Subscribe Today

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1991, Page 41

Special Report

Speaking About the Unspeakable: Officially Sanctioned Torture

By Stephen J. Sosebee

The most disgusting and uncivilized human rights abuse is the use of torture. To bind a detained prisoner and then systematically inflict pain for the sake of extracting information, a "confession," or simply as punishment requires not only sadistic agents to carry out the dirty work, but also a corrupt government and evil leaders to authorize, or tolerate, such behavior. It is perhaps because Israel's systematic use of torture against Palestinian political prisoners is so reprehensible that it has not been forthrightly exposed by the American media.

It has been difficult enough for apologists for Israel in Congress, the media, academe, the clergy and, of course, national Jewish organizations to ignore such barbaric actions by Israeli soldiers and settlers as shooting unarmed civilians and children, blowing up homes, and detaining persons without trial (to name but a few gross crimes) over the past four years.

To have to answer for Israeli interrogators systematically beating, occasionally raping, and regularly applying electric shocks to bound and hooded non-resisting political prisoners is, however, an impossible task, even for those accustomed to turning a blind eye to anything the Israeli government does. Thus, discussion of torture in Israel and Palestine has been avoided at all costs in the United States, even by the otherwise progressive press and within the peace camp.

This does not, however, in any way alter the fact that the worst types of torture are common in Israeli prisons, that dozens of Palestinian civilians have died as a result of unspeakable physical abuse while in detention, and that systematic torture is practiced today by Israeli officials with the legal authorization of their government and the full knowledge of the US government.

Like all of the human rights violations commonly inflicted against Palestinians, torture has been used in the West Bank and Gaza not just since the outbreak of their uprising in late 1987, but since the start of the Israeli occupation in 1967.

In 1970, both the United Nations and Amnesty International issued reports charging Israeli authorities with practicing torture in the occupied territories. The International Red Cross and Israeli lawyers also reported the use of torture in Israeli prisons in the early and mid-1970s. In 1977, Israeli lawyer Felicia Langer wrote:

"The use of torture during investigations is a method, and I declare it as a lawyer who has dealt with thousands of cases. I have seen the marks of torture on the bodies of hundreds of my clients ... I knew prisoners who went mad as a result of torture ... Many people have died in prisons as a result of torture, or are condemned to a slow death because of the lack of medical treatment."

Israeli torture of Palestinian detainees became headline news in June 1977, when the London Sunday Times printed a detailed report which concluded that "torture of Arab prisoners is so widespread and systematic that it cannot be dismissed as `rough cops' exceeding orders. It appears to be sanctioned as deliberate policy."

In a two-year period between 1977 and 1979, the US consulate in East Jerusalem sent more than 40 cables to the State Department reporting that torture is a common practice employed by Israelis to extract confessions and to punish Palestinian prisoners. Documentation of Israeli torture, deaths of Palestinians under detention, and other abuses increased in the late 1970s. The absence of human rights organizations in Palestine in the late 1960s and 1970s makes it difficult to estimate the number of Palestinian prisoners who died in prison in the early years of Israeli occupation.

In 1982, reports of torture became widespread following the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon, especially at the Ansar detention camp. An incident in 1984, however, became the turning point in precise documentation of torture in Israel. Majid and Subhi Abujumaa were beaten to death by the Israeli secret police (the Shin Bet) following a failed bus hijacking in Gaza. The truth that the cousins were murdered during interrogation, and not during the storming of the bus as the Israeli government had reported, only surfaced after an Israeli newspaper printed a photograph of one of the men being led away in handcuffs. This incident led to the Landau Commission investigation into the practices of the Shin Bet. The Israeli Government Commission documented the use of torture to obtain confessions from detained Palestinians, yet none of the convictions based upon such coerced confessions reversed.

The Landau Commission

"The use of torture is common in countries, of course," Gazan lawyer Sourani, who has had more than one killed in detention, said last fall. "But government to come out and actually endorse it with a cabinet vote is, I think, quite rare. The Israeli government did just that it endorsed the Landau Commission recommendations, which read as follow "The Commission agrees that the fir and clearly delineated psychological physical pressures may legitimate] exerted in the interrogation of I suspected of terrorism and has proposed precise guidelines for the Shin Bet adopt."

