoner uses the toilet, others must wash themselves or their dishes. In a room such as this, ten prisoners spend twenty-three hours a day. One half hour a day all the prisoners must walk in a small concrete yard 15 feet by 45 feet [5m. by 15m.] Many prisoners are ill, suffering from the effects of repeated torture and brutal prison living conditions. [154]

Daily Practice in Israeli Prisons

Political prisoners have frequently declared that the conditions in the detention centers and prisons both in pre-1967 Israel and the post-1967 Occupied Territories are designed to destroy them both physically and psychically.

Beatings: In all prisons in pre-1967 Israel and the Occupied Territories prisoners are beaten. In Ramle, this is performed in the dungeons or “isolation cells”: A number of warders attack the prisoner and beat him with their fists, boots and clubs made from wooden hoe handles which are kept in a closet adjacent to the dungeon cells.

In Damun prison, beating is done more primitively. It is performed in public in the courtyard. The most brutal guards are in charge of the “Post”. This is the prisoner transport vehicle which makes three trips weekly from the detention center in Abu Kabir to Shattah prison. It stops at all prisons inside Israel except Ashkelon and Beersheba. Every trip of the “Post” results in savage beatings. Given the slightest pretext, Post guards take the victim off the vehicle at the next Post stations and “beat him beyond recognition”.

Isolation: Isolation is not regarded as punishment under the law.

In reality, few people can survive many months in cells 3 feet [1 m.] by 8 feet [2.5m.] for twenty-three hours a day. Yet no prisoner who has made any verbal attempt to preserve self-respect has avoided periods in the isolation cells.

Labour: Prison labour is forced labour. It is organized as “a means to harass the lives of prisoners”. [155] Political prisoners are deliberately assigned production of boots for the Israeli army, camouflage nets, etc.. Those who refuse are denied such “privileges” as cash for the canteen, time out of cells, books or newspapers and writing materials.

Some are punished with isolation.

The average wage for this labor is $.05 per hour. Forced labour is deployed to maximize physical and emotional stress. It is also a means of exploitation.

Food: Nutrition in prisons is deficient and food budgets are minimal. Allocated meat, vegetables and fruits are often sequestered by the staff. Eggs, milk and a fresh tomato are categorized as prisoner luxuries.

Medical Treatment: In 1975, a prisoner in Damun prison cut his wrists and legs. Fellow inmates called the guard. A delegation of three guards arrived. The medical orderly opened the cell and grabbed the prisoner and without uttering a word clubbed the man’s face repeatedly. The prisoner fell to the floor; the medical worker kicked him incessantly.

Prisoners are jailed in unsuitable buildings. They suffer in summer from exhausting heat. In winter the damp penetrates “to the bone”. In Ramle prison during winter, one-third of the prison population suffers from swelling of the hands and feet due to severe chill. The only medication available is vaseline, but even it is rarely allowed.

Detainees who serve sentences of more than a few months leave prison with permanent disabilities. Lighting conditions are so poor that prisoners suffer from deterioration of eyesight. Kidney ailments and ulcers have an incidence among inmates five times that of the general population.

Asafir: Since 1977, prisoners have reported that torture is also administered by a small group of collaborators in each prison, some of whom are not actual prisoners but informers posing as such. Whether prisoners who collaborate or informers insinuated into the prison, the procedure has been institutionalized. In each prison and detention center, special rooms are set aside for the collaborators, who are known as “asafir” or “song birds”. Common among the “asafir” are violent criminals selected for their fierceness. Others are selected from those held on political charges, even though they lack a political past. The latter are allowed privileges in accordance with the services they perform.

Not Isolated Cases

While much is made of the democratic and humanist pretensions of Israel, the evidence presented here, as does the evidence accumulated in all studies of Zionist colonization and rule in Palestine, strips away this facade.

The individual cases examined here are not isolated nor are they the result of extraordinary circumstances. The cases cited do not differ fundamentally from others. The torturers are not aberrant individual cops who get out of hand. They are members of all sections of Israeli police and security divisions operating in the line of duty.

Violence is the norm for dealing with Palestinians, whether they are farmers taking their produce to market or youths throwing stones, Palestinian citizens of pre-1967 Israel or Palestinian residents of the territories occupied in 1967 and afterward. Torture is a fundamental part of the legal system, coercion is the route to confession and confession is fundamental to conviction.

The treatment of prisoners does not change with the particular party in power. If Prime Minister Menachem Begin categorized Palestinians as “two legged beasts”, the systematic brutality imposed upon the Palestinian detainee is just as severe under the Labor Alignment governments. As former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion said, “The Military regime exists to defend the right of Jewish settlement everywhere”. [156]



152. Jamil Ala’ al-Din and Melli Lerman, p.3.

153. Case Study: The Kutler Report. Ibid., pp.34-45.

154. Lea Tsemel and Walid Fahoum, Reports on Nafha Prison, May 1982-February 1983. Cited in Schoenman and Shone, pp.47-54.

155. Jamil Ala’ al-Din and Melli Lerman, p.26.

156. David Ben Gurion, Divray ha Knesset, Parliamentary Record #36, p.217. Cited in Bober, p.138.


Last updated on 4.8.2001