Hamas Opens Doors of Notorious Prison

By Ulrike Putz in the Gaza Strip

A building formerly occupied by Fatah’s intelligence service in Gaza was long notorious for torture and execution. Now Hamas is in control – and is letting former inmates visit the chamber of horrors.

The cells are small, perhaps six feet by six feet, with only an overhead lamp to provide light. The toilet is a hole in the floor behind a small wall. The prisoners have scribbled graffiti on the walls, including slogans like "Al-Qaida in Jerusalem" and "Islamic Jihad." One inmate even scratched the phrase "Mother, oh my mother" into the plaster.

The children have no interest in the graffiti. Four of them are rushing through the 30-odd basement cells, their mother and aunts in tow. The nine-member family has taken the afternoon off. Where parents in other parts of the world might take their children to a chamber of horrors in an amusement park, the main attractions in the Gaza Strip these days are Fatah’s torture chambers.

The headquarters of the Fatah-controlled security force in Gaza have been open to the public since last Thursday. Every day is open house now.

For years the complex was a symbol of the horror disseminated by the security forces that reported directly to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. This is where Hamas men were taken after Fatah had arrested them. Some of those lucky enough to be eventually released reported that they had been tortured. Others disappeared forever.

‘A Symbol of Injustice’

Human rights organizations like Amnesty International have long voiced criticism of systematic human rights violations in the security force’s prisons, both in Gaza and the West Bank. In this respect, the fact that Hamas captured the Fatah headquarters in Gaza last week was more than just strategically significant — it was also a highly symbolic act.

"This building is a symbol of injustice in stone," says Abu Mohammed, an officer in Hamas’s militant al-Qassam Brigades, who led the attack on the complex. He and his unit have occupied the compound since the building was captured, and Abu Mohammed is using the gatehouse as his office. "We came because we wanted to see the place where our brothers were killed," he says.

Three days ago, his soldiers exhumed four bodies that had been hastily buried in one of the prison basements, he says wearily. They were able to identify a fellow al-Qassam Brigades member, Nasser al-Juju. They believe he was killed shortly before he was discovered: "The others have been lying in this basement for a long time."

In the room next to the guard booth, large puddles of blood are drying out, surrounded by swarms of flies. "Fatah used this room to shoot people," says the al-Qassam militiaman.

But why the security force would have performed executions in a room with two windows, directly adjacent to the gate of the complex, remains unclear. One can’t help but suspect that Abu Mohammed’s men may have used the room to shoot Fatah men who wanted to surrender.

Eyewitnesses last Thursday reported that the Fatah members who were defending the building were shot in the head, one after another, when, with their shirts removed and their hands held above their heads, they had attempted to surrender. "We didn’t kill a single one of them," counters Abu Mohammed. "That would be un-Islamic."

A stack of Dushka machine gun ammunition and a book titled "The Lessons of the Vietnam War" lie on the desk in front of Abu Mohammed. Both items had just been dropped off. Hamas, says Mohammed, has called upon residents to return stolen property to the Palestinian Authority — and that was precisely what local residents were doing.

Abu Mohammed reads out a long list: weapons, weapons, and more weapons, CDs, ammunition, landmines, computers, walkie-talkies. These things have all been brought back already, says Mohammed, adding that more and more people suffering from guilty consciences had contacted the office to drop off items they had taken illegally.

The scheme seems almost unbelievable at first, but it is confirmed a few minutes later at the gate. Abu Ahmed wears a knit cap and a long robe, the outfit of the devout Muslim. He glances sheepishly at a list of items he took while cleaning out the security force’s building, which he says he would like Hamas to pick up from his house: "Printer paper, a chair, a wall clock, a fan, a video recorder with remote control, and a radio."

He apologizes for his greed, explaining that Fatah killed his brother during the fighting. As he is speaking, a donkey trots through the gate, pulling a cart stacked with doors, lumber, parts of filing cabinets, drainage pipes — items sent back by their temporary owner.

Abu Mohammed, who is wearing blue Hamas camouflage, is all smiles. "Look," he says. "When Hamas calls upon people to return stolen goods the people comply — voluntarily, no less."

Imad al-Akad has been in the security force building before — four years ago. His eyes blindfolded, he was led through long corridors. The blindfold was only taken off once he had reached an overcrowded communal cell.

Akad was arrested because he had thrown stones at an army major who had allegedly raped a child. Akad, who was just 18 at the time, got off lightly — he was released after 11 days. He never saw the notorious isolation cells in the basement.

Today he has come here with friends to visit the place where he spent the worst days of his life. "One ticket for the complete tour, please," he says, joking with the Hamas men at the entrance.

(Spiegel Online – June 21, 2007 – www.spiegel.de)

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