BEER SHEBA, ISRAEL — Beer Sheba, Israel. -- One of my more recent failures has been troubling me lately. It all began in March 1990, at a meeting between a few of us Israelis who are working for the preservation of human rights in the Gaza Strip, and the secretariat of the Gaza Palestinian Bar Association.
We wanted to hear from these lawyers where we could possibly help them to protect the human rights of their clients, Palestinians arrested and charged by the Israeli military authorities. The most painful topic they brought up was the situation of more than 3,000 Palestinians incarcerated in the largest concentration camp in Israel called Ketziot. There, inmates living 20 to a tent, sleeping on the ground in a bleak desert where the heat in the summer reaches 100 degrees Fahrenheit daily, where water is scarce, food hardly tolerable and skin diseases and diarrhea common. In addition to all this, military authorities have not allowed the inmates to be visited by members of their families.
Since visits by family members are a basic human right to which every jailed person is entitled by the Geneva Convention and even by Israeli law, the Gaza Bar Association urged us to do everything possible to allow such visits to occur. Its members even said that in our approaches to Israeli authorities, we could act as their representatives.
One young lawyer reiterated their general feeling: ''The long-term inmates in Ketziot are beginning to sense that, since they have been jailed for years in a concentration camp in the harsh Sinai desert, they are being forgotten by the world!''
I don't know why that phrase struck me. Perhaps because of my admiration of Dostoyevski who, in ''The Brothers Karamazov,'' called Hell the state of being forgotten by God. Perhaps because of memoirs of other inmates of concentration camps -- for example, Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- who repeatedly said that being forgotten by the outside world hurt them most.
I asked for a meeting with Gen. Matan Vilnai, the commander in charge of Israel's Southern Command, stressing that the Palestinian Bar Association in Gaza had asked us to represent its members in this matter. After dozens of phone calls, his office finally notified me that the general refused to meet with us.
I then initiated a lengthy correspondence with him, involving in the matter Knesset member Yosi Sarid. Three times, General Vilnai's office promised that visits to the ''forgotten ones'' in Ketziot would begin shortly, and the promise was never kept. Fifteen months after I started working for visits to the ''forgotten ones,'' I finally gave up.
I sent a stiff letter to General Vilnai, explaining in detail that he had not kept his promises, that his attitude was irresponsible and unworthy of a democratic society. Copies of the letter were sent to all Israeli newspapers and to 10 Knesset members. One newspaper mentioned the problem briefly on an inside page and five Knesset members notified me that they would pressure Defense Minister Moshe Arens on this matter. To date, permission for visits by family members to inmates at Ketziot are not even being planned by the Israeli authorities.
Lately, I have asked myself why has this failure continued to perturb me? After all, I have never met inmates such as Sani Abu Smara, or Camal Hadar Barzi, or Ali Sabar Abu Ranina, who have been stewing in Ketziot for the past three years without ever seeing a family member and without getting a letter or a package from them. (Mr. Solzhenitsyn relates that even in Stalin's gulag, letters and packages reached some of the inmates.) Furthermore, as every worker for human rights rapidly learns, failures are everyday occurrences.
Here the idea of being forgotten is what troubles me most.
A jailed person who senses that he is slowly being forgotten by the outside world will often feel his entire past life is beginning to lose its meaning. Such a fear -- that the meaning of one's life will disappear -- was probably the reason the famous Christian philosopher Boethius, jailed by Theodoric in the 6th century, sought consolation in philosophy. Boethius could write a philosophical masterpiece on his situation, because he was in a cell with some facilities and solitude.
The Palestinians in camp Ketziot have no such facilities or solitude. They are grouped in hundreds; day after day after day, they sit on the desert sand in confined, well-guarded areas behind three high, barbed-wire fences. Slowly their individuality evaporates. Since no family visits are allowed, each one senses that he is lost in a crowd.
In short, Israeli authorities have begun to rob the inmates in Ketziot of the meaning of their past life.
Haim Gordon is in the education department at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.