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Israel, Palestine, and Torture

There is something quite unseemly in the sordid public spectacle of Benjamin Netanyahu trying so desperately to maintain a failing grasp of prime ministerial power in Israel. As long as he stays in public office Mr. Netanyahu can apparently hold at bay the criminal charges against him for bribery and such.

The crimes threatening to engulf Netanyahu call attention to a broad array of more heinous crimes that so far have yet to be formally reckoned with in the arena of international jurisprudence. The top tier of Israel’s leadership, including prominently Netanyahu himself, has so far been shielded from legal accountability for war crimes and crime against humanity. This unchecked crime spree has as its goal the violent replacement of the indigenous Palestinians with Jewish settlers whose proliferating settlements have become Greater Israel’s dominant emblem.

The virtual immunity from criminal prosecution protecting those responsible for a Palestinian version of the Trail of Tears is contributing to the Israelification of ethnic cleansing in the Western Hemisphere. Wayne Madsen writes, “Israel’s genocide advisers and technicians” are “returning to Latin America in force.” He continues,

Fascist-oriented regimes in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Honduras, Paraguay, and Chile, eager to displace Indigenous peoples, have invited the Israelis back to their nations to provide advice on depopulating indigenous regions as systematically as Israel has done to Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In Israel a complex network of officials has conspired together to deploy torture as a key expression of the dominant group’s power over the group targeted for repression, displacement and elimination. The jurisprudence concerning the practice of torture in Israel is replete with loopholes and exceptions. The result is that Shin Bet agents and others are afforded wide discretionary powers to torture Palestinians on the grounds of “necessity” and “ticking-bomb” scenarios.

It has come to light that many medical doctors and other health professionals are deeply involved in falsifying evidence to downplay accusations of torture.

Since 2001 the Israeli agency, Shin Bet, has received over 1200 complaints that the torture of Palestinians has taken place in Israeli prisons. This large body of complaints did not result in even a single indictment. One factor in this outcome is the failure of Israeli authorities to record “security interrogations.” Great care is taken to not produce an evidence trail.

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Many Palestinians tortured in Israeli prisons are incarcerated on the basis of “administrative detention” rather than actual criminal charges. Oftentimes these administrative detentions, which can run as long as six months, are renewed at the last minute. Individuals can thus be held in prison indefinitely without any trial whatsoever and without any certainty about what lies ahead for themselves and their families. The anxiety created by this uncertainty has been described as a form of “induced desperation,” as a mental torture in its own right.

Many of those kept in military detention on the basis of seemingly endless renewals of administrative detentions go on hunger strikes. The forced feeding of those on hunger strikes sometimes results in serious injury and even death, an outcome that has attracted some political and juridical responses in Israel.

It is estimated that since 2000, 10,000 children from the Occupied West Bank have been held in the Israeli military detention system. The vast majority of these children experienced “physical violence” after their arrest. Ninety-six percent of the children were interrogated without the presence of a family member. According to an NGO entitled, Defense for Children International,

Children typically arrive to interrogation bound, blindfolded, frightened, and sleep deprived.

Children often give confessions after verbal abuse, threats, physical and psychological violence that in some cases amounts to torture.

Israeli military law provides no right to legal counsel during interrogation, and Israeli military court judges seldom exclude confessions obtained by coercion or torture.

There are wide variations in the types of torture applied by Israeli agents to those violated by this internationally outlawed act. The Middle East Monitor reports that well over 100 unique varieties of torture have been identified in Israeli prisons.

Yara Hawari has presented the following list of torture techniques frequently deployed on Palestinian victims. They include:

  • Positional torture: Detainees are placed in stress positions, often with their hands tied behind their backs and their feet shackled whilst they are made to lean forward. They are left in such positions for prolonged periods of time during the interrogation process.
  • Beatings: Detainees often suffer beatings, either by hand or with objects, and are sometimes knocked unconscious.
  • Solitary confinement: Detainees are placed in isolation or solitary confinement for long periods.
  • Sleep deprivation: Detainees are prevented from resting or sleeping and are subjected to long interrogation sessions.
  • Sexual torture: Palestinian men, women, and children are subjected to rape, physical harassment, and threats of sexual violence. Verbal sexual harassment is a particularly common practice in which detainees are exposed to comments about themselves or their family members. This type of torture is often considered effective because the shame around sexual violations prevents detainees from revealing it.
  • Threats on family members: Detainees hear threats of violence against family members to pressure them to cede information. There have been cases where family members have been arrested and interrogated in a nearby room so that the detainee can hear them being tortured.

