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How Israeli doctors enable the Shin Bet's torture industry

From approving brutal interrogation techniques to writing false medical reports, doctors in Israel have taken an active role in the torture of Palestinian prisoners.

By Ruchama Marton

Illustrative photo of an Israeli soldier blindfolding a Palestinian prisoner. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Illustrative photo of an Israeli soldier blindfolding a Palestinian prisoner. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

If the Shin Bet runs a school for its agents and interrogators, the curriculum most certainly includes a class on how to tell a lie. The texts taught, it seems, do not change with the years. In 1993, responding to accusations that the Shin Bet brutally tortured Palestinian detainee Hassan Zubeidi, then Commander of the IDF Northern Command Yossi Peled told Israeli journalist Gabi Nitzan that “there is no torture in Israel. I served for 30 years in the IDF and I know what I am talking about.”

Twenty-six years later, Deputy Chief of the Shin Bet and former Shin Bet interrogator, Yitzhak Ilan repeated the same line to news presenter Ya’akov Eilon on national television while speaking about Samer Arbeed, a 44-year-old Palestinian who was hospitalized in critical condition after he had been reportedly tortured by the Shin Bet. Arbeed is suspected of organizing a deadly bombing that killed a teenage Israeli girl and wounded her father and brother at a spring in the West Bank in August. Ilan bristled at the notion that the Shin Bet was somehow responsible for Arbeed’s condition.

Putting aside these absurd forms of denial, as a doctor and founder of Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, I have always been troubled by how Israeli doctors cooperate with and enable Israel’s torture industry.

In June 1993, I organized an international conference in Tel Aviv on behalf of PHR against torture in Israel. At the conference, I presented a Shin Bet medical document that had been discovered by chance by Israeli journalist Michal Sela. In the document, the Shin Bet doctor was asked whether the prisoner in question had any medical restrictions when it came to keeping them in isolation, whether they could be tied, whether their face could be covered, or whether they could be made to stand for prolonged periods of time.

The Shin Bet denied such a document ever existed. “There is no document. It was simply an experimental paper that is not in use,” the agency claimed. Four years later, a second document, suspiciously similar to the first, came to light. That document asked doctors to sign off on torture in accordance with several previously agreed-upon clauses.

The first document, along with other findings, were published in the book titled “Torture: Human Rights, Medical Ethics and the Case of Israel.” The book cannot be found in Israel; Steimatzky, Israel’s oldest and largest bookstore chain, has banned its sale. Perhaps this is further proof that there is no torture in Israel.

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After the document was uncovered, PHR turned to the Israel Medical Association and asked it to join the struggle against torture. The IMA requested that PHR hand over the names of the Shin Bet doctors who signed off on the document so that they could be dealt with internally.

I refused to hand over the names and told the IMA attorney that I was not interested in going after rank-and-file doctors — I wanted to change the entire system. That meant doing away with legitimacy granted to confessions exacted under torture, educating IMA members about non-cooperation with torturers, and particularly providing active help to those doctors who do report on suspicion of torture or brutal interrogations.

Back then, the IMA was satisfied with putting our statements while doing nothing to prevent the Shin Bet’s doctors from cooperating with torture. Furthermore, the organization failed to fulfill its obligation to establish a forum for doctors to report on suspected torture.

An ethical, moral, and practical failure

But it is not only doctors in the Shin Bet and the Israel Prison Service that collaborate with torture. Doctors in emergency rooms across Israel write false medical opinions in accordance with the demands of the Shin Bet. Take, for example, the case of Nader Qumsieh from the West Bank city of Beit Sahour. He was arrested in his home on May 4, 1993 and was brought to Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva five days later. There a urologist diagnosed him a hemorrhage and a torn scrotum.

Qumsieh testified that he was beaten during his interrogation and kicked in his testicles.

Ten days later, Qumsieh was brought before the same urologist for a medical examination, after the latter had received a phone call from the Israeli military. The urologist wrote a retroactive letter (as if it had been written two days earlier), without actually conducting an additional examination of the patient, in which he said that “according to the patient, he fell down the stairs two days before he arrived in the emergency room.” This time, the diagnosis was “superficial hematoma in the scrotal area, which corresponds to local bruises sustained between two and five days prior to the examination.” The urologist’s original letter, written after the first examination, disappeared from Qumsieh’s medical file.

History teaches us that doctors everywhere easily and effectively internalize the regime’s values, and many of them become loyal servants of the regime. That was the case in Nazi Germany, in the United States, and in various countries in Latin America. The same goes for Israel. Qumsieh’s case, along with countless others, reflects the ethical, moral, and practical failure of the medical establishment in Israel vis-à-vis torture.

