Analysis

This Palestinian Terror Suspect Is No Saint. But Something Went Wrong in Israel's Interrogation of Him

Democratic countries defending against terrorism shouldn't use torture as punishment

Israeli soldiers before making arrests in the West Bank after the killing of Rina Shnerb in August 2019.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

It’s an exceptional case: Samer Arbid – the head of a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine cell suspected of killing 17-year-old Rina Shnerb in August – is in critical condition after being interrogated by the Shin Bet security service. This could be the result of a mistake that occurred during questioning. The case, which the Justice Ministry and Shin Bet will begin investigating soon, joins a list of other question marks about the attack.

Thus it’s better not to get too excited about the responses on the right wing celebrating Arbid’s condition. The man is far from being a village saint. From the details released so far, the experienced Arbid built a number of terror cells isolated from one from another. Also, it seems he prepared the bomb and flipped the switch himself when the Shnerb family was hiking to a spring in the West Bank at the end of August.

But democratic countries defending themselves against terrorism may not use interrogation and torture as punishment. At the height of the second intifada, Israel would occasionally kill senior terrorists in the West Bank when arresting them was considered too dangerous.

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Once in a great while Israel still acts this way in Gaza, but in the West Bank the situation is different: Israel has security control on the ground there, and if it wishes, it can reach every terror suspect and arrest him. If the suspect is armed and there’s a reasonable suspicion he plans to use his weapons to avoid arrest, he’s hit so as not to endanger the lives of soldiers.

In every other situation, the goal is to arrest, question and put on trial. This is what has happened in the great majority of cases – and sometimes, murderers are even released. This is what the Netanyahu government did in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap in 2011.

The High Court of Justice, in a 1999 ruling on torture during interrogations and a 2017 ruling on the use of “special means,” outlined what the Shin Bet may and may not do. These rulings seem to say that it’s acceptable to use special means when an urgent need can be shown; that is, when the interrogator knows about a “ticking bomb” and force is necessary to extract information to prevent a loss of life.

Samer Arbid, the key suspect in the August 2019 killing of Rina Shnerb.

What are these special means? The justices ruled that these are acts forbidden under normal circumstances, not reaching the level of torture. But they also did not provide details.

In practice, the number of cases annually where such interrogation methods are used can be counted on less than one finger. Every such case is supposed to be approved by the Shin Bet’s top leadership. After the fact, the case is also examined by government lawyers.

From what has been released, the PFLP affair seems to meet these criteria. The members of the terror cell are suspected of killing a teenage girl, they are known to have been preparing other explosives, and a fear existed that the bombs would be set off. These were relatively experienced activists whose organization is careful to compartmentalize its operations and trains its members to withstand Shin Bet interrogations.

Still, special means are meant to extract information, not put the suspect on death’s door in the hospital. According to the Shin Bet, Arbid felt unwell while being interrogated. It’s clear that something went wrong along the way. Officers will have to examine whether the interrogators deviated from their instructions, what medical supervision the suspect received, and what the chain of command knew.

The Shin Bet also has an interest for its interrogations not to end this way, on top of the fact that torture leading to such a result could increase the motivation of other members of the terror group to launch attacks. Oversight of interrogations and the prevention of torture are a public interest, and remember, right-wingers were outraged by the claims that young Jews were tortured during interrogations after the killing of members of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank four years ago.

In the weeks leading up to the attack on Rina Shnerb at the spring near Ramallah, the security forces were busy chasing the PFLP’s military cells in the general area. Security officials knew that the group, which hadn’t launched many operations in recent years, was now planning terror attacks again. A few members of the cell, including Arbid and another man who played a key role in Shnerb’s murder, were arrested after the attack. But Arbid was released after the initial questioning didn’t reveal anything about the assault.

Rina Shnerb, 17, who was killed in a West Bank attack in August 2019.

According to the Shin Bet statement released Saturday night, the cell had carried out other attacks before the operation at the spring. This seems to refer to the unsolved shooting attacks in the Ramallah area in recent years. This means that a terror group under surveillance, with a number of veteran members known to Israel, operated under the noses of the security services for quite a while.

A less important question concerns the way the statement on the cell’s discovery was released. On Twitter a few weeks back, former ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Ayelet Shaked praised the capture of the cell, even though the military censor had imposed a gag order on the affair and some of the suspects were still at large.

At 9 P.M. Saturday, the Shin Bet released a short statement about solving the case and arresting the suspects. The agency didn’t say anything about the medical condition of the cell’s leader. A short time later, Palestinian groups reported on Arbid’s hospitalization.

The order of events raises suspicions that this was an attempt to portray the affair as a success before information got out – in part an attempt to limit the impression that a failure had occurred. The Shin Bet didn’t try to hide the hospitalization from the media, but it probably would have been better if the agency had provided all the relevant information in its first press release.