Just north of Metula, there is a hill in Israel that offers a breathtaking view of the northern Galilee, the upper Jordan valley and southern Lebanon. Also within view from this hill, about ten kilometers north of Metula — in what Israel calls its “security zone” and the Lebanese call territory occupied by Israel — is a well-defended stone building known as Khiam prison, the largest interrogation and torture installation in Lebanon. While the South Lebanon Army (SLA) directly manages the installation, it is but a subcontractor, an unskilled worker who takes orders directly from the big boss — the state of Israel.

“Compared to Khiam, the prisons in the territories are five-star hotels,” a senior official in the Israeli army recently commented. Amin ‘Isa, a 35-year-old Lebanese, released from Khiam in September 1991 after five years of imprisonment, says, “Life there is hell. We lived all the time on the brink of death.” There are no Israeli settlements in southern Lebanon, yet the signs of occupation are many: closures, curfews, check posts, sealed and demolished homes, mass arrests and interrogations. “Southern Lebanon is the Wild West. There is no judicial structure or normative framework within which the occupying forces operate,” said an Israeli lawyer who is in contact with Lebanese detainees. “Just as in the Wild West, the sheriff does as he pleases.” Moreover, the war in Lebanon is conducted without Israeli media coverage. Journalists may enter the war zone, both from the north and the south, but only with the consent and in the company of the forces on the ground. Israeli or foreign journalists who cross the border from the south only see what is wanted by the Israeli army. Likewise, Hizballah only releases information that suits it, usually heroic video films.

A., a regular soldier in the intelligence unit in Lebanon in the second half of the 1980s, reports: “In those years Lebanon was like a jungle. Khiam was ‘our’ prison. The guys from intelligence would come to the jail and bring their drivers to beat the detainees. That was their hobby, their release. Outside, ‘light’ detainees would wash the army’s vehicles. In the interrogations they would take two telephone cables, attach them to the body, turn the lever to increase the current and ask questions. SLA security agents would come from time to time. In fact, there were death squads that our people trained. These guys had free passes to Khiam, and they would come to settle accounts. If someone had an account with a detainee from a village he would come to the prison and eliminate him. Some of the prisoners were terrorists, some collaborators and others were there for no reason — any person walking in the streets without an explanation was a potential terrorist.”

Many of the detainees are members of organizations that actively oppose Israel’s presence in Lebanon, mainly Hizballah. Some detainees were caught during hostile activities. Some engaged in political and ideological activity. The distinction, however, is of no interest to the Israeli army or the SLA. Many are arrested for refusing to pay extortion taxes to the SLA or for telling their sons not to join SLA ranks.

In November 1996, Lebanese news agencies reported on a wave of arrests in the town of Jazzin, [1] during which youths who refused to join the SLA were arrested. We will never know if they were draft resisters, tax evaders or senior Hizballah officials. In Khiam, there are no judges, trials, lawyers, evidence or arguments. There is no law or judiciary. An Israeli army jeep or an SLA Mercedes stops at a house and orders someone to come with them for a talk. He might return after one, five or ten years, or perhaps never. Women and children are no exception. At its peak, there were dozens of women in special wards in Khiam. The youngest detainee, as far as is known, was 12-year-old Rabi‘ Shahrour, taken for interrogation apparently to put pressure on his brother. He returned home eight months later.

The building that currently serves as Khiam prison was built in 1933 by the French Mandate forces that ruled Lebanon. The excellent location — overlooking the town al-Khiam, with a population of 60,000 — convinced them to build the headquarters of the French army there. Originally, most of the detainees’ cells were horse stables. In 1943, the Lebanese army took over the building and in 1978, after the Litani operation, the SLA captured it and turned it into their command headquarters and an interrogation center. In 1985, when Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon, other detention camps were closed down and prisoners were concentrated in Khiam. Today, according to Red Cross figures, about 150 people are imprisoned there.

As far as is known, the only one permitted to take an accompanied tour of the installation was an American Time magazine reporter. He was taken on a short tour of the cells and summed up his impressions as follows: “Outside the summer sun shines, but in the detainees’ cells there is perpetual darkness. Light and air hardly penetrate through the small, barred windows located near the ceiling. Small electric bulbs add a faint light. Seconds pass before one’s eyes get used to the darkness and you notice the details. On the floor measuring about 12 square meters are five thin rubber mattresses covered with gray blankets. In the corner there is a large black plastic container serving as a toilet, and some plastic jugs of water. Additional blankets and clothes, tied in rope, hang on the walls. The heavy odor of human sweat and disinfectants permeates the air. Absolute silence. Only the clanging of doors opening and closing is heard. A prisoner who opens his mouth and speaks without being asked loses his right to the longed-for daily walk in the ‘sun yard.’”

