Torturing Palestinian Detainees

Torturing Palestinian Detainees

by Stephen Lendman

B’Tselem is the conservative Israeli Information
Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
with a well-deserved reputation for accuracy. A group
of prominent academics, attorneys, journalists and
Knesset members founded the organization in 1989 to
“document and educate the Israeli public and
policymakers about human rights violations in the
Occupied Territories, combat the phenomenon of denial
prevalent among the Israeli public, and help create a
human rights culture in Israel” to convince government
officials to respect human rights and comply with
international law.

Its work covers a wide range of human rights issues
that include detentions and torture. In May, 2007, it
prepared a detailed 100 page report titled “Absolute
Prohibition: The Torture and Ill-treatment of
Palestinian Detainees” that’s now available in print
for those who request it. This article summarizes its
findings that represent a joint effort by B’Tselem and
HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual that
was founded in 1988 to support Palestinian rights
during the first intifada in the late 1980s.

Since the early 1990s, B’Tselem published more than
ten reports on Israelis’ use of torture and
mistreatment of Palestinian detainees. This is the
latest one in an effort to raise public awareness and
help abolish these abhorrent practices. The findings
are based on testimonies solicited from a small
“unrepresentative” sample of 73 Palestinian West Bank
residents who were arrested between July, 2005 and
January, 2006, agreed to tell their stories, and who
met predetermined criteria for the study.

They were chosen from the names of 4460 Palestinian
detainees whose relatives contacted HaMoked for help
to locate their whereabouts. HaMoked provides this
service because Israel violates international law and
its own military regulations by denying family members
any information about who was detained or where
they’re being held. From its many years investigating
Israeli torture, B’Tselem believes the information in
this report accurately reflects the types and extent
of Israeli abusive practices.

Torture, abuse or degrading treatment are abhorrent in
any form for any reason, and long-standing
international law forbids these practices under all
circumstances. The four 1949 Geneva Conventions banned
any form of “physical or mental coercion” and affirmed
sick, wounded, war prisoners and civilians must be
treated humanely. All four conventions have a common
thread called Common Article Three that requires all
non-combatants to be treated humanely at all times.
There are no exceptions for any reasons, and
violations are grave breaches of Geneva and other
international law that constitute crimes of war and
against humanity.

Nonetheless, the 1987 Landau Commission (headed by
retired Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Moshe
Landau) cited the “necessary defense” provision in the
Penal Law to recommend using “psychological and
moderate physical pressure,” to obtain evidence for
convictions in criminal proceedings. Its justification
was that coercive interrogation tactics were necessary
against “hostile terrorist activity” it defined to
include not just threats or acts of violence but all
activities related to Palestinian nationalism.

Later in September, 1999, Israel’s High Court of
Justice (HCJ) responded to the Public Committee
Against Torture in Israel’s petition (PCATI) and
issued a landmark decision (reversing Landau
recommendations)  and barred the use of torture
against detainees. It was, however, a hollow gesture
as at the same time it ruled pressure and a measure of
discomfort were legitimate interrogation side-effects
but should not be used to break a detainee’s spirit.
It then added a giant loophole allowing interrogators
to use physical force and avoid prosecutions in
“ticking time bomb” cases even though international
law allows no exceptions, and Israeli authorities
could claim that excuse for anyone in custody.

Since its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank (the
OPT) in 1967, Israel imprisoned over 650,000
Palestinians according to the Palestinian peace and
justice group MIFTA. That’s equivalent to about
one-sixth of the OPT’s population today. The security
services currently hold around ten to twelve thousand
Palestinian men, women and children in its prisons
under deplorable conditions with many under
administrative detention without charge. Based on
earlier assessments by Hamoked, B’Tselem estimates as
many as 85% of them are subjected to torture and
mistreatment in custody even though most of them
aren’t accused of terrorism. These practices are
routinely and systematically used against political
activists, students accused of being pro-Islam,
sheikhs and religious leaders, people in Islamic
charitable organizations, relatives of wanted
individuals or any man, woman or child Israel targets
for any reason.

