Officials from both the Left and the Right came to an unusual conference at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center on Wednesday to discuss the enhanced interrogation methods of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
On the Left, were multiple officials from the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), which has been criticizing the enhanced interrogation of Palestinians for decades, including more than 1,000 complaints over 15 years which led to only one criminal probe.
On the Right, were Center for Zionist Strategy chairman Yoaz Hendel, head of the Begin Heritage Center Herzl Makoub, and defense lawyer Zion Amir – representing an increase in criticism of Shin Bet enhanced interrogation of right-wing Jews since the 2015 Duma cases.
The Duma cases are against the alleged the Jewish arson murderer and the alleged conspirator, of the Palestinian Dawabshe family in 2015
. However, part of the case is a battle over the Shin Bet’s methods of interrogation against Jewish defendants.
Representing different points on the spectrum of the legal system were former justice and attorney-general Elyakim Rubinstein, Deputy State Attorney Nurit Litman and Deputy National Public Defender Chagit Larnau.
PCATI official Tami Molad Chayu said her criticism stemmed from the question: “what kind of society do we want to be?”
Referring to a repeated contention that the judicial system caters to police and the Shin Bet in “balancing” security and human rights, she said, “see what happens to judges with the magic words ‘security’ and ‘ticking bomb.’”
Chayu argued that often law enforcement tosses out the threat of a “ticking bomb” (an impending terror attack) as a reason to torture suspects even when, like in the Duma case, the interrogation is dedicated only to solving a past issue.
In other words, a “ticking bomb” refers to preventing future danger; Chayu was saying that the Shin Bet uses enhanced interrogation to solve crimes that have already been committed in a problematic way.
She added that the picture of enhanced interrogation is relevant to the wider public as there are many violations of suspects in regular cases, which may reflect a growing trend. Moreover, Chayu declared PCATI’s position, which differs from the High Court of Justice, as one where “there are no gradations of bad or worse torture,” since any enhanced interrogation is torture.
On the Right, Hendel and Amir appeared to agree with PCATI that the discussion of human rights in the interrogation context was crucial, although there were disagreements about where to draw the line.
Hendel endorsed using enhanced interrogation with terrorists to stop a ticking bomb – to imminently save lives – and said that “this sometimes comes at the expense of other values.”
However, he noticed during the interrogations of the Jewish defendants in the Duma cases and during those of the former prime minister’s aide, Nir Hefetz, that “suddenly people cared” about the rights of suspects.
“But did they not care until now?” He asked.
He said that the Right had ignored the issue of interrogated suspects rights until it had an impact on them, and that this was “not a true discussion.”
He credited PCATI for taking the same line opposing the torture of detainees all of the time, whether they were Palestinian or Jewish.
Multiple PCATI speakers, including Chayu and lawyer Halil Zaher were adamant that, “we don’t deal with Jews or Palestinians – we deal with human beings.”
Zaher also objected that the very unusual exception that the High Court made in a 1999 decision for using “moderate physical pressure” was being abused by the Shin Bet and significantly overused to the point that it occurs regularly.
However, Amir, while willing to engage in public dialogue with PCATI, was more critical of their position.
Amir recalled that after he won a major decision to disqualify some admissions made by Jewish Duma defendants, due to enhanced interrogation techniques used on them, he declined to share materials with PCATI, because he believes the Shin Bet may need to use such methods on Palestinian groups dedicated to destroy Israel.
Zaher raised instances where Palestinians were held for two months and the Shin Bet used enhanced interrogation on them and released them with no charges, proving that the agency makes mistakes and uses extreme methods – sometimes on innocent people.
Responding, Amir said that if Zaher could bring statistics that this happened in a high percentage of cases then he would change his views. However, he believed this was the exception and that mostly PCATI represented those with connections to terror.
Zaher retorted that there are different levels of crime and that the High Court’s 1999 decision only permitted using moderate physical pressure for ticking bombs – and that the vast majority of enhanced interrogations were not for ticking bombs.
Amir appeared unconvinced, but did agree that there is a broad problem of inadequate record keeping by the Shin Bet, making it nearly impossible for anyone, let alone defense lawyers, to critique its use of enhanced interrogation.
Rubinstein did not take a side.
However, he said that even if he thinks that generally the system works well and stays within the law, the famous metaphor of US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis applies – like the light of the sun, or transparency, can purify and disinfect state abuses of power – even regarding the Shin Bet.
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