Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1999, pages 46-47
The Ostrovsky Files
Law Suit by Two Shabak Interrogators Reveals Much About Treatment of Their Victims
By Victor Ostrovsky
On a chilly December morning in 1989 a young Palestinian named Khaled Shaikh Ali was dragged unceremoniously out of his home in Gaza by officers of the Shabak (Israeli General Security Service—GSS). He was suspected of participation in the planning of an attack in which two Israeli soldiers were killed.
The suspect was transferred to the Shabak ward at the Gaza prison and placed in a small interrogation room. For the next 72 hours he was “questioned” by seven members of Shabak’s southern command interrogation and investigation unit, working in tag teams of two and three officers who didn’t let up the pressure.
After three days of “intensive” interrogation he was placed in a cell, where he died several hours later. Ali’s body was then transferred to the police pathology lab in Abu-Kabir where it was determined that the cause of his death was severe and continuous beating.
The police were called in to investigate, and when the seven interrogators were questioned, all reiterated that there had been nothing out of the ordinary in their interrogation of Khaled Shaikh Ali. Having done the same things and answered the same questions for many years, they all were quite sure that that would be the end of it.
For still unknown reasons, however, the police investigation continued beyond the initial, routine stage. One explanation offered was that the investigation continued solely because no one was willing to sign off on a report that might later be called a whitewash.
Perhaps in the minds of everyone involved was the Bus Line 300 scandal that had rocked the Shabak several years earlier. That case involved a shoot-out in which Israeli passengers were killed during an attempt to rescue them from a hijacked bus. Shabak officers present said the Palestinian hijackers also had died during the rescue attempt.
However a photo taken by an Israeli newspaper reporter showed that the Palestinian suspects were taken alive and apparently unhurt from the scene. The subsequent investigation showed that the Palestinians had been killed during or after their arrest and interrogation at the scene.
As the police pushed forward with their investigation of the death in Shabak custody of Khaled Shaikh Ali, the upper echelons of the organization began to fear that it would expose the fact that cruel and violent methods of interrogation which supposedly had been curtailed by Shabak had in fact continued.
Someone would have to be sacrificed so that the organization could remain untouched.
It was decided that someone would have to be sacrificed so that the organization could remain untouched. The seven interrogators—five old-timers and two rookies—were called in for a “late night talk” by the then-head of the Shabak, Yakov Perry.
According to one of the young interrogators interviewed by Israel’s mass circulation newspaper Yediot Ahronot for a June 2, 1999 article, the atmosphere at the meeting was very secretive and mysterious.
“We were all sure that we had been called to be reprimanded for lying to police about our interrogation methods,” the rookie said.“Instead we were told that the organization could not withstand another scandal like the Bus Line 300 matter.”
In effect, the rookie explained, they were assigned a mission by Perry: to save Shabak by providing some explanation that would get the police off the organization’s back.
Having heard the Shabak chief’s demand, the seven asked permission to leave the office to discuss the matter among themselves. Perry agreed and the seven congregated in the parking lot outside the headquarters building.
In a 20-minute conversation the veterans made it clear that they wanted to place the blame on one of the rookies the article refers to as “A.” His fellow rookie, identified as “S,” stated that even though “A” was the last of the two to be in the presence of Ali, “A” was no more responsible for Ali’s death than the rest of the team. Therefore “S” decided that he, too, was going to take responsibility rather then blame his friend “A.”
After the two rookies agreed to be the sacrificial lambs for the good of the organization, the elders promised that it would all end in a reprimand for the two, at worst.
Back in the chief’s office the two rookies took responsibility for circumventing regulations. “A” remembered that he told the chief, however, that everything he did in the interrogation room he learned in the service, having brought none of that from home.
“A” went on to tell the Yediot Ahronot reporter that he was sure that all of the five older officers were well aware of their own guilt in the killing of Ali, and that “A” believed the officers for whom they were taking the blame would stand behind the two in whatever the future might bring.
The following day the two were summoned to give a statement to the police. Later that same day the two were suspended from the service.
“I felt like Dreyfus,” “A” said, referring to a famous case in which a Jewish officer in the French army was falsely accused of espionage and sent to prison. “They broke his sword and took away his rank,” “A” said, comparing it to the indignities he and his colleague suffered. “We were suspended, they took away our operational car, our gun and our beeper, everything that connected us to a place we regarded as home.”
Realizing they were getting in deeper than they had expected, the two asked for a meeting with Perry. When the meeting took place, the Shabak commander’s second-in-command also was present. The two rookies explained to the boss that they were not backing out of their confession, and that they were still willing to protect the organization, but they wanted him to be aware that they had lied to save the service and their colleagues. Perry promised to look out for them and their confidence was restored.
Three months later, however, they were indicted for the death of their prisoner, and were placed on trial in March 1990. The trial lasted two months in which the two stuck to the lies that exonerated their mentors. They were facing up to 20 years if found guilty on all counts, but still their ex-colleagues promised them everything would be all right.
“We were taught that you don’t tell what is going on in the interrogation rooms even to your best friends in the service,” “A” said. “If a member of the field operations staff visited the interrogation center, the interrogators in the interrogation rooms would be warned through the intercom that a visitor had arrived, and their behavior would change. We were so badly brainwashed that everyone outside the unit was regarded as an enemy. We were sure that we were saving lives every day and doing a good job.”
They ended up pleading guilty to reduced charges and got six months in jail. They appealed their conviction to the Supreme Court, but were turned down. After several years of exile from the service the two were recalled for reserve duty and felt that they finally had been vindicated.
All of this would have remained a secret had it not been for a book written by Perry and published in Israel several months ago. In an interview relating to the book, Perry told the story of the death of Khaled Shaikh Ali, perpetuating what the two rookies believed was the lie that landed them in jail.
So they have sued Perry for several million dollars, and the case is now pending. They told their story not because of remorse over the treatment of Khaled Shaikh Ali or other prisoners, but of the injustice they felt they suffered.
In describing the case the Israeli media seem genuinely concerned about the framing of the two Shabak operatives. But nowhere is there a mention of the killing, or of the fact that there are torture chambers where innocent people are beaten to death and their tormented bodies are handed back to their families with some lame excuse and a warning of retaliation against family members who speak out.
As Israel stands at the crossroads of peace, it would do well to realize that any “peace of the brave,” to use newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s words, must be struck between equals, and not between master and slave. If the Palestinians are forced to accept less than they deserve, their successors will return in time to demand what is still rightly theirs.
Justice is not served when an Israeli Holocaust survivor is reimbursed for lost property in Poland unless he, in turn, is willing to reimburse the Palestinian owner of the house the Israeli is living in today. As the world turns, strength is only lasting if it is based on justice. Who knows better than the Israelis that, in due time, it is the meek who inherit the earth?
Victor Ostrovsky, a former Mossad case officer, has written two books about his experiences, By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer and The Other Side of Deception: A Rogue Agent Exposes the Mossad’s Secret Agenda.