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On Gaza Beach

Ari Shavit, translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Langfur

The setting is idyllic: a few hundred yards from the quiet Mediterranean shore. At six in the morning, when the fishing boats go out, you feel for a moment that you are back in the Greek Islands of the 1950s. A fresh breeze blows eastward through the guard tower and past the Palestinian prisoners below me.

The guards in the towers turn to look out now and then at the water. And the early risers among the prisoners enter the tin shanty where the toilets are and stand on tiptoe as close as they can to the only window from which it is possible to see the Mediterranean.

One day, if there is a state called Palestine, its government will no doubt lease this piece of ground to some international entrepreneur who would set up a Club Med Gaza Beach. One day, when there is peace, Israelis could come here for a short vacation on foreign soil ten miles from the border. They would dance the samba and buy Palestinian needlework in the duty-free shop.

Meanwhile we have the usual morning routine: long lines of prisoners in blue uniforms are led from compound to compound beneath the curling wire fences, beneath the barrels of the M-16s.

Those who lead them are my buddies. Jewish soldiers. In the bluish light of an early April morning they hold their rifles tightly. They tell the prisoners to stop, to advance, to stop. While the fresh breeze blows in from the sea, they tell the prisoners to hold their hands out in front of them. A young soldier goes from one to another, clamping on handcuffs.

This is the internment camp “Gaza Beach.” It is one of seven camps built in a rush in the early stages of the intifada three and a half years ago. But the temporary camps gradually became part of routine life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

I am here doing my annual reserve service, like any other Israeli man. This time, instead of taking part in military exercises, I am a guard. The camp is on the southwestern outskirts of the city of Gaza. I’m lucky: this place is considered one of the best of all internment camps of its kind. The notorious internment camps at Ketsiot and Far’ah are much worse than this one, and only Megiddo prison in the north of Israel—so they say—competes with ours for humaneness.

Until the uprising broke out in December 1987, the prison contained a small number of prisoners, some of them said to be dangerous criminals. Since 1988 it has held at any given time a thousand men or more. Most are awaiting trial; most were arrested because they were throwing stones or were said to be members of illegal organizations. Many are in their teens. Among them, here and there, are some boys who are small and appear to be very young.

The Gaza Beach Internment Facility has several sections: the interrogation section of Shin Bet (the general security services); a small interrogation section belonging to the police; and four compounds. In each compound there are about twelve old, brown army tents. In each tent there are twenty to thirty prisoners—which is considered a reasonable number. When the intifada was at its height, fifty or sixty men were crowded into a tent.

Each of the compounds in the Gaza Beach Facility is surrounded by a regular wire fence topped with curling barbed wire. Outside this fence is a narrow path for the jailers. Then comes an additional, outer fence—a sort of improvised wall made up of metal barrels that have been filled with cement. As the jailers pace back and forth between these fences, the thought arises that it isn’t clear who are the confined and who the confiners. The entire camp strikes me as a grand metaphor for everybody’s imprisonment. But then, this metaphor is a faulty, misleading one.

The prison has twelve guard towers. Some Israeli soldiers are struck—and deeply shaken—by the similarity between these and certain other towers, about which they have learned at school. But the shock is merely emotional. The guard towers constructed in Europe in the Thirties, for example, were all made of heavy European wood, whereas the towers in the Gaza Beach Facility are of flimsy Israeli metal, produced by a plant in Tiberias.

The towers are equipped with search lights, but there is no need for them, because the prison is suffused all night with a very strong yellowish light from hundreds of bulbs and beacons, Sometimes the electrical system is not turned off and glows on into the light of day.

The camp has a mess hall, a canteen, showers, toilets. Arab prisoners are assigned to scrub the Israeli soldiers’ toilets three or four times a day. The prison has a set of tents for reservists, an office, an operations room. The two kitchens, one for the jailers, one for the jailed, are separated only by a net. Sometimes, when the guards run out of coffee, the cook in the jailers’ kitchen may ask the cook in the kitchen of the jailed to pass him a few bags of coffee through the net.

The same clinic is used by everyone. The doctor may be consulted about a reservist’s eye infection, and then he may turn to the care of a prisoner whose legs have been injured by an overzealous interrogator. Thus everything is in order. The Gaza Beach Internment Facility runs by the rules.

