Khaled el-Qaisi is finally free. The Italian-Palestinian student returned to Rome on December 9 after a month of detention (without charges) in an Israeli prison and another two months stuck in Bethlehem because his passport had been confiscated.
Let’s start at the end. After the October 7 Hamas attack, you were in Bethlehem as Israel launched its military offensive against Gaza. Meanwhile, the West Bank is seeing an escalation of violence against Palestinian communities by both the army and settlers. And mass arrests.
The situation is tense: a campaign of arrests has been underway throughout the West Bank since October 7. Bethlehem is second in the number of detainees after Hebron. The raids come daily, at all hours, at night, in the morning, in the late afternoon. A good number of arrests are made at checkpoints: all it takes is a previous history or some kind of report and you end up in administrative detention. At this point, most of those arrested no longer go through the interrogation stage, they go straight to administrative detention. There is a blatant attempt to increase the number of detainees, both for a future prisoner exchange and because pre-emptive arrests push people to not mobilize.
Going back to August 31. After your sudden arrest at the Allenby crossing, you were taken to Petah Tikva and placed under interrogation without being allowed to speak with your lawyer.
For the first two weeks, I had no contact with the lawyer, even though the initial ban on contact was 48 hours. As soon as I was arrested at the border, I was taken to a police office on the Israeli side of the crossing. They presented me with a set of documents that I assume were the arrest order and explanations of my rights, all in Hebrew. I didn’t sign anything; I didn’t know what was written in them. I refused to answer questions without a lawyer present. I was transferred to Petah Tikva, although in the first few days I didn’t understand exactly which facility I was in. I tried to take note of the road signs on the way. I realized that I was not in the Jalamah interrogation center, nor at Moscobiyeh. I was put in a cell in the temporary section, a kind of “reception” section, I got a brown uniform, the one for what they call “security detainees.” On the same evening, the interrogations began, which are at first carried out by Shabak (Shin Bet). The next day there was a court hearing, which extended my detention for a week. You usually end up before a military court in the West Bank, but I was in a civilian court, I think because of my Italian citizenship. In the first few days I refused any interaction with the interrogators because I could not see my lawyer. Four days after my arrest, I was told that the ban on contact had been renewed until the next court session, which was the following Thursday.
You spent over a month in prison. Under what conditions were you detained?
From the moment I arrived I completely lost track of time. I tried to orient myself by counting the meals, which were supposed to be three a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. But they are all the same, so I could not tell if it was day or night. I was always alone, in solitary confinement in a cramped cell, with the light on 24 hours a day. The light was very bright, it was hard to get to sleep. There were no windows. The rough plaster walls were dark gray, as was the floor. There was a clogged squat toilet; I avoided flushing so as not to flood the cell. There was a tiny sink for washing and drinking, hot water only, and an air vent that let out a jet of cold air, placed so that it was impossible to sleep without being under the jet. The mattress was only two to three inches high. They didn’t let me keep anything, I only had a clear plastic cup that was changed every few days upon request, a towel and a smelly brown fleece blanket. I also had a plastic spoon that they would only change after days and days and much insistence. The interrogations lasted many hours; I realized this because I would find two meals when I returned to the cell. I think on average they went from ten to 14 hours, partly because the officers changed when there were shift changes. I was sitting in a chair fixed to the floor, the kind you use in school but raised in the middle and leaning forward: it was impossible to sit in it for more than a few minutes without feeling noticeable discomfort. I had my hands and feet tied to the chair and an air conditioner 40-50 centimeters away blowing cold air.
Then you were transferred to Ashkelon. Were you also in solitary confinement there?
In Ashkelon Prison I was sent to the “farce section” with about 40 inmates. As I later learned, it’s called “farce” because they were all collaborators with Shabak. That’s one of the techniques they use: transferring you to a detention facility with fake prisoners to get information from you. I stayed for four days, more or less. And then they moved me to the interrogation center in Ashkelon, again in solitary confinement, in a cell identical to the one in Petah Tikva. Finally, one night, without any warning, I was taken to Bethlehem. There I was loaded onto an army truck and taken to the military base above Beit Jala. They transferred me to another truck, blindfolded, and took me home. Not to free me, as I later realized. They tried to break down the door, but they couldn’t because it’s an old iron door. They phoned my brother and told him he had to show up there with the key, threatening him, telling him that I was also present and that he had to hurry. It was 4 a.m. He came running. The soldiers searched the house, ransacking and destroying everything. Then they loaded both him and myself into the truck and took us to the military base. I was taken back to Petah Tikva, without having the slightest idea what had happened to my brother. The interrogations started again, with new pressure because they had convinced me that my brother was also under interrogation. But at least I was able to meet with my lawyer after two weeks of detention. He was completely in the dark, because my file was sealed. I learned from my lawyer that my brother had been released a few hours later.
You were released a month later. What happened?
The legal deadline for holding someone under interrogation is 30 days, after which there are three options. The first is release if no useful information has come to light to formalize a charge. The second is to apply for a special extension to the Supreme Court, which can grant a renewal up to a maximum of 90 days in total. The third is sending you to administrative detention if you have no elements to formalize charges but they want to prolong the detention. In my case, there were no elements to formalize charges. From what I was told, they asked for an extension but it was not granted. That left only release or administrative detention. And, in fact, one of the threats during the last period was exactly this: if you don’t give us elements to formalize charges, we’ll send you to administrative detention, where you can stay indefinitely. That’s what they were saying: you’d better have formalized charges because you have to do some jail time anyway and it’s better to know when you’ll be able to go home instead of going from one six-month renewal to the next. Why didn’t they proceed with administrative detention? For one simple reason: my Italian citizenship. It would have been embarrassing to sentence a foreign national to a type of detention where you’re not given due process. What should be a right becomes a privilege, which unfortunately many do not have. Like my cousins, both of whom were arrested to pressure me. On October 8, one of them was sentenced to five months of administrative detention without even being brought to court.
After your release, they confiscated your documents. You couldn’t return to Italy.
On October 1, I was released after 32 days, with restrictions: I couldn’t have any kind of contact with people involved in my file. But the file is sealed; I had no idea who might be in it. I had absolutely no contact with anyone, to prevent them from arresting me again for violating the terms imposed by the court. My lawyer managed to obtain an exception for first-degree relatives, my mother, brother, wife and son. One of my relatives had to act as guarantor and sign a guarantee of 10,000 shekels in case I didn’t meet the terms. The prohibition to leave the country was also a heavy burden, made concrete by them withholding my passport. It was to be withheld until October 8, but everything changed the day before and we could no longer find out where my documents were kept. Not only did I not have a passport, but I didn’t even have the Palestinian ID card needed to cross the Allenby crossing. In order to apply for a new one, I had to produce a document from the Red Cross stating that I had been detained in a certain prison, in a certain period. But I wasn’t allowed to receive visits from the Red Cross, so they could not issue me such a document. Eventually, after a thousand obstacles, I got my passport back at the end of November through another lawyer, because mine was arrested in the meantime.
On what grounds?
He’s still in prison; prosecutors are expected to file formal charges of inciting terrorism. What he did was take part in a rally in Umm el-Fahem (a Palestinian town inside Israel, n.ed.) against the bombing of Gaza. He spoke for a few minutes on the microphone, and it’s impossible to find any trace of incitement to terrorism in his speech by any stretch of the imagination: he merely called for an end to the bombing of the Gaza Strip while denouncing the killing of thousands of civilians.