Palestinian boys dressed up as prisoners protest for the release of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails, Gaza City, 21 April 2007. (Ahmad Khateib/Flash90)

Palestinian boys dressed up as prisoners protest for the release of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails, Gaza City, April 21, 2007. (Ahmad Khateib/Flash90)

 

Already back in the 18th century, jurists — rather than doctors — published legal opinions accompanied by proof that there is no connection between causing pain and getting to the truth. Thus, both torture and confessions exacted through pain were legally disqualified. One can only assume that the heads of the Shin Bet, the army, and the police know this bit of history.

And yet, torture — which includes both mental and physical cruelty — continues to take place on a large scale. Why? Because the real goal of torture and humiliation is to break the spirit and body of the prisoner. To eliminate his or her personality.

The legal understanding for forbidding torture is based on the utilitarian idea that one cannot arrive at the truth through inflicting pain . But doctors are committed — first and foremost — to the idea that anything that causes physical or mental harm to a patient is prohibited.

The Shin Bet medical eligibility document allows for sleep prevention, it allows interrogators to expose prisoners to extreme temperatures, to beat them, to tie them for long hours in painful positions, to force them to stand for hours until the vessels in their feet burst, to cover their heads for prolonged periods of time, to sexually humiliate them, to break their spirits by severing their ties to family and lawyers, to keep them in isolation until they lose their sanity.

The Shin Bet’s medical eligibility form is not the same as the one used to check eligibility to join the air force or even to drive a car. This kind of “eligibility” leads the prisoner directly into the torture chamber — and the doctor knows this. The doctor knows to what kind of systematic process of pain and humiliation he or she is lending their consent and approval. It is doctors who oversee the torture, examine the tortured prisoner, and write the medical opinion or the pathology report.

Israeli activists participate in an action protesting the use of torture, 2011. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli activists participate in an action protesting the use of torture, 2011. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

 

The white robe passes through the torture chamber like a lurking shadow during interrogations. A doctor who cooperates with Israel’s torture industry is complicit in that very industry. If a prisoner dies during interrogation, the doctor is an accomplice to his or her murder. Doctors, nurses, medics, and judges who know what is taking place and prefer to remain silent are all accomplices.

We must unconditionally oppose all forms of torture — without exceptions. We, citizens of a democratic state, must refuse to cooperate with the crime of torture, and all the more so when it comes to doctors.

We must also not hide behind the idea that torture is a symptom of the occupation while telling ourselves that the practice will disappear when the occupation ends. Torture is a worldview according to which human rights have no place or value. It existed well before the occupation and it will continue to exist if we do not change that worldview.

Violent and cruel investigative practices do not benefit national security even if they are committed on its behalf. Torture causes a spiraling destruction of our very social fabric. Not only do those who carry out this terrible kind of “work” lose the values of morality, human dignity, and democracy, but also all those who remain silent, unwilling to know. In fact, all of us.

Dr. Ruchama Marton is the founder of Physicians for Human Rights – Israel. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      “In its most recent annual report, Amnesty noted how “torture and other ill-treatment of detainees, including children, remained pervasive and was committed with impunity [by Israeli forces]”…An academic study published in 2015 found that “sexual ill-treatment is systemic”.

      https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/israel-must-be-held-accountable-torturing-palestinian-prisoners

      “Sexual torture of Palestinian men by Israeli authorities.” (2015)

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26718999

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      This brings it home, makes it real, doesn’t it? This shows what it takes to cruelly keep an entire people captive for 51 years while everything they have is stolen and their dignity is robbed. This shows the Orwellian machine and the systematic cruelty required. This shows how the occupation corrupts everybody at all levels and everywhere. This stomach-turning business especially turns the stomach in the context of what the Weimar doctors did and what the Nazi German doctors did (believe me, they too thought they were serving a “higher” cause, they too thought they were acting “in defense”—they too never saw themselves as monsters).

      Reply to Comment
    3. Rivka Koen

      Israeli doctors, could you please stop playing into so many antisemitic tropes

      Reply to Comment
      • David

        Eminent Jewish Israeli journalist Bradley Burston aptly sums up the horrors Israel inflicts on Palestinians, including children, in the occupied West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem:

        “Occupation is Slavery”
        EXCERPT:
        “In the name of occupation, generation after generation of Palestinians have been treated as property. They can be moved at will, shackled at will, tortured at will, have their families separated at will. They can be denied the right to vote, to own property, to meet or speak to family and friends. They can be hounded or even shot dead by their masters, who claim their position by biblical right, and also use them to build and work on the plantations the toilers cannot themselves ever hope to own. The masters dehumanize them, call them by the names of beasts.” (Haaretz, Feb. 26/13)

        https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/20/we-have-a-duty-to-help-the-children-of-palestine

