Subscribe Today

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October/November 1998, pages 22, 102

Affairs of State

Israel Ignores U.S. Protests Over Torture, Detention Of Young American Citizen in Israeli Prison

By Eugene Bird

It is not the first time an American citizen has been tortured by Israeli interrogators, but the case of 18-year-old Hashem Mufleh is particularly outrageous. Israeli security police pulled him out of line at Ben-Gurion Airport as he was about to board a departing aircraft, arrested him, and refused to let his mother talk to him. Israel has ignored State Department protests, made after Mufleh’s case was taken up by a number of Americans including a journalist, Malcolm Brenner, from The Independent, a newspaper in Mufleh’s home town of Gallup, New Mexico.

Hashem Mufleh was returning to the United States after completing high school in Ramallah on the West Bank. He has been held without charge since his Aug. 18 arrest. Relatives say he has suffered the usual methods of interrogation under torture, including “the chair,” in which he has been bound in uncomfortable positions for days at a time, sleep deprivation, and continuous extremely loud music.

The interrogators told him the torture would continue until he signed a confession in Hebrew. When he would not do so, the interrogators demanded that Mufleh agree to leave and never return to the area.

He again refused, saying that he had done nothing wrong and did not want to be banned from visiting his friends and relatives in Palestine. His interrogators then demanded that he agree to stay away from the area for two years. When he again refused he was ordered by a court to remain in custody, without charge, for another 30 days.

Embassy Sees Him After 10 Days

After several attempts, a U.S. Embassy official was finally allowed to visit Mufleh 10 days after his arrest and Mufleh also was allowed to talk with a lawyer, Jonathan Kuttab, recruited by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Kuttab told Mufleh’s family that the Israelis referred to the fact that Mufleh had studied the Qur’an for two weeks with a teacher who had been arrested several years ago.

Embassy sources had hoped for the release of Mufleh within a few days, but since the court remanded him over for another 30 days it is unclear when he will be released. And, of course, there remains the issue of torture...

U.S. Law Says Cut Off Aid

Under U.S. law, any torture of an American citizen by another country automatically triggers a cutoff of U.S. aid to the offending country. Attempts to bring the law, passed in 1970, to the attention of the administration and the Congress have been ignored.

Some 3,000 American citizens are in prison in foreign countries, many for drug-related crimes. Eighteen U.S. citizens were in Israeli prisons in 1996, the latest year for which figures are available. Five more were in prison in areas under jurisdiction of the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, which includes East and West Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. By comparison, there were 72 U.S. citizens in detention in Great Britain, a country about 10 times the size of Israel. There were no figures available for the Palestinian Authority area. About 100 Palestinians have died from torture in Israeli custody over the past three decades, but no Americans have been among them.

Consular Notice Does Mention Danger

The Department of State Consular Notes on Israel do warn Americans in general that if they are arrested they may be questioned for several days without access to consular officers, something that would never happen to Israelis in American jurisdiction.

It clearly is easier to get the attention of elected officials and the media when the victim of Israeli excesses is American.

It seems monstrous to many Americans, however, that it should matter whether the individual being tortured is American or not. Torture is uncivilized behavior and should not be tolerated in any country. Israel has been condemned for this practice by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights as recently as this summer.

The Mufleh scandal comes at a time when the reputation of the present Israeli government is at a low point in America, even among traditional American Jewish supporters of any elected government of Israel. The case has been taken up by Republican Congressman Bill Redmond of the third New Mexico district and New Mexico Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman. (Both, not surprisingly, are among the tiny minority of congressional “good guys”—6 in the Senate and 125 in the House—listed on pp. 42-46 of the September 1998 issue of this magazine.)

Meanwhile, the case of Samuel Sheinbein, an 18-year-old Jewish American murder suspect who fled from Maryland to Israel a year ago to avoid prosecution, already has strained relations. The Sheinbein case remains before Israeli courts and there is serious discussion on permitting him to be tried there, under far better sentencing possibilities than if he were convicted in Maryland. His father has also been indicted in Maryland for aiding his son’s flight from American justice.

The important Israeli daily Ma’ariv has for the first time suggested that Israel should change its law protecting all Israeli citizens from extradition, because of the criticism arising from the Sheinbein case. The editors said that the present ban on extraditing any Israeli citizen appeared to the outside world as “a distorted form of brotherhood.”

The contrast in the treatment of the two cases, that of an 18-year-old Palestinian American tortured and detained but not charged with any crime, and that of an 18-year-old Jewish American being protected although he is charged with a chain saw murder, is what the editors should be debating in Israel. But not a word about Mufleh has appeared in the Israeli press.

Three Percent for Pollard?

Speculative articles in the Israeli press earlier this summer suggested that Prime Minister Netanyahu was seeking assistance from President Clinton in the form of a release from prison for Jonathan Pollard, the now-acknowledged Israeli spy who is serving a life sentence. It sounded, frankly, like just another press rumor.

But the same day that Ambassador Dennis Ross left for yet another Palestinian-Israeli mediation attempt on Sept. 9, Netanyahu sent Israeli Minister of Immigrant Absorption Yuli Edelstein to Washington to seek the release of Pollard. The political cover that Netanyahu would gain from such a release supposedly would assist him in keeping his coalition partners together if he accedes to the U.S. plan for a full 13 percent West Bank withdrawal.

The relief that Clinton might receive from attacks by U.S. media friends of Israel over his current troubles might make the deal tempting to the beleaguered president. But it probably would come too late to do him much good.

The timing of the two visits may be coincidental, but if the Edelstein mission shows any progress simultaneously with progress by Dennis Ross on Israeli acceptance of the 13 percent withdrawal, it will be confirmation that Bill and Bibi cut a secret deal, although it is certain to be denied by both parties.

Eugene Bird, a retired foreign service officer, is president of the Council for the National Interest and diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Report.