'I'm the Man Who Killed Your Husband': Palestinian Women Recount Shin Bet Interrogations

For weeks, a team of 13 Shin Bet men interrogated women suspected of social activities linked to Hamas. Three filed torture complaints to the Justice Ministry after hundreds such cases were closed without charges

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Five of the women after their release. Sonya Hamori, left, Dina Karmi, Suzan Aweiwe, Lama Khater and Safaa Abu Sneineh.
Five of the women after their release. Sonya Hamori, left, Dina Karmi, Suzan Aweiwe, Lama Khater and Safaa Abu Sneineh.Credit: Courtesy of the family
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

On one of the days of her interrogation by the Shin Bet security service in July 2018, Dina Karmi of Hebron felt twice she was fainting. “The first time she was taken to be examined by a doctor, who she said told the interrogators she was stronger than he was, thus she was sent back to the interrogation,” according to a complaint filed for her by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.

“The second time the complainant woke up after cold water was poured on her. She was taken to the infirmary wet, very tired and trembling. She says the doctor gave her a tranquilizer and sent her back to the interrogation, which lasted for about another two hours.”

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This description appears in one of the 31 paragraphs that spell out the manner and methods of the interrogation of Karmi, as explained in a complaint also sent to Rabia Hino of the Justice Ministry unit examining complaints by interrogees. The complaint was also sent to the military advocate general and the National Prison Wardens Investigations Unit, due to the aggressive arrest by the soldiers and the wardens’ treatment of her.

According to the complaint, when Karmi was interrogated by the Shin Bet man known as Dov, she too felt faint several times. But “Dov shouted at her in his loud voice until she woke up, and she wasn’t taken for a checkup at the infirmary.”

Karmi, 40, was arrested on July 2 last year. Before her another two women who were linked to her were arrested. On June 5, Suzan Aweiwe, 41, a member of the Hebron Municipal Council, was arrested. On June 18, it was Safaa Abu Sneineh, 38.

Lama Khater, who recently told Haaretz about her interrogation, was the fourth woman to be arrested. The Shin Bet attributed to all four membership in a Hamas women’s committee established by Karmi in 2010.

After what is described in the complaints as painful and humiliating arrests by soldiers, the four were immediately transferred for interrogation by the Shin Bet at Shikma Prison in Ashkelon. Later, when they were in Damon Prison, the four women gave testimony on torture to attorney Ola Shtewe of the Public Committee Against Torture, so the statements could be processed into complaints. (Due to a misunderstanding, Khater’s testimony has not yet been processed into a complaint and sent to the authorities.)

In the end, seven women were arrested on the same suspicion. Hino, the Justice Ministry lawyer, met with the three complainants in prison. At the end of August last year the Shin Bet released a dramatic statement about the exposure of a broad Hamas infrastructure that includes women receiving instructions from Hamas commanders and funding for terror activity.

Shouts and humiliation

Lama KhaterCredit: Amira Hass

The seven women have already been released to their homes after spending 10 to 12 months in prison following plea deals – less than the sentence first demanded by the military prosecution, 20 to 24 months. Experienced attorneys who represent defendants at military court say that such jail time is considered short, reflecting minor offenses, even according to the criteria of the Israeli military system: social and religious activity linked with Hamas, organizing and taking part in demonstrations, starting a Facebook page, distributing prayer books, visiting the families of prisoners.

Already upon Aweiwe’s arrest there was no suspicion of military activity posing an immediate danger to human life; the women who were arrested subsequently were also interrogated for social and civil activity linked to Hamas. The women’s testimonies, as worded in the complaints, spell out the daily worsening of their conditions.

“The interrogation became increasingly difficult as time passed,” according to a complaint filed for Karmi. “At first the plaintiff was interrogated by Andy alone, but other interrogators entered and left the room, claiming that they wanted to meet the wife of the shahid [martyr] Nashat al-Karmi.” (According to the Shin Bet, Karmi’s husband shot dead four people in the settlement of Beit Hagai in 2010, while wounding two people in another attack. After a manhunt, he was killed by Israeli soldiers.)

According to the complaint, “the hours of interrogation became longer and harsher with time, as did the ‘tone of the interrogation.’ The interrogators made various threats, including that she would remain there forever, would not go home and would receive a harsh punishment. After three days of interrogation, Andy was replaced by Haroun, who took charge of the interrogation. The interrogator Haroun used shouts, humiliation and contempt for the plaintiff and her husband.”

The three women’s complaints and Khater’s testimony present a similar pattern. Each was deprived of sleep by long interrogations (17 hours in Karmi’s case, 20 in Khater’s) or a variety of noises near the cell where they were kept in solitary confinement between interrogations. This included banging on the wall, loud conversations among the wardens and female wardens entering the cell every half hour “to ask if everything was all right,” according to Karmi, who said she “didn’t get an hour’s sleep without being awakened.”

Each was held in a sitting position for hours with her hands tied behind her. The interrogations included screaming and threats against the women and members of their families, as well as comments and hints at times of a clearly sexual nature.

In between the interrogations, each was held in solitary confinement in a dirty and smelly cell for several weeks. For a few days some were sent to a cell for a few days where conditions were even worse.

Aweiwe needed a doctor while she was in isolation. The doctor spoke to her through a small opening in the door and then received permission from Andy to take her to an infirmary. Following consultations with a social worker and senior physician, Aweiwe received Valerian herbal medicinal drops, but it was still advised that she be returned to her cell and be checked on every 20 to 30 minutes, according to the complaint.

