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Israel maintains a secret hospital for Gaza prisoners in the desert. Critics accuse them of mistreatment

JERUSALEM: Patients lie bound and blindfolded on more than a dozen beds in a white tent in the desert. Operations are carried out without adequate painkillers. Doctors who remain anonymous.
These are some of the conditions at Israel’s only hospital dedicated to treating Palestinians detained by the military in the Gaza Strip, three people who have worked there told the Associated Press, confirming similar reports from human rights groups.
Although Israel claims to be detaining only suspected combatants, it turns out that many of the patients were non-combatants who were arrested in raids, held without trial and eventually returned to war-torn Gaza.
Eight months after the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, allegations of inhumane treatment at the Sde Teiman military hospital are mounting, and the Israeli government is under increasing pressure to close it. Human rights groups and other critics say what began as a temporary place to house and treat insurgents after Oct. 7 has turned into a brutal detention camp with little accountability.
The military denies the allegations of inhumane treatment and says that all prisoners who needed medical care received it.
The hospital is located near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. Of the three employees interviewed by AP, two spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared government retaliation and public rebuke.
“We are condemned by the left because we do not do justice to ethical issues,” said Dr. Yoel Donchin, an anesthesiologist who has worked at Sde Teiman Hospital since its inception and still works there. “We are condemned by the right because they consider us criminals for treating terrorists.”
The military announced this week that it had formed a committee to investigate conditions at the prison camp, but it is unclear whether the hospital is part of the committee. Next week, Israel’s Supreme Court is due to hear arguments from human rights groups calling for the hospital to be closed.
Israel did not grant journalists or the International Committee of the Red Cross access to the facilities in Sde Teiman.
According to official figures, Israel has detained around 4,000 Palestinians since October 7, but about 1,500 have been released after the military determined they were not affiliated with Hamas. Israeli human rights groups say the majority of the detainees passed through Sde Teiman, the country’s largest detention camp, at some point.
Doctors there say they have treated many people who appeared to be non-combatants.
“Now we have patients who are not so young anymore, sick patients with diabetes and high blood pressure,” said Donchin, the anesthesiologist.
A soldier who worked at the hospital reported an elderly man who had a leg operation without painkillers. “He was screaming and shaking,” the soldier said.
Between medical treatments, the soldier said, patients are kept in the detention center, where they face squalid conditions and their wounds often become infected. There is a separate area where elderly people sleep on thin mattresses under floodlights and a foul smell hangs in the air, he said.
The military said in a statement that all detainees are “under reasonable suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities,” and would be examined upon arrival and taken to hospital if they require more serious treatment.
A medical worker who treated patients at the facility during the winter reported teaching hospital staff how to wash wounds.
Donchin, who has largely defended the facility against allegations of abuse but criticized some of its practices, said most patients are diapered and not allowed to use the bathroom. They are shackled at the arms and legs and blindfolded.
“Her eyes are covered all the time. I don’t know what the safety reason for that is,” he said.
The military denied the AP reports and said that patients were handcuffed “in cases where the safety risk required it” and were removed if they caused injury. Patients were rarely diapered, it said.
Dr. Michael Barilan, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Medicine who spoke to over 15 hospital staff, denied the reports of medical negligence. He said doctors were doing their best under difficult circumstances and the blindfolds arose out of “fear that (the patients) would take revenge on those who care for them.”
A few days after October 7, clashes broke out between around 100 Israelis and police outside one of the country’s largest hospitals. The incident occurred due to false rumors that a militant was being treated there.
Subsequently, some hospitals refused to treat prisoners because they feared that doing so would endanger staff and disrupt operations.
When Israel brought dozens of wounded Palestinians to Sde Teiman, it became clear that the facility’s infirmary was not big enough, Barilan said. An adjacent field hospital was built from scratch.
Israel’s Health Ministry outlined plans for the hospital in a memo released in December and seen by AP.
It said patients were being treated while handcuffed and blindfolded. The doctors, who were drafted by the military, would remain anonymous to protect their “safety, lives and well-being.” The ministry referred all questions to the military for comment.
Still, a report published in April by Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, based on interviews with hospital staff, said doctors at the facility face “ethical, professional and even emotional stress.” Barilan said staff turnover is high.
Patients with more complicated injuries have been transferred from the field hospital to civilian hospitals, but this was done secretly to avoid public attention, Barilan said. And the process is delicate: The medical worker who spoke to AP said one detainee with a gunshot wound was prematurely discharged from a civilian hospital to Sde Teiman within hours of treatment, putting his life in danger.
The field hospital is overseen by military and health officials, but Donchin said parts of its operations are run by KLP, a private logistics and security company that specializes in “high-risk environments” on its website. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Because the field hospital is not under the same command as the military medical corps, it is not subject to Israel’s Patient Rights Law, according to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.
A group from the Israel Doctors Association visited the hospital earlier this year but kept its findings secret. The association did not respond to requests for comment.
The military told AP that 36 Gazans have died in Israeli detention centers since Oct. 7, some of them from illnesses or injuries sustained in the war. The Israeli organization Physicians for Human Rights claims some died due to medical negligence.
Khaled Hammouda, a surgeon from Gaza, spent 22 days in one of the Israeli detention centers. He does not know where he was taken because he was blindfolded during the transport. But he said he recognized a picture of Sde Teiman and saw at least one detainee, a well-known Gaza doctor who was believed to have been there.
Hammouda recalls asking a soldier if he could take a pale 18-year-old who appeared to be suffering from internal bleeding to a doctor. The soldier took the teenager, administered intravenous fluids for several hours, and then brought him back.
“I told them, ‘He could die,'” Hammouda said. “They told me that was the limit.”

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