        “We have a duty to help the children of Palestine” British teachers and lecturers, The Guardian, Nov. 20/18
        EXCERPT:
        “On the UN’s Universal Children’s Day – 20 November – teachers and lecturers urge the UK government to lobby for the release of child prisoners and an end to the mistreatment of children detained under military law

        “As teachers and lecturers, we feel strongly that today, on the UN’s Universal Children’s Day, we must call on our government to work with increased determination to achieve improved welfare for the children living in Palestine under occupation and in Gaza. On this day, we are reminded that we have a duty to advocate for children’s rights as set out in the declaration of the rights of the child, which was adopted in 1959, and the convention on the rights of the child, adopted in 1989.

        “We believe it is shameful that children live in fear, in particular the fear of being detained and imprisoned under military law.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Rivka Koen

          In case you misunderstood, I am saying these Israeli doctors are being shandes by giving our enemies so many weapons.

          Reply to Comment
          • David

            Hi Rivka

            I did understand your meaning.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Bruce Gould

      Haaretz editorial, Oct 8: “Israel Must Put Boundaries on Torture…Of the 102 interrogees in whose name the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel has complained to the Justice Ministry over the past five years, 31 percent said they suffered physical violence. Double that number – 61 percent – complained of threats. Forty percent said they were tied in painful positions for a long time, and well over half – 66 percent – complained of sleep deprivation. A combination of some or all of these methods constitutes torture, which is forbidden by law.”

      https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/israel-must-put-boundaries-on-torture-1.7957955

      Reply to Comment
    5. David

      Video: ‘Stone Cold Justice’ on Israel’s torture of Palestinian children
      https://vimeo.com/86575949

      A film produced by a group of Australian journalists has sparked an international outcry against Israel after it explicitly detailed Tel Aviv’s use of torture against Palestinian children.

      “The film, titled ‘Stone Cold Justice’ documents how Palestinian children, who have been arrested and detained by Israeli forces, are subjected to physical abuse, torture and forced into false confessions and pushed into gathering intelligence on Palestinian activists. Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop has spoken out against Israeli’s use of torture stating that ‘I am deeply concerned by allegations of the mistreatment of Palestinian children,’ Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor has described the human rights abuses documented in the film as ‘intolerable.’ But rights groups have slammed this statement, saying that the Israelis are doing nothing to change Tel Aviv’s policy to torture Palestinian children.

      “Last year a report by the United Nations International Emergency Children’s Fund or UNICEF concluded that Palestinian children are often targeted in night arrests and raids of their homes, threatened with death and subjected to physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault. The film Stone Cold Justice has sparked an international outcry about Israel’s treatment of children in Israeli jails. However, rights groups have criticized Tel Aviv for not doing anything to create a policy that protects Palestinian children against arbitrary arrest and torture.”

      Video: https://www.youtube.com/wat
      Precarious Childhood: Arrests of Jerusalemite Children
      This film addresses the process of arrest, interrogation, and the policy of house arrest and their effects on children. The film provides accounts of children who were arrested in order to highlight a larger policy of persecution and targeting of Palestinian children in Jerusalem.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ben

      This brings it home, makes it real, doesn’t it? This shows what it takes. This shows what it takes to cruelly keep an entire people captive and beaten down for 51 years while everything they have is stolen. Slowly, bit by bit, keep the outside world inattentive, undercover, easy now, not too fast, manage it, don’t want to get people to actually focus on what is really going on here. This shows the Orwellian machine and the vicious, systematic cruelty required. This shows how the occupation corrupts everybody at all levels and everywhere. This shows how there is no excuse for what is being done.

      Reply to Comment
    7. It is not just in Israel that this practice poisons society, but any democracy that wants to call itself one must come to terms with the abomination of torture, explored brilliantly by Charles and Gregory Fried in “Because It Is Wrong”.

      Reply to Comment
    8. itshak Gordine

      We can only thank the Israeli security services who are fighting night and day against Arab terrorism to protect our civilian population. The interrogation of this 44-year-old terrorist helped to dismantle a terrorist group that was preparing to commit other attacks. Everything is allowed to save human lives, no offense to some leftists that the death of Jewish civilians does not sadden.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Thanks for coming clean, confessing your cold amorality and being an exemplar of the sick, Orwellian amorality of the occupation. Nothing like clarity as to who you really are and why we detest you and will continue to oppose you.