Abu Sneineh also had to see a doctor several times during her interrogation. On one occasion, she said the doctor asked “why are you bringing her in every day?” She also received pain relievers and was sent back for further interrogation. She testified that her legs were often tied during the process.

Aweiwe was interrogated for 27 days in two separate rounds. After 21 days she was transferred to Sharon Prison due to her medical condition, and was then sent back for another seven days of interrogations. Abu Sneineh was interrogated for 45 days, including 35 days of solitary confinement.

A child attends a demonstration for the release of prisoners in Hebron, last year.Credit: Mussa Qawasma/REUTERS

At the beginning of her interrogation, she was sent to Megiddo Prison for a week, but was later returned to Shikma. Karmi estimates she was interrogated for about a month and Khater was interrogated for 35 days.

In their testimonies, the women for the most part mentioned the same interrogators: Andy, Binji, Johnny, Haroun, Dov, Rino, Marcel, Guy, Yehiya and Herzl. The women estimate that there were 13 in all.

“Interrogator Andy was particularly harsh during the interrogation,” the complaint for Aweiwe says. “He would yell, swear … and sometimes put his face right near the complainant’s as he yelled and spit, and a bad smell emanated from him.”

Karmi, meanwhile, said that at first, the interrogator Marcel “spoke with the complainant gently and calmly, and even offered her food that he brought with him to the interrogation room.”

The following day his approach changed: “Marcel arrived and accused the complainant of betraying him,” Karmi’s complaint says. “He said he had thought there was a close connection between them …. One of the interrogators told the complainant that he was the man who killed her husband; as he put it: ‘I turned your husband into a sieve.’ For example, the interrogator Marcel told the complainant: ‘We killed your husband like a cockroach.’”

The food they received was inedible, according to the complaints. Aweiwe, Karmi and Abu Sneineh were interrogated during the fast month of Ramadan and got one meal in which the only thing they could eat was the yogurt.

“Threats, sleep deprivation, painful restraints and being kept in uncomfortable positions are all, unfortunately, types of torture familiar in Israel and around the world,” says attorney Efrat Bergman-Sapir, director of the legal department of the Public Committee Against Torture. “International law defines torture as acts that cause serious emotional or physical pain and suffering. These methods, and especially the combination of them, certainly meet that definition and do long-term physical and psychological damage to the victim.”

1,200 complaints

From the beginning of 2018 there has been an increase in the number of testimonies from Palestinian women who undergo harsh interrogations, according to Rachel Stroumsa, the public committee’s executive director. They indicate that methods are being employed that in the past had only been used for heavier suspicions. But these methods – sleep deprivation and restraint in painful positions for many hours – are common in the interrogating of Palestinian prisoners even when the suspicions aren’t of the “ticking bomb” variety.

This is also the conclusion of attorney Labib Habib, who represented Karmi toward the end of her legal proceedings. He said that most of the male prisoners who are interrogated don’t want to file complaints because they don’t believe they will be investigated seriously, doubting that the Israeli legal system is willing to deal with them.

Since 2001 the public committee has submitted 1,200 complaints of torture to the Justice Ministry unit that investigates them. Of those, only one has led to a criminal investigation, which was closed without charges. A complaint about torture and abuse takes an average of three years and three months to be examined. The committee is currently awaiting decisions on 37 cases; in 15 of them, it has been waiting more than five years.

Shtewe of the public committee regularly takes testimonies from both male and female detainees. If there are signs of torture, the statements are processed into a complaint if the detainee requests this. Shtewe says men don’t usually mention loneliness during interrogations as a problem, while women stress it as part of the suffering. There are doctors who believe that 15 days in solitary confinement is a type of torture, and when the detainee’s physical condition is particular difficult, even one day is considered torture.

In the High Court of Justice’s ruling on torture in 1999, the justices banned sleep deprivation as an interrogation tactic. But as the public committee’s documentation chief, Efrat Shir, notes, the justices said sleep deprivation or long interrogations may be used if there is an investigatory need. One can thus conclude that the Shin Bet exploits this gray area to withhold sleep.

“In the Shin Bet’s documentation of its interrogations, it notes how many hours the interrogation took and when the person was taken to rest in his cell, but sleep deprivation doesn’t always take place during the hours of interrogation and restraint,” she says.

“One must also look at what takes place in the cell. Often the conditions there don’t allow for sleep; the light, the temperature, the smell, the noise. Thus it turns out that three hours of rest on paper aren’t actually three hours of sleep. The guards are meant to check that everything is all right with the person after he is brought to the cell. Those are the regulations, and on the surface it’s fine. But that’s also how they can wake him.”

Shir says sleep deprivation falls somewhere between physical and psychological torture, and it affects the detainee at all levels – physical, cognitive and emotional.

“Those interrogated testify that sleep deprivation was the hardest thing,” she says. “Studies done under laboratory conditions show that it lowers the pain threshold and leads to a feeling of tension and panic, as well as difficulties with time orientation. In extreme cases it also causes hallucinations.”

Attorney Shir Noy Feiner, a spokeswoman for the Justice Ministry, wrote in response, “The unit for examining the complaints of interrogees opens an inquiry file for every complaint that is received, and that’s what was done for the three complainants mentioned in the Haaretz query, from whom testimony has already been collected. The Public Committee Against Torture receives regular updates from the unit on the status of the inquiries in cases that were opened following complaints submitted through it.

“The process of checking the complaints mentioned has yet to be completed. The length of time for dealing with each complaint is unspecified and is influenced by various factors. Among other things, the length of time is affected by the fact that under the review mechanism, the unit will not begin investigating a complaint until the complainant’s trial ends (on the assumption he is indicted).”

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