THE THIEF OF MERCY
On the morning of the fine spring day, full of sunshine, that ended with my arrest in Gaza, I woke early from an uneven sleep, dressed, and pushed back to its proper place the desk meant to barricade the door of my hotel room. I unknotted the bedsheets I had tied together into an emergency escape ladder. Then I hid the knife I kept under my pillow, cleaned the dust from my shoes, and carefully unbolted the door. I searched the dark hall. There were no signs of imminent peril. Most people wouldn’t be so cautious, but I had my reasons, and not all of them were rooted in self-flattering paranoia.
I was staying at the al-Deira hotel, a fine hotel, one of Gaza’s main charms. On hot nights, which are most nights, it brimmed over with members of haute Palestine, that small clique of Gazans who earned more than negligible incomes. The men smoked apple-flavored tobacco from water pipes; the women, their heads covered, drank strong coffee and kept quiet.
By day the hotel was mostly empty. The hotels of Gaza had been full in the 1990s, during the long moment of false grace manufactured by the Oslo peace process. In 1993, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, and it seemed as if the hate would melt away like wax. At that moment, even a pessimist could envision an orderly close to the one-hundred-year-long war between Arab and Jew. But this was now the spring of 2001, and we were six months inside the Palestinian Uprising, the Intifada, the second Intifada, this one far more grim than the last. The land between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan was once again steeped in blood: Arabs were killing Jews, and Jews were killing Arabs, and hope seemed to be in permanent eclipse. Optimists, and I included myself in this category, felt as if we had spent the previous decade as clueless Catherines, gazing dumbly from our carriages at the Potemkin village of Oslo.
So the Deira did negligible business, except after a noteworthy killing or a particularly sanguinary riot, which is the specialty of the heaving, thirsty demi-state of Gaza. Then, the press corps would colonize the Deira; reporters would come to catalogue the dead, and slot the deaths into whatever cleanly explicable narrative was in current favor.
The hallway was dim, and empty. I went downstairs to a veranda overlooking the Mediterranean, which shimmered in the early sunlight. Arab fishing boats spread their nets across the smooth water. An Israeli gunboat cast a more distant shadow. My breakfast companion was waiting for me. He rose, and we kissed on both cheeks. His nom de guerre was Abu Iyad, and he was an unhappy terrorist who I hoped would share with me illuminating gossip about Hamas—of which he was a member—and Palestine Islamic Jihad, two fundamentalist Muslim groups whose institutional focus is the murder of Jews. I bought him a plate of hummus and cucumbers.
Abu Iyad was a thin man, his face hollow and creased. His nails were yellow, and his hair was gray and thinning. I had known him for a dozen years. We weren’t friends. We were more like companionable acquaintances; I could not be a true friend of anyone in Hamas. He had been a bomb-maker earlier in his career, but he no longer submitted himself to the group’s hard line. His personality wasn’t that of the typical Hamas ultra. The average Hamas man tends toward narcis- sism and humorlessness, and projects the sort of preternatural calm organic to people who believe that what follows death is exponentially better than what precedes it. But Abu Iyad seemed, on occasion, free of certitude, taking a jaundiced view of some of his more strident colleagues. He only tentatively endorsed the notion, common among Hamas theologians, that the Jews live under a cloud of divine displeasure. He was well-educated—Soviet-educated, but still—and he was cultured, for Hamas. He was familiar with Camus and he was partial to Russian literature, though not to Russians. We often talked about books. Once, we spent an afternoon on the beach, near Nusseirat, his refugee camp, eating watermelon and talking about, of all things, the nihilism in Fathers and Sons.
It was a year before the second Intifada, our day at the beach. The strip of gray sand was the property, in essence, of Hamas; each political faction ruled a stretch of Mediterranean seaside. The Hamas cabanas were rude concrete slabs, topped with green flags that read, “There Is No God but Allah,” and “Muhammad Is the Messenger of God.” A crust of garbage lay over the beach, which was frequently used as a bathroom by donkey and man alike, but a breeze pushed the smell of shit away from us. The few women on the beach sat separate from the men. They wore black hijabs of thick cloth, head-to-foot, and they boiled inside them like eggs. Even when the women went to the water, they went in hijab. They waded in, up to their knees, splashed each other, and giggled. I could tell from the eyes, and the turn of their ankles, that they were pretty. I steered my own eyes away, though; even an innocent glance could have a terminal effect on me.
