Torture of Palestinian Detainees by Shin Bet Investigators Rises Sharply

In the second half of last year, there were 51 instances of torture reported, compared to eight in the first half of 2014.

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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An Israeli actor is seen demonstrating one of several standard torture techniques reportedly used by the Shin Bet.
An Israeli actor is seen demonstrating one of several standard torture techniques reportedly used by the Shin Bet.Credit: AP
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Mohammed Hatib, a Hamas activist from Hebron, is a childhood friend of Marwan Kawasme, who masterminded the abduction and subsequent murder of the three teens from Gush Etzion in June 2014. Hatib was arrested shortly after the kidnapping and interrogated by the Shin Bet security service. He denied any knowledge of the affair and said he had no idea where Kawasme had disappeared to.

Hatib’s questioning very quickly turned into torture, what the Ofer Military Court judges call “required by necessity,” “exceptional questioning,” or “special means.” Under torture, Hatib admitted to serving as a lookout for Kawasme and his accomplice, Amar Abu-Aisha, on the night of the abduction. This was a lie; the investigation showed that there was no lookout. The Shin Bet and the military prosecution did not believe Hatib, as can be seen by the indictment he was served, in which there is no mention of involvement in the abduction. He stands accused of firing a rifle in the air in 2006 and later taking part in a large number of Hamas rallies and protests.

Hatib’s questioning under torture is part of a trend, that began in the second half of 2014, of the increased use of torture by the Shin Bet, according to an attorney who represents many suspects accused of security offenses, information collected by Haaretz from military courts, and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.

“In years past there were a few rare cases. But something has changed,” the attorney said.

In all of 2014, 23 Palestinians filed a number of complaints of torture by the Shin Bet (each complainant can file a complaint over a number of different methods of torture). In the first half of 2014 there were five complaints of sleep deprivation and beatings during interrogation. There were no complaints of shaking or of tying suspects in what are known as the “banana” and the “frog” position. But in the second half of 2014, there were 19 complaints of sleep deprivation, 12 of beatings, 18 of tying and two of shaking. All in all there were 51 instances reported, as opposed to eight in the first half of the year.

In 2013 there were 16 instances of violent means during questioning reported; in 2012, 30; in 2011,27; and in 2010, 42.

The Shin Bet is required to report to the court that torture were used, so that the judges will know what weight to give evidence gathered under such means. Defense attorneys are not allowed to make copies of the reports, but only to read them. The documents themselves are kept in a safe.

Until 1999, thousands of Palestinian prisoners were tortured every year. The Public Committee against Torture in Israel estimates that most Palestinians questioned experienced at least one kind of torture.

In September 1999, following a petition to the High Court of Justice, the court prohibited the systematic use of torture, but left a small opening to interrogators: An interrogator who used violence could claim after the fact that there was an “urgent need” to violate the law. Then-High Court President Aharon Barak left it to the discretion of the attorney general whether to press charges.

“Urgent need” is something that is decided in retrospect, if a complaint is filed, but in extreme cases permits to torture are still issued. The attorney general has set rules as to when “urgent need” is present, but these rules are not made public.

Officials in the military court who have seen the Shin Bet documents say that a number of types of torture are mentioned. These include blindfolding for extended periods, which causes a loss of orientation, five or six interrogators who stand around a suspect and shout into his ears for hours, forcing a suspect to kneel against a wall with knees bent, beatings, tickling with a feather in the nose or ear, slapping, forcing a suspect to stand for hours hands at his sides and tying in the “banana” posture. The documents reveal that these methods are new and less brutal than the ones outlawed by the High Court, among which are covering the head with a sack for many hours, tying in the “frog” position and sleep deprivation.

One person who underwent torture is Ziad Awad, convicted of the murder of police Commander Baruch Mizrahi on Passover eve of 2014. The suspects in the abduction of the three teens were also tortured, most of them after the bodies of the victims were found on June 30. The Shin Bet said the two men who carried out the abduction, Kawasme and Abu-Aisha, were about to commit another attack and where therefore considered a “ticking bomb.”

Six or seven men were tortured in the case of a Hamas terror cell uncovered in the West Bank in August. The cell’s leader, Riad Nasser, was tortured for several hours. The Shin Bet said that the group was planning an overthrow in the West Bank; however, no evidence of this was found in the investigative material. Military Intelligence said that the Shin Bet had exaggerated the seriousness of the infrastructure. However, large quantities of weapons were found, which the Shin Bet said justified the use of “special means.”

Three Palestinians accused of an attempt on the life of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman were also tortured, although evidence in the case was slim: One of the suspects thought he saw a car belonging to Lieberman, decided to kill him and asked one of the others to buy a LAW missile to do so. The car was not Lieberman’s but the Shin Bet believed the threat to a senior official justified the use of torture.

Torture is not always shown to be effective. Ziad Awad never admitted to murder even after intensive questioning. The indictment against him was based on a rifle found at his home and other evidence.

Mohammad Hatib’s attorney, Fadi Kawasme, told Haaretz: “The High Court recognized the need in cases of a ‘ticking bomb.’” But no one knows what level of suspicion must be present to use “urgent need” as a justification, Kawasme said, adding: “After the abduction, the Shin Bet used the necessity [clause] in order to investigate people just because they were friends of the attackers.”

The Shin Bet responded: “The individuals mentioned in the article were questioned on suspicion of committing the most serious crimes and after investigation they were indicted for murdering Commander Mizrahi and attempted murder of his family. Riad Nasser was indicted for a long series of offenses including heading the Hamas military infrastructure in the Ramallah area, which planned, among other things, attacks on Israelis.”

The Shin Bet said it operates “only within the framework of the law and is under internal and external supervision.” The Shin Bet added that the detainees it questions “receive all humanitarian rights according to international conventions to which Israel is a signatory and according to Israeli law.”

Gili Cohen contributed to this report.

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