B’Tselem’s May, 2007 report states that the Israeli
Security Agency (ISA - formerly called the General
Security Service or GSS) admits to using “exceptional”
methods that include “physical pressure” of
interrogation in “ticking bomb” cases that can be used
as an excuse to abuse anyone. In addition, law
enforcement officials openly admit harsh measures are
approved retroactively so that Palestinian detainee
rights can be freely violated without fear of
recrimination. In other words, ISA interrogators know
the rules - don’t ask permission, use any methods you
wish, and don’t worry about the consequences after the
fact. There won’t be any, and it shows in what
detainees told B’Tselem.

They reported being “softened up” for interrogation
from the moment of their arrest to when ISA agents
took over. Abuses at the outset included beatings,
painful binding, swearing, humiliation and denial of
basic needs. The ISA procedure then included seven key
forms of abuse that violated the detainees’ dignity
and bodily integrity. They were inflicted to break
their spirit, but international law calls it torture
when it includes verified intent, severe pain or
suffering, improper motive, and involvement of the
state. All those conditions apply to Israeli abusive
practices that included:

—isolation that prohibited detainees from contact
with family, an attorney or ICRC representatives; this
exacerbated detainees’ sense of powerlessness by
creating a situation in which they’re completely at
the mercy of interrogators; it’s also known to cause
them serious psychological harm when continued for
extended periods;

—psychological pressure from solitary confinement in
“putrid, stifling cells three to six square meters in
size” with no windows or access to daylight and fresh
air; a fixed overhead light on 24 hours a day; walls
made of rough plaster making them uncomfortable or
impossible to lean against; a water faucet on one wall
and some cells with sinks; a usually dirty and damp
mattress and “filthy putrid” blankets on the floor;
nothing else in cells; reading and writing materials
not allowed; in many cells, toilets were holes in the
floor; detainees denied all human contact except for
guards and interrogators.

—physical conditions in solitary confinement cells
are regulated in Criminal Procedure Regulations issued
by Israel’s Minister of Internal Security with the
approval of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice
Committee; they don’t apply to “security detainees,”
however, so cells have no bed, chairs and most often
no sink; nothing else provided including use of a
telephone and right to have visitors provide items;
cells were too small to walk around in, and no daily
outside exercise was allowed;

—detainees weakened from lack of physical activity,
sleep deprivation and inadequate food; they’re denied
basic needs like food and liquids, medicines or the
right to relieve themselves; throughout long hours of
interrogation, they’re shackled to a chair unable to
move hands or legs even minimally; they had
nutritional deficiencies and food received was
inadequate, cold, improperly cooked, flavorless and
often repulsive in appearance; many detainees resisted
eating as long as possible;

—shackling in the “shabah” position that’s the
prolonged and painful binding of detainees’ hands and
feet to a standard-sized unupholstered, metal frame,
rigid plastic chair fixed to the floor with no
armrests; hands tightly bound behind the back in
adjustable plastic handcuffs and connected to a ring
at the back of the seat to stretch them uncomfortably
below the backrest; legs bound to the chair’s front
legs; detainees were unable to get up throughout
interrogation that on average lasted eight consecutive
hours without a break and on the first day ran 12
hours; later in the interrogation period, sessions
shortened to four or five hours;

—interrogations only for a small portion of this
time; for most if it, interrogators were out of the
room; at those times air conditioning turned up to
uncomfortably cold levels; most often only one meal
served during a day’s interrogation; very sparing
toilet privileges allowed; nearly all detainees
complained of severe back, neck, shoulder, arms and
wrist pain during interrogation; numbness or loss of
sensation in limbs also reported; the Israeli High
Court of Justice (HCJ) ruled in 1999 that all “shabah”
shackling procedures are unlawful since they violate
rules for “reasonable and fair interrogation” and
injure detainees’ dignity and well-being; ISA
interrogators ignore the ruling with impunity;

—cursing and humiliating strip searches of detainees
as well as shouting, spitting in the face and other
related abusive practices; detainees forced to strip
naked and submit to body searches while being yelled
at and mocked;

—intimidations made to include threats of physical
torture (called “military interrogation”), arrest of
family members and destruction of homes;

—using informants (“asafirs”) to get information
that’s not abusive as such but is a very questionable
method following preparatory “softening up.”

