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When Israel tortures Jewish terror suspects

The Right is furious over the alleged use of torture against the suspects in the murder of a Palestinian family. But is it any surprise that the tools used against Palestinians would eventually be used against Jews too?

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)

“Torture in Israel? The Shin Bet’s actions in the Duma case may turn out to be the secret service’s new ‘Bus 300 Affair,’ wrote Yehuda Yifrach, the legal expert for the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon and the NRG news site, on his personal Facebook page.

Well, of course there is torture in Israel — it has been used here on a regular basis for decades. There was even an investigatory committee that dealt with the issue and the High Court even established a legal framework for the use of torture. There are also many testimonies that show how the Shin Bet regularly strays from that framework, using interrogation techniques that can be categorized as torture in order to force prisoners to confess, and not only in cases of a “ticking bomb.”

The Israeli Right has been accusing the Shin Bet of using violent interrogation methods against the suspects in the murder of three members of the Dawabshe family in Duma this past July. The suspects were allegedly prevented from seeing a lawyer until last Wednesday, prompting a large right-wing demonstration outside the home of Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen Saturday night.

Yirach’s bewilderment, as well as that of many on the Right, is not really about “torture in Israel,” but rather about the “torture of Jews.” This is a different question entirely. The attitude underlying Yifrach’s message is that Palestinians are not actually part of the Israeli system, despite having to obey its orders. They do not have the same civil rights as Jews, which makes admissible in court a confession extracted from a Palestinian minor, while a confession by a Jewish minor using the same techniques is inadmissible.

In truth, this is not the attitude of the Right, but of the Israeli mainstream, which is convinced that the occupied territories are part of Israel (or, at the very least, are disputed), while millions of people who live in this territory are not part of Israel, and they are not entitled to the same civil and human rights as Israelis. But the reality is that both the people and the land are under Israeli control and are subject to Israeli law — or Israeli military law — whether they want it or not. Israel is a democracy that controls a population in the West Bank through military dictatorship, and one of the most common tools used by dictatorships is torture.

The distinction between the occupied territories and Israel exists only in our minds. In reality, there is one system that governs different populations and parts of the land using different means. The moment one of those means is used against one population, there is no problem using it against the others. The interrogators are the same interrogators, the High Court the same High Court, the norms the same norms, and the legal framework the same legal framework.

Jaffa protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners (Mati Milstein)

Palestinians protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners, Jaffa, Israel. (photo: Mati Milstein)

The only thing we are left with is circumstance, such that when the government wants to — for instance following a murder that horrifies the public and does damage to the government’s image abroad — the public no longer has any principle objection to using torture against Jewish minors as well. In fact, according to the security establishment, the need to do so might sometimes be more urgent: As opposed to Palestinians, who tend to confess to their crimes due to the pressure from lengthy periods of incarceration and an absurdly high conviction rate in military courts, Jews know their privilege and do not tend to confess to security-based crimes, where there is generally less forensic evidence.

This is the reason why human rights must be universal and must not differentiate between Jews, Arabs, asylum seekers or any other population. The sad irony is that on the same week that the Right took to the streets — justifiably — to protest the interrogation techniques used on the Jewish detainees, the executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Ishai Menuchin, was personally targeted by the recent campaign of incitement against human rights activists. I wonder how many of the rightists who protested in front of the Shin Bet chief’s home on Saturday are aware of PCATI’s struggles and successes against the state’s torture policy, which included a victory in the High Court in 1999 forbidding the Shin Bet from violently shaking suspects during interrogations. Had it not been for the decades-long work by PCATI or the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the Duma suspects’ situation would have been worse. Far worse.

The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and ACRI both published statements calling to uphold the Duma suspects’ rights. Yet the political center in Israel views torture as a legitimate tool. It also derides the leftists who oppose torture — whether to protect the rights of Palestinians or Jewish settlers — as bleeding hearts. But human rights organizations know one thing very well that the rest of the Israeli populace continues to ignore: the occupation will not end at the 1967 borders. It is impossible to maintain a dictatorship within a democracy. When it is politically expedient, the tools used in the occupied territories are also used in Israel. Torture is not a necessary evil to be wielded against violence — whether it comes from the Right, the Left, or the Palestinians. On the contrary: torture is part of the violence of the regime of occupation, and the way to deal with violence — on all sides — is to put an end to the occupation.


