'First came the beatings...'

Tortured by the PA for foiling terror, Palestinian finds remedy in Israeli court

Former Shin Bet agent Walid, one of 52 men who won an unprecedented lawsuit against Ramallah over horrific abuse in West Bank jails, recounts a nightmarish story of captivity

Dov Lieber is a former Times of Israel Arab affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: A Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail, October 2011 (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90/File)
Illustrative: A Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail, October 2011 (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90/File)

Walid hates the nights. They are lonely and terrifying in their silence. He is a short and stocky 50-something with a bald head, who, even while telling the tale of his torture, manages to crack a few jokes with a grin. He would surely be the jokester in a group of friends, but he says he doesn’t have any.

Walid sleeps with the television on to prevent painful memories from surfacing. He always leaves his windows open, even in the winter, because he can’t stomach closed spaces. Often he wakes up in the middle of the night from bad dreams, sometimes with wet sheets. He desperately wants to have children. He can’t, though. Not since interrogators from the Palestinian Authority destroyed his sexual organs.

During the 90s, Walid, whose name and certain biographic details have been omitted or changed in this article for his safety, worked for the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. He sought out the Shin Bet himself. He said he was “proud” to help prevent Palestinian suicide terror attacks against Israeli civilians, and at the same time, he got some money for university studies. During the interview, he spoke in Hebrew, saying he no longer speaks Arabic or even listens to it as the language brings him pain.

Along with 51 other so-called “collaborators” who were arrested and tortured by Yasser Arafat’s PA in the 1990s and early 2000s, Walid turned to the Israeli courts for justice. After 14 years of proceedings, in an unprecedented decision, the Jerusalem District Court on July 17 found the PA guilty of torture and ordered it to compensate the plaintiffs.

Walid, a Palestinian who was tortured in a Palestinian Authority prison because he worked with the Shin Bet. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)

The torture victims must wait for a second court decision to determine how much money the PA will have to pay them, but it’s expected each plaintiff will receive several million shekels, while the total cost of damages will reach hundreds of millions of shekels. The money will likely come out of taxes Israel collects on the PA’s behalf and transfers to Ramallah on a monthly basis.

There are two families who are asking for damages over the deaths of loved ones. In one case, a Shin Bet agent was given a death sentence by the PA and shot. In the other case, the sister of a Shin Bet agent was brought in by his interrogators as a form of pressure, and she was killed while in jail.

Among the 52 plaintiffs, many were arrested by the PA’s forces from within Israeli territory — mostly East Jerusalem — and/or have Israeli citizenship. These were two reasons the court ruled it had the jurisdiction to preside over the case, even though the torture took place in PA-ruled territory.

Some, like Walid, have no Israeli ID and were arrested in the West Bank. Nevertheless, the court argued, it has jurisdiction over these cases because the PA had no right to arrest these men who were tasked by the State of Israel to prevent terror attacks — a goal that the PA, according to signed agreements with Israel, is supposed to support.

The 1,800-page court decision written by Justice Moshe Drori elaborates on the details of the torture. The gruesome stories, it found, were confirmed by eyewitnesses, the scars on their bodies, and testimony from psychologists.

The victims are being represented by the law office of Barak Kedem, Aryeh Arbus, Netanel Rom and David Zur. Kedem, in an interview with The Times of Israel, described some of the worst cases of torture he can remember from the trial.

For days on end, prisoners were hung upside down. After they lost consciousness, they would be put right side up until they regained consciousness. Then the process would be repeated, he said.

Another method of torture was transferring prisoners back and forth between hot and cold baths. Many had their teeth pulled out with pliers, while some had fingernails extracted. Many spent weeks at a time in a tiny metal closet in which they couldn’t move their bodies.

One man was placed inside a metal barrel and left for five hours in the hot August sun. When they took him out, his interrogators placed salt all over his blistering skin.

Walid himself said that the worst torture method was forcing prisoners to sit on the head of a broken bottle of glass, which tore up their insides.

Lawyer Barak Kedem. (Courtesy)

Though the prisoners were placed in different jails throughout the West Bank, many described the same methods of torture.

Kedem said this showed that these methods “were ordered from up top and not at the discretion of individual interrogators.” In his decision, Justice Drori agreed with this assessment.

