Torture Allegations Pit Shin Bet Against the Settler Community

The torture described by Jewish suspects in the Duma arson-murder case is strikingly similar to descriptions by Palestinian torture victims.

Attorneys representing the Jewish terror detainees addressing a press conference on Thursday.
Olivier Fitoussi

A faint whiff of capitulation wafts from the highly unusual statement issued by the Shin Bet security service in response to allegations that it had tortured the minors suspected of involvement in the fire-bombing of the Dewabsheh family home in Duma last July.

The arson is only mentioned in the third paragraph of the statement, as one of a slew of violent incidents allegedly perpetrated by the "radical and anti-Zionist ideological group that resorted to violence to change the system of government by means of attacks that would further its aims."

As described on Thursday night by lawyers from the Honenu organization, the alleged torture of the suspects, who have been detained since the end of last month, was strikingly similar to that testified to by Palestinians who have been tortured.

The allegation made by the lawyers was based on information provided by the suspects themselves, with whom the lawyers met for the first time on Wednesday night.

According to the lawyers, the suspects confessed under torture to a series of violent incidents, such as the torching of mosques, but they did not confess to the arson of the house in Duma.  

Attorneys Adi Kedar and Itamar Ben Gvir stressed that, to the best of their knowledge, the Shin Bet currently does not have sufficient evidence against their clients.

The torture practiced by the Shin Bet during investigations is not based on violence but on two principles: The first is confusing the suspect to the point that he doesn't know where he is and is prepared to trust the interrogator who helps him get out of his situation.

The second is never to leave physical marks that can be seen by the naked eye.

The Shin Bet specializes in knotting and tying, in putting people in painful positions, where every deviation from orders brings a violent response, such as a blow. The torture that was definitely dished out to at least one of the suspects began in recent days, towards the end of the period during which the detainees were prevented from meeting with their attorneys.

Despite a High Court ruling, the Shin Bet has continued to torture Palestinians in recent years, while altering the methods and durations of the torture sessions. Various attorneys general left a small opening that turned the court's ruling – giving retroactive protection to an interrogator who used violent means – into a door.

Today, the torture process is completely confidential. It is never mentioned in court proceedings and claims of torture are closed, time after time. The transfer of responsibility for checking claims of torture from the Shin Bet to the justice ministry has done nothing to change the situation.

The torture of the suspects in the Duma case may return the issue to the headlines and provoke parliamentary and judicial calls for an end to the use of such measures. It's probable there will also be demands that the emergency regulations on which the Shin Bet relies be constrained. (One of them was renewed this week by the Knesset Justice Committee headed by Nissan Slomiansky of Habayit Hayehudi.)

When publication of details of the investigation is finally allowed, there is likely to be a contest over the narrative between the Shin Bet and right-wing activists.

The point man at this stage is Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi,) but public pressure is likely to draw other Knesset members into the fray. They are likely to argue that the fact that the suspects did not confess to the arson in Duma, even under torture, shows that the Shin Bet went too far with too little evidence, leading to the bleak conclusion,

The Shin Bet is likely to argue in turn that, even if the Duma case was not solved, it destroyed a violent sabotage infrastructure that threatened Israel. The spin will be that real danger was averted and that the imprisonment of some of the group's members was a significant achievement.

In recent months, a good deal of intelligence material has been collected about "The Revolt," a plan drawn up by right-wing activist Meir Ettinger to attack Palestinians in order to bring about the collapse of Israel and its replacement with an Israeli kingdom.

In its statement issued on Thursday, the Shin Bet wrote that "in light of the significant security threat from the activities of the group and the need to prevent them from carrying out further terror attacks, several key suspects have been detained for questioning."

Documents discovered last July documented the essential ideas of the revolt and its activities, including, among other things, arson attacks on homes with their inhabitants inside. Such was the case in Duma. Right-wing activist Moshe Orbach was charged with writing the documents.

The current case, the details of which can't be published and the end of which is not yet known, will have wide repercussions for the status of the Shin Bet among the nationalist-religious and settlement populations.

The service regards its links with the settlement establishment as being an important asset and engages in advocacy about its activities in order to obtain legitimacy – and perhaps also intelligence to act against the radicals.

The current aggressive investigation undermines that trust to an extent. In a rare step for an investigation that is still in progress, a senor Shin Bet official met recently with the leadership of a settlement that wanted to complain about the treatment of a settlement member who had been arrested, interrogated and released. Such meetings are likely to continue.

Anonymous right-wing sources promised on Thursday night to hold a "mother's protest" outside the home of Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen in Jerusalem. In contrast to his predecessor, Yuval Diskin, who lived in a secular moshav distant from the religious right, Cohen lives in a mixed neighborhood in which a significant proportion of the residents belong to the Zionist-religious stream. He prays in a synagogue and his children study in religious Zionist schools.

As the details of the investigation become known, Cohen is likely to find himself in a situation similar to that of other senior security officials who suffered from abuse. Former deputy chief of staff Yair Naveh, for example, was forced to leave Givat Shmuel and move to ZIchron Ya'acov in similar circumstances.