On February 27, the last day of the Gulf War, soldiers arrived at the Ramallah (West Bank) clinic of 48-year old urological surgeon Dr Mamdouh Al-Aker and took him off; he was not even given time to leave some urgent instructions regarding the continued treatment of his patients. For the following three weeks, he was not allowed to see his lawyer or family members, and nothing was known of his fate.
During recent years, Dr Al-Aker became good friends with many in the Israeli peace movement (where he was admired for his great knowledge, especially of Jewish history).
His concerned Israeli and Palestinian friends started a campaign for his release, coordinated by the Twenty-First Year, in whose meetings he had participated; individuals and organisations in different countries were mobilised to send telegrams to the Israeli government. When he was finally permitted to see his lawyer — after an appeal to the Supreme Court — an all too well-known story came out.
According to the findings of human rights organisations B'tselem and the Association of Israeli and Palestinian Physicians, Al-Aker was denied sleep for 60 hours, held several days with his hands tied and his head covered by a sack. For several more days, he was in a narrow cell, nicknamed the coffin by the interrogators, where he could neither stand, sit nor lie, but only stay in a contorted intermediate position.
After this revelation, the campaign to release Dr Al-Aker was redoubled, with a team of Israeli and Palestinian lawyers pressing for the exact reason for the detention. The military authorities claimed that Dr Al-Aker had drafted a leaflet for the intifada leadership. After a stormy session at the Ramallah military court, it turned out that this was the truth — but not the whole truth: Dr Al-Aker did write a leaflet, which was printed clandestinely and distributed widely despite the curfew — but the leaflets consisted solely of medical advice to the population, giving practical information on how to keep basic hygiene during the prolonged curfew and take care themselves of light medical problems.
Legally, this was still a serious criminal offence, since the intifada leadership is an illegal organisation; but politically the case became very embarrassing for the government, particularly after it came to the attention of the visiting US secretary of state Baker, who asked questions. On April 9, Dr Al-Aker was freed.
For several years already most Palestinians who fell into the hands
of the Shabak (security service) report treatments very similar to the one meted out to Dr Mamdouh Al-Aker: prolonged periods in the coffin, and being left with an (often stinking) sack over the head, with the hands tied. Other repeated features were denial of food and sleep, being left wet and cold for hours, humiliations, sexual threats (female prisoners are threatened with
being raped, male ones with the rape of their mothers, sisters or wives). There have also been many reports of beatings — often in ways which don't leave traces.
Reports of such treatment had been filtering out, with growing frequency, before and especially during the intifada. However, in Israel they were mostly published in the low-circulation publications of peace groups. Therefore, the B'tselem report, released on March 21, constituted a breakthrough.
B'tselem — initiated by Knesset member Dedi Zucker — has built up a good reputation for the thorough process of investigation and verification involved in preparing its reports; and it has good access to the Israeli and foreign media. Its report on the Shabak methods of interrogation is based on the testimonies of 41 Palestinians, who were asked detailed questions, with the testimonies checked for internal inconsistencies and compared with each other; the final version was released only after the researchers were reasonably certain of its verity.
The report received wide coverage in the media, including the government-controlled television. The Ha'ir and Kol Ha'ir newspapers published extensive excerpts; and it provoked a stormy debate in the Knesset.
The head of the Shabak — an institution usually avoiding any kind of publicity — felt obliged to arrange for himself newspaper interviews (though keeping his name secret). He defended the Shabak — the country's defence against terrorism — but did not even try to refute the report.
[From The Other Israel, Newsletter of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.]