ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
Our next story takes us inside an Israeli interrogation room. Thirty-year-old Ala'a Miqbel went for an interview with Israeli security for a permit to travel from Gaza to the West Bank, the U.S. consulate had invited him to a conference there. But instead of getting permission to go, Miqbel was arrested and stunned to discover an Israeli interrogation technique that mixes Big Brother with Shakespeare.
NPR's Emily Harris reports.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The first clue that something was going wrong in his interview for a travel permit was the down-to-his-underwear search, says Ala'a Miqbel.
ALA ALA'A MIQBEL: (Through Translator) At first, I refused to take off my pants. But the soldier said this is normal procedure. I didn't have a choice. So I said OK.
HARRIS: Pants back on, Miqbel was questioned about his family, then about his politics. An Israeli officer said somebody told them that Miqbel was associated with a militant group called Islamic Jihad. At the end of the day, Miqbel was handcuffed, blindfolded and taken to prison.
MIQBEL: (Through Translator) It was an enormous shock for me. I thought I'd be gone half an hour. Now I didn't know when I'd be back. I thought of my kids, my wife, my parents, my future.
HARRIS: This was the first time Miqbel had been arrested, but lawyers and human rights organizations say his experience is actually pretty standard. A prison doctor weighed him. He was issued orange clothing and left alone in a small, dirty cell between interrogation sessions.
MIQBEL: (Through Translator) In interrogation, there is a chair so low it breaks your back. They cuff your hands to it. Your feet are cuffed so it's very painful. And it's on a jack, so the interrogator can jerk you back and forth. Plus, behind me, an air conditioner was on and set to freezing.
HARRIS: No shower, no toothbrush, inedible food. After four or five days, someone joined Miqbel in his cell. This man seemed to be another prisoner and he gave Miqbel a tip. After the Israelis take your DNA sample and fingerprints, he told Miqbel, they'll release you from interrogation and put you in a regular cell with other regular Palestinian prisoners. And that is just what happened. When he reached his new cell, Miqbel was happy.
MIQBEL: (Through Translator) I cried. I couldn't believe it. I was in normal prison. The guys welcomed me, they brought me new clothes, I took a shower. They gave me coffee and a pack of cigarettes. When it was time we prayed together.
HARRIS: They also warned him not to talk about his situation to anyone but the room leader. That was an older man named Abu Bahar. Abu Bahar won Miqbel's trust by sharing stories about mutual acquaintances in Gaza. He urged Miqbel to tell him everything.
MIQBEL: (Through Translator) He asked me: didn't you do any activity against Israel in the 2008 War? I told him no, I was home with my new wife, who was just pregnant. He asked so many questions, like where do the militants launch rockets. I said how am I supposed to know.
HARRIS: Miqbel was being fooled. Abu Bahar and all the people in that cell were collaborating with Israeli intelligence. Miqbel learned this two days later, when he was summoned by an Israeli intelligence officer, who repeated every detail he'd shared with Abu Bahar.
When Miqbel finally met a lawyer, after 10 days in prison, he learned that these fake cells are a routine part of the Israeli intelligence system. And the fake prisoners are called al-asafeer - the Arabic word for the sparrows. It's sort of like a big play.
SMADAR BEN-NATAN: It is a play. It is a play.
HARRIS: Smadar Ben-Natan is an Israeli human rights and criminal defense lawyer. She says the birds give prisoners different rationales to get information.
BEN-NATAN: We need to know what you told the authorities so we can protect people outside. The other option is: We suspect that you are a collaborator; we want to know what did you do for the Palestinian people, for the Palestinian struggle, so we are sure that you are on the right side.
HARRIS: She says the system takes advantage of mistrust among Palestinians built up over years, and despair developed over even a few days in solitary confinement. Former Israeli Colonel Yonathan Fighel says it's just another version of good cop, bad cop - and results vary.
COLONEL YONATHAN FIGHEL: In some cases it can be very unique and very valuable. In some cases, it's just another piece of information. There is also a difference between a need to incriminate someone so he can face trial, or you are doing intelligence gathering.
HARRIS: Ala'a Miqbel told his sparrows that he had had coffee with a neighbor who was part of Islamic Jihad and that he'd played on a soccer team associated with the group. He was released without charges after almost four weeks in prison. Israel security sources say they were done with the interview.
Emily Harris, NPR News.
CORNISH: Back announce: Tomorrow, becoming a sparrow, the story of one Palestinian man who worked in Israeli prison as an informant and why he's proud of his work.