First, there were the two relatives of a Palestinian fighter who were dumped in a field near an illegal Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip early last year.
Then came the Bethlehem 30, banished to the impoverished and overpopulated Strip in a pre-arranged deal to end the Church of the Nativity crisis last April.
And just recently, three more Palestinians were deported here from the West Bank, with another 15 on the way.
All nameless numbers – a simple unimportant statistic as far as the world is concerned.
On 10 November, the Israeli High Court approved an Israeli military order to transfer Taha Duwaik to the Gaza Strip for two years – although he is a resident of Hebron and father of four.
Duwaik is not new to the Israeli prison system. But these latest Israeli actions have him as perplexed as the next person. The arrests are arbitrary, the evidence against him secret and the charges unknown.
“It’s easier to get to the US than it is to the West Bank from Gaza”
“I have four children, the eldest is seven years old, and the youngest is two years. The two youngest children do not know me because I have been in and out of prison so much in the past couple of years,” Duwaik told Aljazeera.net.
“And none of them can grasp what is going on. There has been no evidence presented against me, and all of a sudden, I am detained and transferred to Gaza without even seeing my family after five administrative extensions of my sentence. The decision took us all by surprise.”
After being detained repeatedly for several months at a time, Israeli officials told Duwaik he was being taken to a Jerusalem court for questioning early last month.
Instead, he found himself in the Erez detention centre north of the Gaza Strip.
He was immediately asked to walk over to the Palestinian side of the checkpoint. But Duwaik, who speaks and reads Hebrew proficiently, realized that the transfer order he had been handed contradicted what the soldiers were telling him to do.
“It said I have the right to appeal within 48 hours,” said Duwaik.
After reminding the oblivious soldiers of his rights, he was told to go back to the Erez detention centre on the Israeli side of the checkpoint, where he met up with the other 16 detainees.
Over 1.2 million Palestinians are
Duwaik, who became the unofficial representative of the detainees, took his case to the Israeli courts, pinning his hopes on the semblance of justice he believed to be present in the Israeli judicial system.
Both his appeals, however, were denied. The trial, says Duwaik, was a farce, and the courts under the political influence of the Israeli Shin Bet.
“The judicial committee was made up of a group of Israeli intelligence officials. When we saw them we knew it would be a political trial, not a legal one, but we proceeded anyway,” said the father of four.
“You cannot trust the Israeli judicial system,” said Iyad Alami, coordinator of the Palestinian Centre for Human Right’s legal unit.
“They have exposed the Israeli legal system for what it is – a corrupt authority which is taking an active role in legalising war crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians.”
After his trials were over, the bewildered prisoner was immediately transferred to Gaza.
“They blindfolded me and dropped me off in a field… they pointed to a place and said ‘go there where the Palestinian police are’.”
“There has been no evidence presented against me, and all of a sudden, I am detained and transferred to Gaza without even seeing my family after five administrative extensions of my sentence”
This treatment, says Duwaik, proves that their deportation to Gaza cannot be described as “assigned residence”, as alleged by the Israeli courts, but as forcible transfer.
He is currently staying in the former Zahra Hotel, which has become famous for housing deportees until they find permanent shelter elsewhere.
The other 16 detainees will remain in the Erez detention centre until their trial dates, enduring what he describes as “very very difficult circumstances”.
According to Duwaik, the detainees are subject to intense psychological pressure and interrogation methods whose ultimate aim it to convince them to withdraw their appeals.
“Its one of the worse prisons I’ve ever seen… and I’ve been in a lot of prisons,” he told Aljazeera.net.
According to Israeli law, detainees are not to stay in the Erez detention centre for more than 28 days. All of the current detainees have exceeded this period however.
“I told the officer in charge why are we being punished like this? We are administrative detainees and we have rights. I told them you either give us our rights here or move us somewhere else.”
The Israelis did not oblige.
Duwaik believes the Israelis have no intention of ever sending him back to the West Bank, even after his two-year deportation order is complete.
“The judge says we cannot discuss the terms of my stay in Gaza now. Only after I’ve served my time. To me, this means they plan on extending my stay here permanently.”
Detainees have little legal recourse
“It also makes clear to me that our transfer to Gaza has underlying political implications,” said Duwaik.
The transfer of Palestinian detainees to Gaza reveals Israel’s intention to make the Gaza Strip the locus of a future Palestinian state. It is also an attempt, he says, to throw Palestinian negotiators off course.
“So they will start talking about the Gaza deportees and forgetting about the real issues at hand – refugees, settlements, Jerusalem. It’s a tactic with which to distract them.”
Both the PCHR and the al-Damir Association for Human Rights have condemned the Israeli actions.
The two organizations, who are handling the appeals cases of the 16 other detainees, maintain that forcible transfer of protected persons is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
According to al-Damir director Khalida Jarrafa, an administrative detainee is someone arrested arbitrarily. No one – not even the claimant’s lawyer – is allowed to see the evidence against them except for the judge and the military officers.
“For all we know [the evidence] could be fabricated, or at least unfounded or weak. The point is we cannot argue against what we can’t see,” said Jarrafa.
All of the detainees were arrested for alleged involvement in attacks against Israeli targets. However, no evidence to support these allegations has been disclosed during court proceedings.
“If [the detainees] are truly dangerous they should stay in prison, not go to a place like Gaza,” said Jarrafa.
“But its clear that it’s a political decision not a legal one. Their goal is to scare other detainees and send a message to them that ‘this might happen to you’ and show them what this means for their family and their life.”
The Israeli High Court has argued that the state of Israel is within its international legal rights. The Geneva Convention stipulates that a state may deport someone for a short period of time.
But according to Jarrafa, the Convention also says this deportation must occur with the acquiescence of the deportee and under strict conditions that do not affect his daily life. He must be provided, for example, with income and contact with his family. Jarrafa says none of these conditions have been met.
Moreover, while Gaza might not seem like such a bad place to be transferred to – it is after all a few short kilometres away from the West Bank – travelling from one territory to the other is practically impossible.
“It’s easier to get to the US than it is to the West Bank from Gaza,” said Jarrafa.
“And don’t forget – Gaza is not exactly a safe place. It’s a war zone.”