One of the men with us was a terrorist named Jihad Abu Swerah, a typically inflamed Hamas killer. He believed that the company of any women at all was an affront, even women who were serving us food. “Women by their presence pollute everything,” he said. A real killjoy. He reminded me of something the Ayatollah Khomeini once said: “There is no fun in Islam.”
Abu Swerah would eventually die at the hands of Israeli soldiers, who would find him in 2003 and cut him down in his Nusseirat hideout.
We tried to ignore him. Abu Iyad and I talked amiably on the beach that day with a few of his friends. The sky was soft blue and the water was gentle. It seemed to me an opportune time to throw an apple of discord into the circle. Just to make the day interesting, I accused Hamas—and the Muslim Brotherhood movement that gave birth to it—of succumbing to the temptations of nihilism.
ME: The Islamists believe in nothing except their own power. This frees them from the constraints of morality, allowing everything.
ABU IYAD: No, we believe in one surpassing truth, in tawhid, the cosmic Oneness of God. This is an overpowering belief. A nihilist, on the other hand, believes in nothing.
ME: This is true, in theory, the Islamist does believe in something. But that something is the supremacy of death, not the supremacy of God’s love. No one, not even Turgenev’s Bazarov is perfect in his nihilism. But Hamas comes close.
ABU IYAD: Jews fear death, Muslims don’t. Death isn’t even death. It’s a beginning. Love and death are both manifestations of God.
ME: You can’t murder people and say you’ve done them a favor.
ABU IYAD: Hamas does not target the innocent.
After the chastising Abu Swerah and his janissaries left, Abu Iyad allowed that the actions of Hamas bombers could be seen as nihilistic, which is why he said he opposed some of the more bestial manifestations of his group’s ideology. The men of Hamas, he said, sadly, were not his sort of Muslim. It was a victory for me, Abu Iyad ceding the point.
Sometimes, I couldn’t quite believe in his apostasy. His distaste for Hamas orthodoxy seemed real enough, but I sensed that it grew from some apolitical vendetta. Hamas, like any well-established terrorist group, is a bureaucracy, and, as in any bureaucracy, there are winners and losers, and I got the sense that he had lost—what, I didn’t know.
There was something else, too: Every so often, when we talked, he would pare off the edge of his words, speak in euphemism, even deny what I knew he felt. The Shi’ites call this taqiyya, the dissimulation of faith, the concealment of belief in the interest of self-preservation, or temporal political advantage. Sacramental lying, in other words. I worried that the face of Abu Iyad I saw was only one in a repertoire of faces. He did, after all, kill a man once.
The man was a Palestinian, his own blood, but a “collaborator” with Israel; Abu Iyad killed the man with a knife, in an alley in Nusseirat. Abu Iyad only remembered the man’s first name, which was Mustafa, and he remembered that he was taller than most Palestinians.
But then there were times when I stopped watching Abu Iyad through a veil of distrust, when I thought him to be a decent man, content to search for imperfect justice, not the world-ending justice sought by Hamas.
In the early 1990s, he favored, in principle, the murder of Israelis, in particular soldiers and settlers. But in November 2000, a group of Palestinians detonated a mortar shell near an armored bus traveling between two Jewish settlements, not far from Gaza City. Two settlers were killed, and three small children—all of the same family—lost limbs. This was unacceptable to Abu Iyad.
“It’s not the children who are at fault,” he said, an uncommon thing to say in Gaza, where children are both victim and perpetrator. Abu Iyad did not believe, for reasons both expedient and theological, that the slaughter of Israelis in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem would be helpful to his cause, and he questioned whether God smiled on the self-immolating assassins of Hamas. “A person can’t be pure and admitted to Paradise if he kills himself, is my belief. There is a lot of debate about this among the scholars.”
He sensed, even then, at breakfast, that the second Uprising, which was just beginning, would end badly for the Palestinians.
“The Israelis are too strong, and they’re too ready to use violence against us,” he said.
Nonsense, I said. Things will end badly for the Arabs because it is the Arabs who see violence as a panacea.
We went in circles on the question: Which side in this fight speaks more fluently the language of violence? I argued for the Arabs, and cited, as proof, a statement made to me not long before this breakfast by Abdel Aziz Rantisi, one of the founders of Hamas. Rantisi was a sour and self-admiring man, a pediatrician by trade, but one so perverse that he would work his rage on children. “The Israelis always say, when they kill our children, that they are sorry,” he told me. “When we kill Jewish children we say we are happy. So I ask you, who is telling the truth?”
