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!