JERUSALEM — Israelis knew it as Ketziot. Palestinians called it Ansar 3. Both believed that the sprawling prison camp in the Negev desert was a painful piece of their shared past that they had left behind forever.
But in the midst of Operation Defensive Shield, Israel's massive military sweep through the West Bank, the Israeli army announced that it had reopened Ketziot, closed six years ago as Israel and the Palestinians began implementing the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
For many on both sides of this increasingly bloody and bitter conflict, there is no more powerful symbol of the death of hope here than the rebirth of Ketziot.
Opened in 1988, Ketziot grew to be the single largest detention center for Palestinians arrested during their first revolt against Israel's military rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Thousands of Palestinians were held in the camp's tents at any one time. Many of them were academics, professionals, poets and political activists who were never charged with crimes.
Ketziot became the subject of countless Palestinian poems, novels, plays and other writings. The camp's vast size, its remoteness and the harsh conditions there made it a potent symbol for Palestinians.
They named it Ansar 3 after the prison camp that Israel opened during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Nearly 10,000 Palestinian, Lebanese and other prisoners were housed in the original Ansar, named for the Lebanese village it was built near. Ansar 2 was a prison Israel established in the Gaza Strip. But it was Ansar 3 that captured the imagination of Palestinians.
"And Ansar will sing its intifada/To the intifada beyond/And the horizon still faces them/And the songs of praise to the martyrs/Pouring sunlight into the chest/And my heart, oh Ansar/My heart is not consoled," ends the poem "Exodus to Ansar 3," written by Al Mutawakil Taha, a Palestinian poet who served 18 months in Ketziot in the 1980s.
Men on both sides who lived through Ketziot's first incarnation, and who still remember the heroes' welcomes the last prisoners released from the camp received when they were bused back to their communities in Gaza and the West Bank, have expressed dismay that it is once again housing Palestinian prisoners.
"It feels like we are on a roller coaster that is taking us back to times we all wanted to leave behind and we don't have control over the direction we're heading," said Ron Krumer, who in the 1980s served in the Israeli military bureaucracy that ran civil affairs in the West Bank.
"Ansar 3 was established to break Palestinian morale and to stop the first intifada, and it was a failure," said Nabhan Khreisheh, a Palestinian imprisoned in Ketziot for six months in 1988 on unspecified charges. "Now they want to try again to break our morale, to punish Palestinians who are politically active.
"In reopening Ansar, they are saying to the Palestinians, 'Look where your leadership has brought you.' But I do not think it will work this time either," Khreisheh said.
The Israeli army denies that it had any political motivation for reopening the prison. For the army, the move was purely practical. With the collapse of the peace process and the outbreak of the current intifada in September 2000, arrests of Palestinian militants surged. Detention centers to house Palestinian prisoners were overcrowded even before the latest military offensive.
One week after Operation Defensive Shield began in late March, the army started transferring Palestinian prisoners from Ofer prison, in the West Bank, to Ketziot, about 30 miles southwest of the desert city of Beersheba, not far from the border with Egypt.
More than 4,000 Palestinians have been arrested since March 29, according to an army spokesman. Of those, 1,700 were still being held at the beginning of this week. Among the detainees are 385 Palestinians who are being administratively detained--held without being charged--for six months. The army says the number of administrative detainees is higher than it has been since the first intifada, which lasted from 1987 until 1993.
Prisoners began arriving at Ketziot on April 10. Human rights organizations believe that about 300 Palestinians are now being held there. Echoing complaints about the U.S. detention of Al Qaeda and Afghan fighters at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, several rights groups have charged that the transfer of West Bank Palestinians to a prison inside Israel violates the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits holding prisoners in a country other than their own.
"We have complained to the attorney general, and if we don't like his answer to our complaints, we will go to the High Court of Justice," said Hannah Friedman, executive director of the Israeli Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. Friedman said prisoners complain that they do not have enough blankets and that they are sleeping on thin pads on the ground. Food, she said, is inadequate, and water is scarce.