It's a classic moral dilemma: Imagine security services know a bomb
is about to blow up in a crowded public space, killing and maiming possibly
hundreds of people. But the plot can only be foiled if information is
violently extracted from a tight-lipped terrorist suspect. What should
As Americans grapple with the possibility of ticking time-bomb scenarios
in the wake of Sept. 11, the once unthinkable is being openly talked
about: torture. In a column titled "Time to Think About Torture,"
liberal Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter mused whether torture would
"jump-start the stalled investigation into the greatest crime in
American history." Alan Dershowitz, normally known as a staunch
civil libertarian, told Newsweek: "I'm not in favor of torture,
but if you're going to have it, it should damn well have court approval."
On the unabashedly patriotic Fox News, where anchors sport American
flag pins, anchor Shepard Smith introduced a segment by saying, "Should
law enforcement be allowed to do anything, even terrible things, to
make suspects spill the beans? Jon DuPre reports. You decide."
Academic Jay Winick, writing in the Wall Street Journal, described how
Philippine authorities tortured terrorist Abdul Hakim Murad into revealing
a plan to crash U.S. jetliners and rhetorically wondered what would
have happened if Murad been questioned by U.S. authorities, not Filipino
ones. And conservative pundit Tucker Carlson opined on CNN's "Crossfire"
that "Torture is bad. Keep in mind, some things are worse. And
under certain circumstances, it may be the lesser of two evils. Because
some evils are pretty evil."
Amid these calls to begin debating a practice formerly condemned by
all sides as barbaric -- not to mention the Bush administration's plan
to try suspected terrorists in military courts, where they would have
far fewer rights -- it is worth examining Israel's experience. The Jewish
state has been using torture for decades against Palestinians. And its
experience should serve as a powerful warning against the temptation
to use brutal interrogation methods.
Officially there is no torture in the Holy Land. But on any given day,
and on many more days now that the intifada has shattered Israelis'
sense of security, there may be a dozen people screaming in Israeli
interrogation centers and in Palestinian jails, as Israelis hunt for
Palestinian terrorists and Palestinians hunt for collaborators with
Israel. "In Israel, torture is seen as regrettable but necessary,
so the courts and the public close their eyes. In the Palestinian territories,
there is a witch-hunt against collaborators so no one speaks up,"
said Mireille Widmer, a Swiss human rights lawyer.
Until recently, torture was widespread, routine, legal and institutionalized
in Israel. Although the state always denied that it resorted to torture,
interrogation methods known as "moderate physical pressure"
were deemed acceptable, legal and necessary in Israel's fight against
Palestinians it deemed security threats. These methods included violent
head-shaking; relentless sleep deprivation; shackling of detainees to
poles, desks and slanting kindergarten chairs in excruciating positions;
beatings; exposure to extreme temperatures, incessant harsh light and
blaring music; and threats to family members.
"Moderate physical pressure" was seen by politicians and terrorist
experts as the perfect answer to a tough quandary: how to protect the
lives of Israeli citizens while remaining true to the Jewish state's
self-image as the only Western-style democracy in the Middle East. According
to Boaz Ganor, director of Israel's Counter-Terrorism Institute, it
successfully "breached the contradiction between effectiveness
and the threat to liberty and democratic values."
Human rights groups shattered that myth, contending that "moderate
physical pressure" unequivocally met all definitions of torture
under international law (including the Convention Against Torture which
Israel ratified in 1991) and seriously undermined the moral foundations
of Israeli democracy. They filed a petition against the abusive methods
used by the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security force (also known as
the General Security Services, or GSS) and partially won. In September
1999, a nine-judge panel of the Israeli Supreme Court unanimously outlawed
torture (although the judges shied away from using the "T"
word). The judges left the door open, however, for physical pressure
in exceptional circumstances by giving interrogators the right to invoke
the defense of necessity if criminal charges were brought against them.
Torture continued to be practiced even after the high court's ruling,
but its frequency diminished dramatically. Then came the al-Aqsa intifada
of Sept. 28, 2000. A year after the High Court verdict, the second Palestinian
uprising started, pitting Palestinian stone-throwers, gunmen and terrorists
against Israeli soldiers, settlers and interrogators in a bloody cat-and-mouse
game in which about 900 people have died so far, four-fifths of them
Palestinian. In this context, it was predictable that torture would
come back in vogue, along with shatter-proof windshields, armored buses
and guns, as a way of coping with danger.