As for the commander and his adjutant, one can say—without sarcasm—that given the circumstances in which they are imprisoned they try to do their best. On their orders, the prisoners receive plenty of food and cigarettes. The prisoners for the most part are allowed to run their own kitchen and they are given the supplies to do so. The prisoners’ leaders and the prison command talk together when necessary so that life proceeds calmly. It is more than two years since an officer shot to death a prisoner who tried to attack him—and kept shooting while the man rolled over on the floor in his blood. Nowadays family visits are allowed on Fridays. Lawyers meet with their clients in a special hut constructed for that purpose, and the Red Cross visits regularly.

And yet the unjust analogy with those other camps of fifty years ago won’t go away. It is not suggested by anti-Israel propaganda. It is in the language the soldiers use as a matter of course: when A. gets up to do guard duty in the interrogation section, he says, “I’m off, late for the Inquisition.”

When R. sees a line of prisoners approaching under the barrels of his friends’ M-16s, he says with quiet intensity: “Look. The Aktion has begun.”

And N., who has strong right-wing views, grumbles to anyone who will listen that the place resembles a concentration camp.

M., with a thin smile, explains that he has accumulated so many days in reserve duty during the intifada that soon they will promote him to a senior Gestapo official.

And I, too, who have always abhorred this analogy, who have always argued bitterly with anyone who so much as hints at it, I can no longer stop myself. The associations are too strong. They break through when I see a man from Pen Number 1 call through the fences to a man from Pen Number 2 to show him a picture of his daughter; or when the young man who has just been arrested awaits my orders with a mixture of surrender and panic and quiet pride. And when I merely look around at people in pens, in cages.

Like a believer whose faith is cracking, I go over and over again in my heart the long list of arguments, the list of the differences. There are no crematoria here, I remind myself, and there was no conflict between peoples there. Germany, with its racist doctrine, was organized evil, its people were not in danger, and so on.

But then I realized that the problem is not in the similarity—for no one can seriously think that there is a real similarity—but that there isn’t enough lack of similarity. The problem is that the lack of similarity isn’t strong enough to silence once and for all the evil echoes, the accusing images.

Maybe the Shin Bet is to blame for this—for the arrests it makes and for what it does to those arrested. For almost every night, after it has managed, in its interrogations, to “break” a certain number of young men, the Shin Bet delivers to the paratroopers in the city or to the border guard professionals a list with the names of the friends of the young men. And so I would see their cars go out almost every night to the city, which is under curfew, to arrest the people who are said to endanger the security of the state.

And I would see the soldiers come back with children of fifteen or sixteen. The children grit their teeth. Their eyes bulge from their sockets. In not a few cases they have already been beaten. Even S., who owns a plant in the occupied territories, can’t believe his eyes. Have we come to this? he asks. That the Shin Bet goes after kids like these? And soldiers crowd together in the “reception room” to look at them when they undress. To look at them in their underwear, to look at them as they tremble with fear. And sometimes they kick them—one kick more, before they put on their new prison clothes. Sometimes they just curse.

Or maybe the doctor is to blame. You wake him in the middle of the night to treat one of those just brought in—a young man, barefoot, wounded, who looks as if he’s having an epileptic fit, who tells you that they beat him just now on the back and stomach and over the heart. There are ugly red marks all over his body. The doctor turns to the young man and shouts at him. In a loud, raging voice he says: May you die! And then he turns to me with a laugh: May they all die!

Or maybe the screams are to blame. At the end of the watch, on your way from the tent to the shower, you sometimes hear horrible screams. You walk in your shorts and clogs, a towel slung over your shoulder, toilet kit in hand, and from the other side of the galvanized tin fence of the interrogation section come hair-raising human screams. Literally hair-raising.

From the various human rights organizations you know that they have no “closets” for torture here in the Gaza facility. (Other detention centers have them in abundance.) So you ask yourself what is happening here five yards from you. Are they using the “banana tie”? Or just plain beating?*

  1. *

    In March 1991 an Israeli organization called B’tselem, which is dedicated to upholding human rights in the territories, issued a report. It was based on the testimonies of people who were interrogated. It describes methods of torture which carry various names, “closet” and “banana” being the most prominent.

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