Palestinians forever changed by Israeli torture
Former detainees who suffered abuse while in Israeli custody say they are struggling to regain a sense of normality.
Jalazone refugee camp, occupied West Bank – Abed Abu Sharefa’s hand was on the front door of his home in Jalazone refugee camp as Israeli soldiers worked to break through from the other side and arrest him.
The scar under his left eyebrow, where the metal door blew inwards, is still visible seven years on. Abu Sharefa, 25, told Al Jazeera that his right ear still hurts from the beatings he received at the hands of Israeli interrogators early in the 14-month detention that followed his violent arrest.
Abu Sharefa, who has a tattoo of an M16 rifle on his chest, is among dozens of residents of Jalazone refugee camp near Ramallah who say they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after being arrested, detained and tortured by Israeli security forces.
Residents of Jalazone, which is near the Israeli settlement of Beit El, are often targeted for arrest amid frequent clashes with Israeli soldiers.
Sitting in front of a rusted electric heater, Abu Sharefa takes long draws from a cigarette as he describes being beaten by Israeli interrogators. He reenacts the stress positions he says he was forced into for long hours while detained in the basement of a compound in Jerusalem.
“Even before I was interrogated, I knew detention would be violent; I’d heard about other Jalazone detainees’ experiences,” Abu Sharefa said. “In one way or another, there is always violence in Israeli detention. I’m afraid to be arrested again.”
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Abu Sharefa, who was detained twice after his first arrest, says he now has difficulty sleeping. He lifts his hands, palms facing out, to show his chewed nails, which he says he bites incessantly and nervously. He says he frequently considers suicide.
“Abed changed completely,” said Tahani, Abu Sharefa’s older sister. “Sometimes when we tried to speak to him, he didn’t respond, like he had experienced some trauma. He’s still nervous and agitated.”
Mohammad Absi, a psychologist with the Ramallah-based Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre (TRC) who has worked in Jalazone refugee camp since 2009, says he has treated around 100 former detainees who experienced torture, abuse or mistreatment while in Israeli detention.
Someone who has experienced trauma is usually helped and supported by their community, but everyone here is psychologically tired.
Abu Sharefa’s experience was severe, Absi said, but such anxiety upon release is not uncommon. “Individuals who experience psychological torture or severe stressors manifest symptoms like Abed’s,” he said.
According to Addameer, a Palestinian human rights group, there are currently 7,000 Palestinians in Israeli-administered prisons. There have been hundreds of cases of alleged torture over the past 15 years.
Nour Alyan, 27, has been arrested five times and spent a total of eight years in Israeli prison. He recently replaced the front door of his home in the Jalazone camp for a fourth time, after Israeli soldiers broke it down to arrest him in mid-2014. Alyan was most recently released in February.
Alyan said he was held in stress positions for hours, and in solitary confinement for more than two weeks. Many in the camp – including eight of his cousins – who say they were mistreated while in Israeli custody are now struggling with depression and sleeping problems, he said.
“Someone who has experienced trauma is usually helped and supported by their community, but everyone here is psychologically tired,” Alyan told Al Jazeera.
Psychiatrist Mahmud Sehwail, who founded the TRC, said the consequences of this type of torture are “devastating” for communities.
“Torture does not aim to kill an individual; it aims to kill an individual’s spirit. It aims to alter their mentality and character,” Sehwail said. “In reality, though, torture alters not just a victim, but a victim’s family, their community, and their society.”
With limited rehabilitative resources available and dwindling donor funds to organisations like the TRC, some former detainees have turned instead to “smoking drugs, or alcohol”, Alyan said.
READ MORE: Youngest prisoner in Israeli jail is a 12-year-old girl
Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem and HaMoked recently released a report detailing abuses against Palestinian detainees at the Shikma facility in southern Israel. Based on affidavits and witness accounts of 116 Palestinians, the report found they were subjected to a variety of abuses, some of which were “tantamount to torture”.
The report found that that such abuse was facilitated by a “broad network of partners” as Israeli justice officials turned “a blind eye”.
Israel’s Ministry of Justice maintains that Israeli interrogations “are conducted within the confines of the law and with the aim of pre-emptively foiling and preventing illegal activities aimed at harming state security, its democratic regimes or its institutions”, noting that detention facilities “are under constant and continuous inspection of several internal and external reviewing bodies”.
Since 2001, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, working in concert with Palestinian and Israeli rights groups, has submitted at least 950 complaints of torture to the Israeli Security Agency, at least 95 percent of which were on behalf of Palestinians.
None have resulted in criminal investigations. “The Israeli system protects torture in Shabak interrogations,” the committee’s CEO, Rachel Stroumsa, told Al Jazeera.
“It legalises these interrogations [and] it exempts interrogators from the rule of law … At stake is whether Israel sees itself as a military society, living in fear, acting out of fear, acting in ways it will not be able to countenance later – or whether we see ourselves as a law-abiding society.”
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