B’Tselem then discussed “special” interrogation
methods that mostly involve physical violence:

—sleep deprivation for 30 to 40 hours during which
detainees left painfully shackled in interrogation
rooms; guards frequently awakened detainees between
midnight and 5AM; various type oppressive noises used
at night to interfere with sleep;

—use of “dry” beatings that included punching,
kicking all parts of the body, striking with rifle
butts and face slapping; detainees hit with clubs,
helmets and other objects; heads slammed against a
wall, floor or hard surface; beatings inflicted when
detainees’ hands were bound behind their back, and
they were blindfolded; additional beatings during
physical inspections with their hands cuffed;

—painful binding with handcuffs or other devices
tight enough to cut off blood flow circulation and
cause swelling;

—sharp twisting of the head forcefully and suddenly
sideways or backwards;

—forced “frog” crouching on tiptoes with cuffed
hands behind the back accompanied by shoving or
beating until detainees lost their balance and fell
forward or backward; this method inflicts pain by
increasing pressure on leg muscles and also hurts
wrists after falling;

—use of forced “banana” position that involves
bending the back in a painful arch while the body is
extended horizontally to the floor on a backless chair
with arms and feet bound beneath it.

Prison killings also occur like the October 22 one at
the notorious Ketziot Detention Center in the Negev
desert where 2300 Palestinians are held under very
harsh conditions. It happened at 2AM when prison
guards began searching tents and strip-searching
inmates in a deliberate middle of the night
provocation. Prisoners resisted and about 550 members
of the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) Metsada riot
dispersal unit responded with excessive force by
beating them with plastic clubs and rifle butts as
well as firing rubber-coated bullets, live ammunition,
tear gas and stun grenades that set tents ablaze and
caused as many as 250 inmate injuries and at least
nine serious ones. During the assault, Mohammed Al
Ashqar was killed after being shot in the head.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR)
maintains that prisoner abuse, repressive tactics and
killing Palestinians is official Israeli policy that’s
become even worse under current IPS director, Beni
Kaniak. PCHR reports he instituted these punitive

—reductions in food and cleaning materials rations;

—additional items prisoners forbidden to have;

—confiscated prisoners’ money and prevented none
sent from families to reach them;

—widespread use of solitary confinement;

—periodic movement of prisoners to new facilities to
prevent any sense of stability;

—repeated unannounced harsh late night raids like
the October 22 one at Ketziot.

These tactics and Palestinian detainee torture and
abuse are condoned “under the auspices of the Israeli
law enforcement system.” B’Tselem reported since 2001,
Israel’s State Attorney’s Office got over 500
complaints of these practices but investigated none of
them. Overall, instances of detainee mistreatment are
rarely looked into and even fewer ever result in
indictments. Further, despite its 1999 ruling,
Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ) aids ISA
interrogations by refusing to accept even one of
hundreds of petitions brought before it for redress.
HCJ also lets ISA conceal information from detainees
that abusive orders were issued against them or that
legal petitions were filed on their behalf. It further
allows evidence obtained under torture to be used in
criminal proceedings.

B’Tselem and HaMoked are committed to ending Israel’s
use of torture against Palestinian detainees. They
cite the example of the US Army’s September, 2006
Field Manual for Human Intelligence Collector
Operations as a proper guide to conducting
interrogations even though authorized physical and
psychological brutality became official administration
policy under George Bush post-9/11. Nonetheless, this
manual covers 18 interrogation methods experience
showed work under varying situations and conditions.
They range from establishing trust between
interrogator and detainee to the use of ruses and
psychological manipulation. In all cases, they don’t
involve torture or other unlawful practices.

It’s one thing to have rules and laws and another to
abide by them. The US under George Bush condones and
practices “the harshest interrogation techniques ever
used by the Central Intelligence Agency” according to
once secret Department of Justice (DOJ) legal
opinions. It’s no different in Israel where the ISA
systematically and routinely uses banned interrogation
measures with impunity. B’Tselem and HaMoked want
these practices ended and urge the Israeli government
to halt them by enacting enforceable laws “strictly
prohibiting torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading
treatment” in accordance with international law.

They further recommend every complaint of abuse and
torture be investigated by an independent body,
persons found to have broken the law to be prosecuted,
and that “every detainee receives minimum humane
conditions.” Israel claims to be a civilized state.
It’s about time it acted like one.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Also visit his blog site at and
listen to The Steve Lendman News and Information Hour
on Mondays at noon US central time.