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Gazans held in Israeli jails allege abuse

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Shortly after Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7, the Israeli military began rounding up thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, incarcerating most of them without any due process or any contact with the outside world. Some are now being released and recounting their ordeals, including what they describe as torture. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In the early hours of February 24, Sofian Abu Salah was roused from his sleep when dozens of Israeli soldiers entered a school in Khan Younis in southern Gaza. He, his wife and four children had been seeking shelter from the fighting there for more than two months. Salah says the Israeli soldiers separated about 80 men from their families. They were told to strip down to their underwear and then loaded onto a truck.

SOFIAN ABU SALAH: (Through interpreter) We were handcuffed and blindfolded, and we sat on our knees with her heads down. They started to beat us with batons and their boots, which have metal in the front.

NORTHAM: Salah, a 43-year-old taxi driver, says they were taken to a prison inside Israel - he doesn't know which one - where he was interrogated for 10 days. Salah says he remained blindfolded, his hands bound behind his back, and the beatings continued. His left leg was seriously injured. He says it took several weeks before he was treated.

SALAH: (Through interpreter) My leg swelled. It was blue from the toes to the knee and oozing with pus. They took me to the hospital, cleaned it and told me it was OK.

NORTHAM: Salah says he wasn't given any antibiotics or other drugs. About a week later, he was back in the hospital. Gangrene had set in. The leg had to be amputated. Salah was sent back to prison after the operation. By his count, he spent 52 days incarcerated. He was never charged, and no time did he see his family, a lawyer or a representative from the Red Cross.

JESSICA MONTELL: People are being held for months. It's, you know, kind of an enforced disappearance. We never had this phenomenon before.

NORTHAM: Jessica Montell is the executive director of HaMoked, an Israeli human rights organization in Jerusalem which provides legal aid for Palestinians. She says under Israel's amended unlawful combatants law, detainees can be held for 90 days without access to a lawyer. Still, she says before October 7, the Israeli military would confirm whether someone is being detained and where they're being held. Not now.

MONTELL: As far as the military and the Israeli government is concerned - and they have said to the high court - they have no obligation to provide this information to families.

NORTHAM: Some released detainees detail harsh interrogation tactics. Fifty-seven-year-old Jamal Dokhan was arrested in Jabalia, central Gaza, by Israeli soldiers in mid-May. The father of six says he was taken to a military prison. They weren't allowed to lie down, only sit. But the worst, Dokhan says, was the dogs.

JAMAL DOKHAN: (Through interpreter) They would let the dogs into the cell. They did not bite, but it was terrifying. You felt if these dogs attacked, they could tear you to pieces.

NORTHAM: Dokhan says, before each interrogation session, he was sent to something called the disco room, where there were bright lights and blaring music 24/7 as a way to overload his senses and soften him up for interrogation.

DOKHAN: (Through interpreter) I would stay there two or three days. The music didn't stop not even for a second. It hurt me mentally.

NORTHAM: Most Palestinians rounded up in Gaza are first brought into a military base in southern Israel called Sde Teiman. Noa Sattath, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, says a new prison was built at the camp after October 7.

NOA SATTATH: It's not even a prison, in the sense that there are no cells, there are no beds. It's just cages. There are no prison officers who have been trained to hold detainees. It's soldiers who have not been trained to do that. And in Sde Teiman, we have been hearing about the most serious violations of human rights.

NORTHAM: There's also a makeshift medical facility at Sde Teiman. Sattath says her group has been collecting testimonies from former Gazan prisoners about the conditions there. She says some were held in diapers. Others were handcuffed in extreme stress positions, cutting off their circulation. Some needed to have limbs amputated as a result, she says.

SATTATH: Part of Israel's international obligations is to treat detainees humanely, according to international law. And Israel is violating that right now.

NORTHAM: More than 3,000 Gazan Palestinians have ended up in Israeli prisons since October 7, says Naji Abbas, the director of detainee issues at Physicians for Human Rights Israel. His organization put out two reports about mistreatment. Much of the information came from doctors themselves.

NAJI ABBAS: In December we started to get testimonies actually from Israelis, doctors who worked and visited this field hospital, about people being cuffed for weeks and for months. We started to hear about torture, methods of torture, daily beating.

NORTHAM: There were also complaints about a severe lack of food for the prisoners.

ABBAS: One of the doctors, in the end of March, he sent letters to the Israeli army, to the minister of health. And he said, you are making us all criminals.

NORTHAM: The mistreatment of Gazan prisoners is reminiscent of detainee abuse by U.S. soldiers at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison in early to mid-2000s and at the U.S. military camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which was set up after the 9/11 attacks. Montell, with the human rights group HaMoked, says the October 7 attack has left Israelis deeply shaken.

MONTELL: Of course, that has created, you know, really a desire for vengeance. And I think we see that both in the conduct of the fighting in Gaza as well as the treatment of prisoners.

NORTHAM: Israel has been on heightened national security alert since October 7. The military says many of the prisoners are part of Hamas and responsible for the attack. It denies the allegations of systematic detainee abuse. In a statement, it said each prisoner receives blankets, a mattress, sufficient food and medical treatment, if needed. Still, in mid-May, the military's top lawyer, Major General Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, said it was investigating about 70 cases of suspected violations of the laws of war, including at Sde Teiman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YIFAT TOMER-YERUSHALMI: (Through Interpreter) The claims about the conditions at the Sde Teiman detention facility and the deaths of detainees, we take these very seriously and are working to clarify them.

NORTHAM: Israel's military or prison service will not publicly say how many Palestinians have died while incarcerated since October 7. Israeli news reports say it's more than 40. Meanwhile, those not charged are being sent home, including Sofian Abu Salah, who we highlighted at the top of this report. He says once he got off the truck, he removed his handcuffs and blindfold for the first time in nearly two months. It took him several minutes for his eyes to adjust. Salah says there were people waiting for him in Gaza.

SALAH: (Through interpreter) There was a foreign lady from the U.N. or Red Cross. I felt like I was going from hell to paradise when they told me I was going home.

NORTHAM: Israel's Supreme Court is weighing a petition by human rights groups to close Sde Teiman. Already, hundreds of detainees have been moved from there to other prisons. Israel this week began releasing dozens of Gazan detainees who pose a low risk because the prisons are running out of room.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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