And I mentioned to Abu Iyad something said to me by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the so-called spiritual leader of Hamas, when I saw him at his home a few days earlier. I asked the sheikh about the three Israeli children on the bus, their limbs torn from them by a Palestinian bomb.
“They shouldn’t have been on holy Muslim land,” Sheikh Yassin said, his calm unperturbed by the thought of bleeding children. “This is what happens. The Jews have no right to life here. Their state was created in defiance of God’s will. This is in the Quran.”
I had no patience for Yassin. The thinking of scriptural fundamentalists seems, to the secular-minded, or even to the sort of person like me who feels the constant presence of God in his life but does not believe Him to be partisan in His love, as lunacy on stilts. It is also cruel beyond measure. Fundamentalism is the thief of mercy. These men, I told Abu Iyad, feel no human feelings at all.
Don’t be so dramatic, he said, in so many words. “The sheikh is just saying this because this is what reporters want to hear.” Dream murders, he suggested, do not constitute policy. They are to be understood as the last refuge of men stripped of all dignity.
“Well, it’s pathetic,” I said.
Abu Iyad asked, “It’s the way you feel about the Germans, right?”
I didn’t answer. I could have told him the truth: I was born, to my sorrow, too late to kill Germans. I could have said many other things, but I wasn’t going to argue the point with a man who thinks the Shoah, the Holocaust, was a trifle compared to the dispossession of the Palestinians.
“Sometimes, I feel very satisfied when a Jew gets killed,” he confessed. “I’m telling you what’s in my heart. It gives me a feeling of confidence. It’s very good for our people to know that they have the competence to kill Jews. So that is what Sheikh Yassin is saying.”
So you build your self-esteem through murder?
You misunderstand me, Abu Iyad said. Sheikh Yassin, he explained, was not typical of the Palestinian people; he succumbed to the temp- tation of violence too easily. The sheikh represented one side of the divided Arab heart, the side hungry for blood. The other side craves peace, even with the Jews.
Abu Iyad was a fundamentalist, hard where the world is soft, but he was also soft where the world is hard.
I am not the only Jew who divides the gentile world into two camps: the gentiles who would hide me in their attics when the Germans come; and the gentiles who would betray me to the death squads. I thought, on occasion, that Abu Iyad might be the sort to hide me.
I was late for an appointment, and so I excused myself copiously. I did not want to offend Abu Iyad, who, like his brother-Palestinians, was as sensitive as a seismograph to rudeness.
It was not an appointment I was keen to keep. I was meant to visit a Palestinian police base that had been rocketed by the Israeli Air Force the night before. I was reporting a story, and the drudgery of reporting is the repetition, going back again and again to see things I had already seen, in the naïve hope that I would finally see something different, or, at the very least, understand it more deeply. But in the first months of the Intifada, I saw Palestinian cars rocketed by Israeli helicopters, as well as Palestinian police stations, government offices, and apartment buildings. I saw blue-skinned corpses on slabs in the morgue, and children whose jaws and hands and feet were ripped away by missiles. I was familiar with the work of Israeli rockets.
The base belonged to Force 17, the personal bodyguard unit of Yasser Arafat. My regular taxi driver, a man called Abu Ibrahim, delivered me there. Abu Ibrahim means “Father of Abraham.” His given name was something else, which he seldom used since his wife gave birth to a son he called Ibrahim. He asked me once if I was father to a son. I said yes. He was relieved, on my behalf. I have two daughters as well, I said. But you have a son, he said, reassuring me. He could not pronounce my son’s name, so he called me “Abu Walad,” “Father of a Boy.”
He wasn’t much of a talker, in any case. He wouldn’t tell me that he was a killer. Fifteen years before, he murdered an agent of the Shabak, the Israeli internal security service. He lured the agent to an orange grove, and there he killed him, with a grenade.
That’s a great name you have, I told Abu Ibrahim once. There’s peace in that name: Jews, Christians, Muslims, all of us are sons of Abraham. He just grunted.
He was a hard man. He never smiled, and his arms were roped with prison muscle. I don’t think he cared about anything. Years before, I had learned from one of the chattier members of the Gambino organized crime family the expression menefreghismo, which means, roughly, “the art of not giving a fuck.” Abu Ibrahim was an adept of menefreghismo; its practitioners were scattered about in the occupied territories. Once, in Hebron, I watched a Palestinian man, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, approach an Israeli soldier and stab him in the chest. The cigarette stayed between his lips through the attack. That’s menefreghismo.
