Israel's Torture Ban

by Alexander Cockburn

The Nation magazine, September 27, 1999


Every state tortures its subjects, the only variation being the refinement or intensity of pain, but so far as I know, Israel is the only state in modern times that made it legal. Back in the 1970s a Druze soldier serving in Israel's armed forces had the misfortune, during an investigation, to be tortured by the General Security Service, a k a Shin Bet. He was convicted of espionage and appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, which in 1987 convened a special commission, headed by retired Justice Moshe Landau, to review the whole question of torture, whose infliction Israel had for years furiously denied.

The commission duly pondered the conflict between solemn international covenants barring torture and the perceived security needs of Israel. It came down firmly on the side of the latter. A secret annex to its report, later leaked, sanctioned the use of "moderate physical pressure" against Palestinian detainees. Thus, in the very year that the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment-later endorsed by Israel-came into force, Shin Bet's torturers received the imprimatur of the state.

"Moderate physical pressure" sounds almost sedate. So does "shaking," until one discovers that more than once Israel's torturers have shaken their victims to death. One such victim was Abdel Samad Hraizat, brought to hospital unconscious less than twenty-four hours after his arrest on April 22, 1995, and pronounced dead on April 25. Thousands of Palestinians-never Jews-have experienced this "moderate pressure" since Landau made it legal.

Here's a typical account, given by a 1 5-year-old Palestinian, Riad Faraj, who was arrested for throwing stones in late 1987. "They handcuffed and beat me during the journey to Fara'a [a military prison in Nablus]. Once we arrived, they took me to a 'doctor' for a 'checkup.' I found out later that this 'checkup' is to locate any physical weakness to concentrate on during torture. They paid particular attention to my leg, which was once injured and was still sensitive. Before they began interrogation, they asked me if I was ready to confess. They then hanged me by my wrists, naked, outside in the cold, and gave me hot and cold showers alternatively. A hood covered in manure was put over my head."

Year by year the Supreme Court renewed its approval of torture, until September 6. That day, reviewing applications submitted by human rights groups, the court banned such acts as shaking, sleep deprivation, "frog crouching," chair perching, bag over the head.

The judges were not morally affronted by torture per se. Their narrow, newfound interest concerned the application of international law, and we can surmise that this sudden solicitude stemmed from the increasing outcry of Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights groups. But though the court did find that the provisions of international treaties to which Israel is a signatory are "absolute" and that "there are no exceptions to them and there is no room for balancing," it also said that there might be circumstances in which the interests of the state require torture: "If it will nonetheless be decided that it is appropriate for Israel, in light of its security difficulties, to sanction physical means in interrogations this is an issue that must be decided by the legislative branch.... we don't take any stand on this matter at this time." So the court carefully left the door open | for the Knesset to rush through a "ticking bomb" law, under the rationale that if a prisoner has knowledge of imminent violence, it's OK to use torture to extract | this information. Short of new law, there's always bureaucratic inventiveness. As Prime Minister Ehud Barak said, "The decision will make things very difficult for the Shin Bet, and...we need to find a way." A former Shin Bet official now in Parliament, Gideon Ezra, says, "I am sure that GSS will find new methods. Maybe they find a chair that is a little higher."

Eitan Fellner, head of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, says that "torture became a bureaucratic routine in all Shin Bet interrogation centers. We estimate that 85 percent of Palestinian detainees were tortured, though many were later released without a charge." In other words, there are tens of thousands of Palestinians who made confessions under torture that are now presumably invalid, and who are entitled to redress.

Truth be told, the torture issue in Israel does not reflect much glory on many human rights organizations. In the 1980s Amnesty International shirked the issue both before and after the Landau Commission, despite the efforts of people such as Professor Francis Boyle of the University of Illinois, who campaigned fiercely to make it take a stance. I talked to Boyle after the latest decision. "It's about time," he said and then recalled traveling to Israel in the mid-eighties to raise with Israeli officials the question of Nuremberg accountability for what Israel was doing to the Palestinians.

At the Israeli Justice Department the official in charge of matters affecting Palestinians, and thus a man well trained as an apologist for Israeli security forces, was an American emigre called Justus Reid Weiner. Weiner, now a "scholar in residence" at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, financed by Michael Milken and his family, is the author of a grotesque attack on Edward Said in the latest issue of Commentary. Boyle remembers telling Weiner that Jewish-American professors such as John Fried and Richard Falk were among those raising this question of Nuremberg accountability. "I shall never forget Weiner's response,' Boil recalls. "He said, 'There are large numbers of self-hating Jews living in America. That's why I moved to Israel.' At that point I realized I was wasting my time talking to a fanatical anti-Arab racist, so I terminated the conversation."

Although the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal gave much space to Weiner's slurs, neither would print Said's rebuttal. The Israeli daily Ha'aretz did so on September 8. That same day the Palestine Center for Human Rights in Gaza issued a statement on the Supreme Court's ruling, concluding with its "appreciation of the work of Israeli human rights organizations on this issue." Would that American Jewish groups could have merited such gratitude. Instead of which we find the Zionist Organization of America waving Weiner's attack and demanding that Said be evicted from his presidency of the Modern Language Association!

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