Israel's lesson is that torture doesn't work
November 26, 2001
The U.S. government is discussing the use of "pressure" to extract information from terror suspects who won't talk. If it does so, it would blur the distinction between the terrorists and those fighting them.
Israel knows this from experience.
"Pressure" is a euphemism we in Israel are familiar with. In 1987, Israel's Landau Commission of Inquiry permitted the General Security Service (GSS, or Shin Bet) to use "a moderate measure of physical pressure" in interrogations of detainees suspected of "hostile terrorist activity." This pressure was intended for use only in exceptional cases and was never supposed to reach the level of torture.
But Israel's GSS subjected Palestinian detainees to a range of violence: shaking; restraining detainees in painful positions for hours or even days; prolonged sleep deprivation; sensory deprivation by hooding and playing loud, disorienting music; and exposure to extreme heat or cold. Between 1987 and 1999, 10 Palestinians died as a result of these methods; others are permanently disabled, according to B'Tselem, the human-rights organization I work for.
Israel appeared in 1997 and 1998 before the U.N. Committee Against Torture and the Human Rights Committee. Both bodies defined these practices as torture and said they were unjustified under any circumstances. Israel did not deny using these methods, but argued instead that they were reserved for "ticking bomb" cases, where torture might extract information vital to prevent an imminent tragedy. It is doubtful there has been a genuine ticking bomb case in the past decade, yet physical force was a standard part of security service interrogations.
During the 1990s, Israel slid far down a frightening slope. The Israeli government justified the use of "intense pressure" when "moderate" pressure proved ineffective. When torturing a suspect didn't yield the necessary information, they tortured the suspect's friends and relatives.
About 85 percent of Palestinians who were interrogated by the security service -- approximately 1,000 persons a year -- were physically abused, according to a study done in 1999 by B'Tselem. Many of these people were tortured and then released without charge. Others were charged with minor offenses or given administrative detention. In some cases, individuals suspected of no offenses were tortured in order to pressure them to collaborate with Israel.
Fortunately, in 1999, Israel's High Court of Justice outlawed the use of physical force in interrogations.
It would be a shame if the United States now would legalize it.
The use of systematic torture by Israel did not end the terror attacks. During the 12 years that torture had a quasi-legal status in Israel, 328 Israelis were killed. In a few cases, the torture hindered counterterror efforts because detainees lied to their interrogators in order to stop the abuse.
Both Israel and the United States must act decisively to prevent additional loss of innocent lives. But this goal cannot justify trampling on one of the most fundamental principles -- the physical integrity of every human being.
As a human-rights activist and as a mother, I know of no goal loftier than protecting myself, my family and other civilians from acts of terror. If we sacrifice individuals to achieve our goals in fighting terrorism, then we ourselves become no better than terrorists.
Jessica Montell is executive director of B'Tselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (www.btselem.org). She can be reached at email@example.com.