The Israeli Defense Forces have taken some 9,000 to 10,000 Palestinians and Lebanese prisoner in south Lebanon. Because the Israelis have not released lists of names or figures, the exact number of prisoners currently held cannot be determined. The IDF itself has released its estimate of 7,000 to 9,000 detainees. [1] Correspondents in the area thought that the al-Ansar prison camp constructed by the Israelis near Nabatiyya in south Lebanon housed anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000 prisoners in mid-July. Although 600 detainees were released in the first week of July, and 212 children were released to the International Committee of the Red Cross on July 18, new detainees continue to arrive at the camp — some 400 on July 18, for instance. Throughout July and into August, more people were being arrested every day in the cities and villages of south Lebanon. [2] Most prisoners have probably been transferred to al-Ansar by now, but an unspecified number continue to be held in northern Israel. [3]

Who Was Detained

The IDF arrested all adult male Palestinians, and anyone else with any supposed connection with the PLO. “The Israeli blitz has changed the face of the region. There appear to be virtually no Palestinian men between the ages of 16 to 60 free in southern Lebanon.” [4] In the ruined Palestinian refugee camps of the south, a Western diplomat reported that: “We could only see a lot of homeless women and children. Every young man over 14 had been taken away. Only a few pitiful old men were left trying to clear up what was left of their houses.” [5] In the refugee camp of ‘Ayn al-Hilwa, observers reported the “remarkable” absence of Arab men between about 16 and 50. [6] Almost all foreigners associated with the many PLO social service organizations in the south were also arrested. At a time of great need of medical services, “most of the doctors, male nurses and ambulance drivers” from the hospital run by the Palestine Red Crescent in Sidon were arrested, leaving only one Belgian doctor working “frantically and alone.” [7] Of these many medical personnel detained, only three, from Norway and Canada, have been released.

The mayor of Sidon and the Roman Catholic archbishop of Tyre protested the mass arrests as “arbitrary.” According to Ahmad Kalash, Sidon’s mayor, “The prisoners are my biggest problem…. They are arresting so many — not only Palestinians but a lot of Lebanese. I’ll give you an example of how random it is. A student from the United States had only been here for two days and he was arrested.” [8] In an ongoing hunt for suspects, the IDF has continued pre-dawn “surprise searches” in camps, villages and cities. During the second week of July, some 500 to 600 men were arrested in the rubble of ‘Ayn al-Hilwa alone. IDF jeeps carrying hooded men cruise Sidon and Tyre or descend suddenly on a village to arrest all those whom the incognito accusers select. [9] Lebanese villagers have complained that the collaborators employed to identify “PLO friends” also use the occasion to settle personal scores. [10] Once a man is arrested, there are neither charges nor family notification of the arrest or the whereabouts of the prisoner. As one woman, waiting in a crowd outside the interrogation center in Sidon‘s Safa Citrus Corporation described it: “I was walking down the street with my husband, and the hooded ones were in a jeep across the road. They pointed at my husband and the soldiers took him. That was weeks ago. I come here every day but I hear nothing.” [11]

Many families in south Lebanon do not know if their missing men are imprisoned or free, dead or alive. With all the men gone, Palestinian communities are suffering mental anguish and material hardship. The families are frantic: “When a stranger walks down their [the Palestinians’] street in Sidon, they pour out of the deserted shops and crowd around, pressing in to tell their stories in voices pitched near hysteria. Almost all of them are women and children. The men and teenage boys are gone, ‘in Israel’ the women say as they reach out with snapshots of their imprisoned husbands, sons and brothers, shouting their names in the hope that the stranger can help.” [12] Desperate and despairing, women have demonstrated and even thrown stones at armed Israeli soldiers, crying “We want our men!” [13]

Treatment of Prisoners

After arrest, most prisoners apparently spent a few days in interrogation centers in Lebanon, then were transferred to the Megiddo detention center in northern Israel for further interrogation, and finally were bussed to the al-Ansar camp Nabatiyya. During an initial period of detention in makeshift quarters in the south of Lebanon — schoolyards or commercial buildings — conditions were severe. According to Lebanese detainees since released, prisoners were kept bound and blindfolded, given no food and insufficient water, and beaten when they complained. [14] Chris Giannou, the Canadian surgeon arrested in Sidon, described the scene of detention in a Sidon schoolyard to a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee as

one of savage and indiscriminate beatings of the prisoners by 40 Israeli guards. A prisoner would call out for water and be told that there was none. When he continued to call out, he would be insulted and then a guard would wade into the crowd and start to beat him. The physical abuse ranged from simple punching and kicking to beatings with wooden sticks, plastic hose or even a bunch of pieces of rope with nuts and bolts tied to the ends; a sort of modern cat-o’-nine-tails. One Palestinian, Dr. Nabil, was at one point hung by his hands from a tree and beaten. An Iraqi surgeon, Mohammed Ibrahim, was beaten by several guards viciously, and left to lie in the sun with his face buried in the sand. [15]

Oyvind Moeller, a Norwegian social worker who had been working at a rehabilitation center for handicapped children in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa, was also there:

There was a man, 60 some years old. He was now desperate. The heat was unbearable. We had had no water. He got up and staggered forward. He tried to kick an Israeli soldier in the leg to get his attention. Four or five soldiers jumped him and kicked and beat him. They used plastic hoses, sticks, the ropes with knots and then kicked him with their boots. They kept this up for ten minutes. Dr. Berge was with me and we both agreed that it was at least ten minutes. It was terrible to watch. It seemed to go on forever. This took place in front of everybody. Such savage beating went on constantly in the yard but not in front of the entire group. For ten minutes they pounded and beat him everywhere: in the groin, the stomach and the head. Yes, all over his body. When they were finished beating him he lay still. Then they tied his heels together and tied the rope to his wrist so he was trussed up in an arch, lying on his stomach with his head pulled up by the tautness of the rope around his heels and wrists. It was sickening…. [Later] I saw him. He was no longer trussed up. He lay motionless in the sun with three others. They all seemed dead. They were piled on top of each other, their motionless limbs intertwined. They were swollen, none moved. That was the last I saw of that old man. [16]