Hawari notes that the psychological toll from torture can be even greater than the resulting physical injuries, scars, and dysfunctions. These psychological impairments can include “deep and lasting depression, hallucinations, anxiety, insomnia, and suicidal thoughts.”

Torture can take many forms. The extraction of confessions and such from detainees constitutes one possible scenario. Another scenario is to shock and terrorize third parties so they will comply with instructions. One such scheme has been described by Stephen J. Sosebee as follows:

One example is Mahmoud Zakarner, 19, from Kabatya village. Mahmoud had his testicles smashed in front of his uncle in an effort to force his uncle to provide the names of those who participated in the killing of a collaborator in February 1988. Mahmoud is now paralyzed and unable to speak as a result.

Sosebee has explained the reticence of many establishment figures in the United States and throughout the Occident to put a clear focus on Israeli torture of Palestinians. He has written:

It has been difficult enough for apologists for Israel in Congress, the media, academe, the clergy and, of course, national Jewish organizations to ignore such barbaric actions by Israeli soldiers and settlers as shooting unarmed civilians and children, blowing up homes, and detaining persons without trial (to name but a few gross crimes)….

To have to answer for Israeli interrogators systematically beating, occasionally raping, and regularly applying electric shocks to bound and hooded non-resisting political prisoners is, however, an impossible task, even for those accustomed to turning a blind eye to anything the Israeli government does. Thus, discussion of torture in Israel and Palestine has been avoided at all costs in the United States, even by the otherwise progressive press and within the peace camp.

The public misrepresentation of the events of 9/11 has long since been widely understood as a means to usher in a wide array of initiatives like aggressive wars against Muslim majority countries. While skepticism towards the official narrative of 9/11 has become palpable among the well informed, this awareness remains insufficient to cause the creation of a broadly-based movement sufficiently strong to insist on a halt to wholesale torture. Sometimes the practice of torture is linguistically disguised through the resort to terms like “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

The misrepresentation of 9/11 was used to infuse into US military policy the Israeli embrace of the strategy of so-called “pre-emptive war.” This policy of hitting targets immediately on the suspicion that combatants may be preparing attacks has oozed into many aspects of public policy. One of the casualties of the shift has been the legal presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. The sharp increase in rates of arbitrary detention followed by frequent rounds of torture of Palestinians provides a classic example of post-9/11 practice in Israel.

The notoriously unreliable nature of information obtained through torture can serve the need to keep alive the false narrative sustaining the continuation of the Global War on Terror. For instance, many of the main conclusions of the notoriously specious interpretations distributed as fact by the 9/11 Commission in 2004 depended on (dis)information obtained through the illegal torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM). KSM, the supposed “mastermind of 9/11,” was reported to have been one of the regulars subjected to “enhanced interrogation” in the well-equipped torture chambers of Guantanamo Bay.

How much is torture used these days to draw from victims desired explanations to give the appearance of evidence for concocted narratives? The Global War on Terror originates in a concocted narrative supported with supposed evidence obtained through illegal torture. The ongoing Global War on Terror continues to require a steady stream of concocted narratives to give a steady stream of deceptions some resemblance to truth. Since torture victims can be terrorized into saying almost anything in order to make the pain stop, torture victims can easily be pressured to produce the false narratives needed to keep culprits in power.

One of the most widely publicized episodes of torture ever came to light in 2004 in the furor created by the ghoulish pictures demonstrating what had been taking place during the early days of US control of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In her account of this debacle, Yara Hawari has written,

The US-led “war on terror” following 9/11 particularly led to horrific cases of systematic torture, especially inflicted on Arab and Muslim prisoners….the most defining images of this era came from the Abu Ghraib US military prison in Iraq. Leaked photos and soldiers’ reports revealed that the prison was the site of widescale torture, including the rape of men, women, and children…recent testimonies from Abu Ghraib reveal sinister links between US and Israeli interrogations. In a memoir, a former US interrogator in Iraq claimed that the Israeli army trained US personnel in various interrogation and torture techniques.

