‘I feel complicit’: The moral dilemma of an Israeli doctor who treated Gaza prisoners in a detention and torture center

The Sde Teiman military prison, where the army is investigating deaths of Palestinian inmates, continues to detain prisoners from the enclave

Guerra entre Israel y Gaza
Israeli military truck loaded in Gaza with half-naked and blindfolded Palestinian detainees on December 8.Moti Milrod (AP)
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The prisoners — all from Gaza and some seriously injured — are held at all times in a supine position with their eyes covered. Their hands and feet tied to the bed, and they are naked except for a diaper, which they use to relieve themselves, and a quilt. An hour and a half visit is enough for a doctor to conclude that the Israeli army’s Sde Teiman detention, interrogation and torture center, and its field hospital, must cease to exist.

EL PAÍS interviewed the Israeli surgeon, who describes that scene. He is a man who — in view of the Hippocratic oath, the professional code that defends a patient’s well-being above all — feels “complicit” and “guilty” about the violations being committed by Israeli authorities at Sde Teiman. But he is aware that someone had to care for those detainees at risk of dying.

In the midst of the controversy, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the Supreme Court on Monday for Sde Teiman to be kept open to temporarily detain prisoners before they are transferred to other prisons. The Prosecutor’s Office reported, however, that the ultranationalist Itamar Ben-Gvir — who is the Minister of National Security and head of prisons — is hindering the process of relocating inmates. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, there are 166 prisoners at Sde Teiman. A few days ago, Ben Gvir proposed executing Palestinian prisoners with “a shot to the head,” according to a video that went viral.

The Israeli doctor, who requested during the telephone interview that details that could lead to his identification not be published, was authorized to care for one of the inmates, but they ended up asking him for help to care for two others. The three were in serious condition after being hit with large-caliber bullets in the abdomen, and one of them, also in the chest. He says, surprised: “They were shots from long guns.” The military personnel in charge do not have the capacity to take care of these types of patients, he says.

The doctor, who is not the only one who has accessed these facilities, located in the Negev desert (in the south of Israel, about 18 miles from the border with Gaza), describes the field hospital as a large white tent that houses between 15 and 20 beds. Although it was the middle of winter when he visited, it was open to the cold outside. Next door, several metal containers used in maritime transport are used to store medical supplies, all “provisional” facilities.

The doctor says that during his visit he was not able to verify first-hand any signs of torture such as electric shocks or beatings, despite the repeated complaints that have been made. But he clarifies that “being tied to a bed, unable to move, unable to see, unable to speak, unable to understand what is happening and with a diaper… Very cold. And with this going on for days and days, for weeks. I think that is already a form of torture.”

Amid the constant reports of abuses and deaths in the military prison, the Supreme Court and humanitarian organizations are putting more pressure on authorities to shut it down. The Israeli army is investigating 48 deaths of Gazans, 36 of which took place in Sde Teiman, according to Haaretz. In early June, the state told the Supreme Court that all the detainees were going to be transferred to other centers or returned to the Gaza Strip.

When asked by EL PAÍS about whether Sde Teiman — in a military base of the same name and near the city of Beer Sheva — is still in operation and how many prisoners are there, a military spokesperson only responds that 4,700 detainees have been detained there throughout the war. “We cannot comment further,” concludes the brief response.

Regarding the 36 deaths and possible results of the investigations, the spokesperson says that of the “approximately 70 investigations” opened, “some refer to the deaths of Palestinians, including the death of detainees during their transfer to military detention centers or in their own facilities, as well as other deaths that occurred during operations in the Gaza Strip.” “Most investigations are still ongoing,” adds the spokesperson.

The Israeli doctor’s description of the situation at Sde Teiman reflects what another doctor wrote in a letter to the authorities in March that was published by Haaretz. “Just this week, two prisoners had their legs amputated due to handcuff injuries, which unfortunately is a routine event,” said the letter.

Ethical doubts

During the conversation with EL PAÍS, the doctor often raised his ethical and deontological doubts about his visit. “Doctors should never treat patients with their eyes covered,” he laments, even though he ended up doing so. What happens in Sde Teiman “goes against any medical code and against [what is stipulated by] the World Health Organization,” he adds.

The latest controversy surrounding these facilities was sparked by the decision to release Mohamed Abu Salmiya, the director of Al Shifa, the largest hospital in Gaza, who was returned to Gaza along with 50 prisoners on Monday. His release has led to clashes within the Israeli government. Netanyahu has called for an investigation into his release, stating: “The place of this man, under whose responsibility our abductees were murdered and held, is in prison.”

Netanyahu is referring to security camera recordings — released by Israeli authorities — which show some of the Israeli hostages from the Hamas attack on October 7, in which Palestinian radicals murdered some 1,200 people, in Al Shifa Hospital. Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry, Israeli secret services and the prison service have avoided taking responsibility for Salmiya’s return to Palestinian territory.

The Sde Teiman center — which is exclusively for investigating people detained in Gaza — was launched at the start of the war last October. Given the “human rights violations,” the doctor thinks that “the only possible solution is to close the field hospital completely and treat these patients in real hospitals.” The Israeli NGO Physicians for Human Rights has the same opinion, recalling that the presence of medical personnel in these facilities is prohibited, according to a report on abuses presented in April. The report states that the Sde Teiman hospital was opened after different centers in Israel refused to treat Gazan prisoners, as they considered them “terrorists.”

“The medical staff working in this facility face a significant risk of committing severe violations of medical ethics,” says the document. The NGO argues that care provided to detained Gazans “falls far below acceptable standards,” departing from “established protocols and ethical norms in many cases.” Physicians for Human Rights also denounces political interference in the decision-making process in the healthcare field.

The NGO estimates that Israeli authorities have detained thousands of men, women, children and the elderly in Gaza since the fighting began in October and have kept them — and continue to keep them — completely isolated from the outside world. Detainees are often classified as “unlawful combatants,” which deprives them of being of prisoners of war status and prevents them from receiving visits from lawyers for prolonged periods, the report adds.

Given this reality, there is one last question for the doctor. How does he feel after treating patients in these conditions? “As an Israeli doctor who treats Gazans in these types of conditions, I am complicit. Deep down, it doesn’t matter why I did it, but from the moment I did it, I was part of this. Of course, I feel guilty.”

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