Giannou’s testimony also spoke of similar conditions in the prison at Megiddo:

The prisoners were bound and left outside with food and water scarce and beatings frequent. The prison at al-Ansar, where most detainees are now being kept, was built in ten days by Israeli contractors. A large compound surrounded by a high dirt embankment topped with barbed wire, it consists of tents pitched in rows of 300 each on packed sand. Watchtowers with searchlights and armed guards are placed at 75-yard intervals. [17]

Journalists have not been allowed open access to the prison camp, so that conditions there have been difficult to document: Only one pool of reporters was permitted to interview three prisoners, handpicked by the Israelis. No one has left the prison except the 212 boys under age 16 released on July 18. Their reports include: “sardine-like overcrowding”; a requirement that all detainees remain stretched out on an Israeli-provided blanket at all times, day and night; and the presence of only one doctor for the prisoners and no infirmary. [18] The Israelis, on the other hand, claim that the prisoners enjoy freedom of movement and a clinic in each compound. [19]

The attitudes of their captors do not bode well for these detainees. According to one al-Ansar prison camp guard: “These are very bad people, just animals.” [20] The released boys reported that on the trip from Megiddo to al-Ansar they were forced to sit on the floor of buses with their hands over their heads and “bark like the dogs you are.” [21] Nor is the future clear: The Jerusalem Post of July 19 reported “preparations for using the prison camp during winter months” in progress.

Status of Prisoners

The prisoners are being held as “administrative detainees” under the 1948 Defense Emergency Ordinances, still in force in Israel, which empower any officer with the rank of brigadier or above to authorize an arrest. Detainees can be held without trial, although the detention must be renewed every three months and “ultimately” they must be released or brought to trial. They may be interrogated and prosecuted, but no provisions are made for legal counsel or informing families.

The International Commission of Jurists has urged that Palestinian prisoners receive prisoner of war status under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 which covers “organized resistance movements.” Israel, however, has refused Palestinians and Lebanese POW status, on the grounds that they are “terrorists” and subject to an Israeli law which criminalizes membership in the PLO inside or outside Israel. Since the PLO is not an illegal organization in Lebanon, some lawyers believe that Israel is breaking international law by imposing Israeli laws on a foreign country, in addition to denying the appropriate POW status. [22] The PLO has accorded POW status to Israeli prisoners in the past, and regards its current prisoner, an Israeli pilot, as a prisoner of war. He has been visited twice by the Red Cross and been privately interviewed. [23]

In early July, Amnesty International called upon the Israeli government to account for all the prisoners it had taken in Lebanon and to treat them “in conformity with internationally accepted standards.” Amnesty further expressed its concern that the prisoners were being held incommunicado and being ill treated, while the Red Cross declared itself “scarcely satisfied” with Israel’s attitude toward its prisoners. [24] After more than a month of daily requests to the Israeli government, the Red Cross was finally granted permission to begin visiting prisoners at al-Ansar on July 18. On July 22, the Red Cross stopped its visits, a completely unprecedented move in the history of its association with the Israel-Palestine problem, and one which signaled strong displeasure. Those familiar with Red Cross regulations speculate that serious overcrowding of prison facilities or refusal by detaining authorities to permit private interviews at the prisoners’ place of detention might have prompted suspension of interviewing. [25] After Red Cross meetings with Israeli officials, the visits were resumed on July 26. The Red Cross maintains a tradition of “public discretion” and always refuses to discuss prisoner conditions. It has only said that it held discussions with Israel about “the general situation and conditions in this camp.” [26]


[1] Jerusalem Post, July 18, 1982.
[2] Times (London), July 20, 1982; Sunday Times (London), July 11, 1982; see also the interview with James Donaghue in this issue.
[3] Christian Science Monitor, August 5, 1982.
[4] Washington Post, July 28, 1982.
[5] Time, July 5, 1982.
[6] Times (London), July 9, 1982.
[7] New York Times, June 15, 1982.
[8] Sunday Times (London), July 18, 1982.
[9] Jerusalem Post July 14, 1982; Sunday Times (London), July 18, 1982.
[10] Christian Science Monitor, August 5, 1982.
[11] Sunday Times (London), July 18, 1982.
[12] New York Times, July 19, 1982.
[13] Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1982.
[14] Times (London), July 13, 1982; Sunday Times (London), July 18, 1982; Christian Science Monitor, August 5, 1982.
[15] Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, July 13, 1982.
[16] Interview in The Village Voice, July 27, 1982.
[17] Jerusalem Post, July 19, 1982; Times (London), July 20, 1982.
[18] Washington Post, July 28, 1982.
[19] Christian Science Monitor, August 5, 1982.
[20] Newsweek, July 26, 1982.
[21] Washington Post, July 28, 1982.
[22] Maariv, July 15, 1982; Sunday Times (London) July 18, 1982.
[23] International Committee of the Red Cross bulletin, July 21, 1982.
[24] Guardian (London), July 9, 1982.
[25] Washington Post, July 28, 1982.
[26] International Committee of the Red Cross bulletin, July 29, 1982.

How to cite this article:

Judith Tucker "The Prisoners of Israel," Middle East Report 108 (September/October 1982).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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