Israel's Flexible Definition of the Ticking Time Bomb Threat

Neutralizing future threats can justify both the severe interrogation tactics used on Jewish terror suspects as well as the airstrike that killed Hezbollah operative Samir Kuntar.

Right-wing activists reenact torture methods they claim were used against Jewish terror suspects.
Moti Milrod

The threatening phrase “ticking time bomb” was invoked this week in two different contexts. On the home front, it was used in conjunction with the murder investigation into the arson attack on the Dawabsheh family in Duma, which employed severe tactics (read: torture) on a Jewish terror suspect. In the background lurked the danger that delays in solving the murder and right-wing anger over the suspected torture would inspire more terror attacks against Palestinians. On the northern front, “ticking time bomb” was used to describe Samir Kuntar, the Druze-Lebanese terrorist killed in an attack in Damacus. Kuntar apparently posed some kind of future threat that justified the attack, so much so that Israel did not officially comment on claims of Israeli responsibility for the attack. In both cases, the defense establishment’s allegations are built on exaggerating the definition of “ticking time bomb” in a way that would justify its actions.

Torture tactics used by the Shin Bet first entered public discourse in the 1980s, surrounding the Izat Nafsu affair. Nafsu was an Israel Defense Forces officer of Circassian decent, who admitted, under torture, to spying for an enemy country. The Landoy Report, which examined the Shin Bet’s torture tactics, was written following the affair. A decade later, in 1999, the Supreme Court — while hearing an appeal filed by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel — declared the use of violent interrogation tactics illegal, and prohibited tactics like sleep deprivation, shaking suspects, and tying them up in painful ways. But the court did leave an opening for the Shin Bet, in the shape of a ticking time bomb. In certain cases, if the investigators could prove that applying these methods was the only way to prevent a possible danger, such tactics could retroactively be considered legal. Later, the Justice Ministry and the Shin Bet formulated regulatory procedures to track the use of such tactics during interrogations.

As Chaim Levinson reported in Haaretz in March, it seems the Shin Bet has been utilizing the wiggle room granted by the courts more and more over the last year and a half. The reasons cited for this include immediate need, including the investigation into the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in Gush Etzion by a Hamas cell in June 2014, although it seems that the limits on violent interrogations have been gradually getting blurrier. Furthermore, what was used freely against Palestinian terror suspects is now, for the first time, being used against Jewish terror suspects; this could have been predicted.

Most likely, there is some exaggeration in the cries from the suspects’ attorneys. It’s highly unlikely that the acts described over the last week, including sexual abuse, hanging suspects upside down from the wall, and tying them to “sodomy beds” actually took place. Based on talks with people who are knowledgeable on the issue, it seems the Shin Bet’s tactics with suspects, both Palestinian and Jewish, are less brutal than interrogation methods used by other such agencies around the world, from Syria to Russia to the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay.

The Shin Bet tends not to respond to the controversy, though in an official statement released yesterday, the agency hinted at using torture tactics in the Duma investigation — in accordance with a statement from a suspect who was released without being charged. In any case, Shin Bet investigators believe they have sufficient evidence to press charges. If the investigation ends with confessions from one or more suspects, we can expect a mini-trial that would examine the acceptability of the confessions in light of the tactics employed to extract them. The suspects’ defense lawyers are already preparing the ground ahead with their statements to the media, which are being backed by right-wing extremists’ protests, mostly in front of the home of Shin Bet Chief Yoram Cohen in Jerusalem last weekend.

