An investigative report reveals that hundreds of Gazans, including families of suspected Fatah agitators, and young men not suspected of anything were jailed in Israeli detention centers in 1971 for almost a year.
by Ofer Aderet, reposted from Ha’aretz, July 29, 2021
In 1971, under heavy secrecy, Israel built two detention centers in the Sinai Peninsula where innocent Palestinians were sent. One was used for the families of Fatah members who were suspected of terrorism, one was for unemployed young men.
Children, women and men were transported from the Gaza Strip by the Israeli army and put in improvised buildings in the middle of the desert. They spent various stretches there – sometimes even months – in conditions the Red Cross called “unbearable.” Less than a year later, both camps were closed and all the detainees were returned to Gaza. The minutes of the meetings on the subject were classified as secret for 50 years, some for even longer.
An investigative report on the archives by the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, and documents and pictures located in the Israel Defense Forces Archives, the Israel State Archives and the Red Cross archives provide a history of the two detention centers. The Abu Zenima camp was built on the shores of the Gulf of Suez, and the Nekhel camp was built in the middle of the Sinai Peninsula, which was occupied by Israel in 1967 and fully returned to Egypt in 1982.
Following the1967 Six-Day War, Gaza was considered a “wasps’ nest” from which terrorists were dispatched to Israel. In the Strip, Palestinians suspected of collaborating with the occupation were murdered.
In January 1971, the situation reached a boiling point with the killings of Marc-Daniel and Abigail Aroyo from the town of Kiryat Ono near Tel Aviv. The two small children and their parents were returning home from a trip to northern Sinai when a young Palestinian threw a hand grenade into their car, which had accidentally turned toward Gaza City. Their mother was badly wounded.
The disgust among the public was even worse this time, in part due to the celebrity of the two children, who had starred in commercials. Israel responded harshly.
Israeli problem-solving: aggression and detention centers
Ariel Sharon, the head of the Southern Command, was ordered to “eliminate the terror.” The operation, which continued into mid-1972, employed special units that assassinated suspects, destroyed homes, imposed curfews and conducted searches. But that wasn’t all.
Among the documents are the minutes of a meeting between the first coordinator of government activities in the territories, Gen. Shlomo Gazit, with Foreign Ministry officials. In the memo by ministry officials, the army’s steps to fight terror were detailed, including arrests, curfews and the building of the camps.
To this day, the IDF Archives refuses to reveal the memo’s main points. Any involvement of then-Prime Minister Golda Meir – if indeed there was any – doesn’t appear in any document released to date.
The first Israeli detention center, Abu Zenima, was opened on January 5, 1971, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) southwest of Gaza City. It was named after the town where it was located in southwest Sinai on the shores of the Gulf of Suez. Shortly after it was completed, the first prisoners were sent there – 50 members of a single Palestinian family.
Later that month, when Red Cross officials met with Gazit and expressed concerns about Gazans being deported, he told them there were now detainees from more than 20 families. Gazit said they had been expelled from Gaza because of their “support for terror.” By the end of the month, the number of families at the camp had grown to 27, among them scores of children.
On January 26, Gazit briefed members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on the situation. He detailed the steps Israel had taken in Gaza, including the “third mechanism” – families being deported.
As he put it, “Because the family provides a place to hide, provides help and serves as a lookout that warns the terrorist – and in the refugee camps this makes it impossible to conduct searches without giving the terrorist a good chance of escaping – we have taken as of today 27 families of wanted men, deported them from their places of residence and transferred them to Sinai, to Abu Zenima. We have ensured that every family like this includes at least one adult male so that we don’t have to deal with women and children alone.”
Deportation as a deterrent
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said the deportations to detention centers weren’t intended as punishment but to act as a deterrent against other families. “It’s not because they’ve provided hiding places or helped wanted men hide, but for other families to discourage their sons from joining Fatah,” he said, referring to the Palestinian liberation movement founded in 1959.
“It’s exactly like razing homes. We destroy a house even if the Fatah man is just a tenant and the landlord doesn’t know a thing about it. What they know in Hebron, Nablus or Gaza is that if someone joins Fatah, eventually their house will be razed. In such a case, the family will be deported.
Dayan called this “the best deterrence mechanism we have,” adding that “the hope is that in those families … the father will say that if a single boy joins Fatah, they’ll deport us all to Abu Zenima.”
He stressed that this method was only being employed when a wanted person had not been arrested. “This is what happens when we haven’t managed to catch the man himself,” Dayan said. “Because when we do catch him, you catch him. If you arrest the man himself, you don’t trouble the family and come to them asking why they hid him.”
MK Gideon Hauser, a former Israeli attorney general, was critical of the detention center policy. “I ask about the deporting of family members. We’re not talking about families we know actively assisted a member who was a terrorist. We’re talking about the families of wanted people, why we assume they helped the terrorist escape,” he said. “I think that in deporting families like these, despite the rewards that may come from stopping a terrorist … the reward will end up costing us. If there is proof that a certain family systematically provides shelter like this, we need to do what we have to do to stop it. But if we’re dealing with a family we only suspect might be doing this, that’s serious.”