Why is it that whenever and wherever torture is taking place, whether it be in Latin America, Abu Ghraib or the Balkans, Israeli individuals tend to have some involvement as protagonists. In the post-9/11 world the governments and companies of Israel have marketed themselves as leading practitioners of anti-terrorism, counter-terrorism. This claim is often justified by pointing to the Israeli experience of repressing the Palestinians.

The human interactions that take place in the military torture chambers of Israel can be pictured as forms of experiment on human subjects. The supposed “expertise” that emerges from the Israeli officials involved in these experiments, together with an elaborate array of software and hardware, is being actively marketed for export.

Hence the reputation that Israel has established in repressing Palestinians, including through the aggressive deployment of torture, is part of the Jewish state’s political and economic strategy to sell itself as the world’s leading authority on security matters in the era of the Global War on Terror. One implication of this strategy is the resulting Palestinianization of many of forms of rights-related activism.

The process of exporting the “lessons learned” in the repression of Palestinians, including through torture, is being applied to other groups because police and military officials from all over the world come to Israel for training. The instruction the uniformed visitors receive tends to come from Israeli security agents well-schooled in techniques that support the violent replacement of the indigenous population with a steady growth in the number of Jewish settlers and settlements.

The infliction of the agonies of torture by one group on another is one of the most aggressive assertions of domination possible. In some ways this type of physical and psychological abuse goes beyond the crime of murder into something more pathological in nature.

When the people of France discovered in the 1950s that torture was being inflicted by French soldiers on Algerian foes, the uproar was such that France itself was plunged into a chaotic state approaching the severity of civil war. So far the travesty of proliferating torture in our times, including in Israel and the USA, has yet to arouse the level of popular opposition it deserves. Of this crime against humanity Yara Hawari has written, “torture requires the total dehumanization of the person, and once that occurs the boundaries of degradation are limitless.”

In late December of 2019 the possibility arose of some sort of international remedy for the ongoing litany of Israeli crimes, including the crime of torture, against the Palestinian people.

After five years of study the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, issued her “preliminary report” responding to accusations she received from Palestinian sources in early in 2015.

Just days before issuing her preliminary report ICC Chief Prosecutor Bensouda had been accused by South African jurist, John Dugard, of being biased in Israel’s favour. Prof. Dugard called for an investigation of Ms. Bensouda’s capacity for objectivity in these matters and suggested she resign.

The technical name of the ICC is the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The Rome Statute is an international treaty that gave rise to the court’s existence in 2002. The ICC has 123 member states. The government of Israel is not one of them. The Israeli government has not ratified the Rome Statute and is not a party to the multilateral treaty.

The Chief Prosecutor is proceeding on the basis of her assessment that the people and government of Palestine are sufficiently recognized in the international community to constitute a state, albeit a crippled one, in both Gaza and the Occupied Territories in the West Bank. The Chief Prosecutor has argued that the Jewish settlements together with the Israeli Separation Wall have prevented the people and governing authorities of Palestine to conduct themselves in ways called for by the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995.

Ms. Bensouda will not formally proceed with further investigations until the question of the court’s jurisdiction on these areas of jurisprudence is determined by a tribunal of ICC jurists. The Chief Prosecutor has indicated that, if her investigation continues, she will have to consider not only possible Israeli infractions of law but also allegations that some Palestinian officials committed international crimes.

Benjamin Netanyahu had himself pictured in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem accusing the ICC of “pure anti-Semitism.” He announced,

New edicts are being cast against the Jewish people – anti-Semitic edicts by the International Criminal Court telling us that we, the Jews standing here next to this wall … in this city, in this country, have no right to live here and that by doing so, we are committing a war crime.

With this initiative the ICC is moving beyond its former preoccupation with war crimes in Africa and entering what is perhaps the most fraught legal and political terrain in the world today. How will the voters of Israel vote in casting their ballots for the third time in a single year? Will Benjamin Netanyahu be pushed from office so he has to face the criminal charges aligned against him.  Will Israel opt to come to terms with a long overdue juridical process that will determine much about the future of many things, including the fate of international law?

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