The Commission's precise guidelines were not made public and there are still questions as to what exactly these recommendations were.

The Landau Report also found that Shin Bet agents had commonly used torture and then often lied about it openly in court. Israeli cabinet members from both Likud and Labor parties, following their endorsement of the use of "moderate physical pressure," also agreed not to prosecute Israeli officers who had lied in court, although they had lied under oath in violation of Israeli law.

Clearly, the purpose of condoning "limited physical pressure" on detained Palestinians is to extract the "confessions" that, in the Israeli military justice system, account for some 90 percent of all convictions, according to estimates of Israeli defense attorneys. Convictions on the basis of little or no evidence other than such torture coerced confessions are a violation of human rights law, which protects a suspect from being "compelled to testify against himself, or to confess guilt."

Almost at the same time that the Israeli government was officially endorsing the use of "limited physical pressure" on Palestinian detainees, Awad Harridan, a 21 year-old student, died under interrogation in Jenin prison. Though the authorities gave his family a variety of different explanations for his death, including a snakebite, relatives saw marks of a severe beating on his body at the time of his burial.

Empty Lies

Israeli denials of the use of extreme torture, far exceeding any possible definition of "moderate pressure," became empty lies during the intifada. Even the US State Department was forced to mention in its 1988 Annual Human Rights Report that not only had eight Palestinians died in detention, but that Israeli authorities often obtained "confessions" through "physical and psychological pressure."

The most commonly reported methods of torture in the occupied territories include starvation, sleep deprivation, hoods, beatings, humiliation, confinement in specially constructed cells, forced standing, and sexual harassment and abuse. There also are well documented reports of electric shock torture, conducted usually at AlFara'a prison near Nablus. As a result of electric shock treatment under interrogation in 1987, Izzo AlAwawdeh still suffers from "converse blindness."

Three main categories of physical abuse against Palestinian detainees are torture during interrogation, withholding medical treatment, and the use of excessive force in response to demonstrations. All three have caused deaths during the intifada.

A 1987 study by a Finnish doctor comparing the nature of torture used against Palestinians and against South American political prisoners found that:

"Beating of political detainees was equally common in both groups. Cold water torture, sexual molestation, and deprivation of food and drink were more commonly experienced by Palestinian detainees under Israeli interrogation than by South American detainees. The use of electric torture was more common among the South American prisoners."

The Israelis have employed torture not only to punish or extract information from detainees, but also as a means to influence a third party. One example is Mahmoud Zakarner, 19, from Kabatya village. Mahmoud had his testicles smashed in front of his uncle in an effort to force his uncle to provide the names of those who participated in the killing of a collaborator in February 1988. Mahmoud is now paralyzed and unable to speak as a result.

Efforts to Stop the Torture

Revelations and endorsement of torture by the Israeli government have prompted some Israelis to organize lobbying and information activities in an effort to put a stop to it. One such group, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, held a press conference in West Jerusalem on April 5, 1990, condemning the Shin Bet's use of torture during interrogation. In a statement released at that time, the group stated that torture is a serious problem in Israel "not just because the practice of torture is an affront to democratic values, but also because all the procedures are systematic."

Israeli human rights groups, such as B'Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, also have called on the Israeli government to stop permitting the use of torture during interrogation. Israeli authorities have concluded, however, that extracting information through the use of force is necessary to crush an uprising that is both popular and widespread.

The American government and its leaders are well aware of such Israeli practices and behavior, which have resulted in the documented deaths of nearly two dozen detainees in prison during the intifada. The US has refrained, however, from using its great leverage in an effort to stop it. As a result, American taxpayers, who continue to fund the occupation despite the reprehensible deeds carried out to keep it in place, are witting accomplices of the interrogators who torment bound prisoners and the Israeli government that permits and defines this as moderate physical pressure."

Stephen Sosebee is a free-lance writer from Kent, OH presently living in Gaza.