One sentence that Lama Khater heard during the period she was interrogated by the Shin Bet security service helped her hang on. “No interrogation lasts forever,” the Red Cross representative who first saw her about two weeks after her arrest told her.
As Khater said last month at her home in Hebron in the West Bank, “Even though at that moment I felt that the interrogation would go on forever, and time in the Shin Bet ward at the Ashkelon prison stood still, the sentence I heard became an anchor for me, a key to remembering that time doesn’t stop, and it wouldn’t stop there.”
Khater was arrested on July 24, 2018, and was immediately transferred for Shin Bet interrogation that lasted 35 days. The arrest didn’t come as a surprise. Her husband, Hazem al-Fakhouri, had been summoned by the Shin Bet – not for the first time – and asked about his wife, who writes articles highly critical of the Palestinian Authority and its security coordination with Israel, and in support of the right of resistance to the Israeli occupation.
But she didn’t expect such a long interrogation period in an attempt to extract information from her and an admission of civil (not military) activity in Hamas. She didn’t expect an interrogation that included sleep deprivation, being painfully cuffed for many hours each day, being put in a foul-smelling cell with a freezing air-conditioner, and then in an even more foul-smelling cell (No. 8) where the faucet provided only rusty brown water.
“I felt intestinal pain,” she says. “I complained about the water to Dov the interrogator. He told me, ‘The Red Cross checks the water and it’s fine. Just like in prisons in Arab countries.’”
Khater, 43, from the village of Ein Siniya near Ramallah, remembers the names of most of her interrogators: “Dov, Major Yehiya, who’s the head of the interrogation section, Haroun, Marcel, Russo, Rino, Binji, Johnny, who’s Yehiya’s deputy. And there’s Colonel Itzik, who came every Sunday. He spoke to me in very threatening language. And there was also General Herzl, who said he was in charge of all the interrogation centers in the West Bank. And there was also ‘Mirol’ or something like that. Maybe I didn’t totally catch the name.”
Khater says the Red Cross sought to ensure that a woman was present in the interrogation room, as is required by law. “Yes, there was always a woman in the room,” she says. “The women were switched every two hours, day or night. All told, I think there were 10, and they took turns. They sat behind the table and looked at their cellphones.
“Once in a while one of them had a book. Major Yehiya even said once that he was bringing them just to play with their cellphones. I understood him to mean that with my silence I was making them waste resources. Sometimes there was one interrogator in the room, sometimes two, sometimes three.
“During the day the interrogation was in different rooms, on the first floor. At night they interrogated me in the basement. The interrogator would sit behind his desk and then take the chair and sit right in front of me. I would tell him to move away, that for religious reasons it wasn’t permitted for him to get that close.”
Over the period of her interrogations, she was brought to a doctor three times – once when the interrogator saw she was about to faint and twice at her request. One of those times, she says, “it was when I had my period, so maybe that’s why the back pain was more unbearable than usual.” The doctor, a man of about 60 who communicated with her through a translator, gave her pain relievers and sent her back to the interrogation room.
As Khater and I talked in her living room, her 3-year-old son Yihya ran around laughing and jumping from one chair to another, untouched by the subject of our conversation. A photograph of his mother hugging him goodbye on the night she was arrested has become another Palestinian icon.
The arrest, which took place at 2 A.M., wasn’t particularly aggressive. Fakhouri, Khater’s husband, remembers that about 20 armed and masked soldiers came, “plus the Shin Bet officer whose face was uncovered. He asked where Lama was and also asked for her cellphone and computer.”
Despite her objections, a female soldier conducted a body search, though Khater was not ordered to fully undress. She was asked if she was pregnant and if she had any illnesses. She said she has anemia, and was permitted to take her iron pills with her.
Then there was a brief nighttime drive to a military base with a lot of soldiers, where she was allowed to pray and was brought to a clinic. In the morning, she was transferred – still not handcuffed – to another base in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. There she was subjected to another body search, and for the first time she was blindfolded and cuffed and placed in a “bosta” – the vehicle used to transport detainees between prisons and to court.
“Since then I’ve had a lot of experience riding in a bosta,” Khater said, her voice quiet and restrained as ever. “But that was the hardest time. They sit you down on a seat inside this narrow iron box. I was held there for about two hours before the car started moving. Hebrew songs at high decibels were pounding me in the head.” During the ride, the radio was turned off, but her head bumped against the iron walls.
The vehicle stopped at Shikma Prison in Ashkelon. When the blindfold was removed, she saw that the watch on a police officer’s wrist read 2:30 P.M. Again she was subjected to a “non-naked” body search, asked for her personal information and brought to an interrogation room, where she was held until 3 A.M. There she was also shown a piece of paper listing her rights: a daily shower, use of the toilet and the right to remain silent.
“They sat me on a chair fixed to the floor, the height of a chair in the lower grades of an elementary school. My hands were tied with iron handcuffs to the chair. When I refused to give my email password to the Shin Bet officer, he told me: ‘Okay, you’re only at the beginning of the interrogation.’”
