“Human beings have no value here”: Fifteen years on still waiting for answers
It was 8.45pm when the phone rang.
“Ali is no longer at Salfit, he’s escaped to Israel,” the hoarse voice of a Palestinian security officer said on the other end of the line.
That phone call on 12 March 2002 was the last piece of official information the Al-Khdair family ever received about their son and brother, Ali.
Fifteen years later, they are still waiting to find out whether Ali Al-Khdair is dead or alive and what really happened to him.
He and five other Palestinian men were arrested by Palestinian security officers from their homes between February and August 2001. They were held in a detention centre run by the General Intelligence Service (GIS) in the central West Bank city of Salfit for 13 months. According to their families they said they were tortured and otherwise ill-treated in detention.
Their families say that the Palestinian security officers who detained them accused them of collaborating with the Israeli intelligence services. However, no formal charges are known to have been brought against the men, and they were never put on trial.
Since 2002 the six men have vanished without a trace. Amnesty International considers them all to be victims of enforced disappearance by the Palestinian authorities.
Enforced disappearance is defined as the arrest, detention, abduction or other form of deprivation of liberty of an individual by state agents or by a person or group acting with the authorization or support of the state, followed by a refusal to acknowledge their detention or by concealing their fate or whereabouts, with the effect of depriving the disappeared person of the protection of the law.
In reality those subjected to enforced disappearance have not simply vanished. Their whereabouts and fate, hidden from the outside world, are known by someone. Someone is responsible for these crimes.
To date, the Palestinian authorities have failed to investigate the allegations of torture against the six disappeared men and no one has been brought to justice for their enforced disappearance.
Ali’s sister, Inaam, received the news of the alleged “escape” with shock and incredulity. She had seen her brother just five days prior. They prayed, during the weekly visit, that their ordeal would be over and that Ali would soon be released.
Inaam says the version they have been given about Ali’s “escape” doesn’t add up with what they heard happened the next day at Salfit detention centre: all the detainees were released.
“Why were they all released, and only these six men are nowhere to be found?,” she told me this week by phone from Salfit. “God only knows what they did to them.”
On the day of his arrest on 9 February 2001 he had just turned 26. Inaam said he was a “simple man” who worked as a builder, and said that the family had relied on him financially.
“People feel afraid from both the Palestinian Authority and from Israel,” she said. “Human beings have no value here.”
Inaam said that when she visited her brother in detention she saw marks of cigarettes burns on his body, and bruises on his hands and feet, where he said had been in painful positions and beaten.
When Amnesty International raised the case of these men with Palestinian officials including the director of the GIS, Lieutenant Majid Faraj during a visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in 2014, he acknowledged the need for the authorities to address the issue but did not provide details about any steps or a timeframe for when this would happen. Amnesty International has not received an update since.
Fifteen years since their disappearance, the legacy of impunity continues to fuel abuses perpetrated by Palestinian security forces. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remains rife in Palestinian detention centres in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Basel Al-Araj, the Palestinian activist who was killed on 6 March 2017 by Israeli security forces, had also alleged that he suffered abuse at the hands of Palestinian GIS officers during his detention at an intelligence unit in Ramallah. During a court hearing on 11 April 2016 he said that he and other detainees were subjected to stress positions, sleep deprivation, beatings all over the body, insults and denial of use of the bathroom, according to the Palestinian NGO Addameer.
The Independent Commission for Human Rights, the State of Palestine’s national human rights institution, reported receiving a total of 522 allegations of torture between January 2016 and January 2017 from the West Bank and Gaza. Yet there is little accountability for these abuses.
The Palestinian authorities must make public the findings of any investigation they have carried out into the disappearance of the six men. It is also their responsibility to establish the truth about their fate and bring any perpetrators of enforced disappearance to justice as well as signing international treaties that would protect people from such violations to put an end to this practice once and for all.
“Justice would be for us to know where Ali is: is he alive or is he dead? Ultimate justice would be for Ali to return, and what comes after but is no less important is to regain his rights,” Ali’s sister Inaam said.
“[Until then] it’s as if we’ve completely lost our life without him.”
Families of the disappeared suffer the torment of not knowing the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones. They too are victims of this horrific, ongoing violation. Without independent, impartial and transparent investigations to establish the truth about the fate of those missing the prospects for justice remain dim.