Gaza City is a compressed jumble of four- and five-story concrete apartment buildings, built at illogical angles on streets that are sometimes paved and sometimes not. Suddenly, out of the tangle, the Force 17 base appeared. It was a modest place—a few barracks, a parade ground, single-story offices. Its entrance was guarded by a lifesize plaster statue of Arafat fixed on a battered plinth and gazing out over his ruined kingdom. The anonymous sculptor who created this homage to the Palestinian Ozymandias thickened the chairman’s features, giving him the appearance of a fat-lipped Che Guevara. THIS CAMP WAS BUILT WITH FUNDS PROVIDED BY THE EUROPEAN UNION, a sign over the statue read.
Missiles had destroyed the base’s communications room, a barracks, and a weapons warehouse. In the rubble were spent razors, shoes, cardboard containers of fruit juice, and the carcasses of rats.
I met a Palestinian reporter who showed me the damage, which was a testament to advances in the science of precision guidance. We were left with the impression that specific men were targeted. They were not hit, however.
“No one sleeps in the barracks anymore,” a Force 17 commander told us. “We all sleep outside.”
Force 17—the number refers, it is believed, to the first address of the group’s headquarters in Beirut, at 17 Faqahani Street—is divided into two operating units, an intelligence division and a presidential security division. It has, in Gaza and the West Bank, roughly three thousand men under arms. What these men do with their arms on their off-hours had been a subject of study by the Israeli security ser- vices, which reached the conclusion, early in the Intifada, that they were using these arms for no good.
I knew someone in Force 17, a colonel named Capucci. We hadn’t seen each other in some months, and I was hoping to say hello. Capucci’s actual name was Muhammad Hassanen, but he took his nom de guerre to honor a former Greek Catholic bishop of Jerusalem, Hilarion Capucci, who was convicted in Israel in 1974 of smuggling arms in the trunk of his Mercedes from Lebanon to Israel on behalf of the PLO. Hassanen and the bishop shared a cell for a while in an Israeli jail.
One of the Force 17 men ran over to us, holding a bent piece of metal in his hand, a piece of the American-made rocket that took apart the communications room. He delivered a pro forma lecture that began, “America says it wants peace, but it sends missiles.”
Then I saw Capucci, in the distance, getting into a jeep. I smiled, and waved. He looked at me curiously, and waved back, but tentatively. Then he sped away. How odd, I thought.
I didn’t realize quite how odd it was until an hour later. I was sitting in the Café Delice on Izzedine al-Qassam Street in downtown Gaza City. The café was a regular spot for me. It was shabby and neglected; the yellow walls were water-stained, and a carpet of dust covered the shelves. But the café was well located, and there is not an extensive selection of cafés in Gaza City, in any case.
Izzedine al-Qassam Street is one of the main streets of Gaza City. It is named after an early leader of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, a proto-Arafat who murdered several Jews in the early 1930s before he was shot dead by the British. Hamas has named its terrorist wing after him. The street that honors his memory is potholed, without demarcated lanes, and is life-threatening. Braking is out of favor in Gaza, though honking is not. Officers of the Palestinian Naval Police were standing in the middle of the street, trying in vain to direct traffic. The Palestinian Authority has no actual navy, but it has a naval police. The white-washed walls of the Shifa Hospital, across the street from the café, were covered in graffiti, drawn in violent strokes. “We Will Die Standing Up,” one wall read. Near this was a sloppily painted picture, in red and black, of a bus, emblazoned with a Star of David. The bus was depicted in mid-explosion, and stick figures of green-uniformed and dead Israeli soldiers were scattered about the margins of the painting. Another line of graffiti, written against a backdrop of bleeding knives and exploding hand grenades, included a passage from the Quran: “The unbelievers will wish that they had surrendered. Let them eat, to take their joy, and to be bemused by hope; certainly, they will soon know!”
I was sitting at my usual corner table, underneath the café’s dripping and gasping air conditioner, drinking coffee with an acquaintance. I chose the table, in Malcolm X fashion, because it gave me a wide view of the door and the street beyond. Not that it mattered. Three men, brooding in appearance, fantastically armed, and in a great hurry, burst through the open door and announced that I was under arrest.
