Two Israeli nonprofit groups that focus on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, HaMoked and B’Tselem, recently reported that Israeli agents have mistreated and even tortured Palestinian detainees. The groups’ findings were based on interviews they conducted with 121 Palestinians who had been held at the Israel Security Agency’s Petach-Tikva interrogation center in the first or last quarter of 2009.
The full report, “Kept in the Dark: Treatment of Palestinian Detainees in the Petach-Tikva Interrogation Facility of the Israel Security Agency,” can be found here on B’Tselem’s website.
In the report, the authors allege that prisoners were mistreated in a variety of ways, including:
Thirty percent of those interviewed reported physical violence being used during their arrest, including beating, kicking, and painful shackling.
- The cells in which detainees were held were small, filthy, ill-ventilated, harshly lit, and seemingly designed to inflict constant discomfort and prevent sleep.
- Many said their food was of poor quantity and quality — not just unappealing but truly revolting. None of those interviewed was ever permitted to leave their cells for exercise.
- Seventy-eight percent of those interviewed were held in solitary confinement for a portion of their detention. One man, a 22-year-old construction worker, says he was held alone for 20 days after his last interrogation.
- During interrogation detainees were shackled tightly in immovable chairs for long periods of time, causing them severe pain. Eleven detainees said interrogators were physically violent with them during questioning.
- Those interviewed were frequently subjected to threats of violence by interrogators, and their families were often threatened. In some cases, family members were actually detained in order to reinforce the threat. One 63-year-old woman who was held for under two days told interviewers that shortly after her arrest she felt her blood pressure dropping and feared for her health. After telling her jailers, she was shackled in an interrogation room while she shouted in pain and called for a doctor. She learned later that her sons and grandson were being held in nearby rooms so they would know their beloved mother and grandmother was in pain and possibly in danger.
- Many detainees reported being deprived of their legal right to an attorney.
- Though Israeli law provides special provision for minors, the eighteen teenage detainees described the same rough treatment as the adults.
- Only four women were interviewed; one reported that male interrogators “swore at her using sexually evocative language” and another said an interrogator threatened to start a rumor she had had an extramarital affair, which would have damaged her reputation and could even have endangered her life when she returned home.
- One detainee was deprived of medicine he takes for a mental disorder. Within a day, he was seeing monsters and throwing himself against the rough walls of his cell. When he was given his medicine, it came from an interrogator rather than medical staff.
Forbidden by Israeli law
The report points out that abuse of detainees is against Israeli and international law. In addition, B’Tselem and HaMoked write that these cases can’t be excused as “ticking-bomb” scenarios where police have to get a detainee to talk immediately or disaster will strike — according to them, most of the detainees “were not suspected of serious offenses.” The authors of the report connect the mistreatment of detainees to a wider pattern of prejudice against Palestinians. Detainee abuse, they write, is “made possible due to the dehumanization of the Palestinian population.”
Israel’s Justice Ministry has denied the groups’ charges. In a written statement quoted by BBC News, the Ministry said all interrogations were “conducted according to law in order to prevent illegal activity that would harm state security.” Again according to BBC News, “the ministry said that military police had opened 427 investigations of alleged violence against Palestinian detainees between 2000 and 2007,” but the statement “gave no information on the results of these investigations.”
A Record of Detainee Abuse
This is not the first time human rights organizations have alleged that Israel has abused Palestinian detainees. In 2007, B’Tselem and HaMoked released a report, “Absolute Prohibition: The Torture and Ill-Treatment of Palestinian Detainees,” which they say resulted in some limited improvements in the treatment of Palestinian prisoners. Some abuses they described in “Absolute Prohibition,” such as the use of certain painful stress positions during interrogation, were not reported in the most recent interviews. Others, unfortunately, continued.
In 2009, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) released a report titled “No Defense: Soldier Violence Against Palestinian Detainees,” which can be downloaded here. Based on complaints filed with PCATI by Palestinians detained by Israeli military and security forces, the report contains many of the same accusations made by those interviewed by B’Tselem and HaMoked, including violence being used during arrests, painful shackling of prisoners, threats of violence to prisoners and threats made to prisoners about their families and homes, the use of dogs to frighten and demean detainees, and subjecting minors to the same treatment as adults.
Amnesty International has also identified the mistreatment of Palestinian detainees as a key human rights issue in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Their 2009 summary of rights violations includes Israeli forces denying Palestinian detainees family visits, holding prisoners without cause, beatings during and following arrest, and “torture and other ill-treatment by the Israeli General Security Service” including “prolonged tying in painful stress positions, sleep deprivation and threats to harm detainees’ families.”
The consistency of these reports indicates that despite the assertions of the Israeli government, and despite the efforts of Israel’s Supreme Court, which has explicitly prohibited the use of torture, Israeli agents are continuing to mistreat Palestinian detainees.
Palestinians also accused
(While it in no way justifies any abuses against Palestinian prisoners by Israeli agents, I think it’s worth noting that Palestinian security services have also been accused of abusing prisoners. Human Rights Watch recently reported that men detained by the Palestinian Authority because they were suspected of having ties to Hamas were mistreated and even tortured in prison. I support the right of Palestinians to govern themselves, and also recognize that self-governance will not automatically eliminate every human rights violation in the area.)
What Does This Have To Do With The U.S.?
Abuse of Palestinian detainees violates human rights, Israeli law, and international human rights treaties. Mistreatment of detainees is also negative when viewed pragmatically, as it provides ammunition to anti-Israel extremists.
While it’s important to learn about and protest human rights violations all over the world, the United States has a special stake in allegations against Israel. A close ally of the small Jewish democracy, the U.S. supplies the country with billions of dollars in miliary and special aid every year. Jeremy M. Sharp of the Congressional Research Service reports [pdf] that in 2010 the U.S. will provide Israel with $2.8 in aid — $2.775 billion of it in military grants.
The U.S. also uses political power to defend its ally, with representatives frequently wielding the countries’ Security Council veto to protect Israel from U.N. sanctions. Politicians and the American public overwhelmingly support Israel, and some in the U.S. even consider starting wars on its behalf. America’s close involvement with Israel means that we (theoretically) have leverage with them, and it also means that our reputations are bound closely together.
Now, the United States has its own serious issues with detainee abuse, so we’re hardly standing on moral high ground here. However, as citizens of the U.S. advocate for the rights of detainees and prisoners within the United States, we should also advocate for the rights of detainees the world over. Leaning on one of our closest allies seems like a good place to start.
Photo of Palestinians holding photographs of Palestinian detainees was found on Lisa Nessan(frecklebaum)'s flickr, and is reused with thanks under Creative Commons Attribution license.