Opinion

Illegal for 20 Years, Torture of Palestinians by Shin Bet Goes On

An Israeli actor demonstrating one of several standard torture techniques reportedly used by the Shin Bet security service during interrogations of Palestinian prisoners, May 19, 1998.
Jacqueline Larma/AP

Twenty years ago last week, Shin Bet security services interrogations changed overnight. The High Court of Justice ruled in detail and at length on the methods used in Shin Bet interrogation rooms, and completely outlawed torture. The ruling was handed down five years after the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel filed the first petition on the matter, and only after several deaths occurred in the wake of Shin Bet questioning – that of Abdel Samad Harizat being the most well-known. Supreme Court President Aharon Barak wrote in the ruling that a “reasonable” interrogation does not include torture.

As dramatic and surprising as the ruling was, the Shin Bet decided that very day to implement the ruling in full: Ami Ayalon, who led the Shin Bet at the time, said the organization would “fall in line” with the High Court ruling. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the change that occurred on September 6, 1999. Prior to that date, hundreds of Palestinians each year were subjected to serious physical and emotional violence that was an integral part of every arrest and every security interrogation; from that moment on, as attested to by interrogation subjects, lawyers and interrogators, the scenes of beaten and tortured detainees did not recur.

The “shaking” method – a sudden, violent shaking of the subject’s upper body, causing the subject’s brain to strike the inside of his skull – which was widely used, has practically disappeared. The “shabah” – a collection of methods that included bending the subject’s back and tying him to a tilted chair, inserting the subject’s head in a foul-smelling bag and blasting loud music – is no longer in use.

There aren’t many such clear-cut, hands-down successes. It’s rare that a court ruling alters reality so drastically. The change in Israel fit in with a worldwide trend. Today hardly any Western democracy is willing to openly admit that it permits its security personnel to use torture and cause pain to punish someone or obtain information.

So if the change of September 1999 was such a dazzling success, why are we still talking about torture in Israel? Why didn’t the Public Committee Against Torture close up shop as soon as the hearing’s impact became apparent? First of all, because in Israel, as in other countries, torture has not totally been eliminated, notwithstanding any declarations to the contrary. The Shin Bet continues to use severe physical and emotional violence in interrogations, with the knowledge and approval of the Justice Ministry, under the euphemism of “special methods.” We continue to look away and fall for the illusion that this is how credible information is obtained, despite the numerous studies that prove otherwise.

Semantics cannot hide what is clear to anyone who has eyes in his head and reads the testimonies: The bending over, the pressure on the joints and bones, the blows and slaps are merely torture in a different guise. The court confirmed the illegality of these methods when they were cited last year during the trial of the accused Duma killers; in that instance, the court rightly ruled that confessions obtained with the use of torture were inadmissible.

A year ago, in September 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron made a historic, unexpected statement in which he acknowledged and accepted responsibility for France’s widespread use of torture against thousands of Algerians and dozens of Frenchmen in the 1950s and 1960s. This statement had a powerful impact in France and enabled wounds that had been left open for 60 years to begin healing. We are far from such a moment here: Israel is still averting its gaze from what currently goes on in the Shin Bet and police interrogation rooms; it is far from ready to recognize what was done for years to the bodies and minds of masses of people.

Even as the High Court ruling of two decades ago is being taught in law schools worldwide, the reality in Israel is nothing to brag about. After 20 years, the time has come for what goes on in the interrogation rooms to meet the lofty standards that Justice Barak so eloquently described in the majority ruling of September 1999. The positive change that began back then has not been fully realized. It is time for our security forces to put all their energy into sophisticated measures and intelligence information, and not into breaking an interrogation subject by means of physical blows and sleep deprivation.

Dr. Stroumsa is the executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.