If there is one thing that stands out over the past few years, it is the way in which the occupation has corrupted both Israeli institutions and the public sphere. There is a straight line that connects the history of human rights activism by groups like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, to the restrictions on political activism inside Israel, to the violence by Jews against Arabs, to the use of violent interrogation methods against Jews. The key to all these phenomenons can be found in the failure of the political establishment, from the right, center, and left to solve the issue of the occupied territories.

The Jewish public has adopted the status quo as the solution. But the price of that status quo continues to climb, both internally and externally. The violence continues to undermine our sense of security, while international pressure continues to grow. The legitimacy of Israeli policy, and often of Israel itself, continues to deteriorate. Not a single political power in Israel is interested in change, yet the existing reality is becoming harder and harder to swallow.

We must not forget the Right’s sweeping victory in the last elections, which gave its representatives the feeling that they have an unlimited mandate to wipe out every political rival. When the Right fails to come to an agreement or gain legitimacy, it turns to might; when that doesn’t work, the demand for power grows even stronger. This includes using additional means to oppress Palestinians (more arrests, more home demolitions, more firepower), and new methods of eliminating political opposition — strengthening the ability to govern, restricting civil society groups, outlawing political movements, the boycott law, summoning activists for threatening conversations, preventing human rights organizations from meeting with high school students, restrictions on transferring funds from abroad, severing ties with “hostile representatives” from around the world (even when they come from the governments most friendly to Israel). All of this is already happening, and we can only imagine what kind of steps will be deemed necessary in three, five, or 10 years. The occupation is not going anywhere, and we will continue to import the methods used in the West Bank to Israel.

These are not necessary steps in the struggle for the survival of the Jewish People. These aren’t even necessary steps in the struggle for the survival of the State of Israel. This is the struggle for the survival of an unjust regime, whose ultimate end is clear; the only question is how much blood will be spilled on the way. Even Jewish terror, with which the state is currently trying to contend, is part of a well-known phenomenon: fringe groups among the oppressing population, which do a better job than the regime of instilling fear into the oppressed group. Violence, on all sides, is a direct outcome of the violence of the occupation. One cannot treat the symptoms without dealing with the disease.

As opposed to the consensus among the right wing, or the depraved admiration for the likes of Putin that has become commonplace lately, we must remember that oppressive regimes are also the most fragile, and whose deterioration is usually painful and violent for all parties. Liberal democracies are likely the most stable kind of regime that we know — they contend with both internal and external threats better than most dictatorships. That is, unless they decide to turn into dictatorships themselves.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    1. Leo

      Very good article.

      The real problem is torture itself. Torture is not legal and ought not to have been made legal in the state of Israel. No “but” no “if”. Torture is illegal. Period.

      Let us recall that in 1984, the United Nations held a convention on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CID), so that an international treaty was signed by 74 countries, including Israel. The prohibition of torture is absolute, non-derogable and “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever” can be invoked to justify it (Art. 2.2).

      The legal use of terror in the state of Israel will remain forever an indelible stain in its history.

      Fortunately, the Supreme Court ruled in 1999 (after the international treaty prohibiting torture was ratified in Israel) that torture (which includes “moderate physical pressure”) is illegal. And for this I will be forever thankful to the PCATI and ACRI, two great civil associations, as the author recalls in this article. Every single Israeli citizen should remember this and support them as much as they can.

      But the author is right. Torture does not come from nowhere. Every other country has its own justification for it. In this state, it comes from oppressing another people.

      Reply to Comment
      • Leo

        One more remark: the 1999 Supreme Court decision unfortunately leaves some loopholes that allow “legal” torture (like “ticking bomb cases”), in contravention to the UN convention.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Tzila

      “Sauve-qui-peut…”, there is no end to it, Pavlovian induced mentality in Israel is a cancer without
      known remedy.

      Reply to Comment