- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Shin Bet security agency has held Palestinian prisoners incommunicado for weeks at a time at a secret detention center in violation of international law, the Associated Press has learned.

Prisoners say they are blindfolded and kept in black, windowless cells. When they ask to know their location, they are told: “On the moon.”

Israel refuses to say where the center is located or who is being kept there, but hints that foreigners are among the prisoners.

The state’s attorney confirmed the existence of the center, known as Facility 1391, in a June 9 response to a Supreme Court petition filed by the HaMoked human rights group over missing detainees Bashar and Mohammed Jodallah.

But Israel would say only that the center was located on a secret army base, arguing that revealing the location would jeopardize national security.

Shin Bet used the center only briefly, when Israel’s incursion into the West Bank in April last year resulted in hundreds of Palestinian arrests and a “shortage of detention places,” the response said.

All Palestinian prisoners have since been moved, and the center “is used, if at all, for special circumstances, for detainees who are not residents of the territories,” it said. It was not clear which law enforcement agency continues to use the facility.

The army as well as the prime minister’s office, which is responsible for Shin Bet, refused to comment on the identities and nationalities of the prisoners kept there, or what is meant by “special circumstances.”

In most cases, Palestinians captured by the army or security agents are documented by the military, the police or the prisons service, enabling relatives, lawyers or rights workers to locate them. In the case of the secret center, however, the names of the detainees are not published on any list; during their incarceration, they effectively disappear.

“A secret detention center would be a violation of both the Fourth Geneva Convention and Israeli law,” said Yael Stein of the Israeli rights group B’tselem. “If no one knows where detainees are being held, then they can do what they want with them. They can torture and abuse them, or even kill them, and no one would know.”

Human rights groups say they know of at least seven Palestinians who were held at the center, but say it is impossible to confirm how many have been through there in all.

Former detainees said they were kept in bewildering isolation during their time at the center.

Bashar Jodallah, 50, a clothes salesman from Nablus, was arrested with his cousin Mohammed in November while crossing into Israel from Jordan. He was held for three months. He said 38 of those days were spent at the secret facility. Mohammed Jodallah, 23, was convicted of being a member of the militant Islamic group Hamas and remains in an Israeli jail.

Bashar Jodallah said he was placed in a small, solitary cell with a concrete bed. “The walls and the ceilings were painted black, with no windows. Only a very faint light came from above, so I could not tell if it was day or night,” he said.

Prisoners reported hearing that Mustafa Dirani and Sheik Abdul-Karim Obeid, two Lebanese militia leaders kidnapped by Israel, were held at the center.

In a sworn deposition, a copy of which was obtained by AP, Mr. Dirani detailed a facility that matched the description by Mr. Jodallah.

Israel has held Sheik Obeid and Mr. Dirani since 1989 and 1994, respectively, to use as bargaining chips for Israeli fighter pilot Ron Arad, who was shot down over south Lebanon in 1986. The pilot’s whereabouts are unknown.

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