He asked about her activities for Hamas and she said she had no links with Hamas. “He said he knew that I write, but ‘we aren’t arresting you for what you wrote but for what you did.’ Still, for the entire period of the interrogation, they mostly asked about what I wrote, even things from 19 years ago,” Khater says.
“I said I wasn’t disassociating myself from what I wrote, but I refused for them to attribute to me membership in Hamas. The interrogator told me I was a liar and if I continued to deny it we would go to a higher level of interrogation.
“‘I won’t let you go to the bathroom,’ he threatened. I mentioned the rights document they showed me, and he got mad and said I had no right to tell a Shin Bet officer that he doesn’t have a right to do something. He said he had worked 15 years in the Shin Bet and only four or five people hadn’t confessed in an interrogation by him. It was Dov. After him Haroun came.”
As she put it, the interrogator told her, “If you talk, we’ll let you speak with your family, we’ll put you in a better jail cell. A lot of people have tried not to confess and after 10 to 15 days they confess. Save yourself from it.”
On that first day of interrogation, she says: “Major Yehiya came too. He told me, ‘you’re an individual and we represent a state. All the intelligence agencies of the Middle East come and learn from us. The individual – his energy is limited. No matter how much you pretend to be a fighter, you will weaken. The individual cannot withstand a state.”
At 3:30 A.M., 25 hours after her arrest, she was put in isolation. “Three meters by two, maybe less. The hole for the toilet was inside and very dirty. The water from the faucet dripped for five seconds, then stopped. To wash clothes, I stood for half an hour and pushed. There was a thin mattress on the floor with three blankets: one as a pillow and two to cover with. It was terribly cold because the air conditioner was running at the lowest temperature. I felt like it was winter. The light was on all the time. I got food three times a day – dishes that were hard to eat.”
After the first night in isolation, a female soldier led her, handcuffed and with her eyes covered, back to the interrogation room. Once again came the low chair, the tying of her hands behind the back, the threats: “We’ll leave you here for six months. We’ll bring your children here if you don’t talk, we’ll ruin your life.”
In the first days, the interrogation went on for 10 hours a day “and at the time I still felt that this was a lot,” she says. “They let me go to the bathroom when I asked. In principle, I could have asked to take a shower. The shower is in a separate isolation cell but doesn’t make you want to use it because it’s dirty and the water pressure is weak and the water cold. In the first days they also let me go back to the isolation cell in the afternoon and told me that ‘I haven’t seen anything yet.’”
Later, they began to question her for about 20 hours a day, and this went on for two and a half weeks – from 7 A.M. until 2:30 A.M., always cuffed to the chair.
“They brought the food there,” she says. “They opened the handcuffs when I ate and prayed. When I asked to go to the bathroom, they allowed it for up to five minutes, and if they thought I was taking too long, the female soldier opened the door. The hardest thing was during my period. It embarrassed me all the time to ask to go to the bathroom. I brought sanitary pads with me from home, but they took them and gave me others, of poor quality.”
Even when she returned to her solitary confinement cell, she couldn’t sleep. Someone outside the cell would pound on the wall, she felt dizzy, and the pain in her head and neck would wake her up.
“The interrogators would say to me, when they saw I was collapsing in the chair: ‘If you want to sleep, confess. Otherwise it will be harder. If you want to rest from all this, you know what to do.’ And so on day after day. My heart beat faster from day to day. I couldn’t walk, straighten my back. The exhaustion and pain in my back and head were present all the time,” she says.
“The hardest thing was the sleep deprivation. When I dozed off a bit, the interrogator yelled. I woke up, straightened my back, and he yelled at me that it happened because I wasn’t talking, and ‘we will take you to a harsher solitary confinement cell.’” It was cell No. 8 where for a few days she was sent during the short breaks between the interrogations.
“An interrogator named Marcel – every one of his sessions had insults and screams. ‘Your grandfather surely was among those who massacred Jews in Hebron in 1929,’ he told me, and I answered that my family isn’t from Hebron. ‘Then definitely your husband’s grandfather,’ he said. They claimed about me that I was responsible for communications section of Hamas, that I taught political courses and training on withstanding interrogations. I said, ‘How can I give training in something I haven’t experienced?’”
After 35 days of questioning, Khater was transferred to Damun Prison with other women from Hebron who were arrested before her on suspicion of being members of Hamas’ women’s committee. Her trial took a long time because she didn’t confess. In the end, in June, when the others had been sentenced and were about to be released, she reached a plea deal with the military prosecution that reduced the charges and was convicted of “serving in office for an illegal association, based on the emergency ordinances.”
She was sentenced to 13 months in prison and a 4,000-shekel ($1,150) fine. Three weeks before her release, on July 26, her son, a student, was arrested on suspicion of association with Hamas.
The Shin Bet did not answer Haaretz’s question on whether sleep deprivation and painful positions aren’t considered illegal torture.