TERRA INCOGNITA: On torture - Israel’s failed policy

Demonstrator reenacts waterboarding in Washington anti-torture protest, 2007 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Demonstrator reenacts waterboarding in Washington anti-torture protest, 2007
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Most of the way through the 1964 cult film Dr. Strangelove an American air force commander named Jack Ripper queries his British attaché.
“Did they torture you, Captain Mandrake?” Mandrake: “Yes, I was tortured by the Japanese.”
Ripper: “When they tortured you, did you talk?” Mandrake: “I don’t think they wanted me to talk, really.”
Ripper: “I don’t know how well I could stand up under torture.”
Mandrake: “Well of course the answer to that is, boy, no one ever does.”
Back to Dr. Strangelove in a moment.
What’s strange about being an American living in Israel is that you are led to believe that somehow Israel is like America. Of course people aren’t tortured; democracies don’t torture. But then you remember America’s own spotty history of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and realize that in the darker corners of the state, many things are done which should not be done. The British used torture in Northern Ireland. America tortured terrorists captured abroad.
Torture was an instrument of Israel’s state policy from the day of the country’s foundation.
Despite the lies, obfuscation and constant propaganda of Israel’s so-called “Left,” the fact is that the Labor Zionists who ran Israel used torture, just as their fellow travelers in the Soviet bloc used torture, and just as the Mandate authorities had used “emergency” regulations against the residents of Mandate Palestine before 1948.
What changed in Israel was that Menachem Begin was elected; he recalled his own experiences being tortured by the Soviets. In Torture and Democracy Darius Rejali relates Begin’s recollections on the use of sleep deprivation on detainees. “Sleep deprived people are highly suggestible, making sleep deprivation ideal for inducing false confessions,” said Begin. Rejali relates the Israeli method of “enhanced interrogation” used in the 1990s: “Sweating, sleep deprivation (up to twenty-five days), clean beating, bagging, positional tortures, exhaustion exercises, exposure to extreme heat and cold, boxes and old restraint techniques.” Not exactly the kind of things on display on a Birthright Tour.
The CIA in 2001 justified using its own “enhanced interrogation” methods based on Israel’s policies, according to a US Senate report.
Reading accounts it’s hard to believe these things happen in a democracy, in a country that refers to itself as substantially different than those around it in the Middle East.
Beginning in the 1970s, as European countries began to step back from their own widespread human rights abuses, a series of withering reports accused Israel of “widespread and systematic” use of torture. Israel denied using torture, but privately the newly elected prime minister, Begin, told the security forces to curtail their methods. He had been tortured himself, and in the Jewish state such methods would not be used. This wasn’t the Soviet Union.
But that was 1977. State bureaucracies don’t change old habits unless they are pulled up by the roots. Once torture is ingrained as an effective means of interrogation and when there are few checks and balances, the state slowly bounces back, like one of those orthopedic pillows that forms to the body when you sleep. According to some Israeli media, reports of torture by the security services have “risen sharply” in the past few years.
In general, Israel’s use of “methods” goes under the radar because it is applied mostly to Palestinians. Hundreds of Palestinians languish in Israel’s prisons under “administrative detention,” which is detention without trial. They are interrogated without lawyers and sentenced in military courts. The use of these “methods” is not restricted to only over the Green Line, they can be used on any Israeli citizen or any Palestinian. Once the bureaucracy has decided a case is “terror” related the rights that an ordinary person might enjoy diminish. In theory courts oversee these procedures, reviewing cases of administrative detention every month or so, but in practice there is little oversight. After the arson and killings at the Palestinian village of Duma in July of 2015, Israel’s security forces sought to find the Jewish extremists allegedly responsible. Administrative detention orders were issued for Jewish activists, but the investigations yielded no results. The latest round of interrogation has concentrated on three suspects, held in detention since November. At a rare court hearing a suspect, who has been interrogated for a month without lawyers present, said he was being “turned upside down...they are taking me apart, bending my back.” Sleep deprivation was being used, a lawyer for the suspect said.
One of the detainees, a minor, claimed to have attempted suicide.
Since these claims were brought to light, Israel’s politicians have formed a defensive wall around the security services. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon claimed that the terrorists “could carry out additional terrorist acts, setting the region on fire.” How its possible that two men and a teenager held in detention could do that – if those are indeed the guilty parties – is unclear.
“I have full confidence and am giving full support to Shin Bet [Israeli Security Agency] head Yoram Cohen...in light of the despicable attacks on them in recent days,” said Ya’alon.
Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed, saying criticism of the security services was “unacceptable.”
He argued Israel is a nation of laws, “the law is the same law for Jews, Arabs, Christians and Circassians...we have an interest in preventing repetition of such incidents.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett also said that he supported the work being done.
Attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir, who represents at least one of those being held in administrative detention, was denied access to him for 21 days. Ben-Gvir was on Channel 2 on December 22 arguing Israel must critique these methods. But many Israelis disagree, and they cite Supreme Court rulings allowing enhanced interrogation and preventing suspects from meeting heir lawyers as evidence that the law is being carried out. If you challenge the court ruling, then you challenge the functioning of Israeli democracy, they say.
The political and national reaction to allegations of torture falls into four categories.
The vast majority of Israelis, through their silence and the silence of their elected representatives, support detaining suspects without access to lawyers and accept the need for “enhanced” methods to obtain confessions and information. A significant minority of Israelis express concern about these methods being used on Jewish suspects, but don’t care if they are used on Palestinians. A very small minority seem to suggest that Jewish suspects should be treated worse than Palestinians because “Jews must be held to a higher standard.”
An equally small minority in Israel seem to support ending all torture.
When Netanyahu says everyone must be equal in the eyes of the law, he is correct.
An equal law could also mean no detention without access to lawyers and no “enhanced” interrogations or sleep deprivation. It could mean a right to an attorney, a right to have all interrogations recorded. The current model in Israel is to equally deny rights to all, rather than equally extend rights to Palestinians.
Those who think enhanced methods of interrogation, routinely called torture in other democracies, are the most effective should answer one simple question. Why was the FBI able to find, interrogate and convict KKK bombers of black churches and murderers of civil rights activists, using normal police methods? The fact is that the machinery of torture is the lazy way of obtaining confessions, some of them likely false. Of course too many police and security officials, in any country, would love nothing more than a system in which they can beat confessions out of everyone. In a modern state we have tended to believe that the right of the individual and risk of false confession should preclude such methods.
Israel has deemed the Duma attack of such significance because the security forces fear a third intifada. Police should have put a priority on investigating all the previous dozens of arson “price tag” attacks on Palestinians and using modern forensics and court-approved wiretaps and informants, cracked the case.
When Israeli organized crime figures employ arson, police can crack those cases, just not in the West Bank? Is the Green Line some invisible line over which forensics and normal investigatory methods cannot be used.
Often terrorist cells operate little differently than a mafia. But Israel became addicted to administrative detention and interrogations.
Why stop now? Dr. Strangelove accurately depicts the stupidity of torture, and the error inherent in its use, through comedy. It was obvious in 1964 that torture was not the correct method.
If Israel is so proud of its methods, then put them on display for all to see. Take the Birthright students to see the interrogations.
The experts will say “but then our methods will be revealed.” As if keeping a man awake for 20 hours a day is some great, secret method? The Soviets used it on Begin in 1940. The British used it in Northern Ireland in 1971. The Soviet system crumbled and the British have changed their policies. Will Israel ever wake up and realize it is doing the wrong thing?
–follow the author at @Sfrantzman