‘Big Brother mixed with Shakespeare’ — NPR reports on Palestinian youth’s cruel imprisonment

Israel/Palestine
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Ala'a Miqbel (shown here with his wife and their youngest son in their Gaza City apartment) was held for nearly four weeks in an Israeli prison, then released without charges. (Photo: NPR)

Ala’a Miqbel (shown here with his wife and their youngest son in their Gaza City apartment) was held for nearly four weeks in an Israeli prison, then released without charges. (Photo: NPR)

Here on the West Coast, NPR’s All Things Considered was preempted on Tuesday by Obama’s speech. But when I went to npr.org just to see whether I’d missed anything of note, I found an interesting report by Emily Harris on Israel’s arrest and interrogation of Palestinian named Ala’a Miqbel. A thirty-year-old from Gaza, he went for an interview with Israeli security – probably at the Erez crossing, though Harris doesn’t specify – in hopes of getting a permit to travel to a conference in the West Bank to which the U.S. consulate had invited him.

All Things Considered co-host Audie Cornish introduces the piece by saying Miqbel was “stunned to discover an Israeli interrogation technique that mixes Big Brother with Shakespeare.” But nothing in the report sounds like Shakespeare to me, except that the Israelis have collaborators play-act in an effort to entrap Miqbel. I can only guess that Cornish brought up Shakespeare – a reference with very positive connotations – in an effort to “balance” the negative associations of “Big Brother.’

Harris’s report itself, though, is straightforward – and damning. She explains that Miqbel thought he was going to a half-hour interview, but wound up being strip-searched, handcuffed, blindfolded, and tossed into a small, dirty cell. Then Miqbel, through a translator, describes how he was questioned:

In interrogation, there is a chair so low it breaks your back. They cuff your hands to it. Your feet are cuffed so it’s very painful. And it’s on a jack, so the interrogator can jerk you back and forth. Plus, behind me, an air conditioner was on and set to freezing.

Harris adds “No shower, no toothbrush, inedible food.” She then explains how, after four or five days, he was moved into an ostensibly “normal” cell with other Palestinian prisoners, where he had access to a shower, coffee, and cigarettes. Eventually he learned, however, that his cell mates, including an older man who functioned as “room leader” and plied him with questions about his background and friends, were all collaborators working for Israeli intelligence.

Harris goes on to quote Smadar Ben-Natan, an Israeli human-rights and criminal-defense lawyer, who explains to her that “the system takes advantage of mistrust among Palestinians built up over years, and despair developed over even a few days in solitary confinement,” and a former Israeli colonel, who tries to justify the routine as “just another version of good cop.”

Harris doesn’t try to suggest that there were any special circumstances that might, at least in the ears of some listeners, justify the way Miqbel was treated. On the contrary, she says “lawyers and human rights organizations say his experience is actually pretty standard.” In fact, he was almost certainly treated better than most prisoners – he was released without charges after less than four weeks in prison – probably because of his connection with the Americans, which Harris never explains.

On Wednesday’s All Things Considered, Cornish promises, Harris will be back with a related segment, “the story of one Palestinian man who worked in Israeli prison as an informant and why he’s proud of his work.” (Evidently the network has its finger on the pulse of a culture that seems, curiously, to have developed a sudden fascination with the phenomenon of collaboration: it’s the subject of “Omar,” a feature film by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad which was recently named one of the five finalists for an Academy award in the Best Foreign Film category; of “Bethlehem,” a new Israeli film the Academy didn’t nominate, much to the chagrin of its promoters (Gideon Levy dismissed it as “yet another Israeli propaganda film”); and of “The Green Prince,” a feature-length documentary about a Hamas leader’s son who converted to Christianity and became a Shin Bet agent – that one won the prestigious Audience Award for World Cinema: Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival this past weekend.)

I have my suspicions about the politics of the upcoming segment, but Tuesday’s, it seems to me, was one more appreciable chink in the image of Israel, an image that suddenly seems to be crumbling by the day. That’s certainly how most of the commenters on the story at NPR’s site – both critics of Israel and its outraged supporters – seem to be taking the report.

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