According to a study published recently by the Public Committee Against
Torture in Israel (PCATI), one of the nongovernmental organizations
that petitioned the High Court in 1999, the Shin Bet has reverted to
many of its old habits. After reviewing affidavits from Palestinian
detainees and other material collected by lawyers and human rights workers
over the past year, the Public Committee concluded that although some
of the torture methods outlawed by the court have almost entirely disappeared,
"each month, dozens of Palestinians" interrogated by the Shin
Bet are still "exposed, to one extent or another, to methods of
torture and ill treatment."
"After the High Court decision, there was a drop in the cases of
torture. But affidavits have been pouring in since September 2000,"
said Hannah Friedman, the executive director of PCATI. "Our conclusion
is that there is real use of methods banned by the high court."
Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, denied that
torture is commonplace. "These so-called human rights organizations
are laden with political motives and have their axes to grind,"
he said in a phone interview. "As a veteran warrior, I've been
hearing these accusations for over 20 years. It's always the case that
you hear about Israelis torturing the Palestinians, the poor guys, and
nothing about the atrocities Palestinians commit against Israelis. We're
a free, open society, a democracy. We have nothing to hide." Gissin
contrasted that with the Palestinians, who he said used every means
to further their cause and didn't stop at "fabricating stories
"When there are allegations of torture, we have investigative mechanisms
to deal with them. The General Security Services are subjected to parameters
and employ force only in the case of ticking bombs. There is an allowance
for force but under the complete supervision of a board. And there's
always the press. I'm not saying that violations don't occur. They do
occur. But the numbers are small and we have mechanisms to deal with
But Israeli human rights groups and other organizations charge that
the practice of illegal torture is far more widespread than the Israeli
government is willing to publicly acknowledge. For example, the Palestinian
Human Rights Monitoring Group, a well-respected group that mostly documents
abuses by the Palestinian Authority, has direct knowledge of a case
of torture that occurred this spring when one of its field workers,
Abed Rahman Al-Ahmar, was arrested and beaten by Israeli security forces
and later interrogated by the Shin Bet. On June 10, according to the
testimony he gave his attorney, Al-Ahmar was shackled in tight handcuffs
to a slanting chair for a whole day -- a method known as "shabeh"
that was outlawed by the High Court in 1999. (The angle of the chair,
often a kindergarten chair whose front legs have been sawed down, places
enormous pressure on a detainee's lower back and stomach.) "Abed,
being a human rights activist, knew it was illegal and protested. The
interrogators just laughed," said Widmer, the human rights lawyer
who works for the same organization as Al-Ahmar.
"There's a feeling of complete impunity -- especially now [with
the Intifada]," said Widmer. When human rights groups petitioned
the High Court in the name of Al-Ahmar, the court rejected the petition,
saying there was no sign of torture "in spite of the fact Abed
was obviously sick," said Widmer. "His wrists were all red
and puffy and he vomited in the court."
The alleged torture of Al-Ahmar raises another troubling issue: the
authorities' tendency to use torture, once it is allowed, against individuals
who appear to have nothing to do with terrorism. As far as his colleagues
can tell, Al-Ahmar is being held for membership in an illegal organization
(he was once a supporter of the PFLP, a radical Marxist PLO splinter
group) -- that is to say for political reasons, not for any operational
terrorist-related reasons. (No charges have been brought against Al-Ahmar,
still imprisoned today. He is in administrative detention, a measure
that allows Israel to hold people without revealing evidence and without
trial, under Emergency Laws that were originally adopted by the British
in 1945 to fight the Jewish underground. Al-Ahmar has been adopted as
a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International.)
Although Al-Ahmar's case and dozens of others documented by human rights
groups show that physical force is still commonly used by the Shin Bet,
the High Court ruling has brought some significant changes. "Since
the ruling, the situation has totally changed," said Yael Stein,
a researcher for B'tselem, a prominent group that documents human rights
abuse in the Israeli-occupied territories. "In the past, torture
was routine. Everybody went through the same procedures. It was documented,
approved by the high court, the Knesset, the government -- it was rooted
in the system. Today it is less routine. There is no more shaking [which
produces severe dizziness, brain damage, and possibly death]. Sleep
deprivation is not as severe as it was. And numbers have dropped. Of
course it depends on your definition of torture. There is ill-treatment
and humiliation, but holding someone incommunicado [forbidding contact
with family and lawyers] is not torture."
Ledgers from the era that preceded the High Court ruling make chilling
reading: interrogators kept precise records of their actions, jotting
down how many hours a person was forced to crouch, how long a person
was tied to a small chair tilted forward with a filthy sack on his head,
etc. They used standard equipment for torture and put detainees through
well-defined stages of physical pain and mental anguish.
