Monday, July 28, 2014

"Administrative Detention": Hamas prisoners and the Israeli version of Guantanamo Bay

The Hebrew word Megiddo, name of a Biblical town, somehow re-emerged in English as Armageddon. Today it is the site of a small archaeological site and nearby, of the prison Keleh Megiddo: "Armageddon Prison".

In the Nineties' I served as a Combat Medic in the Israeli Army reserves and in about 1996 I was called up for several weeks to serve as a medic in Megiddo Prison.  I was sick for the first couple of days of the reserve duty and so arrived a few days after the others. I was given my military kit which included a large amount of first aid gear and a rifle and then directed to the prison. At the prison I was told I could find my unit (actually an artillery unit) through a small door in the wall.  I opened the door and found myself walking a narrow path between two large enclosures, both with high fences topped by barbed wire containing a couple of hundred of Hamas members.  I was shocked and I remember them laughing at my horror. I felt like a rabbit walking a narrow path between two wolf enclosures.  Though I was armed and they were in prison.

Our Artillery unit was there to provide perimeter security, basically everyone slept in tents for three weeks and spent hours sitting in watch towers and doing the odd patrol. There were three combat medics and we were required to take the blood pressure and temperature of Hamas prisoners as they left or arrived, to deliver medication to prisoners to accompany the security guards when they went for shooting practice, to provide first aid to our unit and to do a couple of patrols at night. Because we were dealing with Hamas prisoners face to face, we had deluxe conditions: We slept in a caravan (not a tent), we ate with the prison staff (our unit ate in a makeshift tent) who had quite nice food and we weren't required to sit in the horrible watch towers.  We also had huge amounts of free time which we spent playing backgammon. One of my fellow medics was a member of the board of a major Israeli corporation and kept bringing us goodies in his huge American car.   

Most of the prisoners we handled were in "administrative detention", that means they were held without trial because they were deemed a threat but no evidence could be shown thatthey had actually done anything illegal.  A similar system is used at Guantanamo bay to hold themen there: they aren't POWs, they've broken no laws and yet they are regarded as a serious enough threat to warrant being held.

To be honest it was quite pleasant as reserve duty goes, but I did notice a couple of things:
1. The men in Administrative Detention had a lot of ulcer problems.
2. People arriving at, or leaving the prison all had high blood pressure.

The Hamas men lived in tents in the open air. There were two enclosures and they used to throw bits of paper with messages between them which the guards jokingly called "faxes". They had table-tennis tables and I remember books. I don't recall any large/decent exercise spaces, but the enclosures struck me as better then indoor prisons: Israeli weather is usually good, though it might be cold in winter and I think each enclosure was about the size of a basketball court, maybe a bit smaller. There were TVs and I recall that watching the evening news was a big social event for the inmates.  There were convicted killers held in the prison too but they were held in its interior and I had no contact with them.

About ten years ago I did an MA in History in London and studied Jewish immigrants who were held without trial in British camps in Cyprus.  One of the things they noted was that not knowing when you will be released is very stressful.  Long term detainees need to know when they will be released.  Reading that I recalled all the guys with ulcer problems (I gave them their medication in person), I remember they were quite friendly, maybe a little bit desperate.  It was an odd situation where I would have a couple of young guys with guns behind me as I went to the entrance of the enclosures and dealt with the people getting the medicine.

Until a couple of weeks ago, the Hamas "Adminstrative Detainees" were on hunger strike demanding their release.  There were calls to force feed them (Solzhenitsyn said it was like being raped - See The First Circle).  A deal was eventually reached giving them improved conditions in return for an end to the hunger strike.  (see also "Navy nurse refuses to force feed Guantanamo prisoners").

After the recent murder of Israeli teens a lot of Hamas members who were released under the deal to free Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas were re-arrested. Since they were already pardoned for their offences I assume they were taken into adminsitrative detention.  The current conflict is related to their re-arrest - I have seen a report that Hamas are demanding their release as a condition forr a cease fire.  Meanwhile any Hamas fighters the IDF captures are put into Administrative Detention.

Administrative Detention is a fancy word invented by the British for holding people indefinitely without trial.  They used it in the British Mandate of Palestine and, presumably in other parts of the British Empire.  Both Arabs and Jews were arrested using this legal device and, in many cases held in other parts of the Empire: A couple of Palestinian-Arab leaders were held in South Africa and several hundred Jews were held  in Eritrea. It was mainly used during the Second World War and the few years of British rule after the war.

Administrative Detention is not legal for Israeli citizens, just as it was probably illegal to hold British Citizens during the Mandate. If you recall the story of St Paul, he had to be tried in Rome because he was a Roman citizen.  Israeli citizens must be brought before a judge within three days, and Habeas Corpus applies to them, however, in the occupied territories, under military rule, the Israelis use Administrative Detention.


  1. I've just read this. Interesting article, especially given your personal experience.

  2. I have read accounts of Palestinian children as young as 12 being dragged screaming from their beds in the middle of the night , blindfolded, shackled and thrown into administrative detention, without access to a lawyer or parents.Often they incarcerated only for being suspected of throwing stones at those occupying their country.

    1. For the record I must tell you that I saw no obviously under age prisoners and I also saw Red Cross people visiting. In my opinion all the prisoners I saw had been "sentenced" by a judge. I have also heard that children are sometimes arrested but they definitely were not in this prison.

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