The leader of the arrest party was a big man, his heavy shoulders straining against his brown suit coat. His brow was thick, and separated from the rest of his face by a single eyebrow. His cheeks were well padded, but he had a thin, elegant nose, not at all the nose one associates with Semites. He wore black shoes and white socks, and a gold bracelet on one wrist. He seemed to be about forty years old. The two other men, in their late twenties, were thinner at the waist. One of them carried an AK-47; the other a machine pistol. It was not at all clear which police apparatus these men represented, but this was not strange in Gaza, whose one and a half million people have been blessed with the protection of at least ten competing secret security organizations, not including the Naval Police.
The owner of the café, a small, soft-bodied man, maybe fifty, stood by the espresso machine. His expression suggested passivity in the face of superior firepower. I resented him just then, since he knew me, though I recognized that there was not much a seller of damp pastry could do to help.
One of the gunmen, the most ostentatiously menacing of the three—he kept his eyes purposefully narrowed, and he wore his black mustache thick, in the Ba’ath Party style—lifted me by my elbow, and pushed me to the door. He wore black pants and a black shirt. He said, in Hebrew, “Come with us.” I feigned ignorance, and said, loudly, for public consumption, in Arabic, “I don’t understand.” He said, again in Hebrew, impatiently this time, “Just come with us.” I waved my American passport in front of his face. “I’m an American!” I yelled. I had learned, in previous encounters with dyspeptic and well-armed Muslims, the tactical importance of behaving in the manner one associates with Steve McQueen, and so I resisted the urge to unleash, as I do in moments of tension, great gusts of words.
The man I was meeting followed us out of the café, onto Izzedine al-Qassam Street. A dark blue Jeep Cherokee idled by the curb. Its driver was smoking, and appeared unnaturally relaxed. My companion argued with the men, vouching for my good character. This had no discernible effect, which surprised me, since he was a leader of Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s own political faction within the PLO.
I was maneuvered to the Jeep. Schoolboys in brown pants and white shirts were walking by, but only a few of them turned to watch; Gaza children see many unusual things—Gaza is notable for its complete absence of normalcy—and this drama, though large in my mind, could not hold their interest.
My own taxi was parked across the street, outside the gates of the hospital. I looked up and down the street for Abu Ibrahim, without seeing him. I think he was napping in the backseat.
I was pushed into the Cherokee. The three men got in; the chief in the front passenger seat, the two younger men on either side of me, in the back. They were so close I could feel their sweat on me. The driver pulled the Cherokee into the street and sped away. The four Palestinians looked out the windows, at the sky above. They feared, I guessed, the return of Israeli Air Force helicopters. It struck me, finally, that I was being arrested for spying. In the febrile imaginings of a Palestinian security agent, it would only make sense that an Israeli helicopter would be tracking my movements. I was not a spy, but that wasn’t to say that I wasn’t in trouble. I did have something to hide. Once, for a short time, I placed myself in the service of the people who hunted down men like these. This was something known only to a handful of people in Gaza. The men privy to my secret, I realized, included both Abu Iyad and Capucci.
The agent in the front passenger seat, the man in charge, turned around a few minutes into our trip. He said, in Hebrew, “Don’t worry, this won’t take long.”
I again feigned ignorance. I said, in English, “Listen, I’m an Ameri-can journalist and I demand that you release me. Do you understand me? Do you speak English?” He turned to his companions in the backseat, and said, in Arabic, something like, “The Jew is playing games.”
The two men laughed.
“What were you doing this morning?” the thick-browed man asked, in Hebrew.
“I’m sorry,” I said in Berlitz Arabic, “I don’t speak Arabic.”
“Come on already, give me a break,” he said. His Hebrew was colloquial, and fluid, but low, from the street. There are several places Palestinian men of his age could learn alley-boy Hebrew: in the kitchens of Tel Aviv restaurants, on construction sites in Jerusalem, on the road gangs that pave the highways, or in prison. This man would have been in his twenties during the first Intifada. Tens of thousands of Palestinian men passed through Israeli prisons during the original Uprising, and it was ex-prisoners who filled the ranks of the Palestinian security apparatus.
“I don’t speak Arabic,” I said again.
“Okay, okay,” he said, and turned back around.
“I want to call the American embassy,” I said, loudly, in order to convince them of my Americanness.
“I’m going to take out my cell phone from my pocket,” I said. The man in the front seat turned around. In English, he said, “Give me the telephone.” I did, without protest.