Except for that brief visit by the Time reporter, all the testimonies and reports on what goes on within the walls of the prison are by prisoners who were incarcerated there and then released. Some were interviewed by Amnesty International representatives in Lebanon. Others, transferred to prisons in Israel, issued affidavits and testimonies through contact persons. Most of them, who still live in southern Lebanon, fear to give their names. The particulars of people giving testimony who are now imprisoned in Israel have been withheld by Israeli editors. These testimonies address the situation existing in Khiam one or two years ago, sometimes more. Exactly what goes on there now will be learned from those who have yet to be released.

During the first period of stay in the prison, the detainee undergoes interrogation. It might last an hour or six months. When he is not in the interrogation room, he is kept in a one-meter square solitary confinement cell. The various torture methods are repeated in great detail in almost all the testimonies: the use of electric shocks, boiling and cold water, dry blows, various types of tying, ear-shattering whistling in detainees’ ears, placing a pot over the head and constant drumming on it and other methods. Some terms from the lexicon of detainees in Khiam: falaqa — beating on the tips of the toes with whips and cables; balanko — hanging by the elbows shackled behind the back; “chicken coop” — a small cell about 20 inches long, 20 inches wide and 28 inches high, used to “soften” a detainee during the interrogation or calm “troublemakers.” The detainee is shoved into it in a sitting position with his head between his raised knees.

A., who was imprisoned in Khiam for three and a half years, recounts his first interrogation, “I was taken outside to a small yard where I had to stand for about one hour, then a guard took me to the interrogation room. The person who sat there introduced himself as K. and started questioning me. ‘To which organization do you belong?’, I replied: ‘I don’t belong to any.’ He threatened to bring my relatives and started to beat me, first with his hands. Then he brought an electrical instrument, with cables about two meters long. He put them on my two fingers and started to turn the handle, at first very slowly, then faster. Then he said: ‘That isn’t enough for you?’ and continued to beat me. Then he took my pants and underpants down and put one cable on my penis and the other on my finger. He started to turn the handle, faster and faster, I jumped up and down. He repeated the shocks two or three times in the course of two hours of interrogation. The entire time he poured water on the areas to which he attached the wires. From there, I was taken to a solitary cell.”

At the end of his interrogation, the prisoner joins the routine in the prison. This includes blue uniforms and completely shaved heads, crowding, filth, drinking water with bugs floating in it, rare showers, relieving oneself in containers in the cell and insufficient meals. The Time reporter heard from the prisoner Ibrahim al-Bazi, a 27-year-old electrician from Bint Jubayl: “We do not hear radio or watch TV, do not receive newspapers, books or any reading material. The only thing you can do is speak in a very low voice with your cell mates. The only entertainment was to tell each other about the films we had seen, pray, think up poems and memorize them because we did not have any writing materials.”

The Red Cross, which prides itself on being able to penetrate even the darkest corners, reaching every prisoner on the face of the earth, struggled for ten years with Israeli governments and Gen. Antoine Lahad, commander of the SLA, to permit its delegation to enter the prison. Ultimately, the visit was permitted in October 1985. The activity of the Red Cross, worthy as it may be, contains a paradox: They are not permitted to report their findings to the world. Its charter prevents its staff from speaking with journalists or stating their views. They send their findings to the concerned parties and to them alone. Red Cross members argue that only that way can they win the confidence of the harshest regimes, visit the most isolated prisoners and give them a glimmer of hope and contact with the outside world. Until 1988, a prisoner was entitled to one five-minute monthly visit. It was decided then that even that was too much. In early 1995, the visits were reinstated, but only for some prisoners. Khadija ‘Attawi met with her son Sharif for ten minutes. She unsuccessfully tried to push her hands through the barbed wire to touch him. Later, she told a news agency reporter: “As long as he was in front of me, I saw that he was making an effort not to cry. But in the end, when they dragged him away, he broke down and shook with sobs.”

Some of the cells in Khiam are located underground in constant moisture and almost absolute darkness. It is extremely cold in the winter, hot and suffocating in the summer. In 1996, in one wave of releases, doctors at a Beirut hospital examined a group of former Khiam detainees. “The prisoners in Khiam prison underwent severe torture, beyond human imagination,” one of the doctors, Ra’if Rida, told reporters. Rida and his colleagues reported that some of the detainees’ fingers had been broken in prison and that some of their fingernails had been pulled out. As the result of the beatings, many experienced chronic headaches and impotency. Others suffered from low blood pressure in their legs as the result of standing for long periods. The darkness and moisture caused bad eyesight and asthma. Among emotional problems, physicians mentioned depression, sleep disorders and irregular appetites. Some of the prisoners suffered memory loss.

Death in Detention

Not everyone survives the stay in Khiam’s underground interrogation cells. According to findings by the London branch of Amnesty International, on December 11, 1994, Israeli forces arrested Lebanese citizen ‘Ali Mahmoud al-Ghoul who, on his way from Nabatiyya to Marjayoun, was taken for questioning with others from the same town. In the course of the interrogation, he was beaten on his head with a steel rod and from there was taken to a hospital in Marjayoun. On Christmas Eve, at the age of 51, he died in the hospital two weeks after his arrest. Salim ‘Awwada was released from Khiam on September 11, 1994. In a coma, he was taken to al-Jibali hospital in Sidon and died there two and a half months later. In January 1996, 28-year-old Haytham Dabaja died after a ten-year stay in Khiam. The circumstances of his death are unclear. Qadri Abu Wasal, director of the Nazareth-based Friends of Prisoners and Detainees, tried to construct a list of the Khiam dead. The updated list — a large part of which is compatible with data compiled by Amnesty International in London — documents 14 cases.

