Prison Tactics A Longtime Dilemma For Israel
Nation Faced Issues Similar to Abu Ghraib
By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 16, 2004; Page A01
NABLUS, West Bank -- The accounts of physical abuse of Iraqis by American guards at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad sounded achingly familiar to Anan Labadeh. The casual beatings, the humiliations, the trophy photos taken by both male and female guards were experiences he said he underwent as a Palestinian security detainee at an Israeli military camp in March of last year.
There was, he added, a significant difference: The Israelis have rules, he said, and their techniques for breaking down prisoners are far more sophisticated. "What the Israelis do is much more effective than beatings," he said. "Three days without food and without sleep and you're eager to tell them anything. It just shows us the Americans are amateurs. They should have taken lessons from the Israelis."
Many of the questions raised by the Abu Ghraib scandal, and by the United States's self-declared war on terrorism, are the kinds that Israel has been wrestling with for decades. Where is the line in a democracy between coercion and torture? What kinds of interrogation techniques are morally acceptable when dealing with a suspect who may have knowledge of a "ticking bomb" -- an imminent attack? And what about the damage those techniques inflict on relations between an occupying power and its subjects?
"Unfortunately, when you're fighting a war against terror there are many difficult issues you face every day," said a senior Israeli government lawyer who defended Israel's policy on interrogating suspects. "Maybe the United States is beginning to discover what Israel has had to deal with for a long time."
Although its officials never use the word "torture," Israel is perhaps the only Western-style democracy that has acknowledged sanctioning mistreatment of prisoners in interrogation. In 1987, following a long debate in legal and security circles, a state commission established a set of secret guidelines for interrogators using what the panel called "moderate physical and psychological pressure" against detainees. In 1999, Israel's Supreme Court struck down those guidelines, ruling that torture was illegal under any circumstances.
But after the second Palestinian uprising broke out a year later, and especially after a devastating series of suicide bombings of passenger buses, cafes and other civilian targets, Israel's internal security service, known as the Shin Bet or the Shabak, returned to physical coercion as a standard practice, according to human rights lawyers and detainees. What's more, the techniques it has used command widespread support from the Israeli public, which has few qualms about the mistreatment of Palestinians in the fight against terrorism. A long parade of Israeli prime ministers and justice ministers with a variety of political views have defended the security service and either denied that torture is used or defended it as a last resort in preventing terrorist attacks.
While the issue surfaces periodically, with a small but vocal minority of Israelis advocating an end to all physical coercion, fears of a new outbreak of terror inevitably take precedence.
"We are not Holland, and we do not live in the environment of Benelux," Ehud Barak told the parliament four years ago, when he was prime minister, referring to the economic grouping of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. "We are a state that is faced with a constant threat of terror. Yet on the other hand, we are a democratic state that is part of the international community. There must be sensitivity to both needs."
Broad Public Support
When she first saw cases of alleged torture cross her desk at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel in the late 1980s, staff worker Hannah Friedman said it was very difficult to get human rights advocates to deal with them. Eventually, she and Hebrew University law professor Stanley Cohen, who immigrated to Israel from South Africa, set up their own organization, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, to deal exclusively with the allegations.
Shabak interrogators in those days were bound by the 1987 guidelines. While never made public, the procedures were well known to virtually every Palestinian security detainee. Prisoners were forced to stand for days at a time or were shackled in tightly contorted positions on low stools, in a procedure known as shabah. They were violently shaken, deprived of sleep, bombarded with loud, continuous music, exposed to extremes of cold and heat and forced to relieve themselves in their clothing. Their heads were often covered with canvas hoods that reeked of urine or vomit.
These techniques had widespread public support. A 1996 poll commissioned by the human rights group Btselem found that 73 percent of Israelis condoned the use of force.
Sometimes interrogators went beyond the guidelines. In October 1994, after militants abducted a 19-year-old Israeli army corporal, Nachshon Waxman, Yitzhak Rabin, then the prime minister, acknowledged that the suspected driver of the kidnap car had been tortured.
"If we'd been so careful to follow the Landau Commission, we would never have found out where Waxman was being held," Rabin said, referring to the 1987 guidelines. (Waxman was killed by his captors during an Israeli commando raid.)
Over time, interrogation techniques became less brutal and more refined. Ziad Arafeh, 40, a political activist who lives in the Balata refugee camp outside the West Bank city of Nablus, estimated he had been arrested 14 times over the past two decades. Each time, he said, his interrogators seemed to have mastered a new technique.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Palestinian Anan Labadeh, 31, a paraplegic, says he was abused in prison.
(Glenn Frankel -- The Washington Post)