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.
In the early days, he said, crude physical and sexual abuse was commonplace. When he was first arrested, in 1983, an interrogator put on rubber gloves and squeezed his testicles until he cried out in pain. On another occasion Arafeh, who was suspected of involvement in the killings of alleged Palestinian collaborators, said he was kept in his underwear in a small, cold cell and splashed with water every few hours. Now the emphasis is on psychological pressure. During his arrest a year ago, Arafeh said, he was deprived of sleep for several days but not beaten.
There is a big difference between soldiers who make arrests and Shabak interrogators, Arafeh said. The soldiers are often casually cruel, he said, kicking and humiliating detainees in ways similar to the behavior reported at Abu Ghraib. But once the interrogators take over, treatment is far more calculated and professional.
"Their strategy is much improved," he said. "They give you food without salt that makes you weak, and they prevent you from sleeping. They're more clever and more experienced."
A turning point in Israel's treatment of detainees came in September 1999 when the Israeli Supreme Court, after a year and a half of deliberations, banned all forms of physical abuse. "Violence directed at a suspect's body or spirit does not constitute a reasonable investigation practice," the court declared.
The justices left open several loopholes. Interrogators who used force preemptively to prevent a terrorist attack could invoke the "defense of necessity" if faced with prosecution. The court also made allowances for "prolonged" interrogation, even if it involved sleep deprivation, and shackling, "but only for the purpose of preserving the investigator's safety."
Nonetheless, the ruling was a landmark. Shabak officials complained that the decision stripped them of the tools they needed to combat terrorism. An opposition lawmaker introduced a bill allowing interrogators to use force in "ticking bomb" cases. Barak supported the idea at first but later reached a compromise that gave the agency a bigger budget, a larger staff and more tools to help it solve cases without cracking heads.
Most of the specific methods used before the 1999 decision all but vanished after the ruling. Yet slowly but surely, human rights lawyers said, new techniques took their place.
The latest report by the committee against torture, covering the period from September 2001 to April 2003, alleged that detainees faced a new regime of sleep deprivation, shackling, slapping, hitting and kicking; exposure to extreme cold and heat; threats, curses and insults; and prolonged detention in subhuman conditions.
"Torture in Israel has once more become routine, carried out in an orderly and institutional fashion," concluded the report, which was based on 80 affidavits and court cases.
The committee accused the Israeli legal system of effectively sanctioning torture by routinely rejecting petitions seeking to grant detainees access to lawyers. Not one Shabak interrogator has been prosecuted despite hundreds of allegations, the report said.
In retrospect, said Habib Labib, an Israeli Arab lawyer who has handled dozens of security cases, the Supreme Court decision was a brief, shining moment that quickly faded. "It's like many things in this country," he said. "The theory is one thing, but on the ground things are done differently."
The case of Anan Labadeh, 31, became a cause celebre because he is a paraplegic who has used a wheelchair since he fell from a third-story balcony while being chased by Israeli soldiers during a stone-throwing incident in the late 1980s. Labadeh was arrested in February of last year in his home town of Nablus on suspicion of helping militants who had set up a network of suicide bomb factories in the city. He was held for a month and released without being charged.
Labadeh said he was routinely punched and kicked by the soldiers who escorted him to a military detention center at nearby Hawara and then by other soldiers at the center itself over three days. He said he was blindfolded, denied food and water, left outside in the rain and cold, deprived of sleep and forced to urinate and defecate in his clothing.
"I was exhausted," he recalled. "Time became irrelevant. In the second day, it continued to rain and I couldn't tell if it was morning or afternoon."
Each night, a group of soldiers, men and women alike, held social gatherings in the courtyard where he was being held. On the second night, they took turns posing with him while he sat blindfolded and handcuffed to his wheelchair, he said.
"For a person like me to be surrounded by a group of soldiers, punched, insulted, peeing on myself, my dignity was insulted," he recalled. "Here I was, a handicapped person, and not one soldier came to say stop this, not even one."
The experience increased Labadeh's contempt for Israelis. But for all his complaints about the way he was treated, Labadeh believes the Israelis have higher standards than their American counterparts. He recalls a case when an Israeli military officer was accused of sexually abusing young Palestinians. Another officer turned him in, and the accused man was arrested immediately.
A government lawyer designated to discuss the questions raised by this article insisted that internal safeguards protect Palestinian detainees from random abuse, and he characterized Israel's treatment of suspected terrorists as a matter of self-defense. "The first priority of the government is keeping people safe," said the lawyer, who insisted on anonymity. "That's the basic social contract between a government and its people."
A key moment, he said, was the spate of suicide bombings in March 2002 that killed 135 Israelis and injured hundreds more. "It became a question of a ticking bomb -- how do you balance the need to find that bomb before it goes off at a restaurant or a pizza shop or a checkpoint with the need to respect human rights?" Israelis understood, he said, "there has to be a balance -- you can't just do whatever you want."
What is most striking, the lawyer added, is how united the Israeli public is on the subject. "For most people it's not the central story here," he said. "It's not even one of the top ten questions I get asked about the Supreme Court."
But for many Palestinians, torture is the heart of the matter. Labadeh said abuses like those that took place in Abu Ghraib or in Hawara were inevitable when people were subjected to military occupation. That is why the photos from Abu Ghraib did not shock or surprise him.
"In the end, when you put a person in jail because of political reasons and you give someone power over him, you can expect to see such films," he said. "The camera is always rolling."