This bureaucratic self-assurance was the product of the Landau Commission,
a 1987 governmental commission led by former Supreme Court justice Moshe
Landau. The commission, which was created after several public scandals,
clarified just what type of physical force authorities were allowed
to use against Arabs. Before 1987, torture was widespread -- the practice
began in the '70s -- and there was no specific legislation that narrowed
down the use of force in interrogation. (According to PCATI head Friedman,
before 1977 it was mostly the police (not the Shin Bet) who tortured
Arabs.) Although the exact interrogation torture guidelines -- which
the Israeli historian Benny Morris called "a document unique in
the annals of modern Western judicial history" -- set by the commission
remain secret to this day, the idea was that force would be used only
in the case of "ticking bombs" -- i.e. when information about
an imminent attack could save lives.
"The first obligation of the government is to guard the lives of
others. There is no higher right than the right to live," said
Ganor, the counterterrorism expert. After 1987, "torture was not
allowed," he added. "What they did was moderate physical pressure.
The Shin Bet was reluctant to use these abilities because interrogators
were under judicial control. If the guidelines were breached, they could
be brought to court. It was not a no-man's land where anything could
In practice, however, the legal restrictions on the use of physical
force by the Shin Bet did not hold. "Israel's experience shows
you can't stop the slippery slope: They tortured almost all the Palestinians
they could. It was in the system. The moment you start, you can't stop,"
said Stein, the B'tselem researcher. B'tselem estimates that before
1999, the security services used torture against 85 percent of the Palestinians
they interrogated. The exceptional became routine. Some 23,000 Palestinians
were interrogated between 1987 and 1994, the years of the first intifada.
In 1995, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin admitted that violent
shaking had been used against 8,000 detainees.
The "ticking bomb" scenario is the one most often invoked
by Americans who argue that torture may be a valid weapon in the fight
against terrorism. The problem, however, is that such a pure, morally
unambiguous scenario rarely exists. "'Ticking bombs' are a very
rare case," said Stein. "The secret services also admit it's
very rare. It's almost impossible to stay within the lines of this pure
case. What is imminent? An hour? Tomorrow? In a week? What if a neighbor
knows someone who knows someone who knows about a plot? You cannot restrict
torture only to pure 'ticking bombs.'" Palestinian detainees have
often testified that interrogations stopped on Fridays and Saturdays,
confirming the suspicion that torture had nothing to do with urgency.
The argument of necessity, which can still protect Israeli interrogators
today if torture charges are brought against them, is technically flawed:
Interrogators may not know if someone represents a ticking bomb and
whether torture is justified (or defensible in court) unless they torture
him into confessing first -- a form of evidence-gathering that bears
an uncomfortably close resemblance to the witch trials of the 17th century.
It is also morally absurd. "If everything is justified in order
to preserve life, why stop at 'moderate physical pressure'? " asks
Stein. "Why not do worse? Pull nails, rape sisters and wives? Shin
Bet interrogators could do worse things -- but they don't. It's illogical."
Israel's attempt to limit torture to exceptional cases was further doomed
by the failure of courts to uphold human rights and prosecute Shin Bet
interrogators responsible for breaching the Landau Commission's guidelines.
PCATI notes that over a period of seven years "not a single interrogator
has been tried in criminal court, not even when detainees left interrogation
wings with permanent physical or mental disabilities," nor when
a Palestinian detainee, Abd Al-Samad Harizat, was tortured to death
in 1995 (the guilty interrogator resumed interrogating after a short
According to PCATI, interrogators are still protected from external
scrutiny and from the threat of criminal investigation today. (Complaints
by detainees are collected by an agent who works for the Shin Bet, who
naturally prefers the version of his colleagues. And, as Al-Ahmar's
case has shown, the courts also prefer to close their eyes.)
"There is no doubt torture degrades society at large," says
Stein. But he sees torture as only one element of the methods used by
Israel to enforce the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and protect
itself from Palestinian ire. That list includes military sieges that
punish entire communities, racial profiling and extra-judicial killings.
All of these, he believes, have destructive effects not just on the
Palestinians but on the Israelis who carry them out. "There are
so many immoral things. Torture is just the more obvious and difficult
to accept. When a man on reserve duty has to stand at a checkpoint for
30 days and enforce the closure on Palestinians, he also comes home
brutalized by the experience. Occupation affects Israeli society in
Indeed, Stein believes the High Court's change of heart in 1999 came
about in part because judges, who defended torture in petition after
petition, "couldn't stand it anymore." Torture enlists the
doctors who determine beforehand whether someone is fit for interrogation
or needs to be treated with some restraint because of, for example,
asthma, and violates their professional oath when they send patients
back to the interrogation/torture room after perfunctory checkups.
