U.S. inmates suffer in Israel

SUN JOURNAL

Intervention: Former prisoners and rights groups say American citizenship means little for those arrested without charge and detained by Israeli authorities.

April 13, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Hana Abu Khdeir was born in East Jerusalem. She became a U.S. citizen in 1995 while living on Fleet Street in Baltimore. Then she returned to East Jerusalem.

By her account, her American citizenship may have spared her some of the harshest treatment dealt out to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, but not all of it.

She is one of five Americans of Palestinian origin detained by Israel since the outbreak of violence in September. Three have complained of severe abuse, raising the question of whether the United States does enough to protect citizens arrested overseas - especially those arrested by governments friendly to Washington.

The authorities' interest in Abu Khdeir's family dates at least to 1981, the year her brother, Nasser, lost an eye when a bomb he was making blew up in his face. He spent five years in jail. He was then rearrested in February and held without charge.

Hana Abu Khdeir, 29, is married to Walid Abu Khdeir; they have no children. Walid had been imprisoned for seven years for throwing Molotov cocktails and membership in the outlawed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian; he now helps manage inventories for one of Israel's largest bakeries. And one of Hana Abu Khdier's brothers-in-law is a fugitive facing a 10-year-to-15-year prison term.

Hana Abu Khdeir says that on March 12, as she was preparing for bed, Israeli security men surrounded her home in East Jerusalem's Shuafat neighborhood and arrested her. Her Israeli lawyer believes she was taken into custody to pressure her brother, Nasser, who had been re-arrested three weeks before.

Taken to the jail that Israelis and Palestinians know as the Russian Compound, she was put in a cell measuring about 7 feet by 5 feet, with a smelly hole for a toilet, a mattress on the floor next to it and two dirty blankets. An overhead fan blew cold air into the cell. Food arrived on a dirty tray, placed in front of the toilet, she says.

The next morning, she was blindfolded, handcuffed and chained at the ankles and led to an office, where one hand was cuffed to a metal chair. She says that she was interrogated continuously for 2 1/2 days. without sleep.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has declined to comment on her case, or those of other Palestinian-Americans detained by Israeli authorities. Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin says that any complaints of mistreatment will be investigated and the perpetrators punished. "There is no such thing as a policy of torture," he says.

Khdeir describes events at the Russian Compound in detail. Interrogators asked what help she had given her brother. "Yes, I helped him," she recalls saying. "I took care of his four children until you arrested me."

She says the Israelis accused her of belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They failed to provide proof, she says, and she denied it.

`Snake' without children

Khdeir says an interrogator told her at one point: "You're a snake. You're married to a snake, and that's why God didn't give you children, because he doesn't want more snakes in the world."

"Why don't you have children?" she says she was asked. "Think about being too old to have children. You will be here so many years."

Interrogators threatened to re-arrest her husband, Walid, whose memory of beatings and other abuse was still fresh, she says. And she says they claimed her brother and sister-in-law had both betrayed her.

She was freed after 10 days without being charged with a crime but was required to surrender her U.S. passport. She has been ordered to report regularly to Israeli authorities, she says, and her travel is restricted.

Thousands of Americans live or have close family ties in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel law makes no distinction between Palestinians holding U.S. citizenship and permanent residents of the occupied territories. If arrested, they are subject to stringent security laws that allow detention for up to six months without charge, inability to communicate with consular officers, lawyers or family members for long periods, and trial of youths older than 14 as adults.

Brooklyn-reared Wael Ali Herbawi, 20, won't talk about his 100 days in prison. He says he's too frightened of running afoul of Israeli authorities and being incarcerated again. His lawyer says he was "brutally beaten," suffering a broken collarbone. Arrested on the third day of the latest Palestinian uprising and taken to the Russian Compound, he was convicted of participating in an illegal demonstration and resisting arrest.

Steve Adams, 39, a naturalized American who was born Mohamed Balatta in the Gaza Strip, was held for 37 days in "very cold" cells at Ashkelon prison after being arrested at the airport en route to his home in Dubai, where he works as a municipal engineer.

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