Over half of the prisoners were children
In February 1971, Israel allowed the Red Cross into the camp. Members of the delegation met with representatives of the 23 families being held there – 140 people, of whom 87 were children – all of them Gazans. The Red Cross people wrote to their headquarters in Geneva after the visit:
“Their only fault was having a ‘terrorist’ parent. But does a baby of only 7 months, or an old mother of 80, understand the reason for their presence there? … The most important problem is psychological: The people here hoped their deportation would only be temporary.”
When the Red Cross representatives met with Gazit a second time, they expressed concern over what they called “almost inhuman conditions” at the camp. Gazit responded that “these families were isolated to prevent them from providing shelter to their relative, or relatives, wanted for terror-related offenses.”<
He said that this method had proved an effective way of capturing wanted men, and that after they had been caught, the families were released from the camp and returned to Gaza. Because this was so effective, Israel had not set a date for ending the practice, Gazit added.
After two more visits, one Red Cross official reported that he was “shocked by the Israeli military authorities’ mercilessness” for these families.
He said nine families had been in the camp for several months even after it had been determined that wanted relatives had left Gaza and their homes had been razed.
“It appears only Shlomo Gazit or Ariel Sharon are responsible for this policy. Who can influence their superior, Moshe Dayan, on this matter?” the head of the Red Cross’ mission in Sinai wondered in October. “All other Israeli officials we met with oppose the continuation of this policy.”
Deportation for the unemployed
The Nekhel camp was also named after the site where it had been built, in the middle of the peninsula, a seven-hour drive from Gaza City. It was designed for young unemployed men not suspected of anything. “This is the second measure we have taken, and maybe it’s a lot more radical,” Gazit told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “It’s an action taken against idlers.
“There are tens of thousands of people with no connection to the world of work. Some of them, or most of them, are 18 to 25, 30, many of them high school graduates who haven’t found [work], and we have no solution for them because they used to go on to university and today that’s no longer an option for them.”
Gazit justified sending hundreds of innocent people to a camp in the middle of the desert. “Young men wandering freely around the streets constitutes an open invitation for organizations to recruit them. And it’s also a danger in that they’re wandering around the main roads and can open fire, throw grenades or do other things.”
“Thinning out” Gaza’s population
At the request of Akevot, the IDF Archives released two files connected with operations at Nekhel; this included professional training by other Palestinians and by Israelis in the building trades. A report by the head of the “training center” showed that most of the 161 detainees there were between 16 and 21, students and unskilled laborers.
Moshe Sasson, deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry, wrote in a memo that the camps were designed to “encumber terrorist activity in the Strip by applying various pressures.” These included “pressure on many residents in the [refugee] camps who are neither studying nor working, with the goal of encouraging a transition to a productive life in Judea and Samaria” – the West Bank.
“People like this, who are unemployed and roam the camps – even if there are no suspicions against them – will be subject to administrative detention and sent to a detention camp in Sinai,” Sasson wrote.
“They will be released from the camp if they express a desire to move to Judea and Samaria and find work there. It should be assumed that on Sunday and Monday, 100 to 200 young people will be arrested, and that after the arrests, the other unemployed young people will realize that they will be spared arrest if they find work in Judea and Samaria.”
Akevot suspects that this is written evidence of Israel’s strategy to thin out Gaza’s population at the time. Akevot’s director, Lior Yavne, notes that “after the occupation of the Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel worked in various ways to reduce the number of refugees in the Gaza Strip” – the mood among policy makers was that Gaza would eventually be annexed.
According to Yavne, “The camp in Nekhel was designed to give young Gazans job training in construction and encourage them to agree to move to the West Bank, in exchange for their release from the prison camp.” Yavne also discusses this in Akevot’s Hebrew-language podcast “Aims and Means: The Secret and Hidden Stories behind the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”
After the Red Cross visit to Nekhel in 1971, the organization told Gazit: “While the detainees in Nekhel enjoy relative freedom in the prison facility compared to regular prisons, the facility’s location in such an isolated area, far from any plant or animal, could create psychosomatic difficulties among the detainees.” Gazit replied that the subject might be suitable for a sociological study.
Expulsion of Palestinians may come back
The two camps were closed that same year, and all the detainees at Abu Zenima were returned to Gaza. The detainees at Nekhel did not fulfill the Israelis’ hopes; they showed no interest in moving to the West Bank. But the Israelis believed that their effort to stamp out terror proved effective: For more than 15 years, until the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, relative quiet was maintained in Gaza.
“The case of the Nekhel and Abu Zenima camps is apparently the first example of the development and implementation of methodical tools to put pressure on innocent Palestinians – students, children, women – to achieve security and political aims in the framework of Israel’s occupation of the territories,” Yavne says. He mentions the bill to expel relatives of terrorists that reached the Knesset only two months ago.
According to the bill’s explanatory notes, “In expelling members of the nuclear family, there is no doubt that the package of deterrence will be completed to deter terrorists and get terrorists’ relatives to prevent their children from committing this act. Looking toward the future, the expulsion of families of terrorists will save the lives of many Israeli citizens.”
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