Middle East


This weekend, the Israeli government is expected to release around 400 Palestinian prisoners. It's a goodwill gesture following this week's peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. Some 10,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli jails. Israeli human rights groups say every night in the West Bank, troops arrest dozens of Palestinians - usually young men - and take them for questioning.

NPR's Linda Gradstein has this story of one such prisoner. He's the son of a prominent Palestinian human rights activist.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Mohammad Sawalha says there was nothing out of the ordinary on the night of November 8th at first. He, his wife, daughter and two sons went to bed as usual around 10:30 p.m. His older son, Yazan, had a fever and Mohammad worried he was coming down with the flu. They were awakened a few hours later by a loud noise.

Mr. MOHAMMAD SAWALHA: And at 2 o'clock in the morning, we heard banging on the door in a very horrible way. I was the first one to wake up. I heard, first, the sounds outside shouting.

GRADSTEIN: He opened the door to seven Israeli soldiers. Their faces masked or painted. The soldiers herded everyone into the living room and checked their ID cards. Nineteen-year-old Yazan, a university student, was taken away. The soldiers turned the house upside down, but left without taking anything.

Mohammad says Yazan had never been arrested before and was not involved politically. Mohammad himself is active in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups and runs an NGO devoted to helping Palestinian children. He said he was in shock over his son's arrest.

Mr. SAWALHA: I started going to different organizations who take care of prisoners or detainees.

GRADSTEIN: What bothers him the most, he says, is that Yazan was not allowed to get dressed and was taken away wearing pajamas and slippers. For days, Mohammad had no news of his son. He hired an Israeli lawyer, who was unable to find out even where Yazan was being held. Then after five days, Yazan was brought before an Israeli military court which issued an order prohibiting him from seeing a lawyer.

The Israeli humans rights group B'Tselem says Israel routinely denies Palestinians the right to see a lawyer while they are being interrogated by the General Security Services or GSS. In report released earlier this year, B'Tselem found that two-thirds of Palestinian detainees were completely isolated during all or most of their interrogations. B'Tselem argues this is a clear violation of international law. Israeli security officials say that keeping detainees isolated is often the best way to get information that could prevent terror attacks on Israel.

Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the Israeli Supreme Court has approved the practice.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Foreign Ministry): I think our supreme court is internationally renowned for its independence, for its transparency, for its professionalism, and for its judicial activism.

GRADSTEIN: Yazan's Israeli lawyer, Mikhail Sphard(ph), says the result of this isolation is severe psychological pressure that could lead to a false confession. Earlier this week, Yazan was again brought to a military court which ordered that he remain in custody. After Yazan was taken away, Sphard was allowed to question a GSS representative who told him Yazan was accused of helping Palestinians who are wanted by Israel. Sphard said Yazan is not accused of direct involvement and violence against Israel. But Israeli security officials say he was involved in, quote, "serious terror activity." They would give no details.

Mohammad Sawalha fears it may be sometime before he sees his son again.

Mr. SAWALHA: And even if his 20th birthday is going to be on the 17th of December, so we are not going to see him.

GRADSTEIN: Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Nablus.

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