One question that will surely arise from this case is the flexibility of the “ticking time bomb” definition. Between the murder of the Dawabsheh family and the suspects’ arrest, two other suspects — hilltop youth — were detained for attempting to set another Palestinian encampment on fire in eastern Samaria. This week, when the rage over the treatment of the Duma suspects reached its peak, someone threw tear gas canisters at a Palestinian home in the village of Beitillu, near Ramallah, and sprayed graffiti on the house next door, calling for revenge. Behind these acts there is an ideology, prevalent among hilltop outposts in Samaria. Most of the believers of this ideology were taken into administrative detention or put under house arrest after the Dawabsheh murders. Also discovered was a document, written by Moshe Auerbach, an activist arrested last July, half of which describes a messianic plot, while the other half contains tactical, operational orders. Soon, the Shin Bet will be forced to show the connection between all of these things and prove that the arrests made after Duma were done in order to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Up until now, Israeli courts been very understanding of the Shin Bet and prosecutions’ claims when they asserted that suspects admitted to their acts under torture. Will what worked for Palestinian suspects prove true for Jewish suspects, who are supported by the extreme right, as well? In this context, the court's ruling on the Roman Zadorov case will be most interesting. Zadorov’s appeal of his conviction on the murder of Tair Rada was rejected two days ago. Zadorov also claimed that the confession he gave came under severe pressure from police investigators. But the majority justice, Isaac Amit, stressed in his ruling the role of confessions in the Israeli criminal justice system. It seems that in the Duma investigation, if it reaches indictments, the defense will have to provide very convincing evidence in order to dispel any previous confessions as well.

In this case, the Shin Bet will certainly want support from politicians. During the week, when the anger over what apparently happened in the interrogation rooms was at its high point, and sucked in MKs and even ministers (Uri Ariel), the security personal made sure to brief some ministers about the investigation behind closed doors. In a meeting with the heads of the Yesha Council, many of whom had already expressed similar positions, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon showed images of the Jewish fascists at the Jerusalem wedding. Dozens of youths danced with rifles and knifes, singing songs of vengeance, while one individual stabbed a photo of Ali Dawabsheh, the baby murdered in Duma. The hair-raising video, broadcast by Roei Sharon on Channel 10, shows who the authorities are dealing with. The number of people celebrating demonstrates that these extremists are no longer just a few bad apples. But it would still be best to wait and see how the settler leadership responds to this latest controversy, after burying its head in the sand regarding this extremist phenomenon over the last two decades.

Kuntar’s will and testament

The ticking time bomb was also mentioned this week with regards to Samir Kuntar, the veteran terrorist killed in an airstrike in the Damascus suburbs, 36 years after murdering Israelis in Nahariya, including a four year old girl, whose head he bashed with the butt of his rifle. Aside from being a senior terrorist figure since his release from Israel through a 2008 prisoner swap with Hezbollah, it seems he has been a kind of refugee, wandering between various terror pacts and organizations. Though Hezbollah was happy to use him for his name, the operational romance between the two sides hit difficulties. He was sent to found an anti-Israeli terror network in the Druze villages on the Syrian side of the border, but was only partially successful. Hezbollah and Iran sought to use the Golan Heights as a new, secondary front, which could exact a price for attacks attributed to Israel in Syria and Lebanon, from destroying weapons convoys to killing senior Hezbollah figures. Although Kuntar managed to bother Israel now and then, the security establishment was usually a step ahead of his operatives.

The Iranians tested a few subcontractors in the Golan Heights — Kuntar’s group, an elite Hezbollah unit, and in one case, an Islamic Jihad cell comprised of Palestinians sent from Damascus. The groups active in the Golan were handed off fairly often between Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Kuntar was killed in an airstrike in Syria, along with two of his underlings, while he was believed to have been planning more attacks in the Golan Heights. Israel, as usual, is keeping quiet about its supposed role in the strike, but the authorities often claim that assassinating terrorist leaders is not about vengeance for the past, but rather a means to prevent future attacks — in other words, to neutralize ticking time bombs.

The question of Hezbollah’s possible response still remains. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah promised this week during a public address in Beirut to avenge Kuntar, who he described as an important part of the organization, even though he was far from it in reality. At the same time, however, Hezbollah published a will supposedly written by Kuntar last March, which predicts his death at the hands of Israel, and leaves the decision of retaliation to the Hezbollah leadership, while calling on them to take into account strategic considerations. Kuntar’s words were written altruistically, with great awareness of the bigger picture facing Hezbollah.

Israeli authorities believe that Iran will have the final say with regards to the retaliation. The working assumption is that retaliation will come: Nasrallah has committed himself to it, and is now looking for the appropriate channel to carry it out, most likely along the Syrian or Lebanese border. At the same time, Kuntar was less important to Hezbollah and Iran than Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in an airstrike near the Syrian Golan Heights last January. It seems Hezbollah will seek to carry out a response that would preserve its honor, an important issue in the region, without risking a larger-scale war. After all, that was apparently Kuntar’s last wish.