What is Israel’s role in all this? Israel, by its own admission, has a fourfold interest in Khiam: deterring and terrorizing potential opponents in its “security zone;” imprisoning actual opponents; collecting and cross-referencing information by means of interrogation; and, perhaps most importantly, maintaining a “bank” of hostages to exchange for the release of Ron Arad (an Israeli pilot shot down in Lebanon in the 1980s). Israel argues that for years “Khiam prison has been maintained exclusively by the SLA,” and denies any involvement in or ability to influence what happens there. In practice, however, it is involved in nearly every decision about the prison-especially releases. According to countless testimonies, it is also involved in the day-to-day life of the prison, including interrogations.

Israel, as is well known, regularly trains and funnels funds and arms to the SLA. The establishment of Khiam prison is no exception. Israeli army soldiers who served in Lebanon still recall how they would accompany Israeli investigators to the gates of Khiam prison. Sometimes these investigators were military intelligence interrogators, sometimes internal Israeli security agents. Prisoners testified that they heard Hebrew or Arabic spoken with a Hebrew accent in the interrogation rooms. Some interrogators introduced themselves as Israelis. Prisoners transferred to Israel said they met the same interrogators on both sides of the border.

Prisoners described a division of labor with a clear hierarchy: the Israeli interrogator participated in interrogations as the “supervisor” who asked questions and maintained a distance, while the beatings were done by the SLA. Most testimonies concerning the involvement of Israelis in the interrogations relate to earlier years. About a month ago, however, after two soldiers from an Israeli unit were killed by a mine near ‘Arqaba village. Israeli army forces entered the village and arrested dozens of residents who were taken to Khiam for interrogation. Undoubtedly, representatives of the Israeli security forces awaited them.

When it wants, Israel has complete control over Khiam. In September 1991, in exchange for information on the fate of two Israeli soldiers, Rahamim Alsheikh and Yosef Fink, 51 detainees were released from the prison. During the course of 1996, a total of 75 prisoners were released, most of them during the summer, in exchange for bodies of the two Israeli soldiers. In March 1993, Gen. Lahad, with Israel’s approval, allowed prisoners from Khiam to broadcast greetings to their relatives over his SLA-controlled radio. The program, grotesquely called “Greetings and Songs from Khiam Prison,” was very popular. According to Israeli security sources, this was intended to pressure Hizballah leaders to advance negotiations for the release of Israeli prisoners. Later, Uri Lubrani, Israeli army coordinator of activities in Lebanon, stated in an interview broadcast on SLA-controlled radio that “Hizballah leaders know that the fate of their prisoners is linked to the fate of Israeli prisoners.” The best illustration of this Lebanese bog in which Israel is wallowing is the story of Yasmin ‘Afifi. ‘Afifi, from Shatila refugee camp, was arrested at the age of 17 near the village of Kila in the “security zone.’ Interrogated in Israel, she was represented by a lawyer. Later, she was transferred to Khiam. ‘Afifi’s mother contacted her Israeli advocate through a third party abroad and the latter wrote to the military prosecution in March 1993, demanding to know the reason for ‘Afifi’s detention, why she was not brought before a judge and in what conditions she was being held. When the lawyer petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court, the hearing was scheduled for August 1994. On August 4, 1994, the lawyer received a letter written by Nili Arad, then director of the supreme court department in the state attorney’s office: “According to an announcement by Israeli military authorities, Gen. Lahad decided to release five women detainees, among them, Yasmin ‘Afifi. She was released yesterday into an area outside southern Lebanon. In these circumstances, your petition is redundant. We have informed the court that it is withdrawn.” ‘Afifi spent six years in Khiam, from the age of 17 to 23. By chance, she was released hours before her case was to be discussed by the court. That was to be the first and last time there was any connection between Israel’s rule of law and its backyard dungeon in southern Lebanon.

The Israeli army spokesman responded: “Khiam prison belongs to the SLA and is under exclusive responsibility of Gen. Lahad. The Israeli army is not involved in what happens within the prison walls and is only responsible for the actions of its forces in the security zone.”

Editor’s Note: A longer version of this article originally appeared in the January 17, 1997 edition of Ha‘ir, a Tel Aviv weekly, and Kol Ha‘ir, a Jerusalem weekly. It was translated from the Hebrew by Israel Shahak.


[1] This is an enclave, north of the “security zone” proper and joined to it by a long corridor. Officially, it is controlled by the SLA alone. Its existence is ignored by the Israeli and Western media since it cannot be justified by Israel’s “security needs.”

How to cite this article:

Aviv Lavie "Never-Never Land," Middle East Report 203 (Summer 1997).

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