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          From abroad? What you think does not matter. We must protect ourselves from these terrorists who threaten our lives and those of our women and children. Remember that Judaism says that if anyone wants to kill you, everything MUST be done to neutralize him, even by taking away his life. I think Ben you have a real problem.You are totally indifferent to Jewish suffering and wonder why 972 does not warn you.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “you are totally indifferent to Jewish suffering”

            Just the eerily cold way you phrase this slander is remarkable and revealing. I am indifferent to no one’s suffering. You are, professedly, totally indifferent to “Arab suffering” (on all the levels implied by the occupation) as if we were talking about the treatment of animals. As opposed to humans (Jews). Then there is your astonishing lack of insight into yourself–so that, of all things, you would think “warning” from +972 is due me and not you, if “warning” (+972 is an arm of the Shin Bet?) were coming. Really, Halevy, your moral obtuseness, your lack of insight, your astonishing lack of comprehension of the most basic issues, continues to astound me. You are a unique source of insight into the brainwashing behind the occupation.

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            You write nonsense. I have never read one of your texts condemning anti-Jewish terrorism. You are totally insensitive to the suffering of the victims of Arab violence. You stand in solidarity with Arab terrorism.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            This kind of obtuse/nonsensical dreck does not deserve the dignity of a reply. You are a cold fanatic. Proof of this involves nothing more than reversing the charges:

            “I have never read one of your texts condemning anti-Palestinian terrorism. You are totally insensitive to the suffering of the victims of Jewish violence. You stand in solidarity with Jewish terrorism.”

            See how that works? But note that I did not write that to you. You wrote the reverse of it to me. Because you dress yourself in insufferable self-righteousness and cold arrogance. You lack elementary insight.

            Reply to Comment
      • David

        To be brief, you neglected to note that along with the IDF, the Israeli Security Services also assist in the illegal, brutal occupation and ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinians.

        Also, for the record:
        https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Encountering-Peace-Have-We-No-Shame-596738
        “What we did, what the State of Israel did, what we do in the name of the Jewish state is becoming pure evil.”
        BY GERSHON BASKIN, JULY 24/19, Jerusalem Post
        EXCERPT:
        “As I watched the video of the Israeli soldiers and police blowing up one of the 13 residential buildings demolished this week in the Wadi al-Hummus neighborhood of Sur Bahir in east Jerusalem, I wanted to bury myself in shame. When the building imploded and the soldiers laughed as we heard the screams and cries from the Palestinians who became homeless, my shame turned to pure outrage and the urge to be violent. But I will not step down to that level. I will not be violent. But I will not hold back, I will not forget and I will not forgive. What we did, what the State of Israel did, what we do in the name of the Jewish state is becoming pure evil.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          If the JORDANIANS don’t like living in Israel they are free to GO HOME !

          Reply to Comment
          • David

            “If the JORDANIANS don’t like living in Israel they are free to GO HOME!”

            Sigh. Like many others, you have been duped by Joan Peters’ long since debunked mountain of mendacity, “From Time Immemorial…”

            To wit:

            Professor Porath, one of Israel’s leading demographic historians, called Peters’ book a “forgery… [that] was almost universally dismissed [in Israel] as sheer rubbish except maybe as a propaganda weapon.”(New York Times, Nov.28, 1985)

            Rabbi Arthur Herzberg, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, agreed: “I think that she’s cooked the statistics…. The scholarship is phony and tendentious. I do not believe that she has read the Arabic sources that she quotes.”(ibid)

            To again quote Professor Porath: “The precise demographic history of modern Palestine cannot be summed up briefly, but its main features are clear enough and they are very different from the fanciful description Mrs. Peters gives…. [S]he has apparently searched through documents for any statement to the effect that Arabs entered Palestine. But even if we put together all the cases she cites, one cannot escape the conclusion that most of the growth of the Palestinian Arab community resulted from a process of natural increase.” (“Mrs. Peters’ Palestine” New York Review of Books, 16 January 1986.)

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Thank you for this useful and highly relevant reference, David. But, you know, honestly I think that gives those like Lewis and Ishak too much credit. They don’t base their “everybody knows” assumptions and low class prejudices on anything as complicated as professional history or any discerning search for truth and common ground. Common ground and fair compromise is utter anathema to them.

            Reply to Comment
          • David

            Hi Ben

            Understood. However, as I see it, in exchanges with uninformed or “don’t want to know the truth” people like Lewis from Afula, it is important to provide facts so that other people can read, digest and perhaps use them.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Until the early 1970s, Judea and Samaria was peopled by JORDANIANs.
            Then POOF !!!!
            Seemingly, overnight, these JORDANIANs physically transmuted into so-called “fakestinyans”.
            But where did these “fakestinyans” come from ?
            They mysteriously materialized from thin air – after passing via some hidden tempora-spatial dimension.

            I believe these crooks must return home to JORDAN, where they belong.
            Nothing to do with any books.

            Reply to Comment
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