We drove around Gaza some more. I had to go to the bathroom. I caught a glimpse of myself in a side mirror. My face shone like a well-polished boot.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said. They ignored me.
I tried to keep track of our route, which was not easy. Gaza City is colored solely in differing shades of dun, and the streets are laid out at arbitrary angles.
I am not brave, in the fuller meaning of the word, but I do have the ability to stay hinged in moments of physical peril. Several years earlier, in the eastern Congo, at a roadblock of burning tires, a group of Mai-Mai rebels, who were notable for their consumption of formidable quantities of marijuana, as well as for their love of pillaging, pulled me out of a jeep and placed their spears at my throat. I talked my way through the Mai-Mai checkpoint. I could, I believed, talk my way through this.
We were, I realized, driving in circles. When we reached our destination, it was familiar to me: the headquarters of Palestinian Preven- tative Security, the largest of the secret services in Gaza. We drove through a gate into a nearly empty courtyard. I was encouraged, because I knew the chief of Preventative Security, a man named Muhammad Dahlan, and I was reasonably sure he would bring this sorry episode to a quick end. I was sure he would even make these men apologize (and I would graciously accept their apologies). Dahlan was, during the 1990s, a favorite of the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as the Shabak. He was charged, during the peace process, with suppressing Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, which he did intermittently, but when he did it, he did it with iron. He was a greasy man, very Tammany Hall, but he was an effective security czar, and he was a pragmatist.
“Call Dahlan,” I said in English, as I was helped from the Jeep. “He knows me.” Never before had name-dropping seemed so urgently self-preservational.
The man in charge said in Hebrew, “This is not Dahlan’s business.” I said, again, “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
I was led down a first-floor hallway and directed into an unadorned room, with two narrow windows set high on the wall. A thin-legged wooden table sat in the middle of the room, two chairs on each side. My captor, the most obviously malevolent of the three, instructed me, in Arabic, to stand against a wall, feet spread apart. I played stupid as long as possible; then I did what he motioned me to do. I put my back against the wall. No, no, he yelled, and motioned me to turn. I did so slowly. He frisked me. His technique was well informed, though he performed his job with more enthusiasm than was necessary, giving my balls a savage squeeze.
Asshole, I said, in English.
He emptied my pockets: my wallet, a notebook, two pens, a miniature tape recorder, a packet of Pepto-Bismol—Gaza presents me with acute gastric challenges—25 shekels in coins, my passport, several random business cards, folded newspaper clippings, gum, gum wrappers, balled-up pieces of paper containing scribbled notes, and the keys to my car, which I had left to cook in the sun on the far side of the Erez crossing, the main border between Israel and Gaza. I think my captors were astonished by the mass of junk that fell from my pockets. My tape recorder was taken away, but everything else was thrown onto the table. I was told to sit. The men left, and I stewed. I reached for my pad, and took notes on the events of the day. This had a calming effect on me.
The air in the room was still, but I could smell thistles and the sea air, and sweat.
I was left alone for quite a while. I assumed the goal of my captors was to provoke in me a neurasthenic crisis, to give me time to manufacture dire thoughts about torture, or at the very least, habeas corpus, which is not a cherished value of Arab security services. It was clever of them to leave me alone. It was my misfortune to be familiar with the many creative methods of torture employed by interrogators of the Palestinian services. The previous June a Palestinian in the custody of the Preventative Security was asphyxiated to death. Not long before that, a group of Palestinian students at Birzeit University, on the West Bank, were beaten and threatened with rape by other agents of Preventative Security. The crime of these students was to have thrown rocks at the visiting French prime minister. There were many stories of cruelty in Arafat’s prisons. Two of the more common modes of torture were shabeh and farruja. In shabeh, a prisoner is bound in a kneeling position, his arms pulled back and tied to the ankles. The prisoner is then left hooded for several hours. This torture causes hellish pain in the joints, and it stimulates an overwhelming desire to die, according to people I know who have survived this treatment. In farruja, the prisoner is bound in similar fashion, but then lifted off the floor, suspended from a hook. (During the Inquisition, this was known as the “Queen of Torments.”) Prisoners in Palestinian jails are often beaten—usually on the soles of the feet, with rubber truncheons. They are sometimes hooded for long periods of time; and burned as well, with molten plastic, or cigarettes.
On the other hand, this wasn’t Syria.