Israel’s Sde Teiman is so similar to Guantanamo for a reason

Both military detention centres, notorious for human rights abuses, were established with the same sense of impunity and disdain for international law.

a woman holds a poster showing detained prisoners at a protest
A Palestinian woman holds a poster depicting some of the Palestinian detainees rounded up by Israeli forces since October 7, during a protest in support of those held in Israeli prisons on May 30, 2024 in Nablus, the West Bank [Sergey Ponomarev/Getty Images]

In May, a shocking CNN report based on whistleblower testimony placed Israel’s Sde Teiman military base in the Negev desert under the global spotlight and led to it being compared to the notorious US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where I was imprisoned for more than a decade.

Three Israelis who worked at the desert camp doubling as a detention centre since the beginning of the Gaza war told CNN that they witnessed systemic physical and psychological abuse of Palestinian detainees at the facility.

They said the Palestinians imprisoned there, who are held without charge or legal representation, are blindfolded, forced into stress positions, beaten, insulted, and prevented from speaking for extended periods. Prisoners at Sde Teiman, the whistleblowers claimed, routinely have their limbs amputated due to injuries sustained from constant handcuffing.

CNN also published two photographs from the facility, showing rows of men in grey tracksuits sitting blindfolded in an outdoor area ring-fenced by barbwire and lit by floodlights.

The report, collaborated by independent reporting from other outlets, as well as testimonies of the released Palestinian prisoners, made my heart sink. It immediately transported me back to that dark day in February 2002, when I was first sent blindfolded and shackled to Guantanamo, where I would spend more than 14 years in arbitrary imprisonment, without knowing when or if I would be released, or even why I was being held.

In Guantanamo, my experience as a prisoner was indeed very similar to the one described by the Israeli whistleblowers in the CNN report – an experience defined by a sense of perpetual uncertainty and fear.

Just as it appears to be the case with Sde Taiman, psychological abuse was rampant in Guantanamo. We were routinely put in isolation, exposed to extreme temperatures and threatened with physical abuse. Humiliation through forced nudity and sexual assaults were also common. Sensory overload and deprivation, through extended exposure to bright lights and loud noises, or being forced to sit in solitary in complete darkness for hours, further chipped away our sense of reality.

The similarities between Guantanamo and Sde Teiman are not limited to the treatment of prisoners either. The two facilities also justify their existence, and provide legal cover for their excesses, using similar arguments and narratives.

The US government established Guantanamo Bay after 9/11 to detain and interrogate men suspected to have had a hand in those attacks, or other terror connections, without being restrained by international humanitarian law and other treaties that ban the mistreatment of war captives. The US government classified all prisoners in Guantanamo Bay as “illegal enemy combatants,” enabling itself to hold us without charge, with limited legal representation, and in blatant violation of international law for years. In the years after 9/11, the US “disappeared” countless innocent Muslim men and boys in this way. I was one of the 779 men and boys sent to Guantanamo. But thousands of others are believed to have been imprisoned and eventually disappeared in similar black sites and military detention centres around the world.

Israel has been justifying the arbitrary imprisonment of Palestinians it perceives to be a threat on similar national security grounds for many years. Many Palestinians who are imprisoned in Israel were arrested under a quasi-judicial process known as “administrative detention”. Under this process, Palestinians are initially jailed for six months, but their detentions can then be repeatedly extended for an indefinite period without charge or trial.

Since October 7, just like US did in the aftermath of 9/11, Israel has also been relying on its Unlawful Combatants Law to indefinitely detain Palestinians without legal scrutiny and a chance of putting forward a defence. The law allows Israel to detain individuals in facilities like Sde Teiman without an arrest warrant for up to 45 days. This period often extends indefinitely, as detainees are moved to Israel’s formal prison system without due process.

Another similarity between Guantanamo Bay and Sde Teiman is the lack of transparency. At Guantanamo, the US military has consistently, and somewhat successfully, rebuffed attempts by journalists to gain access to the camps, imposing stringent restrictions and censorship under the guise of national security concerns. This lack of transparency has only intensified in recent years, with journalists encountering even greater barriers in their efforts to shed light on the realities of life inside Guantanamo. Israel, too, is working hard to keep the media, and independent legal professionals, out of its prisons and military detention facilities like Sde Teiman. The plight of Palestinian prisoners in Gaza managed to garner global attention only due to the bravery of Israeli whistleblowers who took it upon themselves to expose the abuses under way there.

After the publication of the damning CNN report, Israel vowed to shut down Sde Teiman. Israel’s Supreme Court also sought answers about the condition of prisoners held there in response to a petition filed on May 23 by several Israeli human rights organisations. The petition called for the closure of the facility due to inhumane conditions and severe mistreatment that violated both Israeli and international law.

While these are promising developments, we must remain vigilant in demanding further coverage and true accountability to ensure the prisoners and practices at Sde Teiman are not simply transferred to another, more secret facility. After all, the abuses and illegality under way at Guantanamo Bay have been exposed many times over in the past two decades, but the infamous facility in Cuba is still functioning, and no one has faced accountability for breaking international law there.

I speak about the parallels between Guantanamo and Sde Teiman to draw attention to the universal nature of suffering caused by detention practices steeped in secrecy, illegality and dehumanising cruelty.

In those Palestinian men imprisoned by the Israeli military in Sde Teiman, I saw myself and hundreds of other men and boys imprisoned by the US in Guantanamo. Our ordeals are so similar, because both Israel and the US believe they can function outside the limitations of international law and do whatever they please to human beings they perceive as a threat in the name of “national security”.

That the same abuses in Guantanamo have been duplicated in Sde Teiman underlines the urgent need for accountability and reform. It is crucial for the international community to recognise and address human rights violations in detention facilities – whether they are committed in a military camp in the Negev Desert or a US Naval Base on a Caribbean island.

There should be independent investigations and accountability for perpetrators. Policies should be implemented to prevent such abuses from being repeated in the future. If we fail to take action and seek accountability for the blatant abuses of human rights law in Israeli detention centres, we will soon come face to face with another heartbreaking report about an inhumane prison camp in another corner of the world sometime soon.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.