Israel has stood firm on its policy not to torture security prisoners even though the terrorist threat against it has increased, Deputy State Attorney for Special Affairs Shai Nitzan told the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva on Tuesday.
As part of the committee's periodic review of compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture, it is examining Israel, Chad, Chile, Honduras, New Zealand, Nicaragua and the Philippines. Israel last came before the committee in 2001.
In a document it submitted to the UN as part of the proceedings, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel accused the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) of torturing "dozens if not hundreds of Palestinian detainees" in the past eight years.
But Nitzan told the panel that a Supreme Court ruling in 1999 prohibited the Shin Bet from using physical interrogation methods against terrorist suspects.
According to the court, "A reasonable investigation is necessarily one free of torture, free of cruel inhuman treatment of the subject and free of any degrading handling whatsoever... These prohibitions are absolute. There are no exceptions to them."
Still it was important, Nitzan said, to understand that Israel sought to adhere to the Torture Convention even as it battled a growing threat.
More than 1,100 Israelis have been killed and nearly 8,000 wounded in attacks aimed at civilian centers, streets and buses since 2001, he said.
In that same time, thousands of rockets were fired across Israel's southern border by Gaza Palestinians. Since 2005, 9,555 rockets were launched, including 3,716 in 2008 alone. Such attacks disrupted any attempt by southern residents to lead a normal life, he said.
Still, Israel remained committed to "respecting its international obligations."
"It is of the belief that the basic human rights of all persons under its jurisdiction must never be violated regardless of the crimes," Nitzan said.
He noted that one of the most significant changes in Israel since its last report to the committee was its reform of the Shin Bet to ensure better supervision and oversight.
Legislation passed in 2000 placed the Shin Bet under the jurisdiction of the prime minister and gave a supervisory role to a ministerial committee. The state comptroller and the justice minister also supervise some of its operations.
The Shin Bet's director must report to the ministerial committee and to the Knesset Service Affairs Committee at least once every three months, Nitzan added.
Today, the Shin Bet's responsibilities and limitations were very clearly defined by law and supervised by a number of different bodies, he said.
The IDF also had a strict policy of investigating every claim of mistreatment, Nitzan said.
In Israel's report to the committee it noted that two soldiers convicted of beating cuffed detainees were sentenced to seven to 10 months in prison. In another case, soldiers convicted of assaulting Palestinians at a checkpoint were sentenced to four to nine months in jail.
From 2001 to 2004, only a small number of cases in which security personnel were investigated for allegedly abusing detainees resulted in criminal proceedings, the report said.
According to Nitzan, the Torture Convention was incorporated into the basic and routine training of all members of the security forces - the police, the IDF, the Israel Prisons Service and the Shin Bet.
After hearing Israel's testimony, committee member Fernando Marino Menendez said he was concerned that Israeli law had not fully incorporated the convention and that the penalty for torture was not severe enough.
He wondered if there was any sort of tacit understanding that torture could be used in extreme cases. Menendez also had questions regarding treatment of "illegal combatants" and what he termed an "excessively long" period for administrative detention.
Committee member Felice Gaer had questions about the 13 Arabs (12 who were Israeli citizens and one a Palestinian) killed by police in the October 2000 riots. She also had questions about settler violence against Palestinians as well as violence by Palestinians against other Palestinians.
Other committee members asked about Israel's policy of targeted killings against Hamas, the denial of medical care for Gaza Palestinians and the IDF's use of white phosphorous during January's Gaza military operation.
Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, said the Israeli delegation spent two and a half hours talking with the committee on Tuesday and was due to appear again on Wednesday.
"We gave an opening statement and then we listened to remarks and questions," he said. "Tomorrow it will be our turn to reply to the questions."