The corrosion of values doesn't stop at judges and doctors. Torture
still seems indispensable to a wide majority of Israelis. "There
was a public outcry after the High Court ruling -- people were scared,"
says Stein. Politicians of all stripes, including former Prime Minister
Ehud Barak, have vowed to pass legislation that would make physical
interrogation methods legal again. "In most countries people would
be ashamed of using such methods. Here they are proud of it. There's
huge support for these methods," said Yael Stein.
Although Israelis can easily imagine themselves victims of a terror
attack -- they seem to happen every week, everywhere, in restaurants,
discos and train stations -- torture is different. "Israelis don't
feel concerned by torture because it is something that will never apply
to them but always to others, to Palestinians," says Widmer. "It's
easier to torture people of a different race," notes Friedman.
The most recent PCATI report on torture is full of religious curses
and religious slurs used by interrogators to dehumanize Palestinians.
For Palestinians, shackled to desks or shaken senseless during Israeli
interrogations, the impact is obvious too. "You destroy a man's
soul and body for his whole life. He cannot work, marry, sleep at night.
He has hallucinations. Torture is also a political way to destroy a
people," says Friedman. Not surprisingly, the interrogation methods
used by Israel have found their ways into Palestinian jails. "Palestinian
torturers were first in Israeli jails. They have work experience, so
to speak. And now they use the same methods [against Palestinian collaborators],"
Finally, there is the question of torture's effectiveness. Assessing
this is difficult, if not impossible, for two obvious reasons: First,
Israel still practices torture, despite officially outlawing it, and
second, there is no way to know after the fact whether torturing a suspect
would or would not have prevented a terrorist attack. But surely the
burden of proof should be on the advocates of torture: If they cannot
show that the practice's results justify its use, it should be rejected.
It would be difficult for an advocate of torture to argue that the payoff
is worth the cost. The routine torture sanctioned by the Landau Commission
did not stop bombs from going off in the past. And today, when "moderate
physical pressure" is in theory outlawed, the security services
boast impressive successes. Although bombs have killed scores of Israelis
since the beginning of the intifada, security forces have deactivated
bombs in watermelons, bags and garages, intercepted terrorists strapped
with explosives and foiled numerous plots by killing bomb-makers and
terrorist leaders in targeted military operations.
Ganor is amazed by the success Israel's security forces have had without
being allowed recourse to force: "As a counterterrorism expert,
I'm surprised to see that the Shin Bet manages even without moderate
force. Detainees are very hard to interrogate," he says. "They
are trained not to give away secrets and to resist Israeli methods.
When one is released, he goes back to his group and briefs others. Hamas
and Islamic Jihad have put out books and leaflets teaching people how
to withstand interrogation -- even telling them which methods are allowed
and not allowed so they can send their lawyers to court."
Sharon spokesman Gissin admits there is pressure to revert to the good
old days when the usage of physical force during interrogations was
less restrained. "Of course some people would like to give the
security services more of a free hand. But despite the limitations,
there's an impresssive rate of success so there's no need to use torture
as such and we don't use torture as such."
"In some cases, in a very tense situation like we have now with
daily terror alerts, restrictions create problems and a certain burden
on the security services," said Gissin. "But despite that,
within these limitations, the number of terror attacks foiled, stopped,
scuttled, is far greater than the number of attacks that succeeded.
I can't tell you if a suicide bomber succeeded because not enough pressure
was used during someone's interrogation. But despite the guidelines,
we have a very effective GSS and it's doing a tremendous job in terms
of locating terrorists and preventing attacks."
Part of the reason for the agency's success is that it can rely on an
excellent network of collaborators to collect information -- a luxury
the United States may not have in its own war against terrorism. Israel,
a much more powerful and wealthy country than its Palestinian opponents,
has huge leverage to recruit collaborators by offering much-needed work
permits, the right to be reunified with exiled family members, import
licenses and money. (Collaborators tip off Israelis in their search
for terrorists and help also to extract information inside jails by
posing as friendly co-detainees.)
"A lot of experts feared that Israel's intelligence ability would
suffer if moderate force was not allowed," says Ganor. "But
at the end of the day, the Shin Bet manages to work without."
There is one last point to be considered: For every actual terrorist
who spills the beans because of torture, who knows how many non-terrorists
are pushed into deadly fanaticism by the experience of being tortured?
One of the Palestinian teenagers who were tortured at the Gush Etzion
police station last winter made headlines in the Israeli press when
he said, several months after he was released, that he now wanted to
become a suicide bomber. He was arrested for throwing stones at settlers'
cars, but he said the degradation and suffering caused by his interrogation
made him consider terrorism.