Opinion |

Will the U.S. Stop Importing Israeli Torture Techniques?

In the wake of Guantanamo, CIA practice exposed and Trump's waterboarding enthusiasm, America had started a conversation about the moral and political costs of torture. Israel hasn't gotten there yet.

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Detainees in orange jumpsuits sit in a holding area under the watchful eyes of military police during in-processing to Guantanamo Bay in 2002.
Detainees in orange jumpsuits sit in a holding area under the watchful eyes of military police during in-processing to Guantanamo Bay in 2002.Credit: Reuters

"There was a small chair, about 2 feet tall, made of plywood and two by fours, and it had plastic zip ties used to secure someone's hands underneath. The 'Palestinian Chair' was intended to put someone in a crouched position from which they could not recover and forced all their weight onto their thighs and their calves and they stayed there for as long as an interrogator decided they were going to stay."

So Eric Fair, an American contractor, described interrogations in Fallujah, Iraq. Many Israelis will recognize his account of the "Palestinian Chair," which for long was regularly used by Israel's domestic security agency, the Shin Bet. In 1999, use of the chair was forbidden by the High Court of Justice, and so today the Shin Bet uses alternative stress positions, which exert similar pressure on muscles, and also result in acute and chronic pain and often long-term neurological damage. Yet the High Court ruling, evidently, was not deemed to apply to "educational" uses, and the military passed on their knowledge of the Chair to U.S. forces in the training sessions they conducted for them.

Use of the Palestinian Chair is but one of many examples of ties and seepages between the security practices of Israel and America. The security establishment in America also examines with a keen eye the way that Israel succeeds in legitimating interrogation practices that obviously violate human rights. Indeed, the CIA explicitly justified its use of torture in depositions to the Senate Intelligence Committee by citing High Court of Justice rulings.

In all these instances, the implicit or sometimes explicit assumption on the American side is that the Israeli experience is worth repeating simply because it works. Such an assumption is purely based on tactical thinking, limiting the view to the particular techniques used, the willingness of courts to look the other way, and the reluctance of state officials to name such practices for what they are – torture.

A recent study undertaken by the Carr Centre in Harvard provides a welcome breath of wholesome air. Switching focus from the tactical to the strategic, the study has begun a reckoning of the strategic price that America has paid for its tactical decisions, looking at the very practical cost of the deployment of torture in a frantic search for shortcuts to information.

More generally, America has at last begun an honest conversation about torture, and the possibility of moving away from it. Donald Trump – the outsider, who is not bound by the conventions of Washington D.C.'s policy-talk – has been breaking the conventions surrounding this issue as well, and his stridently pro-torture positions have, ironically, exposed some of the assumptions underlying the use of force in interrogations.

Trump calls for "more than waterboarding", even if the suspect has already been providing information: not because this is an effective interrogation tool, but as an instrument of revenge and as a way of energizing his crowd in the wake of terror attacks. Trump has stripped torture of its supposed tactical advantages and presents its unvarnished moral and political costs for American society.

Such a conversation has not yet begun in Israel. The debate in Jerusalem continues to focus on whether this or that technique is really "torture" according to the international definition, or "only" a case of "cruel punishment," whether the cases brought to court are only "a few rotten apples" or indicative of established policy and protocol. So far, not a word has been spoken about the long-term consequences to Israeli society of using extreme physical and psychological torment in order to elicit dubious information.

Americans and Israeli are both proud of being unique; of explaining that their own situation is not comparable to that of other countries. It is true that the security challenges faced by both societies are exceptional. But no country is an island. The U.S. has made use of the Israeli experience and decisions regarding coercive and abusive interrogations of suspects. As the U.S. moves to close the infamous camp at Guantanamo and begins to acknowledge the huge strategic price of such practices, it is time for Israel to take a page from America.

Rachel Stroumsa is the Executive Director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.

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