At no point while in PA custody were the prisoners brought before a judge.

A few alleged ex-Shin Bet agent prisoners were killed while in jail. (They were represented in the lawsuit by their parents.)

Walid said he witnessed more than one of the executions.

‘Better to get a bullet in the head’

In his conversation with TOI, Walid described his interrogation process in three stages.

First came the beatings. A bag that smelled like it had been “put for 10 years in the trash” was placed over his head, so he didn’t know where the blows would come from. This went on for a month.

In the second stage, a pool was filled with saltwater and broken glass at the bottom. They put his entire body into the pool and left him there overnight. In the morning, they would put him in the sun. “Because of the heat of the sun and the salt, it’s like your whole body becomes glass,” he said.

The third stage was the worst, and that’s when he broke. They starved him. Then they burned him. His arms, all these years later, are still scarred flesh.

Members of the Palestinian Authority security forces take part in a graduation ceremony for a Palestinian youth training camp in the West Bank city of Jericho, January 25, 2017. (Flash90)

And then Walid was threatened with the broken bottle form of torture, which is when he gave up and admitted to working with the Shin Bet. “Better to get a bullet in the head than to die on the bottle,” he said.

Walid said he admitted to whatever his torturers asked him to, including petty crimes.

He said he signed at the bottom of blank pages, and his interrogators later filled in the text detailing his purported crimes.

After his admission, he was sent to a regular jail. There he was marked as a “collaborator” by being entirely shaved — which made him a target for maltreatment. “You have to serve everyone,” he said.

It went on like this for years. Outside, “no one knew whether I was alive or dead,” he said.

Walid’s family eventually learned of his imprisonment and was able to bribe his jailers with hundreds of thousands of shekels in order to bust him out. That was the outcome of his first arrest.

The PA managed to track him down and re-arrest him a number times.

On one occasion, he escaped to Israel. Sometime later, he was re-arrested again and this time, he was not freed from captivity until Israeli tanks rolled into the West Bank in 2002 as part of Operation Defensive Shield, a major Israeli military offensive to tackle the suicide-bomber infrastructure of Palestinian terror groups.

Most of the Shin Bet agents who would subsequently file the lawsuit were freed by Israeli troops during that operation.

According to Kedem, 20 Palestinians dropped out of the lawsuit at one point in fear of retaliation from the PA. Of these 20, nine rejoined the suit once it became clear they might win.

‘God makes good people so they may suffer’

After Walid escaped to Israel the first time, he found himself a wife.

But when he returned to Israel in 2002, another round of torture had left him unable to have sexual relations. He said his wife divorced him because they couldn’t have children together. “It destroyed me,” he said.

Physically speaking, his body was so damaged he could not find any work. Anyway, Walid said, he had no will to work without a family and loved ones to care for.

Eventually, Walid found a young man willing to hire him, even though he cannot work more than a few hours a day.

Walid said his current 70-year-old female landlord in Tel Aviv took mercy on him and adopted him as a son. Every day, she brings him breakfast and dinner.

“There are good people in this world,” he said, and then paused before continuing, “and then there are bad people.”

“Good people don’t have any luck in this life. God created them just so they can suffer,” added Walid, who said he still believes in God but doesn’t follow religious rituals anymore.

Once freed in 2002, Walid said, he became fixated on revenge against anything connected to the PA. But he had no means to exact any such vengeance.

The former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat attending Friday Muslim prayers in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on June 7, 2002. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)

Today, he said, he has let go of his desire for revenge. He is proud that he is slow to anger.

Despite his work for the Shin Bet, he said, he was dumped by the organization and was unable to get in touch with his handler when he first came to Israel in 2002. Completely cut off by the agency, he slept in the streets when he was first freed.

Today, he has a permit to reside in Israel that he must renew every six months and that doesn’t give him working rights. It also bars him, incidentally, for reasons he does not understand, from visiting the southern resort town of Eilat. He uses a fake Palestinian ID to complement his Israeli documents. He has no health insurance.

But Walid said he still has hope for the future. He hasn’t fallen into drugs or crime like others who suffered similarly. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said.

With the money from the lawsuit, indeed, he hopes to have reconstructive surgery so that, one day, he may yet be able to father children.

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