Shin Bet Seeks Lenient Plea Deals for Hamas Operatives to Avoid Testifying About Torture Methods

Security agency's plea-bargain stance put on hold by military prosecutor, who fears for state security, army sources say.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Shin Bet security service is demanding that the military prosecution sign extremely lenient plea agreements with Palestinians accused of setting up Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank to avoid having its agents testify about the harsh interrogation methods they used, military sources have told Haaretz.

Last summer, parallel to the kidnapping of three teenagers in the West Bank, Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen informed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about the Hamas network, which was organized by Saleh al-Arouri, a top operative working from Turkey.

The Shin Bet then arrested more than 93 suspected members of the network and filed dozens of indictments at the Ofer Military Court. It seized 30 weapons, including 24 rifles, seven rocket launchers and 600,000 shekels ($153,000). The Shin Bet interrogated 46 of the suspects.

But in recent months, as the cases reached the Ofer Military Court, the Shin Bet has been trying to get them closed as quickly as possible, at almost any price, to prevent its men from having to testify, military sources said.

This decision was linked to the events of June 2014, when the Shin Bet wrongly suspected that Arouri’s network, which it had come across the month before, was responsible for the kidnapping of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Sher and Naftali Fraenkel, and as a result thought it could torture the suspects to obtain information. The assumption was that if the Shin Bet was ever challenged, it could legally defend its use of torture because it was aiming to “prevent immediate harm to life.”

As it turned out, the Hamas infrastructure had no connection to the teens’ abduction and murder. The torture used now became a problem for the Shin Bet. Since the suspects’ attorneys are aware of the Shin Bet’s dilemma, they are asking for light sentences – release within the coming year – in exchange for confessions.

Hani Aasi, a relatively junior member of the network, managed to cut such a deal. The military advocate general initially offered him five years and a 1-million-shekel fine. His lawyer, Fadi Qawasmeh, would only agree to a 20-month prison term, so a trial ensued. But when it was the Shin Bet’s turn to testify, the agents did not appear. The court thus ordered another hearing, but before that hearing took place, the military prosecution, at the Shin Bet’s request, accepted Qawasmeh’s offer.

But recently there has been a change: The army’s chief military prosecutor in the West Bank, Lt. Col. Maurice Hirsch, refused Shin Bet requests for any more plea bargains and passed the issue on to his boss, Col. Sharon Zagagi, the chief military prosecutor.

According to military sources, Hirsch, known as a tough prosecutor, says the lenient plea deals could endanger Israel’s security. As a result, all relevant hearings have been postponed until the matter is resolved. Meeting with Shin Bet officials, Zagagi has proposed plea bargains that would be attractive to Palestinians yet keep them imprisoned for several years. The Shin Bet has yet to respond.

The Shin Bet told Haaretz that it “does not comment publicly on an ongoing discussion with its counterparts, including the military prosecution,” while the Israel Defense Forces said, “The case is being examined. There is a serious discussion about it. No decision on the matter has been made.”

An actor is seen demonstrating the "banana" method, one of several standard torture techniques reportedly used by the Shin Bet during interrogations of Palestinian prisoners. (file photo)
AP

The use of torture is a sensitive issue for the Shin Bet, both because of its domestic legal implications and the fact that investigators involved with torture could be prosecuted abroad. When criminal cases involving harsh interrogation methods go to trial in a military court, Shin Bet investigators must testify as to the reasons for using them to extract a confession. Officials must detail the methods so the judge can rule on the admissibility of the confession.

The Shin Bet also submits a document detailing any harsh interrogation methods and their duration to help determine the admissibility of the confession. The document is kept in a court safe to prevent leaks, and the prisoners’ attorneys are not allowed to carry cellphones or writing instruments when examining the document.

Shukri Khawajeh, an alleged Hamas operative, is among the suspects whose interrogators the Shin Bet is trying to prevent from testifying. Khawajeh, who denies the charges against him, which include belonging to Hamas and weapons trading, is awaiting his evidentiary hearing.

An Ofer military court official told Haaretz that according to the document the Shin Bet filed in court, the head of the Shin Bet investigative team, referred to as “Solly,” wrote that his people used “special means” twice during Khawajeh’s investigation, on June 28 and July 9.

These methods included blindfolding, kneeing a suspect’s thigh, forcing him to lean backward and strain his stomach muscles, making him sit on a backless chair with his back forced against the wall, forcing him to stand bent over during an interrogation, forcing him to raise his hands behind his back to shoulder level, tightening his handcuffs and tickling him with a feather.

Interrogation methods

Khawajeh, however, described these methods differently. “Between three and 10 investigators, including the major and the colonel, interrogated me,” he said. “Solly was the colonel. Nurit was there, too.”

Investigators cuffed his hands, shackled his feet, kept him in a backless chair and put his back on the ground, he says.

“My legs were shackled to a chair in front, and the interrogator in front would slap me in the face and chest,” he testified. “Someone from behind would hold my shoulders, raise me and lower me.”

After this he was forced against a wall.

“They would knee me in the thigh from each side,” he testified. Afterward, they slapped him and “took the cuffs from my legs and put them on my hands, one on each side, and squeezed until the blood stopped flowing. Later they would bend me over on my knees. An interrogator would sit in front, and the interrogator from behind would put a chair on my knees and press down, and the interrogator in front would slap me.”

Later, he testified, he was handcuffed to a table from behind. One interrogator pulled on his hands for an hour, while an interrogator standing in front of him beat him.

“Solly would ask me a question,” Khawajeh testified. “If I didn’t answer in the affirmative everyone would jump on me, 10 of them, and beat me and drag me to the ground. Solly told me, ‘I will cause your death,’” he said, adding that he lost feeling in his legs at one point. “Because I couldn’t walk, the investigators would drag me to the bathroom.”

Khawajeh also recounted that during the investigation he was told the head of the Shin Bet had approved the methods.

“They told me he gave the order that either I’ll die or start talking,” Khawajeh testified. “He said that this was an order from [Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu.”

When asked about the use of blindfolds, Khawajeh said, “There was a small ribbon on my eyes to protect them, and they would slap me so I wouldn’t know who was slapping.”

When he moved his face a little, “the slap would come from the other direction. That’s how they would hurt my ears and eyes,” Khawajeh said.

Tickling was also a form of torture, he said. “Each interrogator had a feather,” he recalled, explaining that the interrogators put a feather in his ear or nose, and when he moved they would slap him. He said he has since been taking medication and after the beatings he would vomit blood.